The most traumatic experience a human can have is another person intentionally trying to hurt them. That’s the closest thing to evil that people can experience, and one doesn’t survive unscathed.
Cops routinely see, feel, taste, touch, and smell evil; they’re usually the first to tend to its victims. No one entering the profession understands this initially, nor can they predict how they will be affected.
To cope with the viciousness with which people treat one another, cops typically develop a dark sense of humor that civilians don’t understand. Many cops, more so in big cities, start to see those they serve and protect as “the enemy,” and less than human. This is a self-destructive mechanism that increases stress and foments anger.
Mistaking pleasure and numbness for peace, some crawl into bottles, overeat, engage in sexual promiscuity, abuse their power, and don’t understand the misery and despair they feel.
The best cops struggle with the “us versus them” perception constantly. This refers to what was once routine police work. That changed during the Obama administration as cops became targets of leftists in government, academia, and the media. Heather Mac Donald’s book, “The War on Cops,” documents this process of neutering law enforcement. It’s taking a toll on the profession.
Karen Solomon, the founder of Blue H.E.L.P., an organization honoring the lives and service of law enforcers who die by suicide, said that 132 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2019 and 228 took their own lives.
The factors that drive a law enforcer to suicide are complicated, involving personal ethics, the power they wield, and how they respond to the evil encountered in their work. My 52 years in law enforcement leads me to believe that law enforcers who work on themselves and family harder than on the job are more grounded and resilient. They also make the best cops, by balancing their helping and hunting roles.
The models once used to view the causes of law enforcement suicides have been disrupted in the last several months by daily physical attacks on officers and relentless demonization of them by the media, their leaders, government officials, and the people they lay down their lives to protect.
The daily battle on the front lines of demonstrations, riots, and looting, and the length of time this has been occurring, is the closest thing to war that many cops have experienced. Additionally, the families of police officers are threatened and in danger in several places. Minneapolis police officers have had to move their families from their homes because Antifa has doxxed them, and they’re no longer safe. Some of these officers sleep away from home to protect their loved ones.
Cops are spent, and there seems no respite for them.
Dr. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating the psychic wounds of war, says in his book “Achilles in Vietnam“ that the three main causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are: (1) exposure to high stress, interpersonal violence being the most intense; (2) a feeling of betrayal by leaders; and (3) dehumanizing the “enemy.”
Add the interpersonal violence experienced daily, the feeling of betrayal by most—all but family and peers—and the routine practice of dehumanizing those perceived as enemies, and it seems a recipe for depression, despair, PTSD, and suicide.
In some cities such as Chicago, the increase in processing murder crime scenes is another factor that wears away at officers’ resilience. How will this affect officers new to the profession who, due to the “snowflake” phenomenon, have experienced little difficulty growing up?
In Chicago, most of the last dozen or so police department suicides were committed by officers with less than seven years on the job. In the past, suicides were more characteristic of officers with 15-plus years of service. Officer and supervisor opinions vary as to the reason for this seeming shift. Some believe snowflakes, unprepared to face evil, are melting with the heat of the job; some blame lower standards and poor training; others place suicides at the feet of leadership and politics.
Further, the high rate of student loan debt and, until recently, the stagnant economy, pushed people into law enforcement who would never have considered it before. They need the money and job security it offers. Still, this is speculation and nobody is asking the rank and file what they believe.
Thomas Coghlan, a retired NYPD detective-turned-psychologist, notes that symptoms of PTSD didn’t show up in 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina first-responders until about a year after. This suggests the law enforcement profession has a short time to prepare for what is likely to be the beginning of a spate of psychological problems and suicides in late 2021.
Families and friends of law enforcers involved in today’s hell, please place reminders in your calendar apps to be aware of behavioral changes in those for whom you care. They’ll need support and understanding as their psyches engage in the sorting out of the evil they are experiencing today. Be courageous and seek help from your chaplains, employee assistance programs, peer support groups, and others who will be available if these speculations turn out to be true.
There has been a great exodus from the profession by those who have the time and wherewithal to retire, as well as officers who have reached their limits and have left to seek other professions. They, too, must be aware of the changes that they will experience.
So how does a law enforcer handle this appropriately? Here are some suggestions.
There’s little that cops can do about the exposure to high stress. Neither can they do much about betrayal by leadership. Dehumanizing the enemy is the one thing they can control, although not easily. The “us versus them” perception is dehumanization and hurts cops more than citizens. Prayer and forgiveness can help in processing the anger and negative feelings that are quite normal in the hell they’re living.
Cops must realize that they alone control their response to the stressors they bear and must select and live by a set of ethical standards they impose on themselves. Further, they must check their behavior daily against their standards.
Cops who do this because of their religious beliefs seem to handle evil much better, although that method is rare in the anti-religious climate in today’s culture. They must act as they ought, not as they want; that will make this bearable.
Thomas J. Cline, spouse, father, MBA, MAP, 52 years in law enforcement, is past president of the International Association of Ethics Trainers, Law Enforcement Training Trust board member, a writer/trainer at the Chicago PD, and a consultant. He authored “Cop Tales! (Never Spit in a Man’s Face … Unless His Mustache Is on Fire)” and “Psych Firefight – L E Job Satisfaction in a Hostile Environment.” For information on training and workshops, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.