Police Stress

Stress plays a part in the lives of everyone. Some stress is not only inevitable, it can be good. For example, the physical stress of “working out” improves your cardiovascular system, and feeling pressure that causes you to study harder for an exam can improve your score. Police stress, however, refers to the negative pressures related to police work. Police officers are not superhumans. According to Gail Goolkasian and others, research shows that they are affected by their daily exposure to human indecency and pain; that dealing with a suspicious and sometimes hostile public takes its toll on them; and that the shift changes, the long periods of boredom, and the ever-present danger that are part of police work do cause serious job stress.


Dr. Hans Selye’s classic The Stress of Life describes the effect of long-term environmental threats he calls “stressors.” Dr. Selye maintains that the unrelieved effort to cope with stressors can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers, digestive disorders, and headaches. Stressors in police work fall into four categories:

  1. Stresses inherent in police work.
  2. Stresses arising internally from police department practices and policies.
  3. External stresses stemming from the criminal justice system and the society at large.
  4. Internal stresses confronting individual officers.46


 Police stress arises from several features of police work. Alterations in body rhythms from monthly shift rotation, for example, reduce productivity. The change from a day to a swing, or graveyard, shift not only requires biological adjustment but also complicates officers’ personal lives. Role conflicts between the job—serving the public, enforcing the law, and upholding ethical standards—and personal responsibilities as spouse, parent, and friend act as stressors. Other stressors in police work include:


 Administrative policies and procedures, which officers rarely participate in formulating, can add to stress. One-officer patrol cars create anxiety and a reduced sense of safety. Internal investigation practices create the feeling of being watched and not trusted, even during off-duty hours. Officers sometimes feel they have fewer rights than the criminals they apprehend. Lack of rewards for good job performance, insufficient training, and excessive paperwork can also contribute to police stress.48


 The criminal justice system creates additional stress. Court appearances interfere with police officers’ work assignments, personal time, and even sleeping schedules. Turf battles among agencies, court decisions curtailing discretion, perceived leniency of the courts, and release of offenders on bail, probation, or parole also lead to stress. Further stress arises from perceived lack of support and negative attitudes toward police from the larger society. (Most public opinion surveys, however, show strong support for and positive attitudes toward police.) Stress also stems from distorted and/or unfavorable news accounts of incidents involving police. The inaccessibility and perceived ineffectiveness of social service and rehabilitation agencies to whom officers refer individuals act as further stressors.49


 Women and minority officers face additional stressors. They are more likely to face disapproval from fellow officers and from family and friends for entering police work. Supervisors, peers, and the public question women officers’ ability to handle the emotional and physical rigors of the job, even though research indicates women can do so. The need to “prove themselves” to male officers and to the public constitutes a major stressor for women officers.


 Stress contributes not only to the physical disorders previously mentioned, but also to emotional problems. Some research suggests that police officers commit suicide at a higher rate than other groups. Most investigators report unusually high rates of divorce among police. Although some maintain that researchers have exaggerated the divorce rate among police, interview surveys demonstrate that police stress reduces the quality of family life. A majority of officers interviewed reported that police work inhibits nonpolice friendships, interferes with scheduling family social events, and generates a negative public image. Furthermore, they take job pressures home, and spouses worry about officers’ safety. Systematic studies do not confirm the widely held belief that police suffer from unusually high rates of alcoholism, although indirect research has established a relationship between high job stress and excessive drinking. Finally, officers interviewed cited guilt, anxiety, fear, nightmares, and insomnia following involvement in shooting incidents.50


 In the past, departments either ignored officers with problems or dealt with them informally by assigning them to desk jobs. During the 1950s, some departments began to formalize their responses, usually by incorporating officer-initiated Alcoholics Anonymous groups made up exclusively of alcoholic officers. In the 1970s, departments instituted “employee assistance” programs to deal with problem officers, particularly those suffering from alcoholism. These programs have expanded into a broad range of responses to police stress. Some programs focus on physical fitness, diet, relaxation, and biofeedback to cope with stress. Others emphasize family counseling to involve spouses in reducing police stress, such as Kansas City’s Marriage Partner Program or Minnesota’s Couple Communications Program.