Gorilla, Thy Name is Hypervigilance Trauma Syndrome

The set of negative biological, emotional and psychological effects of police work on humans is an 800-pound gorilla in hundreds of police, sheriffs’ and corrections departments in the US.  Because leadership will not talk seriously about it, perhaps because they do not know how to do so, everyone keeps quiet.

A lot of scientific study and keen observation by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, Dr. John Violanti and the folks at Badge of Life and others have made the case that doing police work wreaks havoc on humans.  The question is what to do about it.  The effort in Colorado described in the AP story below at least forces us to talk about that big, smelly gorilla camped on the conference table, farting, pooping and yawning.  We will not make him leave by pretending he’s not there.

Agreeing that the ape is there is Step One, which we have not yet taken in the public safety sector.  Step Two will be the question of what to do about it.

The unique stress of the public safety workplace, a mix of extended and repetitive hypervigilance and various types of trauma, alters the personality of every officer to some degree.  Let’s call it Hypervigilance Trauma Syndrome or HTS. The trauma can be physical, emotional and/or psychological.  Some have been disabled, perhaps permanently; they no longer have the resilience to make the judgments required of a peace officer or custody officer.  In those cases, officers should be retired at permanent disability pay, just like someone who loses a physical body part and can no longer do the job.  Municipal leaders only feel like it will cost more because, in economic terms, society does not pay the actual costs of the services they receive.  We’ve been doing a little freeloading.  A part of the full economic costs of public safety services is borne by someone else.  That someone is the cop, the deputy and the CO.

My training partner Pat Bradley likes to point out that police, corrections and other sworn personnel in state and local government in Massachusetts only get a higher annual pension because they don’t live as long as other retirees.   This is a tacit recognition of HTS if ever I saw one.

As with all injuries and harm, the answer lies in prevention.  (Though you cannot prevent what you won’t see).

Like any strategy of prevention, we can help and treat HTS at the front end at a fraction of the financial cost it will mean at the back end.  We need to face reality honestly, united behind the mission of protecting the quality and quantity of the lives of public safety personnel.  Emotional check-ups have to become routine.

On October 18, 2013, this blog posted about this topic. I feel foolish quoting myself but in that span the issue has not changed.  Here’s the salient excerpt.

I have a proposal for effectively addressing the physical, emotional and psychological damage that police work does to human beings. The model is our fleet management programs. In recent years departments have throughly modernized their preventive maintenance and repair programs for the motorized fleet. We can apply the same principles to maintain and care properly for the fleet of humans who drive the cars and do this uniquely complex work.

This improved approach is based on squarely facing the reality of the effects of police work on humans. Historically we’ve ignored it. It’s absent from our recruit and in-service training regimens. Research is slim. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s 2000 book is still the best current training text. You can’t find human maintenance in the Policies and Procedures. Bosses have no expressed responsibility for the maintenance of the human beings. (Read your department’s P&P on vehicles and you’ll see spelled out lots of supervisory responsibility for cars). As often as not accepting help is experienced as vaguely punitive. People get “sent” to the “stress unit.” The onus is on the individual. The signals come from everywhere, from the locker room to the TV screen. Instead of everyone getting regularly scheduled preventive tune-ups of the emotional, psychological and physical systems, we wait for the crisis. And when all is said and done the crisis is seen as the individual’s failure and responsibility.

We know that the miles on the police vehicle odometer represent much more punishment to the vehicle than the same number of miles on a civilian vehicle. (Only the cheap or the desperate buy used police vehicles at auction.) The same is true for the humans. Gilmartin and others have demonstrated plainly that physiological hypervigilance affects EVERYONE who puts on a police badge. Cops must maintain a state of hypervigilance because if the ever-present unknown risks that define policing. Many professions are more lethal than policing. But the risks are known. In policing the risks can and do come from anywhere. No one escapes the effects. The brain automatically shifts to a hypervigilant state when the human pins the badge on his or her chest and goes to work. That’s because the brain has been trained by evolution over many millennia to get you home after the shift.

Police Unions Push for Medical Coverage of PTSD

DENVER May 16, 2014 (AP)
By SADIE GURMAN Associated Press

Police unions across the U.S. are pushing for officers to be able to collect workers’ compensation benefits if they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, whether they got it from the general stress of police work or from responding to a deadly shooting rampage.

“I can’t imagine a department in the United States without officers who have symptoms of PTSD and are still working,” said Ron Clark, chairman of the Badge of Life, a group of active and retired officers working to raise awareness of police stress and suicide prevention.

“We’re beginning to see more and more states talking about this,” he said.

But some police chiefs and municipal leaders oppose lawmakers’ efforts, even in states such as Connecticut and Colorado, the scenes of some of the deadliest massacres in recent years. They say they are concerned the benefits would strain budgets and lead to frivolous claims.

“We support and appreciate the efforts of our police and firefighters, but there’s a concern when you expand benefits,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

Legislation has been emotional in that state, still haunted by the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Newtown police officer Thomas Bean told lawmakers his depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts left him unable to work. “I’m always being re-traumatized because I don’t know what my future is,” Bean testified in March.

Connecticut allows police and firefighters to collect workers’ compensation if they use deadly force or witness a colleague’s death. New legislation would expand it to all municipal employees diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing a violent event or its aftermaths.

Federal employees and military members can collect compensation if a psychiatrist finds PTSD symptoms. But most states require officers and firefighters to have an accompanying physical injury.

Supporters say lawmakers’ efforts to change that are encouraging, but the push-back shows a stigma remains.

“They don’t get too worked up when an officer gets shot or physically assaulted because they can see it,” Clark said. “If you think every cop is just going to run to that lifeboat and say, ‘I have PTSD,’ I just don’t see it.”

It is hard to say how many officers suffer symptoms because many do not come forward for fear of seeming weak, Clark said.

Legislation expanding benefits to cover the disorder died in Colorado, where officers responded to a mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater in July 2012. A legislative task force will likely study the issue instead.

“We’ve got law enforcement officers working the streets in Colorado suffering from PTSD and keeping it a secret, going to work every day with a smile,” said Mike Violette, executive director of the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, which helped write the bill.

Colorado lawmakers eliminated language that would have presumed an officer had job-induced PTSD if he was diagnosed after using deadly force, witnessing a death, being injured or becoming ill on the job, which police chiefs thought was too broad.

“It could be virtually every single police officer who might qualify,” Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, who is vice president of the Colorado Chiefs of Police Association, said. “We believe PTSD is a real issue, we just want to make sure that it’s done properly.”

Similar legislation is under consideration in South Carolina. It was inspired by former Spartanburg County sheriff’s deputy Brandon Bentley, whose doctor told him he was too stressed to return to police work after he fatally shot a man during a domestic disturbance call in 2009.

Bentley, 35, said he spiraled into a depression that was compounded when the state denied him workers’ compensation benefits and he couldn’t make ends meet for his family.

Bentley appealed to the state Supreme Court, which denied his claim, saying the law did not provide mental health benefits for officers because they are trained in the use of deadly force and know that they may have to use it.

Under state legislation still pending, officers who experience stress after using deadly force would have the chance to collect such benefits. But the bill is not retroactive.

“It was never about the money,” he said. “The only thing I want is for these guys and these girls not to go through the same thing I went through.”



About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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