Sunday, March 28, 2010

Police Officer Wellness: An introduction

My sister married a New Yorker. For whatever reason, her husband has a bunch of NYPD friends, and many of them turned up at the wedding (even though it was in California). I’ll never forget watching these boys in action at the reception. It was long before I myself become an officer and it left quite an impression on me. The first thing I noticed was that the group was really LOUD. Okay, I know, it’s a New Yorker thing. Fine. I also noticed the sheer abandon with which they consumed beer. I mean, it was like the world was going to end in five hours and they wanted to go out partying. Of course, as a head shrinker I made mental notes such as, “well, these guys seem to be alcohol abusers.” Pretty perceptive, eh? It’s difficult to articulate why it seemed to be a particularly self-destructive way of getting drunk. And, by the way, it was rather obvious all these guys planned on getting good and shitty. Despite the superficially festive atmosphere, something about these cops left me feeling sorry for them.

One retired NYPD cop pulled me aside and relayed the gory details about how he’d been screwed by the department. Apparently, he tried to promote at one point in his career and, because of politics, he was denied. He was venomous about his career and obviously this had seeped deep into his personal life. Suffice it to say, these guys all had some serious hangovers, which probably wasn’t a big deal ‘cause they were probably going to do something similar the next day.

The NYPD officers at my sisters wedding were unwell. “Wellness,” of course, is just a word. I’ve found the best way to explain what it really means is through an analogy: a car. There are two primary ways we determine if we like a car, the way it performs and the way we feel driving it. Regarding the former, does the car handle well? Does it have a good radius, gas milage blah blah blah. Right? Applied to the concept of wellness, we ask questions like, do you get into a lot of verbal or physical altercations? Is there a lot of overt conflict in your life? Do you fight with your partner a lot? Are you the subject of disciplinary action at work? Is your IA file as thick as your general orders? The great thing about this measure of wellness is that it’s fairly objective. Unless you’re in DENIAL,which is not just a river in Egypt. If you have integrity and are capable of being honest with yourself, you should be able to figure out how well you are in this regard. I should say here that wellness is not a discrete category. It’s not either or. It’s a spectrum.

The second way of figuring out if you like a car is how you FEEL driving it. Do you like the interior? Is it an ergonomically happy place to be? Applied to wellness, the question is, how do you feel in your skin? Unlike performance, this is wholly subjective. And, again, in order to move in the direction of wellness, you need to be able to be honest with yourself. You don’t need to confess your sins to a priest or go to therapy about it, just be honest with yourself. Are you angry too much? Anxious, depressed, irritable, unhappy, unfulfilled? You get the point. If, in these honest moments, you determine it doesn’t feel so good being in this car, then you have an opportunity to work on your own personal wellness.


Wow. Thanks for asking. Remember the story at the beginning? That’s why. In California we have the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). This is the government agency charged with determining what cops are required to know about to be cops. There’s no POST requirement that we learn about wellness. I’m guessing there was very little, if anything, mentioned about wellness in your academy. “Stress management” is one part of wellness and that gets a bit of talk but it’s usually half-hearted.

In general, and at the risk of sounding cynical (and unwell), police agencies don’t ensure we are working on our own wellness because we are cogs in a wheel. We’re tools used by the state to carry out its mission. Wellness is left up to us as individuals. My personal and professional experience has shown that if you don’t pay attention to taking care of yourself, there’s a very good chance this career will permanently warp your mind. And not in a good way.

You can tell the veteran officers who have attended to their own wellness from those that have not. The overweight, angry, hard drinking, bitter, divorced, alone veterans either didn’t give a rats ass about wellness, or the importance of it was never taught to them. The state doesn’t care, ‘cause they sucked twenty plus years out of the cop. The only thing these folks look forward to is retirement, when they can FINALLY live. These same veterans, who haven’t embraced the concept of wellness count down the days to retirement. Unfortunately, they probably also don’t know that some frighteningly well done research has shown that police officers live a full nine years less than the general population. So, the cop that doesn’t take care of him or herself throughout that long police career finally retires in the hopes of starting a “happy” life, collects about five years of retirement money, does the guppy on the living room floor and unceremoniously dies.

I’m gonna pass on that and I invite you to do the same. Should you decide that this word “wellness” actually does mean something, we should talk about how one lives well. In upcoming blog entries I’ll cover some specific habits and attitudes associated with wellness. For now, if you remember what you read today, you’ll have about half of what wellness involves: an awareness that it’s something to pay attention to.

L’ Chaim. (“to life”)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Police Marriage and the Road Less Travelled.

A law enforcement career places unique stressors on marriages. I’d like to give you one tool for navigating them. However, first let me say there is a grand total of zero research within the last thirty years which concludes cops have a significantly higher divorce rate than the general population. Yet, if you checked the internet, you’d find there is a very popular misconception that we have outlandishly high divorce rates. In fact, we may...all I’m saying here is that there’s no research to support that claim. Okay, moving on.

Let’s look at two of the most common problems police marriages encounter.

The Problem:

The officer is exhausted and worthless as a marital partner.

Officer fatigue is both qualitatively and quantitatively different than the run of the mill fatigue others have at the end of their work week. It’s biologically based. So, the first thing to know is that it’s normal to be completely gassed after work. I learned about this by reading Kevin Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. He calls this phenomenon, the "hypervigilance biological roller coaster.” I had my wife read the book when I was done. I said, “see, it’s not that I’m just a lazy, worthless bastard.” In fairness, she didn’t accuse me of this, but it’s how I felt.

It’s important that both partners understand the physiological basis of officer fatigue. I’m not going to explain how this happens because it’s pretty involved and I’m, well, too lazy to get into it right now. The nutshell version is as follows: cops are always geared up at work. By “geared up” I mean your body is ready for action at all times, whether your consciously aware of it or not. Even if your eating lunch at work, you’re still geared up. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated. After prolonged periods of sympathetic arousal your body has a rebound effect. It’s the “what goes up must come down” principle. If it (your body) goes way up, it’s gonna go way down. There, I saved you all the five dollar words.

I wish there were a way to really fix this problem, but there isn’t. Drinking a lot of water and exercise seem to help. The impact of the problem is lessened by your being aware of it.

The Problem:

Lack of Communication.

Very few officers say they have a problem communicating with their spouse. What they say is, "my wife doesn't understand thus and such." While it's not the "presenting complaint" to therapists it is the cause of all kinds of other complaints.

Learn how to talk to each other. Yeah, that seems pretty obvious doesn’t it? It’s easier said than done though. Based on my experience as a therapist, my own life, and innumerable conversations I’ve had with co-workers and friends, I can say that most marital failures are ultimately the result of failures of communication.

Cops typically don’t like to hear this but egalitarian style marriages, in which both partners have an equal say in important matters, are less likely to fail than those in which one partner (usually the cop) calls the shots. Sharing power isn’t easy for many of us. The road most travelled by, is the one in which cops have a hammer and constantly seek out nails. Regardless of how horribly it goes, we still try and use that damn hammer. Like about half of all Americans, cops use that hammer all the way through divorce court.

I could blather on with a large laundry list of ways to help you improve your marital communication, but I’ll just give you one. If you learn this one technique well your marriage will improve. Guaranteed. It’s called “active listening.” Active listening requires we take the road less travelled by. A prerequisite is your willingness to put the hammer down and try and new tool.

Most of us have heard of active listening but few of us do it well. It’s closely related to a pearl of wisdom offered by Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The “habit” I refer to is, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Again, easier said than done.

Okay, so pop any marital problem into the equation (financial problems, child rearing, how you spend your down time etc.). You and your spouse are struggling with a problem and you’re at loggerheads. For simplification purposes let’s say this is a traditional male-female relationship and the male is the cop. Well call him Jake. The wife is Cindy. Let’s say Jake has the “problem” that Cindy doesn’t understand his work pressures and jams him up at home about doing more to support her. Sound familiar? Cindy complains that she feels like a single parent and is getting washed out to sea with holding down the fort at home. Pretty generic but It’ll work.

Here’s what you do.

Ground rules: (a) No bashing. That means no statements like “you’re an’re worthless...I hate you.” You get the point. (b) No generalizations. Stay away from, “you never” and “you always.” We can’t realistically address things we always or never do. We can address what I did or didn’t do this morning. This exercise is for specific problems. You can say, “I FEEL you’re never or always thus and such (as long it doesn’t violate the first ground rule). Feelings are never wrong. Just know that generalizations are never productive for resolving marital conflict.

  1. Sit down with your spouse in an environment in which you will not be disturbed.
  2. Cindy talks and Jake listens. Oh, but it’s not that easy buddy. There’s listening and then there’s active listening. By active listening I mean you hear Cindy’s experience on her terms not yours. You immerse yourself in her reality. Instead of forming your rebuttal after hearing her first complaint (one of many she’ll likely have), you sit with it. You can have any thought you want as Cindy talks (e.g., “that’s bullshit!”) but keep that thought to yourself AND don’t let that thought distract you from hearing Cindy. Why? ‘Cause there’s a test at the end. So, Jake seeks first to understand Cindy’s experience. Having done this many times myself I can tell you it’s not easy. You get hot in the face and battle defensiveness. You hear every single complaint Cindy has. You wait until she’s completely done. Jake does NOT interrupt Cindy while she’s talking.
  3. Jake tells Cindy what he just heard her say. This will be quite a challenge for Jake because he’s going to have a hard time concentrating. His mind will be filled with lot’s of vile thoughts. But Jake finds a way to spit out what he heard Cindy say. Hopefully, (though this isn’t required) Jake will actually feel some sympathy for Cindy’s experience.
  4. When Jake’s done articulating Cindy’s experience, Cindy has an opportunity to correct or elaborate further on what Jake said. Again, Jake listens only and then tries again to get it right. Jake can ask questions to ensure he understands what Cindy is saying. When he’s ready to go, Jake says things like, “I heard you say you felt blown off by me this morning when you tried to talk to me about...”
  5. It’s Jake’s turn. Cindy listens. Jake refrains from blasting Cindy out of the water because he’s pissed off at what he just heard. Rather, he sticks to HIS issues.
  6. Then, repeat steps 3 & 4. Jake corrects anything Cindy got wrong and Cindy listens.

That’s active listening. Rinse and repeat for future conflict. If done properly, it can be magical. Nothing takes the steam out of a problem better than having your partner “get it.” Think of how many problems have at their root, some sense of the other person “not getting it.”

Cops solve problems. Even if we have to make stuff up, we’ll solve the problem. It’s effective at work but makes for an epic fail at home. Problem solving and active listening are polar opposites.

Let me know how it goes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Hidden Locker: where cops store their feelings

Want to make your co-workers really uncomfortable? Talk about your feelings. Feelings are to cops what kyrptonite is to Superman. Officers are good at some feelings, like anger and indignation. We’re very open with those. The more “sissy” feelings go in their own special locker. Finding them is not easy. It’s like finding the battery holder in one of those obnoxious moving stuffed animals we get our kids. We peel away flaps of fur looking for the place to put in the AA’s.

I’ve written a book which spells out in gory detail, the psychological land mines associated with a career in law enforcement. I make a concerted effort throughout to support my conclusions, wherever possible, with research. My obsessiveness about facts was inherited from my father, who told me “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.” He wasn’t known for his profundities.

Since I’ve taken the time to sift through the research projects of countless academics - a frequently painful and boring undertaking - I figure why not give you some of the information. You can take it or leave it. Which leads us to the topic at hand, police officers and emotional expression.

Premiss number one here is that there exists a police personality. If you were a criminal justice major, you already know that. Chances are somewhere along the line you did a term paper on the subject. We’re a type. The process of applying for a law enforcement job is more about screening out people then it is about screening in folks. Emotionally leaky applicants are shown the door rather quickly in the process.

So, cops generally have similar personality profiles and that profile includes the ability to keep our feelings or emotions well under control. That makes sense. Society needs people to show up on the scene of horrific traffic collisions and not freak out. Most people would melt down upon seeing two bodies, impossibly contorted, within the passenger compartment of an SUV.

We don’t have the luxury of expressing a normal emotional response to things. But here’s the problem: contrary to popular opinion, we’re human. Being both a human being and a police officer poses some real problems. Police work can be really bad for us bipeds. In fact, there’s probably a hidden laboratory somewhere where government scientists are trying to create police robots. It would be a good investment on Uncle Sam’s part.

Robots don’t have messy feelings. They don’t need emotional nourishment like us. We have feelings about dead bodies, about the administration, the criminal justice system, our co-workers, injured children, promotions, blood and guts, and bad guys trying to kill us. Unlike robots, we experience feelings, such as fear, horror, sadness, depression, affection, confusion. Before we even realize we’ve had a feeling we shove it out of conscious awareness. It’s an unconscious process. Where do these feelings go? They go in our private psychic lockers.

I’m not recommending police officers find a corner and go suck their thumb when things get ugly. If cops freely expressed all our emotions we couldn’t function in this job. Therefore, that locker located somewhere inside the police personality’s hidden underbelly, is a good and necessary invention. But, listen up: what goes in that locker needs to be maintained. It’s a vital part of our human equipment. Like maintaining our work gear, we need to maintain our emotions. The reason for this is quite simple: unlike robots, our emotions can make us very sick.

At a bare minimum we need to do two things. First, know that all those thoughts and feelings you have at work don’t go away merely because you shoved them in the locker. One of Sigmund Freud’s immortal contributions to mankind was his developing the idea of the unconscious. Freud made us realize that much of what occupies our mind is unconscious. Some people mistake “unconscious for “non-existent.” Out of awareness is not the same as “doesn’t exist.” As cops, we tend to be empirically minded: if we don’t see, feel, smell or hear it, we become skeptical. Moreover, our unconscious calls a lot of shots. It’s a force which guides much of our behavior. Making the unconscious, conscious was Sigmund Freud’s Holy Grail. It’s a worthy endeavor for us as well. Helping people do that is part of what psychodynamically trained psychotherapists do.

Second, find a place where you can give those thoughts and feelings an expression. How you channel the items in your locker is limited only by your imagination and what works for you as an individual. The goal is to find an avenue to experience and then discharge the many emotions you collect at work. You can use art, talking it out, journaling, meditation, yoga, etc. In police psychology, how we manage the emotional aspects of law enforcement is called, “coping.” Coping is a topic unto itself and will be discussed in the future. For now, start paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. Not just the easy ones to track, like anger or frustration, but all of them. Then, do something to let them out of your body.

Part of what makes us human is having a complex, powerful and wide ranging emotional life. Why not take advantage of that by allowing ourselves the experience of feeling. Life is short, don’t short change yourself.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Razor's Edge of Police Work: Good Cop, Sick Cop

Welcome. By way of introduction, I am a police officer and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. I became a cop at the age of thirty-seven and brought a lot of professional and personal life experience with me to this job.

My dad was a California Highway Patrol officer. Though I never asked for it, I had a front row ticket to the tragicomedy that became his life. Pops was pretty macho. He was an M.P. in the army, and served in Korea. After the military, he took on the police persona with much vigor. We had the BBQ's at our house. He golfed, stood around drinking beer talking home improvement and auto mechanics with the boys. We were part of the law enforcement "family." Ultimately, while eating popcorn and sipping 7-Up at the show, I found the "family" to be pretty fickle. My dad went out on a medical, and had serious chronic back problems. He became depressed and lost. Well, that's a buzz kill isn't it? It didn't take the family long to figure out that Shannon was no fun to hang out with. So, pops ended up a divorced, depressed, chain smoking alcoholic who died at fifty-seven. Weee!

When I applied to become a police officer I didn't need a new career. I already had a good one. Early in my professional life, and for better or worse, I decided I wasn't going to pursue making bucket-loads of money. Rather I was going to pursue work I found enjoyable and rewarding. Regarding policing, the thought wasn't "I want to be a cop," but, "I want to be a good cop." I've never taken on a job with the aim of merely being able to do it. I wanted to do it well.

When I was in the academy, our class was told ten percent of cops do the work of the other ninety percent. "Do you want to be part of the ten or the ninety?" we were repeatedly asked. After five years on the job I have found that ratio to be more or less accurate. Most officers have learned the "less is more" approach as a means for surviving this career. I'm part of the ten and feel proud of that. Enter the problem.

There exists some empirical support for the idea that the most hard-charging cops are especially prone to develop psychological problems. What! How could that be? We are the ones who embrace all aspects of the police lifestyle. If choir practice is what good cops do, well then sign us up. We're first on scene to the most dangerous, gruesome and tragic calls.

Good cops also quickly figure out they better be well ensconced within the police culture. You're either in or out. Out is a lonely, uncomfortable place. Unfortunately, it is the police culture itself that can make us sick. As cops, we pride ourselves in knowing about "reality." We feel smug about the fact that we see the cold, hard facts of life. This is an error. It's an example of what Kevin Gilmartin calls "cop illogic." We, in fact don't know all about reality. What we know is police reality. They're not at all the same.

It's through the police culture we learn some dangerous Truths. We learn those who dare to share their emotional upset at work are weak or weird. Or both. Never mind that such an attitude flies in the face of science. We learn to view the world in an oversimplified manner. There are criminals, victims and assholes and that's about it.

Think about sharing with your co-workers your experience of taking a meditation class. What do you think would happen? In police culture, meditation has no place. And, that's the problem right there. While I use meditation as an example, the point is that many behaviors and attitudes that science has shown to be life and health affirming are punted out of our briefing rooms. Good cops don't meditate, talk about their feelings, go to therapy or do art work.

Before you put me on blast for generalizing here, know that I'm not talking about you specifically, or your department specifically. We're here talking about police culture generally. Social scientists are busy writing scholarly papers on whether or not there is such a thing as police culture. As cops, we already know there's a culture to be reckoned with.

Can one be a good cop and not a sick cop? Stand-by.