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Preparing Families for the Hazards of Police Work

Sam Torres, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Criminal Justice, California State University, Long Beach, California; David L. Maggard Jr., Chief of Police, Irvine, California; and Christine To

How can you be commanding, ordering, and directing by day-hiding your emotions, hiding that you are afraid . . . and then open the door and say, "Hi, honey, I'm home"?
-Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop

Book Cover
Courtesy Guilford Press Inc., New York, New York
hat stress is endemic in police work and a hazard of the job is well known to police chiefs and law enforcement administrators. This aspect of policing has major implications for police chiefs because police officer stress may manifest in ways that can hurt officers, their loved ones, their department, and the public: burnout, lower tolerance levels, poor judgment, substance abuse, health problems, deteriorating relationships with family and friends, low productivity, high turnover, use of excessive force, citizen complaints, and increased rates of workers' compensation claims, to name just a few.

It is essential that police administrators recognize the negative consequences associated with work-related stress and implement proactive strategies to help the officers and the department. By providing employee assistance programs and services to police officers and their families, departments can help reduce the negative consequences of officer stress for officers, families, the department, and the community. Many police executives who understand the problems of job-induced stress have implemented stress management programs for their officers. Usually these programs are only used reactively after a critical incident or when the stressors of police work build up to a point creating difficulties.

The Irvine Police Department recognized that an ingredient missing from its employee assistance programs was the orientation and preparation of family and friends for the new officer's transition into the police culture. In fact, this is the entire family's transition into the law enforcement culture. By providing family members and friends with this knowledge and insight, the department hopes to help families and friends of new officers come to (1) understand the potential pitfalls of policing, (2) acquire insight into the potential attitudinal and behavioral changes in the new officer, (3) be alert to personality and behavioral changes that may require action, and (4) be familiar with resources available for intervention before the situation deteriorates too far and family relationships are irreparably damaged.

Orientation Program for Family and Friends

Once a person is hired as a new officer by the Irvine Police Department, a complete and total commitment is made to provide support to assure success through the academy, the field training officer (FTO) program, and the 18-month probationary period. Prior to commencing their academy training, officers complete a pre-academy program that places an emphasis on physical conditioning in order to prepare the recruits for the rigorous training that will occur in the 24-week academy.

Courtesy Irvine Police Department
The Irvine Police Department conducts the orientation program on the first day on the job with the agency for the new officer after completion of the academy. The orientation takes about two hours and includes the following phases:

  • A swearing-in ceremony conducted by the chief and including the badge-pinning ceremony and reception line
  • A reception for new officers, all sworn and nonsworn personnel, family, and friends
  • An FTO program orientation for new officers
  • An orientation for family and friends of new officers, complete with an orientation packet for those in attendance

Family and friends attend their own orientation while the new officers receive their FTO program orientation. The family orientation features four phases. In the initial phase of the orientation, the lieutenant responsible for professional development services welcomes the new officer's family and friends, and briefly explains the objectives of the orientation. One of the major goals of the orientation is to help family and friends understand the attitude and culture of policing and to prepare them to understand and address problems that inevitably will occur as a result of their loved one's new career in policing.

Orientation Packet

During the second phase of the orientation for family and friends, the department's human resource specialist explains the content of the packet that is provided family needs to know what the new officer will be experiencing on the job. Communication is emphasized repeatedly as a major method of minimizing stress-related problems. Other issues presented include the need to be aware of the various resources and support available, and the need to be aware of behavioral cues indicating potential problems. At all phases of the presentation, family and friends are encouraged to ask questions.

At a recent orientation, the new officers were slightly older than most recruits. Many were making a transition into law enforcement after having careers elsewhere, and several had children. The orientation was of particular importance to them and their families.

Tour of Police Department

In the fourth and last phase of the orientation, the participating lieutenant takes the spouses, parents, friends, and children on a tour of the police department. The tour includes an examination of the police vehicle that their loved one would be driving. Needless to say, the presentation of the police vehicle was particularly enjoyable to the children who participated. At each point in the tour, the lieutenant took care to describe what each area would mean to the new officer. He said of the patrol car, for example, "This is where dad will write his reports." There were many informal questions during the tour.

The general feeling of family and friends was one of appreciation that the department cared enough about the new officers and their families to take the time to introduce them to police work and the potential pitfalls of the job. The orientation program appears to be most beneficial to the spouses and intimate partners of new officers, since it is they who will be exposed to any attitudinal and behavioral changes of the officer. It is precisely these families that will quickly experience the stressors when their officer-parent begins to miss holidays, school events, and children's soccer or baseball games. The families of this group of officers, it is felt, need to be educated and to understand, at the outset, the potential stressors of the law enforcement career and the constructive coping mechanisms and resources for dealing with problems.

Issues to Consider for Next Orientation

One challenge of the program was to prevent a police spouses club from developing. While this was not necessarily viewed as undesirable, it was concluded that it would not serve the best interests of the new officer or the department at this stage, because it is likely that several new officers will not be successful during the FTO program or their probationary period. It is distressing when a new officer is not successful, and the formation of a strong bond to peers and the department in the form of a spouses club makes the separation more difficult. The goal is to be supportive of new officers and their loved ones while avoiding the development of a strong bond, at least during the FTO and probationary period.

Administrators and staff identified two ways to improve the orientation for family and friends. The first way is to modify each orientation to serve the particular needs of that officer group, as one group may be composed largely of older-than-average officers who are married and have children while another group may be younger, single, and have no children. The second way is to present a more balanced perspective of police work by discussing the benefits and satisfaction that frequently come with a career in law enforcement, even as we prepare friends and family to understand and respond to the stresses of police life.

A letter from the wife of one new police officer provides a snapshot of Irvine's family orientation program. She writes: "The reception, the tour, the time you took to put the package together with the book, the time for questions, and the way everyone extended themselves to the families was truly meaningful. As we look forward to our future entwined with this organization, know that I am truly grateful for the generous support and reassurance you have shown us all."

Police Stress Research

Numerous studies have addressed the high level of stress experienced by police officers, the effect of officers' stress on relationships, the impact of officers' stress on spouses' health, police spouses' mental health, and police officers' coping methods off duty. The results of some studies suggest that police work has an adverse impact on police families, particularly in terms of a spouses' social life.1 Major factors contributing to the negative impact on family life are long hours, shift work, and canceled leave. That the coping mechanisms used by police to cope with job-related stress factors frequently produce further difficulties for their spouses and families has also been well established in the literature.

In many, if not most, police departments, the socialization of new officers includes teaching them coping mechanisms to deal with the realities of death, crime, human nature, and the boredom on the job. Inherent in this socialization process is the change that inevitably occurs in the officers' outlook so that many of their attitudes seem strange or coarse to family and friends. Deterioration in communication with family and friends frequently occurs and is generally made worse by shift work. According to the National Police Suicide Foundation, every 22 hours, a police officer in America takes his or her own life. This suggests that police officers, as a group, tend not to cope well with the psychological stresses that are part of police work, as they often turn to maladaptive coping strategies like "avoidance" and "distancing."2 These destructive coping mechanisms for dealing with stress have particularly devastating consequences for the officers' family life.

A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report published in 2000 summarized the causes and effects of job-related stress on law enforcement officers and their families. Sources of stress for police officers include their exposure to violence, suffering, and death. Many officers view the judiciary as being overly lenient in their sentencing of criminal offenders, and they also perceive the public's opinion of police performance to be critical and unfavorable.3 Aggravating these stressors is the requirement to work rotating shifts which results in not having enough time to spend with their families. High levels of violent crime, greater public scrutiny, adverse publicity, and changes in law enforcement such as the advent of community policing can also lead to more stress.

A study by Storch and Panzarella considered that the major negative stressors would be organizational factors and relationships with outsiders, not potential violence or exposure to human misery. They speculated that the amount of stress or anxiety experienced by police officers would not differ significantly from that experienced by non-police adults. Results from the study found that, in general, stress experienced by police officers involved administrative matters and relationships with non-police. Police officers who focused on job compensation experienced less stress than those who relished job excitement, crime fighting, and people-orientated policing. More stress was experienced by police officers adapting to changes in their work or family. The most disliked feature of being a police officer was the work schedule.4 These findings supported at earlier study citing an example where 58 persons resigned from the Memphis Police Department because of the feeling of stagnation in a job with little hope of advancement, rather than dissatisfaction with the work itself.5

A report that goes more directly to attitudinal and behavioral changes observed officers of the Philadelphia Police Department. The study examined the socialization of young police recruits and the process by which they were taught to deal with the realities of death, crime, and human suffering, and boredom on the job which are an interwoven part of policing. The change in attitude and behavior that seem strange or crass to family members, as well as the deepening communication problem made worse by shift work, was highlighted. The complex interaction of continually changing shifts and family stress with reduced self-esteem, anxiety, and conflict pressure were described. This conflict, in addition to the hardening of emotions necessary for dealing with police work, leads to marital difficulties and high divorce rates. In New York, police also have twice the suicide rate of the white male population.6

A 2000 article in the Police Chief concluded that domestic violence committed by police officers against their intimate partners occurs at the same rate as in the general population. But the authors suggest that a comprehensive policy should include a zero-tolerance attitude.7 In contrast, Boyd and Sykes discovered that among 123 police agencies in the U.S., 28.4 percent reported increases in domestic violence cases that involved on-duty or off-duty officers during the preceding 24 months. Interestingly, 45 percent of these agencies reported that they had no specific policy for dealing with officer-involved domestic violence. Consequently, these incidents were handled on a case-by-case basis.8

As noted, a great deal has been written about stress and policing and about the fact that police officers who are experiencing personal and family problems are not likely to reach out for help. Because they do not develop constructive coping mechanisms for dealing with the various stressors of police work, negative methods inevitably surface that tend only to make matters worse. Although each officer deals with these stressors differently, destructive coping strategies will eventually have negative consequences for the officer. If the effects on officers are severe, they can be equally serious for family members. In one survey of the spouses of police officers, a very large percentage said they experienced unusually high levels of stress because of their spouses' job.9 Sources of stress commonly cited by officers' spouses include the following:

  • Shift work and overtime
  • Concern over the spouse's cynicism, need to feel in control in the home, or inability or unwillingness to express feelings
  • Fear that the spouse will be hurt or killed in the line of duty
  • Officers' and others' excessively high expectations of their children
  • Avoidance, teasing, or harassment of the officer's children by other children because of the parent's job
  • Presence of a gun in the home
  • Officer's 24-hour-a-day role as a law enforcer
  • Perception that the officer prefers to spend time with coworkers rather than with his or her family
  • Too much or too little discussion of the job
  • Family members' perception of the officer as paranoid or excessively vigilant and overprotective of them
  • Problems in helping the officer cope with work-related problems
  • Critical incidents, or the officer's injury or death on the job10

That law enforcement agencies should establish stress management programs is no longer an issue of serious debate, as most police chiefs and administrators clearly recognize that officer stress affects agency performance. Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to training programs that help supervisors identify signs of stress and domestic violence among officers' families, employee assistance programs, both within and outside the department, and other stress-related programs. A 1997 article in the Police Chief indicated that the first step to reduce stress was to identify stressors for both officers and family members. An effective model allows police agencies to develop strategies to eliminate stressors and/or enhance the abilities of officers and their families to cope more effectively with police work.11

Nevertheless, most agencies will have to contend with the problem of officer reluctance to participate in stress management programs or to seek assistance when job-related stress problems occur. An NIJ project gathered data on work and family issues from 597 police officers in 21 agencies in western New York. Results revealed that work and family experiences influenced each other, that conflict between officers' roles as parent and spouse were minimal, and that officers lacked knowledge about programs available to assist them and their family members. Interestingly, the study found that top management was less supportive of officers seeking assistance. Although officers were aware of some services available, the actual use of services was low. The most common service was chaplains, followed by employee assistance program coordinators and mental health professionals. The most common service for work and family support was debriefing after shooting incidents, followed by counseling, employee assistance programs, workout facilities, training in domestic violence, and insurance covering mental health services. The project suggested the need for police officers to have greater knowledge of, and trust in, support programs and more proactive recognition by departments of the benefits of work and family support services.12

Another NIJ program began as an eight-week training seminar that used a combination of didactic group training and group therapy for couples. Topics covered were couple communication skills, relationship strengthening strategies, shift work and long hours, emotional control, command presences, skeptical attitudes and hypervigilance, unpredictability of police work and public scrutiny, depression, trauma, substance abuse, and coping and stress reactions. Regarding stress, there was evidence that the program decreased the stress levels of those who participated in the program when compared to a control group. Recommendations in the area of recruiting efforts for participation focused on incentives, decreasing the lack of trust and building awareness of the program, and addressing the stereotype of that officers are weak if they participate in these programs. In addition, the focus should remain on the group process, ownership of the curriculum, a less clinical setting, and peer mentoring.13 An earlier NIJ-sponsored study concluded that regardless of program structure, stress programs and services must be delivered in a location that is accessible and private. In considering the selection of staffing configurations, options include the use of nonsworn mental health professionals, sworn mental health professionals, interns, chaplains, volunteers, and peer supporters. Careful screening, training, and strong management support are essential for peer supporters to be beneficial.14

The negative effects of stress on police officers and their families and friends will eventually affect the department through impaired officer performance-related problems such as increased use of sick leave, low morale, decreased motivation, and generally taking less pride in one's work. The negative consequences for the department can be profound; not the least is simply lower productivity. Some of the more significant problems resulting from failing to manage officer stress problems can be an increase in civil lawsuits arising from citizen complaints or resulting from labor-management friction. Negative publicity as a result of stress-related incidents, such as an officer suicide, or a case of excessive force can often occur. Even problems that are confined to only a handful of officers can have major repercussions. For example, an incident involving officers' excessive use of alcohol or use of drugs can significantly diminish the public's confidence in, and support of, a department.15

Implementing a stress management and prevention program may initially require increased use of personnel and resources, but these programs can lead to long-term cost savings, high productivity and morale, and enhanced community-police relations. The inescapable conclusion of many studies is that stress affects the bottom line. ■

1 D. A. Alexander and L. G. Walker, "Perceived Impact of Police Work on Police Officers' Spouses and Families," Stress Medicine 12 (1996): 239-246.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Behavioral Science Unit, FBI Academy, "Police Suicide: Living between the Lines," by James D. Brink, in Suicide and Law Enforcement, ed. Donald C. Sheehan and Janet I. Warren (Washington, D.C.: 2001), 305-313; available as NCJ-193528 from the National Criminal Justice Research Service, a href="">
3 Peter Finn, "On-the-Job Stress: Reducing It and Preventing It," National Institute of Justice Journal (January 2000): 18-24.
4 J. E. Storch and R. Panzarella, "Police Stress: State-Trait Anxiety in Relation to Occupational Stress and Personal Stressors," Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 24, no. 2 (1996): 99-107.
5 R. R. Bennett, Police at Work: Policy Issues and Analysis (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1983).
6 Copp Organization Inc., "Physiological, Psychological, and Social Issues Specifically Related to the Police Profession," Law and Order, vol. 27, no. 1 (January 1979): 12-21.
7 Sandy Prabhu and Nancy Turner, "Rising to the Challenge: Preventing Police Officer Domestic Violence," Police Chief, vol. 67, no. 11 (November 2000): 43-55.
8 Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute and Arlington County Police Department, "Domestic Assault among Police: A Survey of Internal Affairs Policies," by Larry Boyd, Daniel Carlson, Rick Smith, and Gary W. Sykes (Rockville, Md.: 1995); available as NCJ-188495 from the National Criminal Justice Research Service, a href="">
9 This survey was conducted as part of a study by Leanor Boulin-Johnson, professor of African-American Studies and Family Studies at Arizona State University. See "On the Front Lines: Police Stress and Family Well-Being," testimony of Leanor Boulin-Johnson before the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, 102nd Congress, First Session, May 20, 1991 (Washington, D.C.: 1991): 32.
10 R. Borum and C. Philpot, "Therapy with Law Enforcement Couples: Clinical Management of the High Risk Lifestyle," American Journal of Family Therapy 21 (1993): 122-135.
11 L. W. Greene, "Uplifting Resilient Police Families: A Logic Model to Reduce Stress and Identity Protective Factors," Police Chief, vol. 24, no. 10 (October 1997): 70-72.
12 U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, "Identification of Work and Family Services for Law Enforcement Personnel," by R. P. Delprino, K. O'Quin, and C. Kennedy (Washington, D.C.: 1997); available as NCJ-171645 from the National Criminal Justice Research Service,
13 U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, "Law Enforcement and Corrections Family Support: Development and Evaluation of a Stress Management Program for Officers and Their Spouses, Final Report," by Rudy Arrendondo, Sterling T. Shumway, Thomas G. Kimball, Charette A. Dersch, Nichole Morelock, and Laura Bryan (Washington, D.C.: 2002); available as NCJ-197900 from the National Criminal Justice Research Service, a href="">
14 Abt Associates Inc., "Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and Their Families," by P. Finn and J. E. Tomz, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (Washington, D.C.: 1997); available as NCJ-163175 from the National Criminal Justice Research Service, a href="">
15 K. Springer, "When the Helper Needs Help: Stress and the Law Enforcement Employee," EAP Association Exchange 25 (1995).



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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