By Willard M. Oliver, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas, and Cecil A. “Andy” Meier, Retired Fire Fighter and Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Instructor
This project was supported by cooperative agreement 97-DD-BX-0061 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
n the September 1978 issue of the Police Chief, two researchers, Sandy and Devine, presented their observations about stress as it related to small-town and rural police.1 The authors had been extensively involved in police training throughout rural Maine and had identified four stress factors that they considered to be especially significant among rural patrol officers: security, social factors, working conditions, and inactivity. Sandy and Devine presented these four factors as hypotheses based upon the theory that small-town and rural law enforcement do in fact face many stressors that are different from those faced by the officers’ urban counterparts. Although these four stress factors have been often repeated in various books, magazines, and journals on policing in the past 25 years, Sandy and Devine’s hypotheses have never been scientifically tested.
In a federally funded research project centered on stress among small-town and rural police in West Virginia, the authors tested the hypotheses of Sandy and Devine. The findings from this research is enlightening and gives support to much of what Sandy and Devine had articulated in 1978 in these pages. As a result, the authors suggest certain policy recommendations regarding methods by which stress among these small-town and rural line officers can be reduced.
Four Stress Factors Unique to Rural Patrol
Sandy and Devine believed that rural police officers face not only the stressors that urban police officers face, such as organizational, external, task-related, and personal stressors, but also an additional four stressors that only those in small-town and rural police agencies came up against:
- Social factors
- Working conditions
Security: Because of geographical isolation and the limited number of officers on duty at any given time, rural police officers face more stress related to their personal safety and security. Although urban police officers may have a backup available to them within minutes, for rural police officers it can often take up to an hour for an adequate response. As a result of this isolation, every call a rural officer responds to, including domestic violence and auto crash calls, and every motor vehicle stop can be highly stressful for the rural officer.
Social Factors: Sandy and Devine identify a second stressor that rural police officers face but urban police do not: everyone they encounter while off duty knows they are police officers. When urban police officers go off duty, they can blend into the community and no one knows they are police officers. This anonymity provides the officer a break from being scrutinized as a police officer. Small-town and rural police officers find it harder to escape this scrutiny. This phenomenon, often called the “fishbowl effect,” living in a place where everyone knows you and what you do, can generate high levels of stress among rural police officers because they find it harder to relax.
What’s more, when rural officers respond to calls for service, they are more likely to know or know of the persons involved in the call, including suspects and victims. The parties involved in a call may even be friends or family members. Familiarity can make any call more uncomfortable and therefore more stressful for the officer; it can also undermine an officer’s credibility and authority. Sandy and Devine also observe that small-town and rural police officers have fewer peers and therefore fewer persons with whom they feel they can talk after responding to a highly stressful call. The relative unavailability of a peer support group can increase officers’ stress.
Economic Constraints: The third factor unique to rural law enforcement concerns the working conditions of small-town and rural police officers: low pay and inadequate equipment and training. The lack of resources can make the officers’ job more difficult and hence more stressful.
Inactivity: The final factor described by Sandy and Devine consists of the problem of inactivity. Small-town and rural officers often must face long periods of boredom; they serve small populations where crime rates are low and where residents tend to be individualistic and are reluctant to call the police. Sandy and Devine argue that boredom can diminish police performance in two ways. The job can fail to provide the officer with enough sensory stimuli, hence making their job stressful, and it can lower officers’ self-esteem by creating a wide gulf between officers’ perceptions of what they should be doing as police officers and the realities of the job in the small-town and rural environment. This disparity can cause feelings of not doing the right thing, which can then manifest itself in feelings of inadequacy or reduced self-confidence.
Taken together, these four factors that Sandy and Devine articulated as being unique to small-town and rural police serve as a set of hypotheses based upon their observations of working with police in rural Maine. But recent research into stress in small-town and rural policing in West Virginia has served as the first test of Sandy and Devine’s theory and hypotheses.
Quick Facts about Small-Town and Rural Policing and Stress
• Small-town and rural is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a jurisdiction with a population smaller than 50,000 (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).
• Ninety percent of all local police agencies in the United States have fewer than 50 sworn officers in their employment (Source: R. A. Weisheit, D. N. Falcone, and L. E. Wells, Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1999)).
• Fifty-seven percent of all local police agencies in the United States have fewer than 10 sworn officers in their employment (Source: Weisheit, Falcone, and Wells).
• Stress is defined as “something that is imposed on a person usually from outside, that is, external or personal factors that bring about some degree of physical or psychological discomfort” (Source: J. S. Zhao, Q. T. Thurman, and N. He, “Sources of Job Satisfaction among Police Officers: A Test of Demographic and Work Environment Models,” Justice Quarterly 16 (1999): 153–173.)
The West Virginia Study
In 1998 the current authors received an open solicitation grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to conduct a study on small-town and rural police officer stress. The program used a train-the-trainer three-day conference to educate the instructors who would travel to the small-town and rural agencies to deliver an eight-hour block of in-service training. The training consisted of training on stress, the signs and symptoms of stress, stress in policing, stress in small-town and rural policing (based largely on the Sandy and Devine material), how to manage stress through diet, exercise, and counseling, and finally a segment on critical incident stress and critical incident stress debriefings (CISD). At the beginning of each training session, officers were asked to voluntarily complete a survey that consisted of several psychological stress scales, questions related to small-town and rural stress, and basic demographics.
The training and study began in the fall of 1998 and was completed in the spring of 2002. The training was conducted at or near each of the agencies to make it more convenient for the officers to attend and often over two or three days so as not to deplete the number of officers available for duty. By the end of the study, 664 officers from small-town and rural agencies, defined as those police departments serving populations under 50,000, were surveyed, representing 32 percent of all law enforcement officers and 39 percent of all police agencies (105 of 267 agencies) in the state. The majority of these were police departments (60 percent) with the rest being sheriff’s departments (39 percent) and special police agencies (1 percent). The average number of officers employed by each of these agencies was 18, while the mean for all police agencies in the state of West Virginia is 14. However, both the median and mode were reflective of the West Virginia population of police agencies, 14 and four respectively.
When looking at the demographics of the police officers, their average age was 38 with 12 years of police experience; 96 percent were male, and 95 percent were white. These percentages are reflective of the population as West Virginia law enforcement consists of only 4 percent female officers and 4 percent black officers. The majority of officers tended to be married (86 percent); 18 percent had been divorced, and 10 percent had separated from a spouse. Finally, their education level consisted mainly of those with “some college” (51 percent); the only academy in the state is run by the West Virginia State Police, which has a reciprocal agreement with Marshall University, in Huntington, West Virginia, to give university credit for academy training.
Testing the Four Unique Stress Factors: Although the surveys delivered at the beginning of each training session were part of a larger study, questions were entered into the survey to test the hypotheses of Sandy and Devine. Multiple questions were asked in each of the four categories—security, social, working conditions, inactivity—in order to determine if the observations by Sandy and Devine back in 1978 were indeed valid today.
The first factor articulated by Sandy and Devine, security, was tested through a series of questions asking the officers on average how far away in minutes was their closest backup, whether or not they had feelings of isolation, and on a Likert scale (ranging from one to five) how stressful they felt it was to respond to domestic violence calls and auto collisions and to issue citations. In addition, because sheriff’s departments generally serve a larger geographical area (on average, 920 square miles, compared to 25 square miles for other police) a variable was factored in for this as well. The responses were then compared to the level of reported stress, also a Likert scale. Overwhelmingly, those officers reporting high levels of stress also reported longer responses to calls for backup, feelings of isolation, and that all three officer actions—responding to domestic violence calls, responding to crash scenes, and issuing citations—were highly stressful. In addition, as Sandy and Devine hypothesized, sheriff’s deputies reported higher levels of stress than their small-town police counterparts. Clearly from the results of this study, Sandy and Devine’s observations regarding the unique stress factor of security for these officers were highly accurate.
In regard to social factors, the study assessed what percentage of time officers responding to calls encounter acquaintances, friends, and family, to include how often when responding to a dead on arrival call did they know the deceased. In terms of the lack of peer support, officers were asked how often they were able to talk with peers after a shift or after responding to a bad call, as well as how often they talked with their family. Because small-town and rural officers often have a limited peer group, they often have to look for friendships outside of policing; thus, officers were asked if they experienced more stress than their friends.
Finally, an additional analysis was conducted on the departments’ size in order to test Sandy and Devine’s hypothesis that the smaller the agency the higher the stress. The results for the social factors were less impressive than the security area. Overwhelmingly officers reported having more stress than their friends outside of policing, which is perhaps not all too surprising. And department size was associated with higher levels of stress, but not in the direction that Sandy and Devine hypothesized. It was actually as department size increased that officers expressed higher levels of stress.
The rest of the variables were not found to be associated with higher levels of stress. Most curious of these were the questions pertaining to knowing the involved parties when responding to calls for service. Despite the officers’ reporting high percentages of calls involving acquaintances, friends, and family members, this was not associated with high levels of stress. Perhaps this familiarity with persons one encounters on the job is so common for people living and working in small towns that it is not associated with stress.
The unique rural stress factor of working conditions assessed the officers’ level of income, resources, and training, specifically as it related to stress training. Income and a lack of resources were not associated with stress in the study. However, the lack of training in the area of stress was negatively associated with high levels of stress. In other words, the more training the officers received on stress and stress management, the less stress they reported, or, inversely, the less training they received the higher their reported stress. This would suggest that stress training does help to reduce an officer’s perceived level of stress and could prove beneficial to the small-town and rural officer.
The final category of Sandy and Devine’s four stress factors was inactivity. Here, the study included four psychological test questions designed to assess the impact of inactivity on officer’s perceived level of stress. Officers were asked if they experienced a lack of self-confidence, if they often battle with themselves, if they feel they have done wrong or evil, and if they have feelings of uselessness. The two questions associated with high levels of stress were the “battle with self” question and that they experienced “feelings of uselessness.” Although officers may feel they are doing the right things and remain self-confident, they demonstrated some of the signs that Sandy and Devine had observed more than 25 years ago. In the face of boredom and inactivity, officers were wrestling with the wide gulf between what they believed they should be doing as police officers and what they were actually doing as small-town and rural police officers. This chasm between perception and reality is clearly an issue for rural officers.
Recommendations for Dealing with Stress in Small-Town and Rural Police
Based on the study of small-town and rural police in West Virginia, there is ample support for many of the observations that Sandy and Devine made in the September 1978 issue of the Police Chief. Although not all of their observations were validated by the study, many of their observations can provide some insight into ways in which small-town and rural police officer stress can be improved. It would appear that small-town and rural police managers can learn three key methods for reducing the level of stress among the officers from this study. These consist of security, training, and dealing with the gulf between perceptions and reality.
The issue of security, the most robust of the study’s findings, is perhaps also the most difficult for police mangers to address. Because small-town and rural agencies face limited resources and budgets, the ability to expand the number of officers and the speed with which they can respond is not necessarily feasible. However, providing training in officer safety would appear to be the next best solution to the limited resources that might serve to alleviate the high levels of stress expressed by these officers. In addition, providing training and education in all aspects of stress, including basic concepts of stress, the signs and symptoms of stress, and stress management, would appear to help alleviate some of the high levels of stress among these officers. Finally, educating these officers on the realities of small-town and rural policing and desensitizing them to the perceptions of policing that they may have developed may serve as a means to alleviate the high levels of stress among these officers.
Call to Action in Rural Policing
The observations made by Sandy and Devine more than 25 years ago in these pages appear to have been largely validated by the results of this study. Although many of their observations were not reported to be associated with high levels of stress, a number of critical areas were, and it is these areas that should be addressed by small-town and rural police managers. Providing small-town and rural officers with continual education and training on the subjects of officer safety and all facets of stress, to include the gap between the perceptions of policing small-town and rural environments and its realities, would serve to reduce the level of stress amongst the officers. While there are four stress factors unique to rural patrol, it appears there is something that can be done to relieve it by taking initiatives to address the unique factors.
1 Joan Phillips Sandy and Donald A. Devine, “Four Stress Factors Unique to Rural Patrol,” The Police Chief 45 (September 1978): 42–44.
Facts from the Study Conducted by Oliver and Meier
• Prior to the stress training provided by this study to West Virginia law enforcement, 87 percent of the officers in this study reported they had never received any training on stress, stress management, or critical incident stress debriefings.
• The officers in this study reported that, on average, 5 percent of their calls deal with family members, 10 percent deal with friends, and 27 percent deal with someone they know.
• Police officers in this study reported that in the best-case scenario their closest backup is generally seven minutes away.
• In cases involving a subject who is dead on arrival, the officers in this study reported that on average 30 percent of the time they know the deceased.
• Forty-three percent of the officers in this study felt that their job was significantly more stressful than those of their friends outside of law enforcement.
• The size of the jurisdictions policed by participants in this study ranged from less than one square mile to 9,353 square miles.
• When asked to rate their perceived level of stress on a five-point scale, 61 percent of the officers reported stress levels above the mean.