It comes as no surprise to those who love a police officer that the work changes them. Sometimes these changes are subtle and sometimes not. Officers themselves recognize the difference in the way they feel after they have been on the streets for a while. Excitement often only becomes associated with work. This animation turns zombie-like once they enter their front door. Families get frustrated by feeling shut-out and isolated. A perceptual and physiological reason exists for many of these issues. With awareness and understanding, officers and their loved ones can neutralize the negative of this brotherhood of biochemistry.
Taught to Survive
"The average citizen travels the streets of his community daily oblivious psychologically and neurologically to the events unfolding before him," Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. explains. "Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are trained and learn their very survival can depend on their interpreting most aspects of their environment as potentially lethal." From the academy on, officers are taught to view their environment as dangerous. This constant vigilance leads to always being in a state of fight or flight. Vigilance equals survival.
Although this change in perception can keep them alive, it soon becomes a constant in their lives. Gilmartin describes how both the perceptual and physiological effect become ingrained. Whether they are tracking a suspect down a dark alley in the dead of night or sitting around their dining room table with family, the physical and mental adaptation to police work is present.
Survival becomes an adaptation in the way an officer views and reacts to the world around him. Gilmartin explains how those outside the police role have the "capacity to be non-reactive to stimuli whose threshold of perceived potential danger is insufficient to warrant attention." Officers, on the other hand, process even the most harmless situations for threat. Reticular attentiveness occurs and the potential danger signal is experience by the officer physiologically. "Mild to moderate elevations of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system will be innervated," explains Gilmartin. "This will be interpreted by the officer as a feeling of energization, rapid thought pattern, and a general speeding up of the physical and cognitive reactions." These reactions become learned and the generated limbic arousal becomes common place. The good feelings created become associated only with the police role. This, along with the down-side of what Gilmartin calls the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster, can prove troublesome to an officer's home life.
Home Life Effects
Many significant others lament how the work has changed their loved one. Sometimes it's hard to pin-point exactly when it happened or articulate the changes in behavior and attitude defining the differences. When asked why they do what they do, many officers make the statement, "the work gets into your blood." With the affects of hypervigilance, this statement is accurate. It also explains much of those changes felt by family members who lament, He only seems to be happy at work, or why does she only get excited when she talks about work? "A state of social-physiological reaction that the rookie street cop learns as inseparable from the police role," Gilmartin explains. "This sets the stage for a career-long perceptual-attitudinal linkage. It is at this point that 'cop work gets in the blood'." This can cause significant family disruption.