Surviving law enforcement

Not all danger is on the street

     "These constantly high cortisol levels were associated with less arterial elasticity, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," Violanti says. An earlier section of the BCOPS study looked at how the incidence of subclinical atherosclerosis, or the arterial thickening that precedes heart attack and stroke, relates to police stress. The study took factors associated with atherosclerosis such as diet, exercise and smoking into account in a comparison of 322 police officers and 318 healthy citizens.

     Investigators used ultrasound to examine subjects for thickness of the carotid artery to use as an indicator of increasing risk of atherosclerosis. Investigators also measured blood pressure, body size, cholesterol and glucose. All measurements were taken in the morning after a 12-hour fast. Results showed, all else being equal, police work was associated with increased subclinical cardiovascular disease.

     "Arterial plaque buildup among police was greater than the civilian population," adds Violanti.

     In future work, Violanti intends to re-measure carotid artery thickness to see how much it has increased. At some stage, medical intervention and treatment will be indicated.

     "Police officers will likely reach that state quicker than the general population," Violanti says.

Managing stress

     In conducting similar studies, most police work research fails to address a fundamental concern — that of gender. In the first work to examine the gendering of stress and burnout in modern policing, researchers found that stress and burnout by officers is embedded in the gender structure and process of policing, and not simply a response to high stress.

     In this study, Kansas State Sociologist Don Kurtz looked at how male and female police officers manage stress. The primary purpose was to explore how gender interacts with stress management and their individual psychological health. Kurtz examined data from a survey of police officers in the Baltimore Police Department, and interviewed officers from three other departments.

     "This study is important because stress and burnout remain significant problems in law enforcement agencies, including negative attempts to manage stress with excessive alcohol consumption," Kurtz says.

     He found the different ways in which male and female officers deal with stress may actually cause them more, as the two genders have different sources of stress and different ways of dealing with it. Telling war stories is almost exclusively a male endeavor, for instance.

     "In social settings, male officers often talk about stressful events, but remove the fear and emotion that accompany these events and replace it with superhuman qualities," he says. On the other hand, women officers often feel excluded from war stories, and may feel that if they exaggerate stories the way males do they could be questioned. "So, it becomes a male-only way of managing stress," adds Kurtz.

     He suggests that in some ways women officers have a better chance of dealing with violent cases because it's more acceptable for females to be upset or vulnerable.

     "For male officers to show emotion is career suicide," he says.

Race, stress & burnout

     Kurtz also found indications that gender and race intersect in interesting ways. For instance, women, both white and African American, reported higher levels of stress than white men, but African-American men indicated lower levels of stress than white men.

     "Although it is not surprising that women experience more stress than men given the gendered nature of police organizations and the reports of hostile work environments in many departments, it is not clear why African-American men reported lower levels of stress than white men," Kurtz says.

     These findings are even more intriguing when combined with the effects of race and gender on burnout. Kurtz reports there were no apparent effects of race and gender on burnout — with one exception: African-American men, though experiencing lower rates of stress, exhibit higher levels of burnout than white men. He notes that additional research is indicated to explore these findings in more detail.

     He speculates that "perhaps African-American men have better coping strategies than white men and women, but stress still takes its toll over time, resulting in burnout when it finally manifests itself."

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