Nibbled to Death by Ducks

The stress that leads to high divorce rates and hard drinking has less to do with lights and sirens and more to do with knowing that every day on the job you can count on someone calling you an obscene name.


We've learned a lot about officer survival in the last twenty years. In particular, we've learned the importance of preparing officers for the stress of deadly-force street encounters through "stress inoculation." We train the body by subjecting officers to measured and progressive induced stress on the firing range, so that they will be able to fire quickly and accurately under the immense stress of a real-life shooting. Colonel Dave Grossman has made a career of teaching officers how to have a "bulletproof" mind, so that if they are faced with the unthinkable, they'll still be able to win. We all train officers to keep fighting, no matter what--to refuse to give up, regardless of the circumstances. We would no more think of sending an officer out on the street without some form of survival training than without handcuffs and a gun.

We teach officers to survive deadly force encounters even though, thankfully, most of them never have to test the training. We also teach officers to perform well in other high-risk situations, such as pursuit driving, building-clearing, and so on. But if you asked most cops, I'd bet they describe the lights-and-sirens calls as the fun ones. Those are the calls that leave you breathless but exhilarated--dancing with death but incredibly alive. The Code 3 calls keep us coming back for more.

It's the other ones that wear us down. The stress that leads to high divorce rates and hard drinking I suspect has less to do with lights and sirens and more to do with knowing that every day on the job you can count on someone calling you an obscene name. It comes from daily being told you're a racist, or that you ought to be arresting drug dealers instead of giving law-abiding citizens speeding tickets, or being told to wait out of sight of patients to interview the clinic doctor who requested police for a suspected prescription fraud.

Ask any cop whether he'd rather respond to an armed robbery in progress or a neighbor trouble. I'm betting the armed robbery wins, hands down. And maybe that's as it should be, since the accumulation of daily hostility ruins more lives than a robber's bullet.

That day-in-day-out stress does more than mar individuals. It can tarnish departments and sour relations with the public we serve. Think what happens when you've had three calls in a row where the citizens you dealt with were so belligerent and obnoxious that you wished you could write them all for "contempt of cop." Do you approach the fourth call with the same openness and potential for empathy as you did the first? If you do, you should put in for sainthood--because you're a far better person than the rest of us.

We all find ourselves swallowing the retort when the citizen tells us "I pay your salary!" or accuses us of issuing a citation only because he's male...or female...or black...or white...or whatever. You know the joke about what a cop really means when using the word "Sir" as in, "Step out of the car, Sir."

You can stop yourself from saying the words that accurately reflect your feelings, but it's harder to stop the nonverbal tone of voice, body language, and other clues that give it away. Couple that with the need to be alert for danger and always in control of any interaction, and it's hardly surprising that the most frequent complaint about officers is that they are "rude and overbearing." Most of those complaints come in an officer's first five years on the street. After a time, most officers learn one strategy or another for masking their true feelings, but at what cost? I recall when I was a rookie asking a veteran officer how he dealt with the verbal abuse. He laughed and said, "drink heavily."

Even if you don't drink yourself into oblivion, accumulated stress leads inevitably to irritability--and if you don't display it on the street, you surely will at home. Just ask your significant other...if you're still on speaking terms, that is.

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