Stress can beat you down. Prolonged stress can manifest itself in serious health issues including heart disease and cancer, and yet the trend in law enforcement is not to protect officers from stress, but indeed create more.
Listen to these comments from an officer, then new to police work,
"This is the only job where guys do things together, really try to do good things together. I really like that; it means something. People talk about this male bonding, but there is something to it. It makes me feel differently when I go to work that I know who I'm working with and we are out there to be the good guys."
And then, the same officer five years later,
"I used to have goals, and I achieved them and they were meaningless. It was all I thought it would be. Now I go fast, come back fast.. Now I just keep my nose clean, do as little as I can, don't get involved, clear, and wait for the end of watch. I need to get retired."
--Joan Barker; Danger, Duty and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers; Waveland Press; 1999)
Recently, several younger officers were talking about job stress. Not the stress of some call or dealing with violent suspects, but rather the stress of dealing with "the inside game." What, you ask is the inside game? It is the number one stressor in police work today...that stress which emanates from within your police organization and is endemic within law enforcement. The inside game, in my opinion, results in more anguish than pretty much all other stress. It is responsible for more high blood pressure problems, heart attacks, ulcers and various other maladies and illnesses, as well as good officers leaving agencies or police work altogether than any number of high risk calls. Think I'm wrong? Ask any police officer what stresses him or her out more, the street, or the political machinations of the agency?
Why, and when did it change? Most officers that I've spoken with feel things started changing around ten years ago. Prior to that, the job always had its share of stress, but it seemed at least to be fun. Cops tended to look out for each other and supervisors looked out for them. Screw up and you expected a little or large bite out of your derriere, but if you worked hard and took care of business, you were usually left alone. But hardworking officers are intrinsically motivated today, meaning that they work hard because that is the kind of person they are and they refuse to compromise. Few extrinsic motivations exist in police work. Hard work leads to the possibility of making a mistake, and when avoidance of mistakes is more important to supervisors looking for the next promotion rather than results, energetic officers can feel more than a little beaten up.
Discipline, or lack of discipline being equitably enforced, continues to add stress and reduce morale. For instance, the "shotgun effect" has been prevalent throughout my law enforcement career (all 24+ years) which basically states that all will suffer for the one or few. Seldom will a precise shot be directed at the culprit who was late to work; looks like a bag of rags in his uniform; didn't shine his shoes; ad infinitum. Sadly in law enforcement, as in all business today, we will all pay be made to pay with inspections, checklists, loss of privileges, etc. Furthermore, when the troops see that supervisors are not held to the same standards, resentment results and resentment leads to stress.
A number of years ago, the management of police agencies changed. In the past a chief rose up through the ranks and was promoted to the position. Then, most local and county governments wanted more control over the police, and chiefs began working on contracts under which they served at the whim of politicians. If a chief bucked the system, they soon found themselves out of work. It seemed that the result was the politicization of police management. As retired Deputy Chief Randy Murphy states, "The higher you go up in an organization, the more you are rewarded for loyalty versus competency."
A lot of supervisors in LE have forgotten that the number one rule of leadership is to take care of the troops. More intent on taking care of themselves and ensuring their advancement through the ranks, they toe the party line and will not speak out for fear of reprisal and resultant deleterious effects on their chances for advancement. Hear my words, "if a supervisor shows a cop that they don't care, all respect will be lost." My favorite supervisors to work for were hard on me, expected a lot from me, but generally cared about and took care of me. Their commitment to me and other cops resulted in the feeling that we would produce and try our hardest to never betray their trust.
"You've got to have some kind of love for these guys. You can't lead them unless you have that."
--NYPD Chief of Detective's Al Seedman, as quoted in Robert Daley's Target Blue (Delacorte Press; 1971)
Other factors, such as lack of communication within an organization; public disdain for law enforcement, society's moral decline, prevalence of lawsuits, all add to officer's stress as well. The result is oftentimes an officer "hitting the wall," as Joan Barker comments in her book. This phase of a police officer's career can occur around the seven year mark. The problem with hitting the wall is that the wall doesn't fall, and you end up with a splitting headache, or worse. How then, when stressed by the inside game, can you get over or around the wall?
How to Go Over, Under or Around the Inside Game Wall
Survival authority Dave Smith refers to "the machine." You see, a police agency is not a living thing. According to Smith, you can love the department, but it is an inanimate thing and does not have the capacity to love you back. Police departments are not fuzzy doggies that will meet you at the front door as you arrive home, wagging their tails with unconditional love. They can be cold, heartless and unfeeling and can frequently leave younger officers feeling betrayed. In order to succeed, you must accept this truth and live a well balanced life without placing too much emphasis on police work. You can love people, but your love for the "machine" will not be returned.
The stress of the inside game can be dealt with just like all other types of stress, with hard work and diligence. Exercise, proper nutrition, engaging in activities outside of law enforcement and with people from outside of LE, and finding useful and healthy ways to "shake hands with it." Because, indeed getting around the stress has a lot to do with accepting it and working through it, or finding an alternate way of overcoming job stress. Talking to professionals, whether clergy (police chaplains are great for this, I value my friendship with mine, the Reverend Bob Denton) or counselors that specialize in law enforcement and have confidentiality, is important in a job like police work, where stress can be taken home and taken out on family or result in alcohol-related issues.
Alternate strategies like promotion to fix some of the perceived problems, or simply "powering through," as Barker says, remind you that life is not a sprint, but indeed a marathon, and as Friedrich Nietzche said, "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."
I'll leave you with the thoughts of a veteran LAPD officer, as recounted in Barker's book,
"If you want success, then you have to work without any expectation of reward. You have to do it just because it needs doing. You do it the best way you can, with no negativity. It took a year or two to change my life around. I did it out of desperation. It's a totally different mental attitude."
I implore you, my brothers and sisters in blue, to not let the inside game beat you up or wear you down. We need you and law enforcement needs you, and with a proper plan to deal with the inside game, you can lead a rewarding career in the noblest of professions.