The need for emotional trauma training

Today’s world presents perhaps one of the most stressful work environments we’ve ever seen in this profession. Gone are the days wherein our greatest challenge was a real criminal who meant to do us physical harm. Gone are the days wherein the occupation was the dream (at least at some point) of little boys and girls. (Probably because many children don’t play “cops and robbers” anymore.) Gone are the days wherein… well, you get the idea. If we listen to the mainstream media, the profession is no longer revered and there are serious challenges within our ranks. The mainstream media does not help us face those challenges; it merely sets up roadblocks to the acceptance and implementation of solutions.
In fact, the job is probably more stressful today than it’s been since the 1920s with organized crime starting to grow by leaps and bounds and police officers targeted for doing their job. Today we have some cases where police officers, deputies, agents, etc. are being targeted not for doing their job, but merely for holding the job. By the mere fact of their employment law enforcement professionals may be targeted for ambush, assault, murder, financial assault and more.
That reality can create an overwhelming load of emotional stress. Add to it the reality of doing the job on today’s streets, and you get additional exposure to events, sites, smells and behaviors that only contribute to our stress levels. While everything we experience doesn’t cause emotional stress by itself, the short-term, long-term and cumulative impact of what we witness and experience can be toxic. When you throw in the reality of lethal force encounters, physical conflict, and others, the burden can almost become unbearable. For some, it is. For others, it’s a struggle. For yet others there seems to be no challenge whatsoever. That last group appears to shrug off the stress and keep on, secure in their motivation and values. I’ve often had officers wonder, “How do they do it?”
Here’s one answer: training and preparation. While some developing research shows there might be (or is) a genetic predisposition for some to handle stress and trauma with less physical and mental side effects than others, the largest portion of law enforcement professionals must overcome what most normal humans simply can’t handle. Does that mean we aren’t normal? I don’t think we are; not when you compare us to the general populace. We even test different on personality/psychological tests. I learned this while discussing my own results after having taken a Michigan Multi-Personality Inventory test (MMPI) more than twenty years ago. The MMPI is a common test used by analysts to ensure potential applicants are sound in mind. The psychologist who reviewed my results with me said that cops and criminals often score within a few percentage points of each other, but well away from “normal society.”
Is that a bad thing? Not at all. In fact, it’s a necessary thing. Police officers are required to respond to calls for service, the likes of which often reveal the ugliest side of humanity. The calls for service that center around personal violence—physical harm perpetrated on one or more victims by another—can be the absolute ugliest. We police officers have to respond to and then investigate calls for domestic violence (and sometimes the victims are children), robbery, assault, or even property destruction (which can reveal a darker side to the person who did the destroying).
Actually seeing the scenes of any of those crimes can take a toll. It is especially hard to recover from the scene of a crime with a child victim. The scene of a violent crime with any victim (or victims) is hard to handle. Yes, there are those of us who build up a shield to empathy. We manage to harden ourselves against what we see, hear, smell and think in the moment as we do our duty. But even that shield has to come down sometime and let’s be honest: the shield only lasts while we’re doing our duty. After we’ve done the job and been professional while we had to be, then we get to be alone with our thoughts and that’s where some of the danger lies.
And then there are the times where we actually have our lives endangered and we have to fight. Whether it’s a hands-on fight, some other use of force fight, or a lethal force encounter wherein we end up shooting someone, there is always emotional trauma involved. No human thrives on being physically threatened. There are those who get a thrill from the rush of competition and they train themselves to see physical threats as competition. In the long run, it becomes difficult for those folks to maintain a professional demeanor and impartiality in doing the job. Think about it: if they thrive on the fight then they’re eager for it—and no law enforcement professional should be looking forward to doing harm. It should always be the last resort; the unavoidable option.
In general, we train for the conflict itself. We train in how to use all our use of force tools and when. We go through repetitive scenarios to test our judgment and make sure that the agency’s liability is minimized vis-a-vis our inevitable mistakes. We swing batons, shoot CEWs, handcuff people and practice defensive tactics. (Just for the record: In my opinion we don’t do any of that enough—budgets don’t allow it.) We go to ranges and master (to the best of our individual ability) marksmanship and we go through scenario after scenario of force on force training to test our judgment in the use of force as well as incorporating other skills into our shooting ability.
Some academies teach classes on stress management and the value of physical fitness/training. Some academies teach classes on the legal ramifications of having to use force at all. What we, the law enforcement population in general, don’t get enough of in my opinion is training on how to manage, long-term, the emotional trauma of the job specifically pertaining to the moral and ethical dilemma that can be created in our minds and hearts. Further, after a situation where we’ve used a level of force that we felt entirely justified in using, we may still be investigated, targeted and sometimes prosecuted.
Recognizing that, our profession needs to focus on training that prepares officers, in a more saturated fashion, for the emotional and mental trauma that may result from exposure to or involvement in force encounters. Additionally, much more training is necessary to prepare officers for the moral doubts and attached stress that may occur after a lethal force encounter.
Such training is currently offered by folks like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and the team of Dave & Betsy Smith (the infamous “JD ‘Buck’ Savage” and his spouse). In fact, the three of them now do a Survival Bootcamp training seminar where the Smiths provide one day of training and Lt. Col. Grossman provides another. Lt.Col. Grossman’s “Bulletproof Mind” series addresses, quite well, exactly what I’m talking about as far as moral implications, doubts and worries after a lethal force encounter. He speaks about the mental and emotional impact that our doubts can have upon us. The Smiths do a great job of directing thought about use of force to maintain a commitment to personal survival.
We need to evolve past that to deal with the emotional and mental trauma that comes with how we get treated post use of force. As part of the law enforcement family, we have a reasonable expectation that we’ll be treated fairly and with some sympathy or empathy toward what we’ve just been through. Having survived a deadly threat and not only survived but emerged victorious, we expect (and reasonably so) some congratulations for having done our jobs properly. Instead, we get investigated, read our rights, our weapons taken (and sometimes not immediately replaced—effectively disarmed), put on mandatory time-off, sent to see a psychologist and interviewed by someone from Internal Affairs. The fact of being treated that way adds its own level of stress and trauma.
We might have been entirely confident in our performance. We might have run through the experience(s) in our minds, searched our memories, identified all of the events that supported our choice of force used. Yet, by the time the investigation is over we’ve been led into doubting ourselves hundreds of times over. Very little training today prepares us for that reality. Almost no training prepares us for how we’ll feel when our law enforcement family makes us feel ostracized and targeted. They don’t mean to; it’s a sad side effect of the reality of all of us doing our job to the best of our ability.
This type of training should be developed and delivered to all academy cadets as well as regularly offered through in-service training to veterans in the field. This training could alleviate an awful lot of stress and reduce the number of cases we see of PTSD, depression, etc. It may indeed, if developed and delivered properly, increase our retention rates among law enforcement professionals. The ultimate end result, if done properly, would be lowered negativity in our ranks, fewer cases of police suicide, reduced substance abuse cases and more. There is absolutely nothing (but money) to be lost by developing and delivering training that deals primarily with the emotional aspects of the job. I believe the budget funding spent on such training would be offset by the budget savings seen through the positive impact long term.
If no such training exists in your area of operation, go out and find it for yourself. Find the training necessary not necessarily to harden yourself against the emotional trauma we all experience, but to increase your resilience it. ■

“Play” away negative feelings

Managing stress has been part of most basic law enforcement academies for the past several decades. In spite of that, we continue to see high “stress casualties” suffering with PTSD or committing suicide. The impact of stress can be minimized with training.
A new app called The Stress Resilience Training System (SRTS) says it can help enhance a person’s ability to deal with stress as it occurs and minimize the after effects. SRTS was created for the military and claims to be of equal value to law enforcement and other public safety disciplines where trauma is regularly experienced or seen.
How does it differ from similar programs? SRTS was designed as a game and is meant to be entertaining. The mobile training system allows for “on site” delivery, as well as practice and refresher training in the field.
With stress and its effects being such a big challenge for law enforcement today, isn’t a tool like this of obvious value?

About the Author

Lt. Frank Borelli (ret), Editorial Director | Editorial Director

Lt. Frank Borelli is the Editorial Director for the Officer Media Group. Frank brings 20+ years of writing and editing experience in addition to 40 years of law enforcement operations, administration and training experience to the team.

Frank has had numerous books published which are available on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other major retail outlets.

If you have any comments or questions, you can contact him via email at [email protected].

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