We are in the thick of it again; death by vehicular assaults, ambushes and criminals on the scene with guns. Amidst all of this, we are forgetting one thing. We are forgetting the survivors. An officer held his partner while he died in the street. Another officer awoke from his injuries to find that his partner did not survive. Yet another officer found his colleague dead in his cruiser. We don’t know their names and we haven’t seen their faces but we know they will get right back up and put on their uniforms. We will forget about them when the funerals are over. We will forget that months from now, they will continue to suffer.
Survivors guilt, PTSD, anger, fear and hopelessness will envelope each one of them. Some will push through alone. Others will push it down. The rest need long term help to move past it. We cannot forget that for our law enforcement officers to continue to serve us, to protect us, we must serve and protect them. More than half our peace officers have or have suffered PTSD and over 100 officers complete suicide each year. The time to assume they are fine is over; the time to allow them to heal must start now.
The biggest barrier to officers seeking help is perception, which is permanently entwined with stigma. Perception by family, co-workers and society. Let’s talk briefly about each one.
If you are like me, you know some of what goes on at work, but not all of it. You know that your partner has to protect themselves emotionally. What you don’t know is what is happening in their minds. That is something only they will ever know. Acknowledging and accepting help is incredibly difficult because they need to admit that they are not who they want you to believe they are. They suffer emotionally from what they’ve seen, they want to cry and be comforted. Letting you see all of this puts a greater burden on you and the one thing they don’t want, is another burden for you to bear on their behalf.
Stigma, stigma, stigma. We’ve heard it a thousand times. They’re supposed to be tough, do their jobs, and shake it off. Many officers are afraid to ask for help because they may be seen as weak by their peers or more significantly by their superiors. Guns and badges can be taken away at the hint of emotional turbulence. We don’t want to take a chance on a cop reacting badly because they’re in distress. Many departments still ignore it or, feel they can’t treat it because they simply don’t have enough staff to cover for an officer who needs time off.
“It’s what they signed up for.” If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this…It’s simply not true. Society as a whole needs to accept that the end game of law enforcement is not to become damaged on duty. They are living, breathing beings that cannot simply shut off the limbic system, the part of your brain that controls emotions. We cannot collectively decide that if an officer is suffering from stress, they cannot effectively do their jobs. It’s an oxymoron. We think that to do their jobs, they cannot have emotion. Human beings are flawed individuals and they have emotions. Therefore, with this logic, no one can ever be a law enforcement officer.
So what can we do? Accept, understand, assist and forgive. Accept that peace officers are human beings. Understand them when they reach out for help. Look in the mirror, they are you, with a badge. Assist them in their time of need, do not forget about them six months or a year from now. They will still need follow up care and friendship. Forgive them for what you perceive are their flaws. We all share similar flaws.
Most importantly is what the officers can do for themselves. Get help. It’s that simple. There are hundreds of organizations and peer support groups just for you. They are also confidential and all you have to fear is facing your demons. As someone who honors law enforcement and all that you stand for, I am asking you, please, find someone to help you through the difficult times in your career.