Crime: The Captain’s View
Managing Workplace Stress

November 2011

I just read one sentence on a bag that stated, “Stress is related to 99 percent of all illnesses.” Police work is pretty stressful (the negative kind, as there is also positive stress).

Imagine getting a call for police response to find out why a man is standing on the roof of a 10-story building, only to have that man jump to his death in front of you just as you close the door to your police car after arriving on the scene. Or getting a “routine call” of a family fight, only to arrive and find the husband standing in the middle of the backyard, merely 10 feet away from you, holding a knife directly over his heart. You start conversing with the guy in an attempt to convince him to drop it, but he doesn’t. In fact, he plunges the extremely sharp knife deep into his chest and bleeds to death right in front of you. Or you have information that a man you are looking for may be at a specific address. You respond, and there he is, sitting in a car. You get out of your car to investigate and he drives at you, firing a gun. You return fire and dive out of the way. Or you respond to a traffic collision where a pole is involved. The pole is snapped from its base and happened to hit an uninvolved party just crossing the street. You render aid, offer comfort, and wait for the ambulance. The woman dies as you are comforting her, assuring her that she will be OK.

These events actually happened and are just a very small fraction of the horrendous events officers witness or are involved with on a daily basis. Most people go their whole lives and do not see death in its raw form: the aftermath of various methods of suicide, murder, accidental death, natural death (from sudden infant death syndrome to the elderly), and traffic incidents. We see it most days. The physiological effect of this negative kind of stress lasts minutes, maybe an hour, but the psychological effect can last a lifetime. When I first came into the department 25 years ago, the “OGs” told me to have an outlet for the stress, because they said the average cop only lived five years past retirement and most of them drank (off-duty of course). I fortunately had spent just about my whole life playing competitive sports, so I just continued with the fitness outlet.

Most officers these days have outlets to deal with this stress, whether it is working out or talking it out, as we recognize that our appearance of being desensitized to life’s tragedies is not healthy. The SFPD recognizes that the mental health of officers is just as important as the physical health, and we have a unit designated to just deal with officers’ mental health. Officers are encouraged to seek help from mental health professionals as needed, at no cost to them.

So for your own health, I would encourage you to find an outlet to deal with whatever negative stress may be affecting you.

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