Cops, Violence, Stress and PTSD

Everyone who has been a cop understands the psychological difficulties of the job. The same applies to firefighters, paramedics, correctional officers and parole and probation agents.

A female friend of mine wanted to finish her doctorate degree but was wondering how she was going to pay for it. “Become a Baltimore City cop,” I said. “They pay for those in college.”

She was a very intelligent, somewhat liberal person. In her years of law enforcement, I saw her turn from a fairly even-minded person to someone deeply affected by the job. She cited the endless acts of criminal brutality. She showed signs of stress. I suggested that it was time for her to get out. She did.

As a police officer, I experienced times where I could have justifiably shot people. I saw headless victims. I made death notifications. At times I saw so much blood that, on one evening, I went home to change my uniform. I witnessed the deaths of several family members. I responded to the murder of a police officer who walked into a convenience store for coffee; he was not aware of an ongoing robbery.

How can you process life when the simple act of buying a beverage results in your death?

eating experiences

Domestic violence incidents moved me profoundly; I never witnessed a physical fight between my parents. The thought of people professing love for each other resulting in a woman severely beaten with a frying pan deeply disturbed me. She fought our attempts to arrest her husband.

I discovered that my civilian friends were clueless; they offered no assistance or understanding as to what I was witnessing. It was my fellow cops who understood and helped me through the experiences.

I also noticed that there were few solid marriages among my peers and alcohol use was abundant. They were good people handling stress in challenging ways.

Bad Cops?

Much of my writing involves defending cops from the negative stereotypes of writers who seem eager to condemn 900,000 human beings for the actions of a few. I have consistently said that the overwhelming number of officers are good, even minded people who just want to do a difficult job with as little drama as possible.

Yet I marvel at the insanely stupid actions of a few officers who shoot people unnecessarily, engage in acts of unjustified violence, or who embrace corruption.

All of us went through psychological exams. We have our backgrounds checked. Departments look for signs of violence. Friends and neighbors are questioned. Our credit scores and social media pages are examined. It’s not as if agencies want people who make bad decisions. So what happens when decent people go wrong?

I believe that it’s the stress of the job and the surrounding culture of violent and criminal activity that contributes to some losing their way. It’s a problem that, generally speaking, we choose to ignore.

Many Are Never the Same

There are articles about people who live in high crime communities having PTSD because of their exposure to violence in their families and community.  High crime area violence seems to be corrupting; it may influence people who can see violence as a necessary component of life.

Per the Washington Post, trauma also applies to school shootings. “Over the past two decades, a handful of massacres that have come to define school shootings in this country are almost always remembered for the students and educators slain. Death tolls are repeated so often that the numbers and places become permanently linked.”

“What those figures fail to capture, though, is the collateral damage of this uniquely American crisis. Beginning with Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a year-long Washington Post analysis. This means that the number of children who have been shaken by gunfire in the places they go to learn exceeds the population of Eugene, Ore., or Fort Lauderdale, Fla.”

“Many are never the same.”

“School shootings remain extremely rare, representing a tiny fraction of the gun violence epidemic that, on average, leaves a child bleeding or dead every hour in the United States. While few of those incidents happen on campuses, the ones that do have spread fear across the country, changing the culture of education and how kids grow up.” Washington Post.

So if residents of high crime communities and school shooting can experience extreme trauma, and it affects their view of the world and their actions, then how does this not affect cops?

crime reduction

The Data on Police Officers

Police officers experienced numerous types of police-specific traumatic events with 60.1% of men and 46.4% of women witnessing or being involved in five or more different events in the past year. Over three-quarters of officers reported a traumatic event occurring in the last month. The nature of police work necessitates exposure to trauma so the high frequency of traumatic events in the current study is not surprising and is supported by other studies. Kaufmann et al. (2013) found a higher prevalence of traumatic events among protective service workers than other occupations.

Patterson (2001) found that police officers experience approximately 3.5 traumatic events in a six-month period. Most often, the events reported in this study involved witnessing sad and depressing events, such as adults and children who were severely injured or died from abuse, assault or traffic accidents. Kaufmann et al. (2013) found seeing someone severely injured or dead was the most common event experienced by protective service workers. Yet, only 30% of those workers reported this event occurring, whereas, over 80% of the officers in the current study experienced these events.


Oklahoma City Police Department homicide detectives, 2015. (Courtesy Oklahoma City Police Department)

The prevalence of PTSD in this study was approximately 15% for men and 18% for women. This cut point has been previously used by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for PTSD screening in primary care clinic settings and is recommended for use in civilian primary care and general population samples (National Center for PTSD, 2011). The prevalence is similar to that reported among New Orleans police officers after Hurricane Katrina (19%) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006) and professional German firefighters (18.2%) (Wagner, Heinrichs & Ehlert, 1998. 

US Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida’s Response

“Firefighters, police officers and EMTs who cannot work due to job-related post-traumatic stress disorder could qualify for expanded benefits under a bill heading to Gov. Rick Scott.”

“The House unanimously approved the measure (SB 376) Monday, two days after the Senate passed it.

Editor’s note, Governor Scott signed the bill in March.

“Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the changes in the bill can go a long way toward helping first responders and predicted that it would even save lives.”

“In Florida, injured workers are prevented from receiving workers’ compensation insurance benefits — either medical benefits or lost wages — for mental or nervous injuries not accompanied by physical injuries.”

“The law was changed in 2007, though, to allow first responders to obtain medical benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder without having accompanying physical injuries. However, they still are precluded from obtaining lost wages for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

police suicide

“The bill would change that if police officers, firefighters, emergency-medical technicians and paramedics meet certain criteria.”

“First responders who have witnessed the death of a minor or witnessed a death that involved “grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience” could file workers’ compensation claims for lost wages. The first responders would be required to show by clear and convincing evidence that the events were the source of the PTSD.” Orlando Sentinel.


First, we need to understand that the vast majority of face to face encounters with police officers are resolved professionally. An estimated 40 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 17 percent of the population, had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in one year. Among people who had face-to-face contact, about nine out of 10 residents felt the police were respectful or acted properly, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So for tens of millions of encounters (90 percent), officers act appropriately.

If society wants us to be understanding of the trauma experienced by those living in high crime communities and students who vicariously experience school shootings, is it possible for some of that compassion could be extended to cops?

Each year, more law enforcement officers die by suicide than are killed in the line of duty, USDOJ.

Is the stress of the job resulting in officers leaving and subsequently making recruitment almost impossible? Is the endless negative publicity taking a psychological toll?

Should all jurisdictions in the country be required to provide the same post-traumatic stress benefits offered by Florida? Should we be doing more to provide trauma-oriented counseling? Moreover, should officers be able to assign themselves to non-street duties when they are undergoing extreme stress? Should we pay officers more (much more) for patrolling high crime communities?

Could all of this reduce the number of inappropriate decisions some officers make?

If we are concerned about the dysfunctional actions of some cops, is it possible that some of the fault lies with the rest of us who ignore the trauma that officers go through?

Could you experience what cops go through and be unaffected? Probably not.

See more crime news, statistics and research at

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected].