Trauma comes from two primary sources; physical trauma and emotional or mental trauma. However distinct the two may be, their effects are reciprocal on the other. For example, suffering a physical trauma can lead to mental trauma, and mental trauma can result in debilitating physical conditions. As LEOs, we understand this all too well. Many officers are barely months into their careers when they experience their first traumatic event.
When someone considers a law enforcement career or outsiders are considering what a law enforcement career entails, the dangers of the job are often the first consideration discussed. This is not without base, as law enforcement is a dangerous endeavor. In fact, more police officers have been killed in the line of duty since 9/11 than military personnel in Operation Enduring Freedom (ODMP and DOD 2014).
However obvious the physical dangers are, the lesser known dangers are contained within suffering repeated mental or emotional traumas. Any police officer with more than a couple years of field experience can recall many situations when his or her life was in danger. They can also recall instances that shook them to their very core, sending them home a mental wreck. However unlikely they are to admit or openly discuss the latter situations, they have all but certainly experienced more than a few.
I was the first on scene of a bad wreck where a boy, 7, was fatally injured and died on scene. I recall the father who was shopping with his daughter and was gunned down by a gangster in the process of shooting a rival gang member. One of the worst involved a father and his toddler child. The father grew tired of listening to the toddler cry as he was watching a movie. He locked the child in a closet and poured boiling water on the child and shut the door. The child died and when investigators arrived, they found the claw marks of the dying child on the inside of the closet door. The toddler tried desperately to seek help from the one person on this Earth charged with his protection and well-being. These are the events that an officer never gets over, no matter how tough or calloused they may be.
The previous paragraphs bring me to the point of this article, which is what is this trauma worth? There has been a lot of discussion lately all over the country about how and where to reduce government expenditures. As any mayor, city manager, governor or other executive administrator will tell you, public safety is one of their largest expenditures. It is difficult to make drastic cuts without taking money from public safety. Any LEOs who started before the recession will agree that these are hard times. However, as the effects of the recession wane and the economy slowly toils toward its previous greatness, let’s re-evaluate government’s commitment to its most noble obligation, citizen safety and security.
The physical dangers of the job are obvious. The emotional dangers are less obvious, but arguably more prevalent. This debate begs the question, what are the traumas that police officers face worth?
What the traumas are worth to the officer experiencing them may different from what the employer/agency perceives. It is this difference that is important. Once the value of the trauma to the officer exceeds the value assigned by the employing agency, the officer loses the incentive to continue as they have in the past.
This could mean that the officer leaves for other employment, such as joining an agency with better pay and benefits, or leaving law enforcement entirely. Another aspect is that the officer remains in place, perhaps due to proximity to retirement or poor economic expectations preventing them from gaining employment elsewhere. In an effort to limit exposure to traumas, the officer may see benefit in reducing their performance, in effect, doing less.
This is why it is important for police agencies and the citizenry to understand what police officers endure. Few officers enter law enforcement to get rich. If there are any, they do not last past the first pay check. However, there are benefits to being in law enforcement. Until recently, there was perceived stability in the job.
Officers could earn a decent enough wage to support a family and would receive a decent pension upon retirement. However, all of the benefits listed above are being attacked in a rush to reduce expenses. The idea was that officers should be compensated for spending substantial amounts of time away from their families, working undesirable shifts, holidays, and weekends, and dropping everything at a moment’s notice for the sake of the common good.
It is also important for citizens and police agencies to understand law that enforcement compensation and benefits from a recruitment and retention stand point. We are currently in an age of mobility and information. Those interested in law enforcement careers are not necessarily interested solely in a career in the area in which they grew up. If I can do the exact same thing at agency A as agency B, but agency B pays more, why would a highly qualified applicant be interested in agency A?
People are attracted to careers in law enforcement for their own reasons. However, many of those reasons are similar nationwide, as are the experiences and traumas faced by those lucky enough to wear the badge. Police officers comprise much less than 1% the population. Not many people willing to do the job. Agencies should be making an effort to recruit and retain the most highly-qualified applicants available to safeguard their agencies from needless lawsuits and other hazards associated with inferior officers. Law enforcement agencies and citizens should demand that officers are compensated for their selfless actions as they protect the vulnerable and endure the terrible.
Our guest writer, Police Officer Craig Heatherly, MPA serves in Tulsa, Oklahoma with 9 year’s law enforcement experience. He is a Marine Corps combat veteran, an infantryman who served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Officer Heatherly is a doctoral candidate in Valdosta State University’s Public Administration program.
To learn more:
Officer Down Memorial Page (2014). Honor Roll of Heroes. www.odmp.org
US Department of Defense (2014). Casualties. Retrieved July 11, 2014 from http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf.