The Brotherhood of Biochemistry:
Its Implications for a Police Career
by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.

Published in:
Understanding Human Behavior for Effective Police Work
H.E. Russell and A. Beigel
Third Edition 1990
Basic Books, Inc.
New York

As the field of behavioral sciences has grown over the past decades, significant attention has been given to the study of the stressful effects of life as law enforcement officers. The main theme of these studies concerning police stress revolves around two major approaches. The first approach points out the stress reaction and its potential long-term effects. This involves educating police officers about the stress reaction and revolves around Hans Seyle's concept of the general adaptation syndrome (GAS; the physiological processes through which the body attempts to adapt to ever changing challenges). The second major approach in teaching law enforcement officers about stress is to present a list of potential stressors or events that precipitate the stress reaction. This list usually becomes somewhat a litany of the daily negative events that officers are exposed to, such as the inhumanity of man toward his fellow man, the inefficiencies of the criminal justice system, sedentary life-style, poor nutritional habits, and so on. While this information is indeed valuable, it appears to miss the major concept of the stress reaction for law enforcement officers. It points out stress a negative event to be avoided. But in reality, most officers find that in the beginning years of their career, experiencing this stress reaction in mild dosages makes the career exciting and very attractive. 

If you asked a large number of law enforcement officers why they choose stayed with their career, you would probably hear such answers as "Cop work gets in your blood." "It's exciting and a different thing to do each day." "I couldn't stand just working behind a desk", and so on. However, what attracts law enforcement applicants and young cops to the job in the first half of a police career may be their undoing when the novelty has worn off. When police officers state that "cop work gets in your blood," they may unknowingly be describing a very potent physiological change that all police officers experience when first approaching their job. This physiological change appears to be so entrenched in the police role that it might be impossible to separate this physiological change from the role itself. It has been said that police work creates a brotherhood. Today this brotherhood is not exclusively a male domain, but it is a closed social unit that extends membership only to other cops. Cops may not understand the procedures, equipment, or geographical terrain in which other officers perform their duties, but they certainly understand the physiological sensations involved in the job. For example, a cop from Maine and a cop from California accidentally meet in O'Hare Airport and start sharing experiences and telling "war stories." Each officer might have difficult visualizing the external events taking place in the narrative told by the other (the setting, temperature, type of community the call took place in, and so on), but he or she would have no difficulty in understanding the "internal environment" of the call: how it felt to work that particular call- the physiology of the call. The brotherhood of police is actually a "brotherhood of biochemistry." Cops understand how other cops feel in similar situations because "they've been there." They've experienced similar physiological sensations, and they've made critical decisions in these physiological states. The physiological sensations cops experience on the street are characteristic of the stress reaction. Without these sensations, police work would not be as attractive to young cops. In fact, they might find it boring and mundane.

Consider how the police role is developed in young cops. It begins with the manner in which law enforcement officers are required to view the world. If you take cops in Anytown, USA, and put them behind the wheel of a patrol unit, they are required to view the streets and the community from a different perspective than citizen drivers. Cops realize that "I better pay attention out here! I could get my butt kicked or get somebody else or myself killed if I'm not paying attention!" This reality forces young officers to take a different view of the world from civilians. When viewing the world while in this new work role, officers experience a new physiological sensation, an increase in alertness, an increased sensation of energy and aliveness. This new perceptual style goes beyond just “paying attention." It includes looking, and watching sections of the community that other people would ignore or consider neutral. In the interest of their own safety, officers have to view all encounters as potentially lethal. This newfound perceptual style, with its emphasis on officer safety, carries with it a parallel physiological and psychological state. As mentioned previously, young officers feel increased sensations of energy, aliveness, and alertness. They find themselves becoming quick-witted in the presence of fellow street cops. Friendships develop quickly, and camaraderie is intensified among people with whom they share potential jeopardy. During the developmental years, young officers experience firsthand the physiological stress reaction, but it is not seen as a negative reaction. On duty, the associated sensation of physiological intensity is viewed as pleasant and enjoyable. They find their job so attractive that it is difficult to leave at the end of a shift. What is unwittingly taking place is that young officers are developing an on-duty style of hypervigilance. This style, though necessary for the survival of law enforcement officers, often leads to the long-term destruction of an effective personal life. Officers go on duty, experience increased energy, alertness, quick-wittedness, and camaraderie, and enjoy their tour. However, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Officers who experience an on-duty physiological "high" find that when they get off duty and return home, this hypervigilant reaction stops, as they literally plunge into the opposite reactions of detachment, exhaustion, apathy, and isolation. Thus officers experience the police stress reaction, an emotional ride on a biological roller coaster.

The "biological" roller coaster describes the extreme psycho physiological swings that police officers experience on a daily basis. One can assume that average citizens live on a more even keel, but police officers are denied this stability. Because of the degree of emotional intensity of law enforcement, the increased sensations of alertness required while on duty, followed by reactions of an equal magnitude in the opposite directions while off duty the police officer's life is characterized by the extremes of highs and lows. This pendulum-like swing occurs daily. Going to work initiates an increased sensation of involvement, energy, and alertness, coming home, a sensation of apathy, detachment and boredom. The biological reason this roller coaster takes place lies in the autonomic nervous system that controls all the body's automatic processes: heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and so on. The autonomic nervous system has two branches that act in tandem. Sympathetic branch alerts the body to potentially intense situations, causing increased alertness, awareness, and the "fight or flight reaction" (like taking a bunch of "uppers"). The Parasympathetic branch controls the body's quiescent or peaceful counter-reactions (like bunch of "downers"). This biological roller coaster cycles daily for young officers in the first years of their careers as they polish police skills. It produces high-activity, highly involved police officers, but leaves them with under involved, apathetic personal lives. It can be said in no uncertain terms that the first victims of this biological roller coaster are not the officers themselves, but their families. The officers alternate between being "Heat Seekers" at work, where the more intense the call, the more they"re drawn to it, and being "couch potatoes" at home. Once the police role is unplugged, there remains only a listless detachment from anything related to a personal life.

The "couch potato" phase of the biological roller coaster can be documented easily by interviewing police spouses during the first decade of the officer's career. Although the faces and names change the stories remain almost identical.
"She's different now that she's a cop. We used to do so many things together, but now she gets off duty and I can't even speak to her."

"He comes home from work, collapses on the couch, turns on the television set-I can talk to him for five minutes and he doesn't even hear me."
"You know, we drove 150 miles last weekend to go visit my mom and dad. I don't think she said two words to me on the whole trip."

"We walk through the mall on his days off and he barely grunts to me, but then he sees two or three of his buddies working off-duty and you can't shut him up-. 'Hey, what happened last night? Did you guys arrest that asshole? I heard you come up on the air."
As officers begin experiencing the biological roller-coaster ride, they begin heavily investing in the police role. Their family and personal relationships become thin, frazzled, and very fragile. The police spouse laments:

"I don't know how much longer I can keep this family together. He comes home angry every night. Everybody on earth is an asshole."

"I swear she'd rather be at work than at home. She starts getting ready for work two hours before she has to be there. Sometimes I think she's married to the job and not to me."
The police family begins reverberating with this biological roller-coaster
Police officers' life-styles change drastically. These elevated sensations while on duty are necessary. Officers do not have the luxury of viewing the world as primarily peaceful and benign. Officers' very existence depends on their being able to perceive situations from the perceptual set of hypervigilance. They must interpret aspects of their environment as potentially lethal that other members of society see as unimportant. Without hypervigilance, police officers would be seen as "not good cops." However, the tragedy is that while law enforcement officers are trained to react during the upper phase of the biological roller coaster, there has been very little training done or education provided on how to adapt to or avoid the pitfalls of the bottom half of the ride. In the first decade of a police career, the valleys of the roller-coaster ride destroy the emotional support systems and the family support systems; -systems that will become increasingly important if officers are to survive the second half of a police career.

Social Isolation
Unknowingly, law enforcement officers begin cycling around this roller coaster. Work becomes increasingly attractive, relationships and friendships occurring on-duty become highly intense, while old relationships that existed prior to becoming a cop are dropped or are maintained only minimally.

For decades, law enforcement officers have deluded themselves concerning this letting loose of old friendships by rationalizations, such as "Only other cops can understand me" and "Everybody else just wants to tell me about that cop who gave him a ticket." However, in reality, young cops often get together and talk about the job and to share "war stories." These gatherings vicariously return officers to the elevated highs of the biological roller coaster. Speaking to the schoolteacher next door or the welder who used to be your friend is "not exciting." Young heat-seeking cops love to tell "war stories" and hear them from others. Through such dialogues, roller coaster valleys are avoided, and "cop talk" returns officers to the elevated reaches of energy and alertness, and draws them back into the "brotherhood of biochemistry." The sharing of war stories amounts to little more than "adrenal masturbation."

Young officers become very comfortable only with other police officers, their social isolation from other aspects and relationships in their lives increases, and they become comfortable only within the sphere of this hypervigilant, narrow police-role they all share. Here’s how social isolation develops. At the start of their careers, young cops believe that the world is divided into "good people" and "bad people." The socialization pattern of the police academy soon has the officers redesigning this dichotomy to "good people"' (cops) and "other people." The "other people" soon become "assholes." Young officers begin seeing the world as just cops and "assholes," but soon have a rude awakening when they find that veteran cops sometimes refer to officers from other agencies as "assholes." The social isolation pattern deepens. Now the world is divided into "cops in their department" and "assholes." Social isolation continues to narrow until it's "uniform cops in my district or precinct on swing shift"; everybody else is an "asshole." After a few years, the average cop concludes, "It's me and my partner" and the rest of you are "assholes."; Eventually he says, "I'm not so sure about my partner. Sometimes he can be a real asshole."

The longer people are cops, the more unconsciously reactive they become to situations in which they do not feel completely comfortable. The physiological sensation of being in potential jeopardy is experienced in the abdominal area, triggered by a branch of the tenth cranial nerve: the vagus nerve. When cops experience this physiological sensation while dealing with another person, it's easy to project negative values onto the other person immediately and label him or her an "asshole." If asked, cops would probably say "I just had a gut feeling this guy's an asshole." Thus a defensive physiological reaction designed to permit officers to survive becomes a socially isolating event that threatens officers' personal emotional survival. 

The Lives of Cops 
After approximately two years on the job, officers are riding this biological roller coaster daily and consider most of the outside world "assholes." While these two reactions are going on, however, officers are typically doing-their job, have high on-site activity, are enjoying police work, and in many-ways, although still quite naive to the realities of the long-terms effects of a police career, could be experiencing the "golden years" of their own individual law enforcement career. They enjoy going to work, they are highly energized and enthusiastic, enjoy coworkers, and will state "I love my job." This fragile lifestyle and paranoid way of perceiving the world will typically come crashing down on officers in the not too distant future. Officers find themselves staying away from home for longer and longer periods of time. If the shift ends at midnight, cops realize that once they walk through the doors of their house, the exhaustion, apathy, and bottom half of the roller coaster will hit them hard; unwittingly they spend more time away from home. Younger officers in smaller police departments find themselves going down to the department on their days off just to see what's happening. The economic realities of police management can be quite exploitative of young cops' over-invested, biological enthusiasm. Sometimes the hardest thing about managing young cops is not in getting them to come to work but in getting them to go home. Many small police departments actually could not exist without this over-investment by young officers and also by non-reimbursed reserve officers whose only payment is a ride on the biological roller coaster. These officers have over-learned the social perceptual style that comes with assuming a police role. The longer they are cops, the more they interact only with other cops, all learning to see the world in only one manner. 

Young officers continue to over-invest in their police role. For the first few years, this over-investment leads to an exciting, enjoyable, dynamic job. Very often, early in their police careers, officers not only isolate themselves from non-police friends, but also overindulge in their professional role by listening to scanners while off duty or on days off. One of the potential hazards of this over-identifying and over-investing in the police role is financial. From the beginning, cops learn the financial realities of a police career: "You're never gonna get rich being a cop." Off-duty work can be an extremely seductive lure for many police families. Officers can provide the necessities and a few extra luxuries of life by working an extra two or three shifts per week, either as security at the local shopping mall or doing point control for construction projects. Although the extra cash certainly helps, the additional time away from home spent in the police role continues the officers' over-investment and leaves little time for them to develop competencies in other social roles and to build a personal life for themselves and their family. 

This over-investment in the police role goes beyond justifiable pride in the profession. Officers begin linking their sense of self-worth to the police role in what at first glance appears to be a basically benign sense of pride. However, this creates an intense form of emotional vulnerability for average police officers. When you ask a group of cops who controls their police role, young cops often say, "I do." The older, wiser cops respond, "I wish I did."

This link of self-worth to the police role creates a social dynamic that turns many enthusiastic, energized police officers into cynical, recalcitrant employees who resist administrative direction. As their police role is altered by external administrative authorities and the inevitable decline occurs, their sense of self-worth also takes a tumble. Police officers do not control their police role and must admit, upon reflection, that it is controlled by administrative authorities. Not until after the first several years of police work do the realities of this type of administrative control hit home. Then there is a "rude awakening." This vulnerability is particularly salient to specialized police officers-the narcotics agent, canine officer, or detective in some special assignment

This psychological phenomena of having your sense of self-worth controlled by other individuals leads to very normal feelings of defensiveness and resistance. This linkage explains why police officers, after the first few years, may grow to resent administrative authority, mainly because they are so vulnerable to the changes that can take place in their police role. This resentment and resistance to administrative control leads to an occupational pseudo-paranoia, in which officers begin making such statements as: "I can handle the assholes on the street but I can't handle the assholes in the administration." Although the streets contain physical danger, the major psychological and emotional threat comes from those who control their police role, with its emotionally over-invested sense of self-worth.

Emotional Vulnerability
Hypervigilance and the biological roller coaster, combined with the emotional over-investment in the police role, create emotionally vulnerable individuals. For the first four or five years officers are overly enthusiastic about the job, eating, sleeping, and breathing police work. But with eight or nine years on the job, they find themselves increasingly resentful, resistant, and hostile toward a police career. However, they have invested so much financially and emotionally in the sense of security a police retirement provides that, they can't let go. Former young heat seekers become cynical dinosaurs whose constant lament is: "Just wait until I get my twenty years in, then I can get the hell out of here."

Regardless of which theorist is discussing the concept of stress, the crucial elements in defining stress appear to be any given situation where subjects have high demands placed on them and low control over those demands. Police officers, particularly those who do the best job and care the most about their police role, are extremely vulnerable to police stress. The best officers are those most susceptible to the stress of the biological roller coaster. Those officers, who practice good officer safety skills and are hypervigilant and observant, are the ones most likely to have an elevated sense of involvement on duty. They are also the ones most likely to have the biological roller coaster come crashing down during their off-duty time. They go from "heat seeker" to "couch potato." It's during this off-duty, down time that any significant intervention must take place. However, during:-this down time when officers are experiencing apathy and detached exhaustion, they are least likely to implement any change. Life is in neutral. If officers do anything, it will probably be to complain about the job. In breaking the stress cycle, officers must take control over those aspects of their lives that they can control. Average cops do not control their police role. However, they can control, at least to a larger extent, their own personal life. It is the surrender of their personal life to the biological roller coaster and off-duty depression-like states that causes the strong vulnerability of the police stress response. Officers find themselves feeling less and less comfortable off duty, even while becoming more and more cynical about the job. The only time they feel alive and involved is at work. So the over-investment in the police role continues, and they become more and more vulnerable to having this over-invested role taken away from them without a well-developed personal life to cushion the blow. This highly vulnerable emotional state typifies the personal lives of a significant percentage of law enforcement officers. Officers need to recognize the vicious cycle and make appropriate changes in their life-styles. 

Controlling One's Life
It is very difficult for average law enforcement officers to make a realistic appraisal of how much of their personal life they really do control. Their immediate rationalization is to say "I'm a cop twenty-four hours a day." But, in reality, with some planning and proactive effort, they are capable of controlling a significant percentage of their time each day. They can develop separate, non-cop personal lives. This is usually not done easily because when officers are off duty, the biological roller coaster robs them of spontaneity or enthusiasm. What do average cops want to do when they get off duty? "Nothing. Absolutely nothing!"
Several ineffective methods of breaking this cycle have surfaced, and in all likelihood the average cop has experimented from time to time with all of them. They focus on getting officers out of the off-duty valleys of the biological roller coaster and back to the more elevated states associated with on-duty status. Some officers heavily invest in special response team assignments, where staying on duty for longer periods of time permits them to experience even more than average levels of hypervigilance. The narcotics officer or SWAT officer is an excellent example of the extreme heat seeker. But such actions are an inappropriate way of attempting to regain control. For married police officers, promiscuity and/or other relationships that are initiated while in the police role permit officers to extend, inappropriately the sense of aliveness and energy and to avoid the pitfalls of apathy and detachment at the opposite end of the roller coaster. Gambling, substance abuse, "choir practices"-all are escape mechanisms that go far beyond just permitting officers to "unwind." They allow over-invested police officers to avoid facing the realization that home, in contrast to the emotional on-duty of the biological roller coaster, is a place and time of detachment, isolation, and depression, and is to be avoided at all cost.

Family Impact

As the police socialization process evolves over the years and hypervigilance becomes the normal perceptual set for police officers, the police family does not go unscathed. The family also learns to over-identify with the police role. Pride in being a police family may become of pathological importance in maintaining the police perceptual style as a primary family identifier. The result is that any variable that emanates from the workplace is of increasing importance to the family"s well being and happiness. As the officer and family begin putting more and more of their eggs in the basket marked "police role," a drastic effect looms on the horizon. Because more law enforcement officers are on the receiving end of orders, than are on the giving end, police families become vulnerable to the actions individuals outside the family who have an important role in controlling the family identity. 

The over-importance of the police role leaves the police family feeling hyper-vulnerable to any changes that impact the officer's police role. If there has been over-investment in the police role and a concomitant narrowing of support systems to only the police culture, changes, such as, removal from an assignment can send the vulnerable police family into crisis. Police families also fall victim to the "couch potato syndrome". They become deficient in planning skills. "We like to be spontaneous" becomes a catch phrase for a lot of police families, even though "spontaneity" might be something the family has not experienced socially in years. Hobbies are forgotten. vacations are not planned, trips away from the police role are not experienced. The cycle of over-investment in police work, the biological roller coaster, and apathy toward and disregard for a personal life may even cost police officers their families during the first decade of their career. This leaves them without vital support systems and compounds their isolation as the second decade of a police career unfolds.

Case Example. Officer John Miller was a sixteen-year veteran of a two thousand-officer police force. During his career, he had served in several capacities, from patrol officer to detective. For the past nine- years he had been a canine officer. During this time John earned the respect not only of the street cops but, also of his superiors. It was a rare individual indeed, who did not speak of John as an officer to be admired and looked up to. John had high job satisfaction, was well respected by other canine officers, and appeared to be heading toward his twenty-year retirement as a police success story. John also had a well-functioning police family. He had been married for seventeen years. This marriage had produced two children, a son and daughter, fourteen and twelve years old. The family was heavily invested in John's role as a police officer, particularly in his specialty of canine officer. The children had grown up with police service dogs as members of the family. On two occasions over the past decade, the family had traveled, once to California, and another time to the southeastern United States, to bring back prospective canines for the dog unit. These trips occurred as part of the family vacation. The family also had imported a dog from Germany at their own expense. Beyond a doubt, this was a police family-a canine-oriented police family. On more than one occasion, the children had been proud to have their father bring the highly trained dogs to their elementary and junior high schools to perform canine demonstrations. Suddenly John found himself under the supervision of a new captain. The new command officer had certain ideas of his own involving the cross-training of bomb dogs and narcotics dogs. John adamantly opposed this idea. John tried to approach his new captain with tact but was met with an authoritarian narrow-mindedness. The captain ordered John to take his experienced drug dogs and cross-train them as bomb dogs. Again, John tactfully attempted to explain to the captain that once a dog is certified to alert to one narrow range of olfactory sensation, cross-training would confuse the animal and reduce its total efficiency, producing a dog of only limited serviceability. When this approach was rebuffed, John tried to make it clearer by pointing out to the captain that if a cross-trained dog sat down (meaning that he's found something), they wouldn't know whether to evacuate the building or get a search warrant. The captain failed to appreciate the humor in his approach, and John found himself unceremoniously ordered out of the canine unit and returned to uniform patrol, assigned to a part of the city where he had, begun work sixteen years prior.
This unexpected transfer hit John quite hard and also his wife and children. The transfer meant that not only was John no longer a member of the specialized canine unit, but that all city-funded equipment, including the dogs, would be turned back to the city for assignment to another officer. John took the transfer hard. When he started his new assignment as a patrol officer, he did so with cynicism and hostility. This was the first time in sixteen years that John did not enjoy going to work and he rapidly grew to hate if. His sick leave increased as did the number of citizen complaints. On more than one occasion John found himself receiving verbal discipline from his watch commander (an officer with whom he attended the police academy sixteen years prior). John's new lieutenant attempted to perform intervention and supervisory counseling by stating "John, I know that the manner in which you were handled at Special Operations [canine) was maybe not the best way. This is field operations and it's a new deal over here. I need you as a leader. We have a lot of young cops out here and I'm gonna need your seniority and your leadership." To this John responded, "Lieutenant, you can count on me being here. I have four years to go until I retire, but don't count on me for anything else. John's behavior continued to deteriorate evidenced not only by a lack of adequate investigation for field calls, but also by a general decline in his performance as a police officer.

While deterioration was taking place at work, John's family -also was beginning to suffer. His wife and children bounced back from the transfer much sooner than John did. His wife advised John, "You have four years to go here and then we can do what we want to do. Let's just finish it out." To which John responded, "I'm not gonna make four years with these assholes."

Several months after John's transfer from canine he encountered an old police friend who had retired and become chief of police in a small rural department in the same state. When John and his old friend began commiserating over old times, his friend advised him, "if you come to work for me in my department, you can start working your dog the day you arrive." John was rather enthusiastic about this job proposition, even though it meant a 40 percent reduction in pay and relocating almost 230 miles away in a small rural community. John's wife took the news of a potential move with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "John, we've lived in this city almost our whole life. Our children were born here. Our parents are here, and our home is almost paid off. Let's just do four more years with the department then decide what we want to do. I don't think we can take a 40 percent cut in pay and still make ends meet."
Thus John and his wife began several months of confrontation over his accepting the chance to work with a dog again in the new town. Now not only was the workplace exceedingly unhappy for John, but also for the first time in seventeen years of marriage, home had become a place of confrontation and tension. After several months of constant debate at home over whether or not to relocate to the new city, and simultaneously operating under closer and closer administrative scrutiny due to his deteriorating police performance, his wife finally gave in, saying "If the only way I can keep this family together is to move to that town, then I guess we just have to go."

John and his wife sold their home, where they had lived for sixteen years, transferred the kids to a school district of questionable quality, .and attempted to re-create a new life in an isolated part of the state away from friends and family. The state in which the family lived had statewide certification for peace officers and a statewide public safety retirement system, so his retirement rights were intact. John continued to work toward his last four years of a police career. Shortly after arriving in his new department, John found the grass was not always greener on the other side. His old friend, the Chief required all officers to undergo a field-training program. John was assigned a field-training officer who had approximately two years of police experience. Although John was typically an easy going and open -minded individual, he found the young officer's habit of personal editorializing about officer safety more than he could bear on a daily basis. John soon began getting into confrontations with this young officer. This was reflected in his daily evaluations and eventually brought John to the attention of his old friend, the Chief. The chief attempted to counsel John by saving "John, look. just go through the field training program. Learn how we do business here, and as soon as you’re through the program, we'll start, working on your getting a canine unit up on the streets." To this John responded, “ I thought I was going to work a dog as soon as I got here." The chief advised him at this point that his canine unit could not be funded until the next fiscal year, approximately seven months away. Feeling angry and betrayed, John confronted the Chief. "You brought me way the hell up to this Godforsaken spot by telling me I could work the dog. Now your saying I can't have one for seven months. That's B.S." Soon John was given the choice of conducting business the way the Chief wanted or finding employment elsewhere.

John went home and advised his wife that they were leaving -the town -after only two months. His wife responded positively, believing that they were returning to their old city where John had rehire rights, in as much as, he had given notice to his former employer. John responded, "I'm never going back there to work for those assholes even if I only had four days, not just four years." John quit his job and found employment in a twenty-man police force, again at the opposite end of the state. This time he traveled to his new employment without his family; his wife elected to return to the city where his police career had begun. John found himself divorced, two hundred miles away from his children. At first he saw them every other weekend, but as the months passed he visited less and less frequently. John became involved in a live-in relationship with a dispatcher who worked in his new department. After a year and a half working as a canine officer in the new department, a new mayor and city council were elected. The day they were sworn into office, they terminated the Chief of Police and the entire police force, including John. Now, at forty-one years of age, with eighteen years toward a twenty-year retirement within the state, John found himself with high blood pressure and impaired vision, and unable to pass a required pre-employment physical for state law enforcement officers. 

Two years away from retirement eligibility, John went to work as a security guard in a power plant 300 miles away from the city where he practiced law enforcement for sixteen years. He began to drink excessively and became a hostile, cynical, and emotionally broken man.
John's case can be considered a tragic consequence of the police stress cycle and a prime example of how vulnerable a police officer becomes if he welds his sense of self-worth to his police role-a role he himself does not control. Obviously John lost perspective along the way by over-investing in his role as a canine officer. more important, he also lost wife, a day-to-day relationship with his children, a satisfying police career, and ultimately retirement. How in a little less than two years did a satisfied. enthusiastic, happily married police officer become an angry, cynical, depressed, alcohol abusing individual who, in all likelihood, will never realize a police retirement and who, without professional counseling, will not be able to put the pieces of his life back together.

By studying John's case, average cops can learn the tragic consequences of law enforcement over-involvement, the consequences of the "brotherhood of biochemistry." It's important to step back from john's case and point out where he made mistakes that average cops unfortunately often replicate with little, if any, awareness of their own vulnerability. If you were a friend of John's, what would you have advised him to do along his downward spiral and career-ending decisions? Would you have told him to just go along with the captain and cross-train the bomb and dope dogs, knowing that it would yield a dog that was unserviceable or would you have told him to just bear it the next four years? Do it by "standing on your head 'if you had to, just complete your four years? It won't do any practical good for John, or any other police officer, to point out that the captain who ordered the training was just an asshole" or that the Chief of the small town who promised John an immediate position as canine officer and then reneged, was also "an asshole. " It won't help to blame the mayor, city council, and all the registered voters who ousted the chief and all his officers, for John's misfortune. 

Somewhere during this tragic cycle, John should have taken control of his life and assumed personal responsibility. John is like a large number of other law enforcement officers heavily invested in the police role; highly vulnerable because he had placed all his eggs in the basket marked "canine officer" - in a basket held by someone else. In John's case the basket was held by a captain who, in all likelihood, was not highly competent. Nonetheless, when the basket fell, John and his family sustained the damage not the Captain. 
What would you have told John? Would it have helped to tell John to start putting some eggs in a basket marked "John and family"? Maybe John, his wife, and the children could have started an independent canine training service. Perhaps John could have channeled his enthusiasm into other aspects of life that the police department did not control. 
John was a victim of police stress because he, like other victims, had no control over his fate. Police officers who over-invest in their police role, no matter how benevolent their intentions, run the risk of becoming another "John." How often have competent, enthusiastic officers had a positive productive career changed by a transfer, a demotion, a loss of status or prestige in the department? Whom do those officers turn to? Because of the job's biological roller coaster, they have failed to develop a personal life. Where do the officers escape to? Where do they feel in control? It's obvious that the police department controls the police role. If officers have abdicated a personal role, where do they find emotional serenity, peace and tranquility? They don't. Instead, with other burned-out cops, they find camaraderie and shared cynicism and hostility toward the police department. Although John's case is a tragedy it's by no means an isolated example. 

Overcoming the Brotherhood
The first step in helping officers to achieve emotional survival is to teach a proactive life-style. "Render onto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," but take the reins of your life fully in hand and develop a personal life. For most police officers, this requires a written, pre-planned personal master calendar that the family keeps posted someplace visible and central to the family. Often it is put on the refrigerator with magnets. This pre-planned master calendar permits the family to put in writing several things each week that they can look forward to. These activities do not require significant expenditures. Bowling walks, physical exercise, or even quiet time to read can give officers control over at least one aspect of their lives. Usually it's this block of time, the off-duty time that young officers throw away so haphazardly. Many officers will view the suggestion of attempting to develop a proactive personal life with uncertainty and rationalize away any possibility of doing so by statements such as:
"Yeah, every time you plan something, some jerk down at the department's gonna call you back,"
" I took a vacation once and when I came back I was transferred."

Many times these rationalizations are true, but does this require a police family to surrender control of its own time? If they make the fatal mistake of giving up control, they’re surrendering to the role of victim. Police officers who plan together with their families have a proactive, self-controlled life-style that gives them something to look forward to each day, no matter how small the event. While a certain percentage of these plans are going to be canceled by call-outs, court dates, and overtime, the majority will take place if officers plan them.

Without proactive planning for a personal and family life to break the stress cycle and roller-coaster ride, many police families find themselves not looking forward to "doing things" but rather to "buying things." These police families find themselves purchasing new cars, guns, and other "large-ticket items." It sure feels good to buy a new car! Every sensory process is stimulated. The feel of the seats, the steering wheel, the smell of the car is all very stimulating somewhat like the upper highs of the biological roller coaster. However. these buying highs are short-lived. After the novelty wears off, the payment lingers on. Police families who do not plan things to do typically tend to buy impulsively Thus the biological roller coaster has some very definite drawbacks in the world of impulse economics. The second major element to emotional survival for a police family is to recognize and satisfy the intense need for physical exercise. Selling physical fitness programs to cops certainly is not one of the easiest undertakings. Many an older street cop responds to the suggestion of jogging with cynical statements, such as: "If they want me to run, why did they give me a patrol car?" However, physical fitness is an officer's number-one means of breaking the deleterious impact of the biological roller coaster. The downward side of the ride and the resultant off-duty depression is the body's way of attempting to metabolize adrenaline-related stimulants that are produced during the on-duty "high." Fuels that are not metabolized through exercise will typically lead to explosive outbursts of anger and hostility at home. "The flying toaster and small appliance syndrome" is the label I given to these outbursts of anger that occur in police families due to the combination of both sedentariness and unresolved anger and hostility. The old military expression "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war" suggests that regularly scheduled exercise is one way of beating the cycle of stress-related depression. It also gives police officers the capacity to practice biological "officer safety" effectively on a daily basis, thus maintaining a balanced sense of alertness on duty.

The extreme physical and emotional swings initiated by the biological roller coaster result in shortened life expectancy. Repeatedly, studies demonstrate that police are more susceptible to injury and death from stress related breakdown than from any other factor. In the civilian population, 55 percent of all deaths are attributable to heart disease. Among police officers, the three leading causes of non-accidental disability retirements are heart and circulatory disease, back disorders, and peptic ulcers.

Police work can not only be survived but can offer a rewarding career of service to others. However, individual officers must assume responsibility, through self-motivation, to seek the necessary attitudinal change. It is essential for police officers to have a systematic program of physical exercise, not only to break the stress-related cycle, but to provide what cardiologists label cardio-protective resistance."

Cops need to have a self-initiated regular period, approximately thirty to forty-five minutes per clay, of aerobic exercise-rhythmic and repetitive exercise that places emphasis on the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide and not on the development of musculature (like weight lifting). Cops who exercise feel a greater sense of self-satisfaction and control over their own destinies. There are days when officers come home from work and don't feel fit to rejoin the human race. Anger, hostility and the desire to just "sit in front of the tube and pop a cold one" dominate all other thoughts. Taking a half-hour to work out physically increases their sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and physical well-being. Average cops may agree with the benefits of physical exercise, but their problem is "How do I find time to do it? I'm already stretched thin." This is where they should go back to step one in our tips for officer emotional survival and schedule a time in writing on the calendar.

Biking, jogging, walking, and swimming not only permit officers to have some energy left for a personal life but also lead to lower physiological thresholds under stress that produce better decisions in those life-and-death situations police officers have to face.
The third element of emotional survival that police officers and their families need to build revolves around the development of other alternative, non-police roles- Police officers who, for the first several years of their career could not get enough of police work, unfortunately become those who do not have a personal life, nor do they know how to develop one. The novelty of cop work has worn off, yet there's no well-developed, balanced personal life to fall back on to recharge the batteries. The contrast between the following two case histories emphasizes the value of developing a personal, balanced life-style: 

Case Example. James Martin was a nineteen-year veteran on the day he was killed in the line of duty. When officers were dispatched to his residence to notify his wife and two teenage daughters, they were met with the predictable reactions of emotional devastation that comes with the news of hear that your loved one will not be returning. The officers on this particular call, after providing whatever support they could to the family, found it necessary to use the telephone. When they approached the telephone, they found taped on an index card under the kitchen telephone the message, "This is a career, not a crusade." Two months later when the officers followed up to see how the family was doing, the index card was still taped below the telephone. They asked the officer's widow what the card meant. She responded: "He loved being a cop and he was very good at it, but he had seen so many of his friends become obsessed with police work and how it cost them their families. We vowed never to let that happen. He loved putting bad guys in jail and he loved being a cop, but he also loved being a husband and a father. We always found time to have our time together. We might have had our Christmases on December 26th or Thanksgiving dinners on Saturday, but we always had them. We never surrendered being a family. I miss him very much. But I can look back and say we had a good life together.

It's obvious that this family planned for time together and that the officer had developed other interests. Although this officer lost his life in the line of duty, he left behind an emotional legacy of two children and a wife who not only share the pride of having been a police family but the love of having been a functioning, caring family unit. Police work does not always need to take control of family time.

Case Example. Not -all stories have the same ending, however. The author (KG) while visiting another city to conduct police training, was approached by the police chief of a nearby small law enforcement agency and asked to become involved in a situation concerning one of their officers who was terminally ill. Initially, the author thought the request was to provide some psychological assistance to the officer. However, the Chief advised that the difficulties were not with the officer himself, but with his son. The problems revolved around the fact that the son, who was twenty-three years of age, had not spoken with his father since he was eighteen, when he left the house under significant family strain. The chief further advised that he himself had approached the young man and found him totally unwilling to even consider speaking with his father, who wished to make peace with his son. The chief angrily expressed his feeling that the son was being unreasonable ("This kid’s some kind of an asshole"). The author was requested to approach the son to negotiate some sort of peace between him and his terminally ill father.

The following day, the author met with the young man, telling him that he (the author) was there in his capacity of police psychologist to talk with him about his father. The boy interrupted: "You're here to tell me my dad's dead, aren't you?" The author's response was "No, I'm not. But you really ought to go see him." This impulsive, highly directive statement resulted in an angry response. Immediately the young man shouted, "You have no right to come here and tell me what the hell I ought to do. You don't know anything about the situation. Why don't you just leave!" When the author requested him to explain why he was so unwilling to see his father and attempt to reach some form of final understanding, the young man stated: "Do you know how many times my father ever came to watch me play football in high school or wrestle? I'll tell you. Not once! Do you know how many times he attended a Cub Scout meeting or a Boy Scout meeting or a Little League game? Not once! The only thing I can remember about my father when I was growing up was that he was never home, and he was always angry. If I stepped out of line, I was told that I was going to grow up to be just another one of the little assholes that he sees everyday. 

The young man ventilated his hostility, adding that he saw no reason to go into town to visit his father. He said he felt sorry for his mother and would come back to town to help her after his father passed away. The author attempted numerous strategies to get this young man to rethink his position. For two hours the son continued to express his feelings that the time for creation of some relationship between him and his father had long passed. It became obvious that this young man remained adamantly entrenched in his position and was not going to contact his father. When the Chief of Police was advised that the officer's son would not go to see his father, the Chief expressed anger and hostility toward the young man. The chief described the officer who was dying, saying "I've known him for over twenty years. He's one of the best cops I know, just a fine human being. I'll give you an example of what kind of man he is. There's not a family in our town here who, at Thanksgiving, goes without a food basket, and that's because he almost single-handedly coordinates this program. At Christmas he receives the names of needy families from the schools and welfare offices, and he sees that each family has a food basket and each child has a toy under the Christmas tree. He's active in our bicycle safety program and in the school resource program." As the Chief was speaking, it became obvious to the author that he was describing an entirely different man from the one the son had. The Chief was describing a life that he had shared with this officer at the upper reaches of the biological roller coaster where the officer was involved and participating in activities and enthusiastically sharing his life with those around him. The officer's son, however, was describing a life spent at the lower reaches of the biological roller coaster-an apathetic, disinterested, emotionally detached, angry father. It was apparent that the chief of police and the officer's son were speaking about two entirely different people psychologically. The tragedy of this second case history is that the son never did travel to the hospital. The officer died, and the son probably looks back on his deceased father with a very different emotional legacy from those of the children of our officer whose professional and personal credo was "This is a career, not a crusade."

If law enforcement officers are to survive the "brotherhood of biochemistry", they must look at both their on-duty and off-duty life-styles and take charge of the events in their lives that they can control. Proactive goal-setting, an active aerobic exercise program, and nurturing and developing other roles in life besides the hypervigilant police role should enable officers to manage their life-style more effectively. To survive police stress, officers need to know what they can control and to surrender what they cannot control. Their emotional and physical well-being requires them to take a realistic review of their day- to-day life-style and to make whatever alterations are necessary to ensure a well-balanced, healthy personal life.

©E-S Press 1999 -