By Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.

Published in
Psychological Services to Law Enforcement
U.S. Dept. of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation
Edited by Reese and Goldstein
Washington, D.C. 1986
Library of Congress Number 85-600538

Over the past decade the journals in the area of law enforcement have shown a significant awareness of the issue of police stress. The literature abounds with accounts of the mental and physical health destroying results that occur from a career in law enforcement.

A direct stressor initiated stress reaction formulation has been used explanatorily. Long lists of potential stressors ranging from public apathy and an ineffective court system, to being witness daily to man's inhumanity have been complied. (1) The basic theme of this manner of conceptualizing police stress is that due to the nature of the job, the officer is bombarded with constant frustration, negativity, and unappreciativeness that leads to an experiencing of the stress reaction and consequently the diseases of adaptation.

The purpose of this paper is to generate a hypothesis that goes beyond the stressor initiating stress formulations and propose that law enforcement creates a learned perceptual set that ultimately cause the officer to alter the social and physiological manner in which he interacts with his environment. This hypothetical perceptual set will be developed as a basic social/physiological format from which the law enforcement officer develops a stress reaction.

Interviewing recruit applicants and individuals attempting to re-enter a career in law enforcement can serve as a potential springboard to explain the law enforcement perceptual set. After approximately fourteen years of interviewing both recruits and re-entry law enforcement officers, the present author believes two definite themes of reasons for job choice appear. Recruits give responses explaining their choice of a career in law enforcement along the themes of public service, a meaningful job, and a potential diversity of duties. Officers, who after several years of service leave law enforcement and choose after a period of absence to return, have almost exclusively stated the reason for their return as "cop work gets in the blood". It appears that the veteran officer may be describing a sensation of physiological change that becomes inseparable from the police role.

As a police psychologist with full awareness that the issue of police stress is a reality, the present author believes the responses of "cop work getting in the blood" might prove crucial in an explanation of the police stress reaction.

The majority of the literature on police stress speaks of the ill effects of this reaction. The physiologically elevated states are explained as negative events in the officer's life. Yet the clinical reality appears that the stress reaction and the physiologically elevated states are the very short-term rewards that either keep people in law enforcement or once having left, motivate them to seek a career re-entry. It also appears that officers who’s careers have been typified by a lack of being exposed to a bombardment of violence, unappreciativeness, and negativity also experience the stress reaction.

The profession of law enforcement emphasizes to its new members to interpret the environment as potentially threatening. Concepts such as officer safety and street survival are created to demonstrate the lethalness of the law enforcement officer's daily work place.(2) These vicarious learning experiences appear to combine with the officer's own first hand experiences in threatening situations to teach an interpretation of the environment as potentially life-threatening and dangerous. (3) A perceptual set of being vigilant of events in one's environment leads to a state of being hypervigilant or over-reactive to potentially threatening situations. At a bio-behavioral level, it is the role of the reticular activating system to scan inputs from the perceptual field and determine which events should be interpreted as threatening and which as neutral. (4) The average citizen travels the streets of his community daily oblivious psychologically and neurologically to the events unfolding before him. Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, are trained and learn their very survival can depend on their interpreting most aspects of their environment as potentially lethal. This perceptual set therefore basically requires teaching the reticular activating system a new set of values for interpreting incoming cues and putting valances of potential danger on events the average citizen would clearly interpret as neutral.

The average citizen has the neurological advantage of stimulus habituation. The capacity to be non-reactive to stimuli whose threshold of perceived potential danger is insufficient to warrant attention. The law enforcement perceptual style considers stimulus habituation to be potentially lethal carelessness. The environment is scanned, and even the most innocuous situations need to be processed. The sensory process of stimulus habituation is unlearned in favor of the lower threshold of reticular attentiveness. This elevated attentiveness or hypervigilant perceptual style has a law enforcement officer in an elevated physiological state merely by assuming his occupational role.

The reinterpretation of the environment and subsequent reprogramming of the reticular activating system sets into motion the perceptual set of hypervigilance and its physiological consequences. As a message of potential danger is experienced by the officer, mild to moderate elevations of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system will be innervated. This will be interpreted by the officer as a feeling of energization, rapid thought pattern, and a general speeding up of the physical and cognitive reactions. A state that in and of itself is not judged to be unpleasant. A state of social-physiological reaction that the rookie street cop learns as inseparable from the police role. This sets the stage for a career-long perceptual-attitudinal linkage. It is at this point that "cop work gets in the blood." At a behavioral level, speech is more rapid, humor and wit are present, and a general feeling of aliveness can be felt. At a biobehavioral level, the reticular activating system interprets the environment as less than neutral, the limbic system is innervated and engages the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Epinephrine related physiological changes are initiated. These biobehavioral or physiological changes are in response to merely a perceptual manner in which law enforcement officers learn to view their environment. There does not need to be present significant specific stressors to induce these changes, merely a perceptual set that becomes an everyday manner of perceiving the world.

The difference between a perceptual theory of hypervigilance and a specific stressor inducing the stress reaction formulation can be demonstrated in the everyday behavior of law enforcement officers. Officers who engage in potentially mundane activities such as watching traffic pass, do so, not from a neutral physiological resting state, but rather from a state of hypervigilance, scanning the environment as potentially threatening and sinister. This generates physiological changes in situations where a non-law enforcement officer might engage in an identical behavior as the officer, but experience entirely different physiological reactions. Once a hypervigilant perceptual set becomes a daily occurrence, the officer is altering his physiology daily without being exposed to significantly threatening stressor situations. This learned perceptual set and it's concomitant alteration of the reticular activating system has a social component in the officer's day to day life.

The well known phenomena of officers giving up non-police acquaintances and socially interacting to an ever increasing degree with only other law enforcement types begins leaving the officer without the benefit of testing other social perceptual sets or social roles. The seeing the world through the eyes of a police officer becomes the one style of social interaction that is practiced daily. The subsequent high-levels of autonomic sympathetic branch responses causes a feeling of energization, vitality and a general speeding up of cognitive processes to be directly linked to the perceptual set generated by the police role.

The law enforcement officer who, without benefit of recruit academy stress inoculation training, finds the new perceptual set and it's concomitance physical energy enjoyable and begins investing in his/her work with an almost recreation seeking attitude. The hypervigilant perceptual set leads to elevated innervation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This sets into motion a potential hyper-conditionability for traumatic events whether they be experienced first hand or by vicarious learning. (5) This would only increase the effect of any single stressor to place the individual into an adaptation stress reaction. The perceptual set creates highly fertile ground for specific stressor exposure to have major consequences.

The social consequence of a perceptual set of hypervigilance and its consequence of over-interpreting the environment as potentially lethal would be a loss of capacity to discriminate which situations are in themselves genuinely dangerous. The hypervigilant or officer safety conscious officer would be daily reinforcing in clinical terms a "psuedo-paranoid" perception of his environment. The over-scanning of the RAS and the hyper-reactive role of the autonomic nervous system although a necessary occupational perceptual set can lead to a pathological interpersonal and intrapersonal mode of interacting if other social roles are not of major importance in the officer's life.

The past decades have seen a decrease in the importance of traditional social support systems such as neighborhood, extended and nuclear families, religion and other non-occupational systems. Workers of all types tend to identify more with the place of their occupation than with the place of their residence. (6) This might prove to present new challenges to the average non-law enforcement manager, however, this narrowing of the social support systems could prove to have lethal physical and social consequences to the law enforcement officer, the officer who loses the benefit of interacting with the world through other roles and social perceptual sets. (7)

The narrowing of the social support systems and the over-identification with work that is currently affecting all workers leaves the law enforcement officer seeing the world only as through the eyes of a law enforcement officer. The perceptual set of hypervigilance and consequently perceived hyper-vulnerability has the officer narrowing his/her social circles. And also narrowing his/her comfort zone of where she/he is able to interact without feelings of vulnerability and reactiveness. This "pseudo-paranoia" leads to the adolescent-like importance of peer pressure in the law enforcement culture. The distrust of any one other than those within the law enforcement culture. Absolute trust is reserved for only those within the immediate peer group. This also generates management difficulties of directing policies to a group of workers who have a hair trigger of autonomic reactiveness which leads to second guessing and potentially misinterpreting any management directive, an almost adolescent-like rebelliousness towards authority.

If one chooses to follow the natural bio-behavioral consequences of a hypervigilant perceptual set away from the police role and into the family situation other predictions can be generated. The officer, who has not been oriented through stress training or has not been victimized yet by learning better, can suffer significant family disruption by the phenomena currently being discussed. The hypervigilant perceptual role and it's reticular activating system consequences causes the officer to spend his/her workday in the sympathetic autonomic nervous system branch. The feeling of energy, wit, and camaraderie will be correlated with the work place. As the officer arrives home, the hypervigilant perceptual set is held in abeyance in the safety of his/her own home. However, the pendulum of homeostasis swings into a parasympathetic state of tiredness, numbness, and an almost detached exhaustion when interacting with the less threatening and more mundane tasks of after work home-life. The hypervigilance and consequent "street-high" of the work place leads to the "off-duty depression" of the parasympathetic swing in an attempt to homeostatically revitalize the body.

As this bio-behavioral switch takes place, one can imagine the potential effects on the family dynamics. The role of detached exhaustion, non-involvement with family activities, and the all too well known "I'll do it later, I'm beat right now" appear as the consequences of the occupational perceptual set of hypervigilance. The physiologically based detachment and exhaustion can be misinterpreted by family members as a lack of interest in family matters or basic rejection of spouse and family.

As one can imagine it is difficult enough to maintain a family with the usual pressures a career in law enforcement creates, such as under-pay, long hours, and shift work. The perceptual set that leads to indifference and exhaustion and only feeling a sense of energy and aliveness when the occupational role is brought about can prove an unmanageable burden to an already strained police marriage.

It has been the author's clinical experience that even if a communication based marital therapy model is initiated, it can prove fruitless if the daily pendulous swing of the autonomic nervous system are not addressed. The biological boomerang of energized aliveness at work and detached exhaustion at home can only lead the unaware police family into believing it is competing with the role of police officer. Unaware families struggle dealing with the officer only being energized when either at work or telling "war stories" for vicarious autonomic reactiveness, that energized feeling that seems to build as the "war stories" flow. It is the author's contention that this state of hypervigilence and its physiological consequence is the first domino of a police stress theory. It's impact on society, the family, and the police organization are easily discernible

The family learns to also over-identify with the work role. Pride in being a police family may become a pathological importance on maintaining the police perceptual set as the primary family identifier. The consequence is a feeling of increasing importance of any variable that emanates from the work place. As the officer and family begin putting more-and more of their eggs in the basket marked "police role" a drastic consequence potentially takes place. The realities being that more law enforcement officer's are on the receiving end of orders than on the giving end, police families suffer from the consequences of individuals outside the family having inflated importance in controlling how the family identifies itself. The over importance of the police role to the family, leaves the police family unduly feeling hyper-vulnerable to any changes in variables such as the work assignment, or decrease in the officers status at work. Variables such as a change from a special assignment such as Canine or SWAT can send the hyper-vulnerable police family into crisis if the family support systems are too narrowly linked to the police role.

Financially, families trapped into the sympathetic/parasympathetic pendulum can find themselves using pathological buying as a means to induce sympathetic arousal into the family role. Officers will "novelty buy" guns, cars, trucks, boats, etc. as a means of short-term excitement in the desperate attempt to "feel good at home and get away from the cop work". Yet all that appears to occur is a vicious cycle of novelty buying and short term good feeling leading quickly to the new purchase loosing it's novelty impact. Also the financial affairs of many police families can be devastated by the financial effects of attempting to buy out of the physiological depression secondary to hypervigilance.

From a manager's point of view, the hypervigilant officer feels vulnerable to any change in the work status. The pseudo-paranoia mentioned above leads to intense anxiety and alienation from anyone that increases the officer's vulnerability by controlling his major self-identifier, his/her police role. The hypervigilant officer is the hyper-vulnerable, and consequently the hyperreactive to any perceived threat, whether physical in the social environment or psychological in the work place. Each will be over-interpreted and cause over-reactiveness. Management will be perceived by the vulnerable officer through the defense mechanism of projection. Even the most straightforward management directive may be explained by the hypervigilant officer as “conspiracies against the troops." This projection based perception and its interpretive style receives consensual validation due to the levels of peer pressure in the police officer's social realm.

At a societal level, hypervigilance will demonstrate itself in increasing police alienation. A loss of capacity to discriminate which citizens are genuinely threatening to the officer's safety and which are not, will cause the officers to lump all non-police types into the same untrustworthy category. This category, a product of over generalization, will be labeled with whatever "in vogue" term is currently being used in the police culture to describe anyone who is not exactly like "me and my partner officers".

From the therapist's perspective in attempting to formulate either an individual or family treatment plan, hypervigilance must be taken into consideration. The detached exhaustion off-duty stated above will generate pathological attempts to create autonomic arousal away from the work place. Promiscuity and abusive drinking can manifest themselves as ways of attempting to recreate the energized feeling or "high" the officer knows from his/her workplace and an avoidance of the depressed exhaustion that occurs upon return home. Even once a communication pattern has been established, if the family is not educated to the devastating effects of the hypervigilant perceptual set, the emotional rollercoater ride can break the already strained marriage.

It's been the author's experience treating police families to address the perceptual set and its physiological consequences head-on. Officers are educated on the need to emotionally "decontaminate" from the effects of the street adrenaline through aerobic exercise. Time management is stressed to force the officers to make a commitment to engage in whatever the desired behavior is prior to getting into the state of emotional exhaustion that comes immediately upon arrival home from duty. (8) Most importantly the officer needs to realize the importance of social roles other than the social role of police officer.(9) The officer needs to practice perceptual sets other than those of hypervigilance and scanning the environment constantly only to interpret it as potentially threatening or sinister. This testing of other social roles is basically a form of reality testing to show not all non-police environments need cause a feeling of vulnerability and consequently avoidance.

In summary, it is the contention of the present author that a career in law enforcement produces a perceptual set of hypervigilance. The perceptual set causes the individual to learn to interpret her/his environment as potentially lethal. Consequently it requires teaching the reticular activating system to learn new reactive patterns and generate limbic arousal to situations that the vast majority of society would interpret as neutral. This over-reactiveness sets into motion a work lifestyle that the officer is potentially always being innervated in mild to moderate sympathetic autonomic arousal patterns. This is consequently interpreted by the officer as a generalized feeling of well-being or energy that is directly linked only to working in the police role. The homeostatically induced counterpart would be a detached exhaustion when not engaged in some off-shoot of the police role. This being the over-identification so apparent in the police culture.

This perceptual set of hypervigilance can be considered the first domino to be knocked over in a theory of police stress and adding salience to the direct stressor inducing stress formulations. The effects of the perceptual set on the family dynamics and management effects were discussed. Brief guidelines for therapy were also put forth.


  1. Kroes, William H., Society's Victim - The Policeman, Charles C. Thomas, SpringCleld, Illinois 1972.
  2. Adams, Ronald J., Street Survival, Calibre Press, Evanston, Illinois 1980.
  3. Bandura, Albert, Principles of Behavior Modification, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York 1969.
  4. Magoun, H.W., The Waking Brain, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, 1963.
  5. Weinberger, N.M., Gold P.E. and Sternberg, D.B., Epinephrine Enables Pavlovian Fear Conditioning Under Anesthesia, Science, Vol. 223, No. 4636.
  6. Dnucker, Peter F., Management Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Harper and Row, New York, 1974.
  7. Peters, T.J. and Waterman, R.H., In Search of Excellence, Harper and Row, New York, 1982.
  8. Rosenman, R.H. and Friedman, M., Modifying Type A Behavior Pattern, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 21, pp. 323-331.
  9. Schacter, S. and Singer, J., Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State,Psychological Review, 1962, 69, pp. 379-399.

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