Becoming a Police Officer: Risks (page 2)
If police departments are offering such generous salaries and benefits, you might be wondering why positions are available at all. One reason that people often prefer not to discuss is that there are risks entailed in being a police officer. Yet, many of the risks are less about physical danger than about the stresses that come with the anticipation that danger could occur even when it does not.
Every police officer on television except those in comedy shows seems to fire a weapon at least once an hour. In reality, most police officers retire at the end of a 20- or 25-year career without ever having fired a weapon other than at the practice range. Certainly the vast majority have never had to fire at another person. An example of how fiction does not reflect fact can be seen in the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the nation's largest law enforcement agency, with more than 35,000 officers in all ranks. Shooting incidents in the department have been decreasing; according to the NYPD, in 2007 there were 111 police-involved shootings, 16 fewer (a decrease of 12.6%) than the previous year. Even these figures are misleading; of the 111 shootings, 45 were directed at criminals and 39 at animals, mostly dogs that police said were attacking them. Other reasons were 15 accidental firearms discharges and 12 that were defined as unlawful (including suicide, attempted suicide, and illegal shooting, firearms discharge by a person other than the police officer). The total number of shots fired was fewer than 600; quite different from the shoot-'em-ups that make up most fictional police dramas and the shows that claim to represent reality.
Does this mean police work isn't dangerous or that there are no risks? Not hardly. Policing can be a dangerous job and therefore not for everyone. Some of the danger is physical; there is an ever-present possibility of attack or of being asked to perform physically taxing tasks. Another kind of danger, though, is psychological and can come, as mentioned, from thoughts of the possibility of danger or, more likely, from the stresses of being exposed to negative events in the lives of others.
When asked about stress, officers most frequently mention the police organization itself as a stressor. The need to make decisions on the streets or highways, but then to have those decisions so frequently questioned by the public, the media, and senior officers within the department, leads many officers to feel they are constantly under scrutiny for even the most routine activities.
Facing physical danger in a job does not mean you must see yourself as Superman or Wonder Woman. It means, though, that you must put fears aside to when you run into a situation in which others are running away, and consider the safety of others before your own.
Each year, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) adds to its wall in Washington, DC, the names of officers throughout the country who were killed in the line of duty the previous year. For the past 10 years, the numbers have fluctuated from 169 in 1998 to 181 to 2007. On the list are those killed feloniously, including those shot or attacked physically, and those whose deaths were accidental, perhaps in auto accidents while on duty either pursuing a suspect or killed while a suspect was fleeing other officers. Some officers drowned while trying to rescue people, some were attacked while serving civil restraining papers ordering people to leave their own homes.
The dangerousness of policing is sometimes questioned because a number of occupations are comprised of workers who die at higher rates than police officers. These occupations include fishing, logging, and piloting airplanes. Yet these fields are dangerous in different ways; in these jobs worker deaths are likely to be the result of industrial accidents, whereas police are more likely to be killed intentionally or in situations that have gotten out of control but that, with the exception of the large number of traffic accidents, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be defined as accidents. While workers in other professions are expected to take precautions, such as undergoing special training or wearing safety equipment, none don a bulletresistant vest each day to counter the possibility that they might be shot at or stabbed by an assailant.
The one area where police officers are faced with accidental deaths similar to these other fields is traffic accidents, which annually claim the lives of more officers than do intentional or felonious actions by others. In 2006, for instance, more than half (73) of the 151 police officer deaths resulted from traffic accidents, while another dozen officers died in various other types of accidents. The number of officers killed in traffic accidents has increased over the past 30 years at the same time that the number of officers killed feloniously has been declining. The only exception to this pattern was 2001, when figures included those who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11.
Despite attempts by academic researchers and traffic engineers to determine the reasons for the increase, no one factor has been determined to be the major culprit. Some attribute the problem to faster cars and the greater mobility of both police and criminals, some indicate that police officers—particularly young ones—may drive carelessly, particularly when pursuing suspects.
Another unproven theory is that many large city police agencies, in an attempt to recruit more local residents, have done away with the requirement that candidates have a driver's license before entering the police academy. Although defensive driving has long been taught at police academies, the need to teach basic driving skills to new police officers has resulted in many rookies who are assigned to patrol in marked police cars but are inexperienced behind the wheel. If you live in a large city, there is a good chance that you have read a newspaper article about police officers becoming involved in one-car accidents either during pursuits or in trying to control their vehicle and the emergency equipment simultaneously. You might even have found the articles amusing, but if you are successful in your job search you will learn how difficult it can be to control all the emergency equipment in a patrol car and control the steering wheel at the same time.
Another reason for the accidents might be that police officers are likely, despite regulations to the contrary, to drive without wearing their seat belts, either because they anticipate having to exit their vehicles quickly or frequently or just because the amount of equipment they carry on their belts makes seatbelts more uncomfortable for them than for the average driver. Departments have attempted to counter the increase in vehicle accidents by limiting the situations in which officers are permitted to pursue suspects and by increasing disciplinary penalties for driving without a seatbelt.
Another risk—less deadly perhaps, but one that may ultimately affect a person's quality of life or even longevity—is stress. Stress can come from any number of sources and certainly is not unique to policing. A number of factors, each of which individually may not occur only in policing but are combined in policing, may form an unusual set of circumstances that are associated with stress. Street-level police work, whether in uniform or in plainclothes, opens an officer to threats of danger at any time. Will the next call, one that initially appears routine, result in violence when someone turns out to have a gun or a knife or to refuse, even if unarmed, to be taken into custody peacefully? Will a routine call to assist a sick person turn violent when the person's relatives refuse to permit emergency medical personnel into the home?
Even though an undercover operation was carefully planned and all possible attempts were made to control the setting and personnel on the scene, might the informant have lied, might the address have been incorrectly recorded, or could one or more of the subjects become suspicious that the undercover may be a cop? None of these questions can be answered in advance.
A third area of stress may have nothing to do with potential danger to the officer individually but is a type of system overload from being exposed to the troubles of others. Witnessing and having to respond to the troubles of others can be stressful even to bystanders. As someone thinking of a career in policing, have you considered what it might mean to see battered and brutalized children or spouses in domestic disputes? Will you think too long about your own children or spouse being placed in a similar situation? Officers may also be in situations where they will be exposed to dead bodies; many times those bodies may be dismembered, burned, bloated, or otherwise maimed. Your internal fortitude will be tested.
In the last 30 years police departments have become more attuned to stress. Officers are encouraged to display emotions after a situation has been concluded, and counseling after being involved in a shooting or having spent days or even weeks at a disaster scene, is today an accepted part of policing. Part of this changed view is a deeper understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may result in an officer's own life unraveling after exposure to too many emergencies or after hiding his or her emotions for too long. Bowing to an image of strength, and concerned that their problems will not be kept confidential, many officers refuse to rely on department counseling services, but departments continue to offer them with assurances they will not negatively affect career outcomes.
Police departments have not only addressed danger by trying to determine if there are patterns behind violent encounters or whether traffic-related deaths and injuries can be minimized or how to counteract the most obvious forms for stress, they have also tried to minimize some of the routine stress associated with shift work and other working conditions that are part of policing. They have also developed peer counseling and professional programs to address occupational stress.