Updated: Apr 10
This blog post is a little premature in the order I had planned to present content, but the timing is so crucial, I must start here. There is this narrative going around that police department are riddled with corruption and racism, and that they are disproportionately targeting the African Community with excessive force and killing black folks intentionally. I think there are many factors involved here, but I’d like to introduce myself first, before I delve into this issue, at least superficially, because there will be more to come later, and then direct some attention to the dirty secret of police work.
First, I want to present my qualifications to speak on this matter. I spent 15 years in corrections and law enforcement and was a Field Training Officer for two departments. I am a black belt and have instructed martial arts, as well as having taught self-defense and awareness to school-aged children, women, and other adults as part of my police duties. I’ve received extensive training in use of force, as well as de-escalation and racial profiling. I received several commendations, was nearly killed twice, developed PTSD, and was injured in the line of duty, forcing my retirement on disability. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, my Captain told me not to tell anyone, because there is a stigma with regard to mental health, and my job could be endangered. Afterward, I fell into a dark place of PTSD, depression, and alcohol abuse. I attempted to kill myself by asking a former co-worker to shoot me in the head. I survived only to land myself in legal trouble and continue down a self-destructive path. I eventually recovered and was born again in Christ, have worked in prison ministry, reentry, and workforce development. I’ve always viewed my nonprofit work as just another form of crime prevention, in that rehabilitating former criminals and putting them to work greatly reduces their chances of re-offending. My latest venture is a nonprofit, the Peacekeeper Initiative, that seeks to address mental health issues with first responders through peer mentoring, wellness activities, mental health therapy, substance abuse groups, and a suicide prevention campaign outside of the workplace, to avoid the stigma. We also want to address retired first responders. Our goal is to prevent first responder suicide, which is an epidemic, and to help first responders deal with the stresses of the job in a healthy way. I hold a BA in Nonprofit Administration and Leadership and a Masters in Public Administration.
I want you to understand that I was just as horrified as any of you at the video of George Floyd’s death and the manner in which he was treated by the officer who killed him, the officers who did nothing to intervene, and the way the ambulance crew simply flopped onto a cot without even checking his vital signs at the scene or uncuffing him to administer life saving measures. That’s a whole separate discussion for a later blog. That being said, I also do not buy into the narrative being pushed by the media that most police departments are corrupt and full of racist cops either. That has not been my experience in two different departments, as well as working closely with another, and working in the State Department of Corrections. Most police officers are just regular people trying to serve and protect their community and go home to their families at night. They are usually color blind. I see brothers and sisters in blue trusting each other with their lives no matter what color or sex they are. Like the military, police develop a bond forged out of courage and the need to rely on each other to survive, and color doesn’t even factor in. Most view the citizens they police equally, but many are woefully prepared for what they will see, especially the mental health consequences of the horrors they will see and experience, and unless they come from certain neighborhoods, they are also unprepared for the hatred and distrust they will experience from the communities they are trying to protect. In fact, I've seen African American officers treated horribly by their community, being called "sell outs", "Uncle Toms," and worse. They are prepared well for self-defense, taking people into custody, and the law, at least in most departments, but they receive no training in stress inoculation, self-care, or warning signs of excessive stress, because they are supposed to just toughen up and deal with it, compartmentalize it. What a lie that is. Most people don’t understand that most police officers go through a rigorous screening process before being allowed to even attend the academy. It includes extensive background checks that include interviewing people that know or have known in various capacities, physical and psychological testing, interviews with a psychologist, and a polygraph. They are then evaluated in the academy by instructors and for the first year of employment by numerous training officers and supervisors, during which time they can be terminated for any reason. Unfortunately, a few bad apples might slip through, but more than likely, they didn’t enter the police force that way at all. They became that way as a result of experiences, altered thought processes, trauma, and bad influences. Also unfortunately, the evaluation process, especially for mental health, ends there, and a culture of asking for help equaling weakness emerges. There is a huge stigma about revealing mental health and stress-related issues in most departments.
Some departments have started to realize that the impacts of stress on their officers can have deadly consequences and have established some efforts within their departments. Many, if not most, departments have an employee assistance program, but they are often under-utilized for fear of being found out by fellow officers or supervisors and losing their jobs. Most have some sort of critical incident stress team, but what qualifies as a critical incident often only pertains to officer involved shootings or the death of a fellow officer. It completely ignores the cumulative effects of seeing children molested or killed, horrific car accidents, suicides and homicides, or even natural deaths where someone has been undiscovered and started to decompose. The human mind isn’t meant to see that stuff, and officers are often ill-equipped with mental health tools to deal with it. Instead, they stuff it down and/or try to drink it away. A few very large departments have on-staff psychologists, but again, unless they are sent by their supervisor, very take advantage of these resources. Most cops suffer in silence. Some choose to eat their gun instead of dealing with it. Every year, officer suicides exceed the number of officers killed by other means in the line of duty.
That's why an organization such as ours that focuses on peer mentoring activities, PTSD resources, and suicide prevention outside of the workplace is so critical.
So, you might be asking, “So what?”, or “How does this tie into officer violence?” Did you know that studies show that up to 30% of first responders are dealing with mental health issues resultant from the job (SAMHSA, 2018)? It is estimated that 19% of police officers suffer from PTSD (Crime Report, 2018). There are approximately 686,665 officers in this country, so that means that over 130,000 of them are walking around with untreated PTSD. “A 2010 study of police officers working in urban areas found that 11% of male officers and 16% of female officers reported alcohol use levels that are deemed “at-risk” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (Addiction Center, n.d.).” PTSD affects decision-making significantly. “The potential long-term effects of PTSD in police officers may additionally lead to behavioral dysfunction such as substance abuse, aggression, and suicide (Violanti, 2018).” The Veterans Administration also ties PTSD to an increased risk of violence (Norman, Elbogen, and Schnurr, n.d.). Other studies suggest that there is an increased risk of violence when substance abuse and other mental health issues are present or co-occurring. So, when mental health and substance abuse issues go unaddressed in police officers, there is likely an increased risk of violent behavior. Of course, that doesn't mean that all officers with PTSD will react that way. Depression also frequently occurs at the same time. So violence can take the form of self-destructive behaviors, suicide, domestic violence, and inevitably some will come out at work. I know I experienced an increased degree of aggression and an artificial sense of increased danger and risk from some threats that were milder than I perceived. After nearly being killed on two occasions, I decided that it would never happen to me again, even if it meant others got hurt instead. Eventually, I knew that I could no longer safely carry a gun or make sound enough judgments to continue my career. I believe God was looking out for me when I destroyed my ankle, because I don’t know if I would have made the decision to retire without the additional injury. I also believe that altered mental states due to trauma-induced mental health issues can lead to being drawn to darker influences. You can start to generalize, to develop and “Us v.s. Them” mentality. I’ve heard the saying, “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6,” on many occasions, and I get where that comes from. I could not find any studies pertaining to this, but it seems to follow that if one is depressed, they are often easily drawn to ideas that support their reasons for being depressed, even if they know in their heart that it doesn’t make sense. Their mind is telling them things they would have otherwise rejected outright. I can’t even imagine the added stress to officers today, where they are having every action they take heavily scrutinized, often by people who have no knowledge of police tactics, use of force policies, or what it’s like to have to make a life and death decision in a fraction of a second. They are often hated by the very community they risk their lives for. This can only create a greater sense of divide and stress on those already stressed to the limit after the COVID 19 nightmare.
So, the dirty little secret of police work isn’t racism, it’s mental health and the lack of attention paid to it. I think that's evidenced by the fact that police departments aren't even talking about this as a potential contributor, even though the evidence supports it. I don’t believe that the vast majority of officers are racist or use force inappropriately. Again, that simply doesn’t match the actual numbers (to be addressed in a different blog) or my personal experience, but I do think that some of those officers do exist. Unfortunately, the actions of a few bad actors poisons the well for everyone else. I also think that many more are prone to acting that way due to the cumulative stressors of the job and untreated mental health issues. I think there are some systems, institutions, and circumstances that lead to the disparities that do exist, and those need to be addressed, but I don’t believe individual racism or abuse of power is prevalent in any way in most departments. We must acknowledge that it does exist however to whatever degree it does but also be realistic as to the actual magnitude of the problem actually exists, not what our emotions or people with a clear political agenda tell us and blow it out of proportion. That is a dangerous path, as evidenced by the calls to disband some departments. The consequences of such an action would be catastrophic. I’m always for improvement and better training, and I don’t see any reason not to try to make things better, so I hope that it the direction we actually move, but I fear that emotional anger is going to lead to some really poor policy decisions that will further endanger the lives of the brave officers to don the badge to protect us every day. We need to stand back and let the emotions subside so we can make some well-informed, evidence-based, decisions to improve our justice system and make sure it is administered blindly, not engage in knee-jerk reaction politics. In the meantime, we need to start addressing mental health and policing in a meaningful way. That’s why I started the Peacekeeper Initiative. Our goal is to have our services take place away from the place of employment with complete privacy in order to have more first responders ignore their fears and the stigma of seeking help within their departments. Check us out at www.peacekeeperusa.org. #peacekeeperusa #mentalhealth #firstresponders