Police Officers and How the Job Can Change Them for the Worse: A Psychologist’s Perspective

In response to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, people have been scrambling to explain the violent behavior observed in our police officers. One theory I’ve heard is that the wrong types of people are drawn to police work. Too often this question is posed by someone who has a theory that the people who want to become police officers are controlling and aggressive individuals who are drawn towards careers that will provide them with a sense of power and dominance. While an interesting theory, empirical efforts to substantiate a “police personality” have not been conclusive, and there is little evidence to support the idea.

I believe the issue is not so much about the wrong people being drawn to law enforcement, but rather that being a police officer changes a person. For instance, we know that simply being in a position of power changes a person’s behavior. For those of you who remember your Intro to Psychology course, you probably remember the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the summer of 1971. In the experiment, Stanford students were randomly assigned to be prisoners and guards. Spoiler alert: Dr. Zimbardo was forced to end the study early when it was observed that the guards were abusing the prisoners. Seemingly normal American college students turned into sadistic and abusive prison guards almost overnight, simply as a result of being told they were in control. (For those of you interested in watching a fascinating [and brief] documentary on the experiment, click here.)

While the comparison between college students and police officers is not a perfect one, it does point out the fact that people can change when put into positions of authority. By that token, it’s not unreasonable to assert that being a police officer can in fact change a person’s attitude and behavior. There are a number of possible reasons for this, other than they have power. The fact that police officers are subjected to potentially-dangerous and unpredictable situations virtually every day likely takes a toll on their psyche, as does the fact that they constantly interact with people who detest them. Regardless of the potential causes, police work can change a person. But don’t take my word for it.

Check out this blog written by a police officer’s wife. In it, she writes at length about the myriad ways her husband has changed since becoming a police officer. It’s easy to disregard the musings of one woman, but scroll down and read the litany of comments/complaints written by other police wives. Or better yet, read this blog written by an actual police officer who describes the personality changes he has witnessed in his fellow officers. I wish I could say the changes are positive, but they are virtually all negative. Most of the wives describe chronic grumpiness, impatience, irritability, paranoia, and detachment from family. These changes of course do not describe every police officer, but it does identify a troubling pattern.

We know that the psychological distress experienced by police officers puts them at a higher risk for incurring mental health disorders. Also of note is that police officers are significantly more likely to commit suicide than the population at large, suggesting higher rates of depression and anxiety. And because police officers are subjected to potentially-dangerous and unpredictable environments over an extended period of time, they can develop symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some of the common symptoms of PTSD include many of the changes noted above by police wives: irritability, increased anxiety, exaggerated startle response, numbing of emotions, and hypervigilance (defined as an enhanced state of sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors).

For those that don’t know, I’m a clinical psychologist. For the better part of my career in mental health, I’ve focused on studying and treating individuals affected by personal trauma, primarily with military and veteran populations. There are certainly similarities between the police force and the military, but day in and day out, police officers may have it worse because their deployments don’t come to an end. They come into contact with the dregs of society, the lowlifes, the criminals, the violent, the addicted, the degenerates, and the destitute every day on the job. This becomes their basis for forming a negative bias of the world.

The negative bias happens everywhere, even in situations that are undeniably safe. Clients with symptoms of PTSD typically fear crowds; they don’t like to sit with their backs to doors; they want to be able to see the entrances and exits at all times; they watch people’s hands constantly; they profile people; they often report difficulty staying focused on conversations because their attention is so-often focused on assessing and re-assessing the environment for safety. This happens at restaurants, stores, churches, schools, parks, shopping malls, and virtually everywhere else.

One challenge we face in addressing the problem is that many police officers do not see their “condition” as a problem. In fact, many officers report that their experiences provide them with greater insight. What we might call paranoia, they call heightened awareness. When an officer’s spouse points out the unlikelihood of a gunman walking into Applebee’s and shooting up their booth, the officer may be equipped to discuss a shooting that occurred at IHOP three years ago. When the officer’s teenage daughter mentions the extremely low likelihood of that happening to them, the officer will likely pull out the familiar, “It just takes one time” argument. When a friend mentions to his officer friend the fact that carrying a gun actually increases one’s chances of being shot, the officer is quick to say that his training is unique. No amount of facts, data, or scientific research will convince the officer otherwise. These officers work in an environment where other officers think the same way, and when an outsider offers a differing viewpoint, officers can be quick to dismiss the outside opinion and even mock it, saying that they (non-officers) don’t understand the real dangers that lurk out there.

I spent three years working within the VA medical system (one year at the National Center for PTSD in Boston and two years at a PTSD outpatient clinic in Arkansas). I’ve worked with veterans who fought in WWII all the way to veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. In these experiences what I found perhaps most interesting is that regardless of the age of the patient, regardless of the background, and regardless of the traumatic incident(s) experienced, each client with PTSD demonstrated remarkable uniformity in his/her presentation of symptoms. They reported difficulty trusting people; discomfort in crowds; when they go out in public, they have difficulty relaxing because they are constantly looking over their shoulder; they say they used to be fun-loving and quick to laugh, but now they are usually irritable and serious. They say they used to enjoy being around other people, but now they prefer being alone. And many of them say they no longer feel comfortable leaving the house without a gun. They usually develop an overly negative view of the world and an overly negative view of the people in it. These symptoms can potentially result in defensive, reactionary, and exaggerated responses when interacting with others.

Just to be clear, simply because a person has PTSD does not mean that he/she will act violently. That being said, there is evidence to suggest that when pushed, people with PTSD can be more aggressive and sometimes violent. As explained in “The Textbook on Violence Assessment and Management,” the hypervigilance seen in individuals with PTSD can take the form of “reduced ability to tolerate mild or moderate slights, resulting in actions that are disproportionate to the degree of provocation.” This is exactly the charge we so often hear leveled against police officers on a daily basis.

When addressing the violent behavior demonstrated by American police officers, the media is quick to portray them in one of two ways, either national heroes on par with John Wayne or racist sadistic animals. But I believe their behavior can be better understood by noting the psychological factors at work. Police officers are not superhuman. When they experience significant stress, day in and day out, they experience psychological distress like the rest of us. Because of this, they are at an increased risk for developing psychological disorders such as Major Depression, PTSD, and various anxiety disorders. Much of the time, these conditions go untreated

I’m willing to concede the notion that most police officers go into law enforcement for the right reasons. However, for reasons outside of their control, the experience changes them. These changes vary from person to person, but in many cases, these officers become more irritable, more paranoid, and sometimes more aggressive. And in this psychological state, they can act in ways not in accordance with their oath to serve and protect.

– Nathan


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