Anguish in blue needn't turn deadly

April 21, 1996|By JOSEPH D. McNAMARA

POLICE SUICIDES, police corruption and misconduct, high rates of alcoholism, divorce and mental breakdowns among cops all offer grim confirmation that police work is grueling and stressful. W. S. Gilbert said it best a long time ago: "When constabulary duty's to be done, A policeman's lot is not a happy one."

The constabulary's job is particularly hard in New York City: A study last year reported a rate of 29 suicides per 100,000 for the NYPD, vs. 12 per 100,000 for the general population. And in a telling episode, off-duty Officer Christopher Gargan pulled out a Glock 9 mm weapon at a St. Patrick's Day concert and fatally shot himself in the head. He was only 22.

Nevertheless, in New York and elsewhere, departments are helping officers deal with psychological stress. These improvements not only benefit officers and their families, but spare citizens the consequences of unstable cops.

Of course, a lot of the stress in policing is unavoidable. Cops aren't invited to birthday parties and weddings. People only dial 911 when someone's bleeding or dead. Cops get catapulted from tedious duties into moments of terror and danger, and relentless close-ups of human degradation.

Along the way, it becomes far too easy for the police culture to label the world as overrun by dirtbags, ingrates -- and other cops. Even entry-level police work is stressful because, unlike rookies in most other large organizations, patrol officers have to make instant life-or-death decisions.

If those decisions are wrong, officers can end up in the morgue, the emergency room, the internal affairs unit or even prison, like the cops who assaulted Rodney King.

During my years as a police chief, I discovered a number of strategies that helped dilute the stress, thus protecting the public from over-the-edge cops. First, pre-hiring psychological screening is essential. Believe it or not, many police agencies still fail to do adequate background investigations of recruits. Bad cops are hard to get rid of once they obtain civil service tenure.

And people carrying badges and guns who don't belong in police work are under tremendous personal anxiety. They are also time bombs who raise apprehension throughout the ranks. People with a history of psychological problems should not be hired as police officers, period.

On the other hand, even stable people can come unglued in police work. The best police departments are the ones that drop the John Wayne syndrome and train their personnel to be aware of the inevitability of stress and how to cope with it.

Free confidential psychological consultation is another essential for officers and their families. It turns out to be a bargain for the public in savings on disability pensions and lawsuits resulting from police misconduct.

In addition, police management can take steps to broaden a cop's world. Too often, departments allow officers to sink into a police culture that emphasizes the violence and depravity cops see. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of citizens are law-abiding and want to work with the police to make their neighborhoods safer.

But if officers simply respond to scenes of crime and violence, they miss the positive: owners' and renters' meetings, parent-teacher gatherings, student conferences and business community meetings. They miss the opportunity, as well, to discover citizens who support good police work. The public, for its part, loses the opportunity to discover that most officers are warm human beings eager to explain their jobs and to show people how to prevent crime.

One ironic source of stress is that police officers consistently underrate the degree to which the public respects them. The police would handle personal pressure better if they knew that most people value their work. For example, a recent Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of the public expressed high confidence in the police, surpassed only by confidence in the military and organized religion.

The police rating was much higher than that for business, Congress, the presidency or TV and other news organizations. And why not? What's wrong with a line of work that aims to protect human life and to prevent innocent people from being victimized by law-breakers?

Overall, the best way to minimize stress in policing is to run a good police department. That means a department that acts in partnership with community groups. It means a department with the vision and courage to take the steps necessary to minimize public stress about both crime and bad cops.

Joseph D. McNamara, former police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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