A psychologist interested in helping law enforcement officers overcome the pitfalls of their job discusses the effects of the policing career on the individual and their families from a scientific viewpoint.
The following excerpt, ‘The Brotherhood of Biochemistry: Its Implications for a Police Career’, by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. was published in the 1990 book ‘Understanding Human Behavior for Effective Police Work’.
Officer John Miller was a sixteen-year veteran of a two thousand-officer police force. During his career, he had served in several capacities, from patrol officer to detective. For the past nine- years he had been a canine officer. During this time John earned the respect not only of the street cops but, also of his superiors. It was a rare individual indeed, who did not speak of John as an officer to be admired and looked up to. John had high job satisfaction, was well respected by other canine officers, and appeared to be heading toward his twenty-year retirement as a police success story. John also had a well-functioning police family. He had been married for seventeen years. This marriage had produced two children, a son and daughter, fourteen and twelve years old. The family was heavily invested in John’s role as a police officer, particularly in his specialty of canine officer. The children had grown up with police service dogs as members of the family. On two occasions over the past decade, the family had traveled, once to California, and another time to the southeastern United States, to bring back prospective canines for the dog unit. These trips occurred as part of the family vacation. The family also had imported a dog from Germany at their own expense. Beyond a doubt, this was a police family-a canine-oriented police family. On more than one occasion, the children had been proud to have their father bring the highly trained dogs to their elementary and junior high schools to perform canine demonstrations. Suddenly John found himself under the supervision of a new captain. The new command officer had certain ideas of his own involving the cross-training of bomb dogs and narcotics dogs. John adamantly opposed this idea. John tried to approach his new captain with tact but was met with an authoritarian narrow-mindedness. The captain ordered John to take his experienced drug dogs and cross-train them as bomb dogs. Again, John tactfully attempted to explain to the captain that once a dog is certified to alert to one narrow range of olfactory sensation, cross-training would confuse the animal and reduce its total efficiency, producing a dog of only limited serviceability. When this approach was rebuffed, John tried to make it clearer by pointing out to the captain that if a cross-trained dog sat down (meaning that he’s found something), they wouldn’t know whether to evacuate the building or get a search warrant. The captain failed to appreciate the humor in his approach, and John found himself unceremoniously ordered out of the canine unit and returned to uniform patrol, assigned to a part of the city where he had, begun work sixteen years prior.
This unexpected transfer hit John quite hard and also his wife and children. The transfer meant that not only was John no longer a member of the specialized canine unit, but that all city-funded equipment, including the dogs, would be turned back to the city for assignment to another officer. John took the transfer hard. When he started his new assignment as a patrol officer, he did so with cynicism and hostility. This was the first time in sixteen years that John did not enjoy going to work and he rapidly grew to hate if. His sick leave increased as did the number of citizen complaints. On more than one occasion John found himself receiving verbal discipline from his watch commander (an officer with whom he attended the police academy sixteen years prior). John’s new lieutenant attempted to perform intervention and supervisory counseling by stating “John, I know that the manner in which you were handled at Special Operations [canine) was maybe not the best way. This is field operations and it’s a new deal over here. I need you as a leader. We have a lot of young cops out here and I’m gonna need your seniority and your leadership.” To this John responded, “Lieutenant, you can count on me being here. I have four years to go until I retire, but don’t count on me for anything else. John’s behavior continued to deteriorate evidenced not only by a lack of adequate investigation for field calls, but also by a general decline in his performance as a police officer.
While deterioration was taking place at work, John’s family -also was beginning to suffer. His wife and children bounced back from the transfer much sooner than John did. His wife advised John, “You have four years to go here and then we can do what we want to do. Let’s just finish it out.” To which John responded, “I’m not gonna make four years with these assholes.”
Several months after john’s transfer from canine he encountered an old police friend who had retired and become chief of police in a small rural department in the same state. When John and his old friend began commiserating over old times, his friend advised him, “if you come to work for me in my department, you can start working your dog the day you arrive.” John was rather enthusiastic about this job proposition, even though it meant a 40 percent reduction in pay and relocating almost 230 miles away in a small rural community. John’s wife took the news of a potential move with a marked lack of enthusiasm. “John, we’ve lived in this city almost our whole life. Our children were born here. Our parents are here, and our home is almost paid off. Let’s just do four more years with the department then decide what we want to do. I don’t think we can take a 40 percent cut in pay and still make ends meet.”
Thus John and his wife began several months of confrontation over his accepting the chance to work with a dog again in the new town. Now not only was the workplace exceedingly unhappy for John, but also for the first time in seventeen years of marriage, home had become a place of confrontation and tension. After several months of constant debate at home over whether or not to relocate to the new city, and simultaneously operating under closer and closer administrative scrutiny due to his deteriorating police performance, his wife finally gave in, saying “If the only way I can keep this family together is to move to that town, then I guess we just have to go.”
John and his wife sold their home, where they had lived for sixteen years, transferred the kids to a school district of questionable quality, .and attempted to re-create a new life in an isolated part of the state away from friends and family. The state in which the family lived had statewide certification for peace officers and a statewide public safety retirement system, so his retirement rights were intact. John continued to work toward his last four years of a police career. Shortly after arriving in his new department, John found the grass was not always greener on the other side. His old friend, the Chief required all officers to undergo a field-training program. John was assigned a field-training officer who had approximately two years of police experience. Although John was typically an easy going and open -minded individual, he found the young officer’s habit of personal editorializing about officer safety more than he could bear on a daily basis. John soon began getting into confrontations with this young officer. This was reflected in his daily evaluations and eventually brought John to the attention of his old friend, the Chief. The chief attempted to counsel John by saving “John, look. just go through the field training program. Learn how we do business here, and as soon as you’re through the program, we’ll start, working on your getting a canine unit up on the streets.” To this John responded, “ I thought I was going to work a dog as soon as I got here.” The chief advised him at this point that his canine unit could not be funded until the next fiscal year, approximately seven months away. Feeling angry and betrayed, John confronted the Chief. “You brought me way the hell up to this Godforsaken spot by telling me I could work the dog. Now your saying I can’t have one for seven months. That’s B.S.” Soon John was given the choice of conducting business the way the Chief wanted or finding employment elsewhere.
John went home and advised his wife that they were leaving -the town -after only two months. His wife responded positively, believing that they were returning to their old city where John had rehire rights, in as much as, he had given notice to his former employer. John responded, “I’m never going back there to work for those assholes even if I only had four days, not just four years.” John quit his job and found employment in a twenty-man police force, again at the opposite end of the state. This time he traveled to his new employment without his family; his wife elected to return to the city where his police career had begun. John found himself divorced, two hundred miles away from his children. At first he saw them every other weekend, but as the months passed he visited less and less frequently. John became involved in a live-in relationship with a dispatcher who worked in his new department. After a year and a half working as a canine officer in the new department, a new mayor and city council were elected. The day they were sworn into office, they terminated the Chief of Police and the entire police force, including John. Now, at forty-one years of age, with eighteen years toward a twenty-year retirement within the state, John found himself with high blood pressure and impaired vision, and unable to pass a required pre-employment physical for state law enforcement officers.
Two years away from retirement eligibility, John went to work as a security guard in a power plant 300 miles away from the city where he practiced law enforcement for sixteen years. He began to drink excessively and became a hostile, cynical, and emotionally broken man.
John’s case can be considered a tragic consequence of the police stress cycle and a prime example of how vulnerable a police officer becomes if he welds his sense of self-worth to his police role-a role he himself does not control. Obviously John lost perspective along the way by over-investing in his role as a canine officer. more important, he also lost wife, a day-to-day relationship with his children, a satisfying police career, and ultimately retirement. How in a little less than two years did a satisfied. enthusiastic, happily married police officer become an angry, cynical, depressed, alcohol abusing individual who, in all likelihood, will never realize a police retirement and who, without professional counseling, will not be able to put the pieces of his life back together.
If the best response to being a police officer is to live by the edicts of a calendar so you can fake your way through family and social life for twenty years, then maybe it is just a terrible idea altogether. Twenty years of a nonstop rollercoaster of manic highs and lows that dehumanize the officer and often makes them abusive at home is no kind of life for anybody. There is no thrill worth destroying yourself while creating general human misery to serve the agendas of the ruling elite.
Just don’t do it, or get out before it destroys you and everyone you love!