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Sometimes an officer has to bite the hand that fed him.

When you have to declare war against your own department.

by Hal Brown, LICSW

This article is dedicated to these good cops: the police couple who gave me the idea for this article, which I stayed up until 2:30 A.M. writing after I talked with them; the officer who proved you can fight a town and department that engaged in discrimination, and win big; and to other police and correction officers who. win or loose, fought the good fight.

The standard of excellence and leadership demonstrated by top police chiefs and superintendents should be a goal all departments should strive for. But there are those departments run by dinosaurs; administrators who don't even deserve to be called "chief". They don't come close to leading their police departments, for they lack any real leadership skill. They run them as if they are their personal fiefdoms. Morale is chronically low among the officers, except for those who play the game and are favored with perks and promotions.

The number one cause of police stress comes not from "the job" itself, but from a bureaucracy gone bad. All but the most starry eyed and naive of you knew full well what the job entailed when you accepted your shield or badge. You choose to deal with the low-lives and dregs of society, to risk getting shot at and battered, to handling tragic accidents, and to watch criminals get off periodically because of the fallibility of the court system. You know you never are totally "off the job". You know that some law abiding citizens will always act uneasy around you. Carrying that badge means you've accepted the role. You do this because ultimately being a cop is one of the best and most rewarding jobs there is, despite the "normal" police stress that comes with the territory. There's incredible pride that comes with being a good cop, and more pride that comes when you work for a department that is held in high repute.

Unfortunately, police academy instructors usually don't last long if they teach their recruits about how the police bureaucracy is the primary cause of police stress. (I was a volunteer instructor in a stress management class for correction officers at a large prison for two years, but was finally dismissed for addressing the issues in this article.) Police departments looking to hire don't advertise that their morale is poor and their leadership virtually non-existent.

Typical rookies come to these departments with an up-to-date education, solid training, and high aspirations, but they learn within a short time that they're supposed to "throw away the book" and "go along to get along". This is couched in macho terms like "becoming street smart" by those who are threatened by new ideas. I'm not referring to fads, but proven approaches like the aggressive community policing techniques initiated by Chief Bratton in New York, the solid management approaches used to foster high morale by the best corporations, and the kind of of leadership demonstrated by General Schwatrzkopf during the Gulf War.

What happens when a good cop is betrayed by his or her own department?

As a police stress therapist, I talk to many officers suffering anxiety and depression precipitated by this kind of betrayal. If there wasn't too much psychiatric jargon as it is, I'd propose a new diagnosis: f...'d-up chief syndrome, or FUCS. Cops with the most integrity and the highest ideals tend to be the most susceptible to FUCS.The symptoms can be acute and debilitating. They tend to be worse for cops to handle than people in other professions, because when you're a cop you like to be in control, not just of situations, but most certainly of your own reactions. If you have anxiety attacks, with frightening physical manifestations, or start having uncharacteristic suicidal or reckless thoughts, it is extremely disconcerting. You have the sense that something is very wrong with you, that your body and mind are letting you down.

Making matters worse, in these police departments, police stress is looked on as something of a joke, and officers who become disabled by it are considered "crybabies". These are departments that don't even offer critical incident debriefing because the chiefs think their officers should be "men enough" to handle even the most tragic accidents or shootings without getting "all weepy with some shrink". No officer in their right mind would let on they were suffering from police stress. Obviously, police stress counseling and is considered a big fraud.

If you have to take stress related leave, it is common that some of your so-called friends will treat you like you have the plague. It's as if you've become contaminated and they don't want to risk being associated with you. When you were shot or injured, everyone came to visit. But when you go out on stress leave, you find out just who your real friends are.

How to deal with it?

We haven't evolved biologically very far beyond the cavemen. Our human physiology hasn't kept up with the changes in day-to-day living over the past ten thousand years, let along the past fifty years. We still have the neurological circuitry that causes the same heightened biochemical response when we are threatened psychologically as when we are threatened physically. This is called the fight or flight response, and involves an increase in adrenaline and overall bodily readiness to take life saving action. You experience this on the job. You are trained when and how to fight, and when and how to flee. There's no problem unless you are backed into a corner with no weapon, and are about to be attacked by the modern day equivalent of a hungry saber-toothed tiger - perhaps a knife wielding maniac whacked out on PCP. In a situation like that the caveman would have an anxiety attack. His bodily functions would freeze or let go. Sadly, he'd be torn apart and eaten alive.

What happens when the attack isn't physical, but psychological?

The caveman never experienced this. What did he know about psychology? He just had to survive from day to day. Sure, he had to learn to hunt and gather, discover fire, invent the wheel...but life, short as it was, was pretty basic back then.

But you're a twentieth century Homo-sapien burdened with the remnants of a Cro-magnum brain. You have the very same fight or flight response when you face a dangerous situation as primitive man. Fighting you can handle, but because of your well deserved pride, taking flight is huge blow to your self-esteem. This is especially true if you are running from a psychological attack.

When you are mourning the loss not only of the job you love, but of your ideals, you discover just how much grief hurts. Add self-blame and shame, and it gets worse. You can become your own worst enemy with the negative thoughts about yourself that go through your mind. Your marriage may be in trouble, and your future is uncertain. You don't even know if you'll be well enough to function anymore.

The answer is that you have to declare war, and fight back.

But if you're like many cops in similar situations, you've being going it pretty much alone before seeking help. Here's the advice I give to my clients:

Admit you're engaged in a conflict equivalent to war, and with a formidable, but not unbeatable, enemy.

Develop your own coalition and alliances - your war team - which will include the best lawyer or lawyers you can find. If your union is worth anything, use them too, but don't just count on the union to fight for you. If discrimination is involved, file a complaint with the appropriate agency. Love them or, more likely as a cop, hate them, if your civil liberties have been violated, see if the ACLU will take your case.

Find yourself a good police stress therapist, one you can trust, and one who will not be involved in writing any kind of reports that may be used against you. Consider paying out of pocket, because insurance companies require at minimum a diagnosis, and if you end up suing for work caused a police stress disability, a psychiatric diagnosis can sometimes be used against you. A psychotherapist can treat you for what is called a life adjustment diagnosis like "job stress", but insurance won't pay for it. Add the cost of therapy into the financial settlement your lawyer will fight for. Ask the therapist to see his or her notes about you, and make sure they don't write anything that may be used against you. Usually minimal notes are better than extensive ones.

While your therapist should write as little as possible, you should document as much as possible. Carry a notebook, and when you interact with the bosses or have a potential incident, write everything down as soon as possible after it happens.

If you are ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation, remember that the doctor is working for your bosses, not for you. Don't lie or be evasive, but don't say anything that can be misinterpreted either. For example, you may feel rightfully that some in your department are working against you and perhaps setting you up. Even if you have proof they have been out to get you, never use the word "paranoid" to describe how you feel. Your aren't clinically paranoid when you have real enemies who are eager for you to make the slightest mistake. Paranoia is a mental disease and is not caused by stress.

Stop being so insulated. Reach out to those who may have gone through the same thing you did and ask them to talk about their experiences with you. This may open up old wounds for them, and be uncomfortable for you too. But sometimes sharing feelings with another cop who has been there can really help. It can also give you tactical information and help you plan strategy. Explain about your war team and ask them to join it.

Remember, you are going up against a lot of power and resources when you take on your chief, the department and whichever level of government you work for. So you have to put together the best team you can and prepare yourself for a drawn out and frustrating war.

Once you do all these things, I predict you will begin to feel better. You've taken action and engaged the fight element of the fight or flight response. Your pent-up energy will be mobilized. You will be doing something, instead of waiting for something to be done to you. Then you can use police stress therapy to:

help deal with your feelings about being let down by your department,

resolve irrational feelings of shame, self-blame or embarrassment,

begin to resolve your grief over your loss,

resolve any marital or family problems,

learn stress management techniques, and

help plan for your future.

Remember, there is always life after "the job". Some officers who win in court or before a disability board, still feel they have lost because they were so disillusioned and battered by having to fight for what was due them. Just because you initially had to leave the job because of police stress doesn't mean you can't realize other dreams and ambitions.

Deep down inside a cop is always a cop. At first you may not want anything to do with being associated with law enforcement or being a "former cop". But you will probably change you mind. So make sure your lawyers demand you be issued a "retired officer's badge" if your department balks at awarding you one. If you don't get one, order one yourself and carry it with pride. Make sure you keep your concealed weapon permit, too. Never for a moment think of yourself as a mentally disabled officer if you have to retire on police stress disability. When you are in a position to identify yourself if you need to exercise the right of citizen's arrest, or assist an active duty officer, flash the tin and state proudly "I'm on the job". In truth, you are a retired officer and are "on the job", a fact you can explain after the bad guys are cuffed and and carted.

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