Wednesday, July 13, 2016
An armed public increasing police trauma, shootings
By Gabrielle Grossman
San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2016
Imagine yourself as a police officer and the fear you might experience as you patrol the streets day after day, getting calls to deal with violent persons, many armed with guns. You are also aware of the many police officers who have been shot. Police work is tough enough without officers having to face an increasingly armed public.
I had several clients and their spouses in this circumstance. Usually the police officer’s wife had the first appointment, asking for help coping with the officer’s behavior — in one case, keeping loaded guns near the front door, jumping at noises outside, experiencing night fears and frequent emotional outbursts. He refused to go to social events outside their home, for fear of being seen.
Typically, the wife was asked to bring her husband for the second session. Usually, the husband would announce that he would come in only that one time, just to help his wife with “her” therapy; the reason was he believed it would jeopardize his job if it became known that he was undergoing psychotherapy.
When they were willing to answer questions, I saw symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder exhibited by the officers. Some admitted to barricading doors and windows, and sleeping with their weapon, the reason being that thugs who that officer had arrested or interacted with might come to know his address and would come to harm him and/or his family. He usually wanted his wife to understand his need for continuous vigilance, as well as his need to keep away from social activities.
Many of these officers, although suffering from frequent flashbacks to past traumas and the fear this brings, were not willing to become psychiatric patients as this identity could bring other consequences. Some used alcohol or drugs to self-medicate and calm themselves, in order to face another day in a trauma-filled work setting.
Mental health workers who treat people with post traumatic stress disorder expect to treat the symptoms well after the trauma has occurred, i.e, after the veteran is home and safely away from life-threatening combat. Police officers face potential traumas every day, which re-traumatize the officer, making his or her symptoms worse.
The diagnosis of “acute stress disorder” does not apply to police officers; it applies to the days and weeks right after the trauma has occurred. In fact, the diagnostic manual does not contain a diagnosis for ongoing traumatic stress, as that experienced in a police officer’s life.
The Minnesota police officer who shot a black motorist said he reacted to the man’s gun, not his race. My guess is that the sight of a gun was a “trigger” for the symptoms of traumatic stress to emerge, symptoms which often render an officer unable to act rationally. The officer’s lawyer said the officer was “overcome with sadness” over the shooting.
The increase of guns in the population has increased the traumatic experiences endured by police. Today, with more than 300 million guns in the population and people buying more of them, the amount of threat to police is very high, as is the threat to the public. Shootings by police, who are often experiencing a traumatic stress disorder, are commensurately more frequent.
Gabrielle Grossman is a retired psychologist.