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'You wouldn't let an officer go to a violent job without a stab-proof vest'

Officers are being sent from incident to incident without the required tools to process the scenes they often witness argues Susanne Knabe-Nicol.

'You wouldn't let an officer go to a violent job without a stab-proof vest'

Date - 17th May 2021
By - Dr Susanne Knabe-Nicol
8 Comments 8 Comments}

The above quote is from Sam Smith, founder of the Green Ribbon Policing campaign. He loved being a cop, but had to leave after only 3 years, as he was just one step away from a breakdown, according to his doctor. The quote carries on to say that, if an officer were to be sent to that violent job without a vest, and then got injured, it would be barbaric for the responsible police organisation to expect the officer to sort out their own medical care, not accepting any accountability for the injuries sustained. Yet, Sam goes on, we are doing exactly that.

Police are not taught how to process traumatic incidents, what to do with the sights, smells, and overwhelming emotions that they experience on a day-to-day basis, yet they are being sent from incident to incident, without any mental protection or training on how to handle the effect extreme situations will have on them. And often, the occupational health services forces do provide, do not seem appropriate to officers.

It’s not just the organisation, but also those who work within it, that are ill-equipped to provide a supportive environment. Rob Hosking, another former officer in his 20s, who had to leave the job after 5 years in which he was a negotiator and counter-terrorism liaison officer, describes a toxic macho police culture, in which any sign of emotion or struggle with the experiences officers are exposed to, are discouraged.

He says young, fresh recruits graduating from their training are often paired up with more experienced ones during their probation, and that is where they are met with a police culture of hardened individuals, who make jokes to cope with what they have to deal with, who have lost any empathy for those struggling with mental health issues, and who expect young officers to get in line and just deal with it, like they do. He suffered from night terrors, heart palpitations and flashbacks, and when he took the brave step of telling his inspector that he was struggling, the reply was 'Well, you better go and get help, then".

That seems very depressingly close to Sam's earlier analogy of police forces failing to provide officers with what they need to protect themselves out there, and then, when they do get injured, expecting them to deal with it on their own. You may recall, he said that that would be barbaric.

Both of these young men loved their profession and would have wanted to stay in the job and serve their communities, but the fact they were left without the support they needed, at the time they needed it, made this impossible.

How much did the time off these men had to take cost their employers? How much does it cost to pay a police officer who is unable to turn up for work for a number of months? How much does it cost the force to hire, train and equip a replacement for them?  

Would it really not have been worth it, even in purely financial terms, to prevent all this?

Last week (13th May 2021), a global webinar was held by Police Science Dr, the brand name under which I publish free material on police science for the global law enforcement community, on Mental Health in Policing.

Twelve practitioners and experts from the UK, Canada, USA, New Zealand and Australia spoke about both the challenges, but also the solutions to this issue. First and foremost, what is making and keeping our officers sick is the existing police culture, as Rob described. Many feel there is no safe space for an officer to admit that they can’t shake a particular incident off, that they are finding it difficult to process – after all, there is not time to process, they have to go to the next job, and to the next one after that, and they wouldn’t know how to process traumatic incidents anyway, as that has never been taught to them. The pervasive atmosphere is that the older officers have seen it all as well, many times over, and they’re just getting on with it, so why wouldn’t you cope?

Sam admits that he felt judged when he came back to work after his extended period of sick leave. Staffing levels are already dangerously low, and periods of absence do not help. James Ravenall, a serving inspector, stated that you get more training on how to look after your new job phone or police car than how to look after yourself. Not only in terms of mental health, but also with how to handle shifts. As Dr Yvonne Taylor, a chief inspector, currently seconded to the College’s National Wellbeing Service states, we are not supposed to be awake at night. Night shifts go against how our bodies function, and an alarming number of officers and staff die in car accidents, often commuting to, but especially from, work. Again, police employees are not taught how best to manage the challenges of working and performing during the night, they are just expected to get on with it. James Ravenall describes how accidents, complaints and assaults are more frequent on night shifts.

Dr Susanne Knabe-Nicol

Dr Jacqueline Drew, a police psychologist from Australia, dropped a real bombshell when she revealed that whilst we traditionally thought our officers’ mental health is in such bad shape because of the trauma they go through, the stressors from the organisation, working conditions and poor leadership are actually twice as harmful as traumatic incidents themselves. How are officers treated by their colleagues and supervisors? Are they being looked after, do they feel valued? Do they feel well equipped to carry out their jobs? Are staffing levels appropriate, are they able to function well within the conditions the organisation is creating? Dr Drew states that we cannot prevent officers from experiencing the traumatic experiences of the job. However, organisations can remove or at least reduce the organisational stressors that are more harmful than traumatic incidents. Now, that was a real eye opener.

The webinar consisted of two parts in one event, whereby in the first part, speakers talked about these challenges and presented the facts, whilst the 2nd part presented the real and practical solutions that should, or already exist in some places.

We heard from a peer support program in Illinois, USA, whereby trained volunteers are available to speak to officers, and their family members, to either provide the help they need, on any issue, or signpost them further. A similar practice is available in the UK with the Mind BlueLight programme, and we heard from its national policing coordinator, Inspector Phil Spencer, how he had been fed up with seeing really strong, good cops, fall apart in front of his eyes. Dr Marla Friedman, a police psychologist from the USA talked about what is probably the most promising tool of all: ‘Chiefs Lead The Way’. Police chiefs go for a regular mental health check-up with an external, vetted mental health professional, and they go back to their staff and tell them they’ve done so, and then ask them all to go.

I think the best way we’ll find a path out of the existing, unforgiving cold macho culture, is if the heads of the organisation give their staff implicit permission to talk about, and deal with their mental health, by explicitly talking about their own, and, ideally, making it mandatory. If it is voluntary, some with fragile egos will continue to laugh it off. There should be no option not to go.

The webinar also discussed the merits of internal vs. external availability of mental health support. The problem with internal support is that many officers don’t trust its proclaimed confidentiality. That accepting it might jeopardise their reputation and careers. And the problem with external support is that most counsellors and therapists don’t understand the job of policing. Ginny McKenna, who co-hosted the webinar with me, described how some officers felt they were in a reality TV show, providing the entertainment to a fascinated counsellor, for whom all the experiences the officer had suffered bore a certain degree of fascination. Yes, policing can look exciting, that’s why they make so many programmes about it. I’m not aware of many TV shows about accountants (no offence), but people just love to watch true crime, and the counsellors that had been visited by some very unwell cops were no different. However, that is not good enough when the officer needs help.

Ginny, a former cop with over 20 years of experience working the street is now an accredited life coach, and she specialises in helping frontline staff and officers to develop tools to handle stress and take back control when it seems to be slipping. Being external to any organisation, there are no confidentiality issues, and having been a former cop, a suicidal one at that, she understands the pressures, demands, the depression and anxiety that can be created by working for your community better than anyone. Her globally accessible online course, Emergency Stress Pit Stop – Helping Police Officers & Police Staff Beat Stress, Take Back Control & Thrive is released on the Police Science Dr Academy next month, with enrolments closing 18th June.

I suggest anyone who is interested in these topics watch the webinar replay, it’s fully and freely accessible to anyone; some really hard-hitting points were made, and some amazing solutions are presented.

You can also download a free poster that details the steps towards a mentally healthy police force, based on the recommendations of the webinar’s speakers from the webinar page.

The demand for speaker slots and the response from the global audience at this webinar was so great, that there will be more such events in the future. Anyone who wants to be kept updated on matters relating to police science, in a very practical, down-to-earth and non-academic way, is welcome to join the free Police Science Dr email list on the main website: 

Dr Susanne Knabe-Nicol worked in various police forces and roles in the UK for over a decade. She has a PhD in Investigative Psychology and is the creator of Police Science Dr, an online resource to help connect police to research on policing topics.

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Ordered by:
Jay OldSchoolCopper - Thu, 20 May 2021

About time there was more focus on supporting officers around the calls we have to go to. Then the constant, relentless call to call to call with no break, downtime or debrief time (official or unofficial) and the constant micromanagement and demands for reports from “REMF” seniors with no empathy - no wonder people are breaking. And it’s nothing to do with “wimpishness” - we need to look out for each other properly and not encourage drinking and bottling up stuff as (not-)coping methods. Not everyone drinks, and bottling up stress just leads to a load of broken officers.