The recent case of Eric Garner brought to light what has long needed healing in the police department, yet no one is talking about it. I’ve heard experts say officers need better training, higher pay and more education to prevent anymore tragedies. Not one person has mentioned PTSD.
I’m not saying PTSD is an excuse for a corrupt officer who engages in irresponsible criminal behavior just because they have a chip on their shoulder or a bad attitude. But to ignore the possibility of how much PTSD is affecting officers is doing a great disservice not only to the first responders but to the communities they serve.
In my twenties, I was in a committed relationship with a police officer in New York. He worked in a poor, high crime neighborhood that was littered with violence. During one of his shifts, he witnessed one of the neighborhood drug dealers get shot. He raced to help the guy, holding the victim’s exposed intestines inside his body, sealing off hemorrhaging with a tourniquet and calling for help. He saved this drug dealer’s life. Weeks later, the dealer was back on the street and when he saw the officer who saved his life he didn’t thank him. He glared at him with hatred. The officer acknowledged it didn’t matter how he tried to help. A criminal will never respect an officer. That is the nature of the toxic relationship of one who enforces laws, and the other who breaks them.
Looking back, this officer I dated had signs of PTSD. He couldn’t listen to rap music because he said it triggered bad memories and stress. He always had his gun on him, strapped to his ankle, which didn’t allow him a true break from his job. Neither did his police radio that was on 24/7 in his house, on call to assist an emergency. He was always on edge, no matter how hard he tried to exhibit a cool and in-control front, underneath it he was always considering the worst that could happen. Who could blame him? He saw the worst that could happen all the time on his job. For him, the bad guys were a chronic threat and he always needed to be prepared. Even though he was a good guy – trustworthy, loyal and spiritual with a big heart – the relationship ended because I wasn’t comfortable being with someone who was so on edge all the time, and who bottled up anger only to explode at little things.
I don’t understand how people think that an officer who sees horrific violence, faced with dangerous threats and death as part of their job description wouldn’t be affected by PTSD any more than the soldier who spends years down range in Afghanistan. Many officers, especially in big cities like New York, Chicago and Seattle, are on the front lines every day. No wonder these cities have the highest officer suicide rates. The stress and threats to safety is constant, sometimes for the duration of their career. These men and woman are human beings, they’re not programmed robots that are immune to trauma. If you had to deal with the absolute worst side of humanity every day, some who abuse you and threaten your life, what kind of attitude would you have? I’m not saying it’s right for an officer to be unprofessional because they’re stressed, but I believe if they want to remain emotionally healthy on their job they must implement a stress management and healing regime to re-boot themselves.
One of my clients is a retired NYPD Emergency Service Unit Detective, an amazing person and family man, who has heroically rescued people in dire circumstances. He recently approached the department about my yoga therapy program that helped soldiers in the Army pre and post-deployments. The New York Police Department wasn’t interested in my idea to provide stress management training and PTSD healing support for any of their officers. I was hoping they would allow me to start at the ground level, and introduce these techniques in the police academy. No such luck, yet. I was told the culture isn’t open to it.
I pray the cultural resistance in police departments is overcome by accepting responsibility for the health and well-being of these civil servants who risk their lives for their job, and the protection of the neighborhoods they patrol. I would like to see police officers learn mandatory yoga therapy-based stress management and PTSD healing techniques. Even if some officers never use them, at least they have the option and awareness of how they can help themselves, and potentially avoid killing another unarmed, non-violent civilian because their trauma was triggered, and the fear factor overrode self-control. We can’t excuse unjust deaths of civilians, but with compassion and confronting the underlying issue of PTSD, we may improve and ultimately save lives. I’d love to be part of the solution when the New York Police Department is ready to implement a new stress management strategy. If it worked for soldiers, it will work for them.
For more information about police and PTSD, visit PolicePTSD.com.
For police officers and departments seeking new wellness strategies, check out Yoga for Heroes.