Police: a human perspective
On August 3rd, Police Officer Sean Bolton of the Memphis Police Department was shot and died after approaching an illegally parked car and stumbling upon a drug deal. The news coverage was quick and repeated the same facts again and again; he was a veteran of the Iraq war, had a family and was tragically gunned down for less than two grams of marijuana.
A small vigil, a name on a wall and a passing news story is all that remains of officer Bolton; revealing a tough truth that we’ve come to have about police officers: we expect them to die.
The problem stems from our perception of police officers in our country. We think of them as Kevlar-coated machines that dispense justice without empathy and with complete apathy towards those they serve and protect.
The unfortunate truth which most people forget is each one of the over 477,000 police officers in America is as human as the rest of us. Police officers undergo extreme amounts of stress, leading to a host of physical and mental problems which most don’t realize.
According to the International Journal of Emergency Medicine, officers’ stress levels were linked to an increase in sleep disorders, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, heart disease, diabetes and suicide.
Perhaps the most troubling report comes from the National Center of Biotechnology Information which shows that between seven and 19 percent of active-duty officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. To put that into perspective, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs shows the veterans of the two Iraq Wars had a PTSD rate of 13.8 percent.
Furthermore, MRI scans conducted on police officers showed reductions in the gray matter that controls emotional and cognitive decision-making, memory, fear and stress regulation. The saddest fact is that despite the criminals, the shootings and the assaults, the most common way for an officer to die is by suicide.
The routine stress of policing, combined with situational factors such as an authority role, peer-group pressures and “macho” values can affect the way officers deal with situations, leading to potentially violent encounters regardless the justification.
This kind of burnout can lead to a tendency to escalate situations into violence, if not treated properly. The problem comes from the societal stigma we’ve placed upon police officers as being akin to a machine.
This leads to officers consciously or unconsciously rejecting any feelings of fear and anxiety, furthering the stereotype and causing officers not to get the help they need to stay effective. This creates an endless cycle of trauma and emotional internalizing which eventually leads to a decline in mental health.
In an interview with The Atlantic, former police officer Sean Riley explained, “How do you prepare or train an individual to see 26 children who have been murdered? Those tragedies. Newtown. Aurora. For any human being, how are they supposed to handle that?”
Local departments have increased the usage of less-than-lethal weapons such as the TASER from 60 percent in 2007 to 81 percent in 2013. Also, 32 percent of police officers now wear body cameras at all times. Departmental training is also at its most strict and regulated ever, with more investigations into police brutality than ever before.
And yet, it means nothing.
Police officers are still stigmatized as those who hassle the innocent and are cold calculating machines.
We’ve become a society that looks for problems and turns our backs to solutions and still wonder why nothing has been solved to our liking. Even as we dehumanize police officers, just as we say they dehumanize police brutality victims, all of us still lay in our beds behind locked doors, hoping we don’t hear the noise of an uninvited guest downstairs.
We pray that we’ll be safe from harm, and we pray that every time we dial those three numbers we still hear “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
Opinion columnist Austin Turman is a political science junior and may be reached at [email protected]