Considering that Occupy Wall Street has put our nation’s law enforcement ethics on center stage, it seems more relevant now than ever, to address this topic. I am not an officer, but because I consult for many agencies as a stress-management practitioner, I do have the benefit of a unique perspective to offer you.
Admittedly, it’s a loaded question. Those in the profession will defend its honor, and those on the civilian side of its sometimes-misguided force, might say that cops are bad.
I’m interested in giving you an insider’s glimpse into some of the insidious nuances of the profession so that you, too, will never again look at this topic as having a black-and-white answer.
Here is a very basic distillation of some of the most recent statistics in the profession.
• Cops have the highest rate of divorce, alcohol abuse, substance abuse and clinical depression out of any profession.
• One in three cops suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is more than the statistics for the military.
• The life spans of cops are, on average, 10 years shorter than in any other profession.
• A cop’s risk of depression and suicide increases drastically after retirement.
• Four times more cops die from suicide than in the line of duty.
• According to the Badge of Life organization, cops have the next highest rate of suicide after the Marines. With an estimated 450 officer suicides a year, even if that number were reduced by half, that would still mean twice as many officers die from suicide than from felons.
Why is this?
My experience over the last five years of working with law-enforcement agencies has revealed to me a very ailing and desperate industry. Cops see, experience and hear about more traumas on a daily basis than most individuals. Potential and perpetual exposure to theft, domestic abuse, substance abuse, rape, incest, drug trafficking, human trafficking, crimes against children, homicide, serial killing, and mental neglect and disease permeates each and every workday.
As this becomes the norm, a cop is primed to function at a high state of alert at all times.
This mental state is the prime function of the limbic brain. When the limbic brain is active it floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol. If an individual doesn’t have an opportunity to discharge these hormones, or have ample time to regulate them (which can take up to 18 hours of rest and sleep), they begin to create a very disturbing physiological and neurological response.
Physiologically, these hormones increase an individual’s predisposition to cardiac arrest, type II diabetes, immune dysfunction, inflammation, cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and even suicide.
The human body was never meant to sustain excessive daily levels of these hormones. Chronic exposure to these factors neurologically increases the thickness of the cortex in the limbic brain, making the fight-or-flight response stronger and more apt to engage, even erroneously. This also shrinks the prefrontal cortex, reducing one’s ability to feel empathy, see the big picture, creatively problem solve, see things from a different perspective, be creative, have insights and/or experience joy.
With most of our law-enforcement agencies’ money going towards tactical trainings, there’s little time and resources left to address the debilitating stress cycles inherent in the industry.
Most agencies have an Employee Assistance Program, where a psychologist offers confidential treatments. However, I’ve trained over 600 officers – very few of whom have been willing to even talk to a psychologist. Typically, this is viewed as a weakness and job risk to admit vulnerability and the need for help. Many cops would rather not talk about it at all, than risk being labeled as weak. So, this service often goes unused, even as suicide rates increase.
We have an industry that breeds a masculine façade who then has to deal with the civilian expectation that they should perform above and beyond any ethical reproach. Within 10 years on the force, a typical cop can go from being an idealistic person who believes they can make a positive change in the world, to a cynical, jaded, depressed and broken individual who’s encouraged to hide their emotions, bury their fears, and slowly recede into a shell.
PTSD is a debilitating disease if untreated. Individuals under the best care often struggle with this disease. Cops perceive they don’t have the luxury to seek treatment.
So many of our nation’s law-enforcement agents are walking time-bombs, which are made worse by the constant pressure to meet our highest expectations.
Mindfulness and meditation has the potential to change all of that. The meditation techniques I teach to law-enforcement agencies seem to be a way around this dilemma. They give officers preventative techniques to help mitigate some of their debilitating cycles. Cops who devote regular and consistent time to practicing the techniques are able to identify patterns attributed to their limbic brain, and renegotiate their responses. The result of overriding the limbic brain is nothing short of miraculous.
Black-and-white thinking opens up to new possibilities as the prefrontal cortex becomes active. States of happiness and joy become accessible. Individuals begin to think outside of the box to find new solutions or approaches to life. As the prefrontal cortex strengthens, individuals develop the ability to override biases and prejudices, which are typically hardwired in to the limbic system. Empathy takes center stage once the limbic brain is quieted. What could the industry culture be like if all agencies offered these types of preventative well-being services to their officers? Would we see a type of officer emerge?
I have seen cops break down in tears as they’ve told me that nothing is what they hoped it would be. I have heard personal tales of drunken cops with loaded guns, waiting with their fingers on the trigger for their spouse to get home. I have witnessed high levels of trauma turn good-hearted men and women into callous and confused masochists. I have watched cops alienate themselves from their families, friends and society as they slip into downward spirals of depression. In those moments, the very question of whether they’re good or bad seems preposterous.
What would I be like if that were my reality? What would you be like if that were your reality?
There are some that sail through their careers unscathed, content, fulfilled and heroic. I know some of them and they are a rare breed. But for the most part, they are individuals lost in a thick mire of our society’s darkest forces.
My stomach turns when I hear about:
• Stories of excessive police abuse against innocent people…
• Stories of civilians wrongfully treated…
• Tales of the deviants a cop must deal with when investigating child homicides…
• Stories of graphic suicides…
• Stories of teenagers wrongfully killed…
And because of this, I no longer can separate cop from civilian, or “us” from “them.”
Albert Einstein said that it was our sacred human responsibility to help where we can. I think he meant that for all of us.
As I continue my life’s work to teach neuro-sculpting and meditation to those in need, I cannot draw a line in the sand and stand on one side of it. I often find myself walking a tightrope between worlds that outwardly seem conflicting. I am committed to looking at individuals as mirrors, regardless of their ideologies, political beliefs, economic status or religious affiliation. When I take this view, then I can’t answer the question of whether cops are good or bad. I can only notice individuals in pain who need help.
How different would our lives be if we could truly put ourselves in one another’s shoes?
I leave you with my mantra: We are the storytellers and this life is our story.
Lisa Wimberger holds a Masters Degree in Education from the University of Stonybrook, NY. She is a certified MBTI consultant and a private healing and psychic practitioner, teaching clients who suffer from stress disorders. Lisa studied Ascension training for four years with Ishaya monks. She completed two and a half years of psychic awareness training at ICI, applying the tools of the Berkeley Psychic Institute. She spent a year and a half in post-graduate studies and is certified in the Foundations of Neuro Leadership. Feel free to tell her your story and visit her website to learn more about how these techniques are targeted to First Responders.
Lisa is the Founder of the Trance Personnel Consulting Group. Lisa has created and facilitated leadership trainings for executive teams in Fortune 500 companies, the Colorado State Department and worked individually with international management. She has created and facilitated Emotional Survival programs for Colorado Law Enforcement Agencies and peer counsel groups. Over the last two years, 500 police officers have attended her workshops. Lisa writes for CopsAlive and partners with the Law Enforcement Survival Institute. Additionally, Lisa’s services are sought on a national level by individuals in law enforcement looking to find a new way to navigate through their stress patterns. Lisa is a member of the National Center for Crisis Management and ILEETA (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association