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The purpose of this research proposal is to understand the way in which police subculture and occupational stressors impact decision-making capabilities of law enforcement in the field. Public perception often blames the frequent killings of young minority males on racism and racial profiling alone. Research suggests that the occupation of police officer is extremely stressful and it may be difficult to learn how to cope with traumatic situations. Police subculture refers to the specific set of “beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors exhibited by those in law enforcement” (Malmin 2012). A specific understanding of police subculture is the mentality that individual strength is preferable to voicing fears or psychological wounds and asking for help. Therefore, when dealing with occupational stressors, such as daily evaluations of neophyte officers, without the ability to ask veteran officers for advice how to deal with immense stress, officers are learning how to cope incorrectly and making mistakes due to increasing levels of workplace anxiety.
This research will help both scholars and the larger community develop a better intellectual understanding of the stress which officers experience. Through a better intellectual understanding of the way stress impacts officers differently than other occupations, policy makers will be able to address the responsibility of each individual police department and police chief to care for their officers, not only physically but also psychologically. Specifically, this research will build off of the limited research concerning police officers and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
According to Mark Malmin, former police officer, detective, hostage negotiator, narcotics investigator, and courtroom bailiff from San Francisco, police officers are taught to act as though they can handle anything. There is an emphasis on individual strength and independence in police training, leading to the façade of invincibility throughout a department. Officers are consistently exposed to danger but must continue to show compassion and kindness to victims of crime. They must understand the complexity and legality behind taking someone’s life, and often must make split-second decisions which result in someone’s death or injury.
According to Malmin, stressors which police officers face can be debilitating and all-consuming, yet there are limited resources for police officers to help them develop coping techniques for stress. Police subculture dismisses the inevitable need for assistance, concentrating on survival alone, ignoring the importance of mental well-being in such a demanding occupation. American police departments have arguably the best training programs for tactical and operational skills globally. Yet, they fail to train officers how to cope with traumatic events, perhaps because there is a lack understanding of how trauma and stress impacts an individual.
Police subculture is indoctrinated early in a police officer’s career. Veteran officers act as field-training teachers for police officers recently graduating from the Police Academy. Teachers are purposely tough on recruits in order to prepare them for the daily realities of police work. They conduct daily evaluations to judge officers’ performance, ability to make decisions under stress, awareness of office safety, use of appropriate level of force, and soundness of judgement which greatly impact the future of the new officer’s career. Yet, new officers are not properly trained or evaluated on how to react to their first experience of trauma on the job. Neophyte officers often report physiological symptoms of anxiety in their first 6 months of field work, possibly due to unrealistic expectations and attitudes from their superiors.
Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterized by re-experiencing of the traumatic event, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, persistent symptoms of increased arousal, difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, and heightened physiological reactivity to cues that symbolize ore resemble the event. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to traumatic events results in neurobiological dysfunction of the limbic system, the system related to regulating instinct and mood. Repeated exposure to traumatic events results in long-term effects on the structure and function of the brain.
Despite the fact that police officers are regularly exposed to traumatic events, such as shootings, violence and family abuse, traffic fatalities, and handling of deceased persons, a majority of research on PTSD focuses on individuals exposed to combat, survivors of natural disasters, and victims of childhood sexual abuse. Research suggests that police officers have an increased risk for disorders associated with stress. An estimated 7% to 19% of officers in the United States have been impacted by symptoms of PTSD, although not all fit the criteria for a true diagnosis of PTSD by the standards of the DSM-V. In fact, only two studies to date have examined the structural and functional changes in the brains of police officers. The aforementioned studies indicated that PTSD in police officers impact basic brain functions, such as regulating and processing of emotions, fear response, speech production, cognitive function, motor abilities, and visuospatial stimuli.
As in every job sector, mismanagement has consequences. The consequences of mismanagement and dysfunctional organizational behavior in police departments include unnecessary or extreme operating costs, civil liability suits, labor/management relation strife, and loss of community respect and trust. Decisions made by police chiefs is often dictated by laws, but is also influenced by what traditional wisdom suggests and what is best for the organization and its members. In an incident where a chief must choose between his or her department and its members or the citizens they vow to protect, it is not unusual for departments to choose their own members over citizens.
One harmful belief in police subculture is the mentality that police officers, no matter their place in the organizational hierarchy, are members of a family, not colleagues in a business. This mentality results in an increased tolerance for misconduct, a decrease in the frequency of discipline, and diminished employee accountability. The role of police chief can be broken down into four main areas of concentration – high-risk incidents, employee-misconduct corrective actions, workplace diversity, and organizational performance. Yet, if there is any corruption or insubordination throughout the department, the role of chief becomes increasingly difficult.
According to Maran et al., repeated exposure to traumatic or stressful events leads to impaired psychosocial well-being and physical health. The study conducted sought to understand how gender, organizational role, and sector of operation impact the levels of anxiety and stress which police officers experience. Their research found that men are more likely to experience operational stress, while women were more likely to experience organizational stress. In addition to the change in rates of stress due to gender and role, experience also played a large role. Officers who had been on the force for a decade or longer reported significantly lower levels of anxiety than those who are newer to the occupational. It is unclear whether veteran officers experience lower levels of stress and anxiety due to development of resilience over time or due to a change in their position within the organization.
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