EVERYONE WHO WORKS for a living suffers occasionally from job pressures. But police officers, by the very nature of their duties, cope with more stress more often than most. How many bankers or mechanics, engineers or sales people, face the personal dangers born of hatred and brutality? How many have to stand outside at a hostage scene or be the first to see the broken bodies at an accident?
Yet everyone also knows -- or used to, anyway -- that a cop can't cry or let the bottled-up anger or anguish or bewilderment all hang out. Even a woman officer had better not do that -- and a male cop? No, the image is of the macho guy, the indestructible stoic.
Anyway, goes the traditional line of thinking, why should they complain? If cops can't cope with the stress, they shouldn't be in the force. Nobody made them put on a badge.
Moreover, cops should leave their uniforms at the station. They shouldn't bother their families, especially the children, with their stress. They won't understand. And you can't trust outsiders.
There's only one problem: Those traditional cultural messages are unrealistic.
Stoicism has its limitations. After you have pulled a child's bruised corpse from some bloody crib, toughness goes only so far -- especially if the corpse resembles your own daughter. Stoicism isn't very helpful in coping with hatred and ridicule shouted on the streets, either.
Maybe you can bottle up tensions for a while. But the strong-silent model can aggravate problems. You can glimpse them in the high suicide rate among police -- four to seven or eight times that of the general population.
Nor does unmanaged stress create problems only confined to the individual officer. The problems spill over into the family. They invite chemical dependency -- police alcoholism rates are also high. They can undermine job performance, weakening the performance of the police department itself.
That's why the growing efforts to train police officers in coping with their unusual stress are enormously valuable -- not just to the individual cop, but also to police departments and the community.
Whether personal or in group sessions, this training and counseling now gets the support of local law-enforcement leaders, among them Erie County Sheriff Thomas Higgins; John N. Cardarelli, the commissioner of Erie County Central Police Services; and Buffalo Police Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske.
The training comes from a variety of counselors.
Cindy L. Goss works, for example, with the Buffalo Police Department, Erie County sheriff's deputies and others. A recent flap about the security of her job had police officers rushing to her defense.
Phyllis Woods, wife of a retired Amherst officer, is developing police family programs. Robert P. Delprino, a forensic psychologist at Buffalo State College, is researching how police stress hits the home. Deborah Hard, a state employee, teaches classes at the police academy.
Their advice, though, echoes a few common themes. Officers shouldn't try to cope with great stress alone, in isolation. They need an outlet, an opportunity to vent their feelings when strains pile up. They need a chance to talk with trained, trusted counselors in stressful times. They should beware alcoholic excess in "winding down" after a shift.
Long before any crisis, they should use the support of sympathetic networks of colleagues, as well as of their own families with an understanding of the pressures they feel.
It is important for officers to recognize when they need help and not fear seeking it out. A resilient perspective is as useful for them as their other kinds of survival training. Stress builds up, but it can be managed if handled right.
Stress training and police officer mental-health counseling are not a frill. The same public that asks police officers to do a lot of society's dirty work should be ready to help the cops cope with the inevitable emotional results.