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STRESS, HEALTH OF OFFICERS TO BE STUDIED
STRAIN OF JOB RANGES FROM THREATS TO POOR DIET

Officer David M. Cieply was in a Buffalo hospital when an Allegany County sheriff's deputy, badly injured in a car crash, died early July 3.

Cieply, a 10-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department, and other officers watched as doctors in Erie County Medical Center prepared Deputy Derek P. Ward's organs for donation.

"It made me sick," Cieply said later. "It could have been me. It could have been one of my friends."

The threat of dying on the job is only one part of the stress faced daily by police officers, particularly in a large urban department like Buffalo's.

"This job is a nightmare. It's very stressful. You get out there and do your job and help these people, and they don't care," said Officer Ivan A. Watkins, a 17-year Buffalo police veteran.

Now, a University at Buffalo researcher is launching a study to determine if work-related stress has an impact on the physical health of police officers.

A UB research team will collect information on a number of stress and health indicators from all members of the Police Department over the next three years.

"What we're looking for is ways to intervene in the problems officers have," said John M. Violanti, UB research associate professor of social and preventive medicine and a retired investigator with the State Police.

Violanti, who earned his doctorate before retiring as a trooper in 1990, has led several studies into the health of Buffalo cops.

A 1985 study found police officers had a higher rate of cancer deaths and a shorter life expectancy than other city workers. A study from 1996 found cops were twice as likely as other city workers to commit suicide.

The new study is an extension of a 2000 pilot study, which found that police as a group experienced high job stress, had high cholesterol levels and higher-than-average pulse rates and blood pressure.

"It's the strain of what they experience in the course of their work. . . . What kind of job is it when you have to put a bullet-proof vest on to go to work?" Violanti said.

Officers in the Ferry-Fillmore District, the city's busiest and most violent, don't need a university research project to know theirs is a stress-inducing job.

"It's stressful in short bursts. You go instantly from zero to 100 miles per hour," said Officer Kenneth A. Szyszkowski, a 10-year police veteran.

The cops said the worst cases are those in which the elderly or children are victims, when kids have been abused or are being raised in filthy conditions that aren't fit for an animal.

"I'm a little meaner than I used to be when I started the job," Watkins said.

Before joining the Buffalo police eight years ago, Officer Robert E. Lee III worked as an officer for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.

"What I did was buy drugs undercover. There were times when I had to go into a house without a gun or any kind of identification," Lee said. "Your senses are heightened. You want to be aware of everyone."

On top of this, most of the people cops deal with on a daily basis act dismissively -- or worse -- toward the officers.

Watkins and other cops said they've had people throw beer bottles at them, spit at them and even urinate on them.

Their hours -- long stretches of night shifts often followed by daytime court appearances -- and their poor, fast-food-laden diets, compound the effects of stress.

As the city wrestles with financial difficulties, the department is required to do more with less. The officers said their stress has only increased with the arrival of one-officer patrol cars.

"The city isn't concerned about its employees -- they're concerned about dollars," Szyszkowski said. "Morale is down, no doubt about it."

The officers said they feel like they're under constant scrutiny, from the top brass and the news media, and they feel pressure to do everything perfectly.

At the end of the day, they said, they only have each other.

The officers try not to take out the stress on their families, but it does take a toll on their relationships.

James T. Reese, a city patrol officer for 16 years, is on his second marriage. His current wife is a probation officer, so she understands the dangers of his work. But Reese said he now has to worry about her safety.

Every cop has a method to cope with the stress of the job.

"Drinking, smoking, whatever it might be. It's not a normal job," said Reese, who was smoking a cigarette.

"It can be very stressful, depending on how you take it. I think that's why officers have a sick sense of humor," said Lt. Donna Berry of the Ferry-Fillmore District.

Berry said she makes a point to meet with four other female officers every month to eat and drink and talk about the job.

For intensely stressful incidents, the department offers a counseling program that is supposed to be confidential. "A lot of guys won't do that because it's a macho thing," Reese said.

Stress takes a toll on officers, said Cindy Goss, who runs Catch a Falling Star, a not-for-profit assistance program for area police departments.

Police live on average 57 to 59 years, about 15 years less than the general population, most likely because of job-related stress, she said.

"It's the silent killer," said Robert P. Meegan Jr., head of the city police union. "We see the worst of the worst. We're not invited in for crumpets and tea."

UB received a $1.75 million grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for the study, which will focus on the relationship between stress and cardiovascular disease in officers.

"The findings of the study will have implications far beyond policemen, to help us understand the mechanism between stress and health," said Dr. Maurizio Trevisan, interim dean of UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions.

The UB researchers hope to pinpoint the connection between job stress and health.

For the new study, researchers at UB's Center for Preventive Medicine will:

Give officers a blood test to check cholesterol levels and for early signs of heart disease.

Take a saliva sample to test for the hormone cortisol, a biomarker for stress.

Take ultrasound scans of the carotid artery in the neck and the brachial artery in the arm. The rigidity and thickness of those arteries is an early sign of future heart attacks or strokes.

Test of the officers' bone density, because scientists believe stress over time may produce a substance that can weaken bones. The same test also looks for fat deposits around the waist, an early indicator of diabetes.

Violanti in the fall plans to add a component to the study measuring sleep deprivation and fatigue among officers.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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