When I was appointed a police officer, stress was considered an isolated aberration, and its parameters in the field of law enforcement were not clearly defined. Today, stress has been acknowledged as a social conflict phenomenon that encompasses the entire spectrum of the human condition.
Overwhelming role conflicts and commitments are often compounded by the fantasized image of the female officer most commonly depicted by the media, an image that is difficult to efface. As a result, many women enter police work with unrealistic expectations that render them ill-prepared for role demands and the possibility of some degree of role failure.
Daily on-the-job risks, on-the-spot decision-making, workplace relationships and interactions with irate citizens make occupational stress inevitable in law enforcement. Problems constantly arise for which no fixed formulae exist. Add to these pressures the demands created by roles as wife, mother and housekeeper, and one can understand how the already heightened tensions of the female officer may become exacerbated.
Exceptional stress is linked to heart ailments, asthma, hypertension and digestive disorders. The ramifications of such stress are reflected in escalating rates of alcoholism and drug usage, divorce and suicide, peculiar to law enforcement. To assume that a woman officer cannot get a handle on her own life seems antithetical to the image of law enforcement.
This assumption is doubly damaging when supervisors conclude that an officer who succumbs to her own weaknesses lacks the necessary coping skills to respond to the exigencies of the public. There may be a great schism between original job expectations and the cold reality of what police work is actually about. Women police as depicted in certain television series are simply unreal. As a former director of the Crime Prevention Bureau, I cannot imagine any woman officer being given an assignment to track international jewel thieves or continent-hopping drug dealers. What is real is providing support services to a savagely beaten rape victim, reporting a traumatic case of child abuse, trying to convince a runaway teen of her limited options or bridging cultural barriers to provide critical services to citizens who desperately need help, but feel threatened by police.
I believe the most serious on-the-job stress is caused by immediate supervisors. Every police agency is a matrix of complex interpersonal relationships. If a supervisor has poor leadership skills and creates an environment that is intimidating or discriminatory, that may well generate unsatisfactory workplace relationships, low morale and less productive man hours.
As the first woman in Western New York to command a police precinct, I found myself in one of the most challenging organizational environments in the public sector. Attending to organizational business included listening to and caring about three platoons under my command. Women officers had unique problems. Some did not favor a female commander, some felt guilty about their absence from home and several complained of physical ailments. In some cases, domestic difficulties, partner conflicts and street dynamics caused anger and depression. At that time, there was no Employee Assistance Program.
Forums on stress management are invaluable. They provide an interchange of ideas and experiences, and solicit input from administrators. But even the best solutions will be short-lived unless the police chief addresses employee stress as a serious issue.