Accumulated stress disorder (ASD) might be an unrecognized, career-ending condition affecting many LEOs. In a May 4, 2021, article for Police1, Val Van Brocklin exposed the problem of LEOs becoming victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) not only because many suffer the mental anguish resulting from the act of taking the life of another, but also because they then have to endure the multilayered investigations that follow, coupled with bureaucratic battles to secure medical treatment for the condition.
There might be more to this as a pre-condition rather than a post-condition; the officer might be a victim of ASD. This condition appears to be akin to PTSD, but it is not the same. ASD is a result of years of accumulating stress that create a loss of the reality of the sufferer’s function as a LEO and how non-cops live and behave, amplifying a subconscious mindset that arrestees are chattel — not human. Unlike military personnel, who deploy to war zones where they are in a kill-or-be-killed state of mind 24/7 for a limited time, LEOs are on active duty for years — decades. Daily life-threatening conditions, even off duty, are ongoing. Added to this constant stress, cops must transition every day from criminal-catcher to parent to OD-saver to spouse to warding off attacks (verbal, physical, lethal) to …
The significance of acknowledging the ASD condition — prior to its destructive harm — is paramount to maintaining effective policing, as acknowledged by The Wall Street Journal editorial columnist Peggy Noonan in June 2021: “Cops witness the worst things in America. They answer the 9-1-1 call at 3:20 a.m. and see things so horrible they can’t tell anyone because if it gets around, there will be imitators. They see the violent parents and kids watching television, checked out at age 8. They see what meth does. They’re often poorly trained and have to get everything right, and they assume between the polls and public opinion no one really has their back except the unions …”
And after that, they are expected to turn off, become the good neighbor next door, attend a PTA meeting, be in the mood to procreate — and do it all over again the next day, every day. As this stress accumulates, it can create a disorder where they transition into a non-thinking reactor of conditions that cause them to fail to recognize their own wrongful conduct.
As society becomes more sophisticated, added responsibilities are being expected of the beat officer. Today, the street cop must expertly handle details such as marital disputes, drug intervention, first aid, crowd/riot control, the mentally disturbed, various weapons, Narcan, radio, restraint devices, traffic violations, criminal investigations and arrests, all while being cognizant of lurking snipers/assassins. Line supervisors have the additional stress of handling the detail handlers. By ignoring the ASD factor, society might be demanding too much of these special but human protectors.
Heretofore, the only diagnosis of police officers who apparently and wrongly impose violence upon civilians has been simply labeling them as a “bad cop.” Some have likened this out-of-character behavior to an extension of PTSD called “chronic post-traumatic stress disorder,” a condition some military personnel continue to experience long after combat. However, there is a difference in the absence (usually) of trauma in the daily life of a law enforcement officer — but not the worry or concern that death could be the next traffic stop, ambush, see-the-man/woman. The key word is post, meaning that for combat troops, the condition occurs
after the traumatic events, whereas police officers experience the possibility (stress) of life-threatening trauma every day, all day, on duty as well as off duty.
Soldiers, once they return home from a combat zone — unlike police officers — don’t have to report for duty the next day, which is stressful in and of itself. This is not to take anything away from military victims of PTSD/CPTSD, only to properly identify the different criteria associated with the stress of LEOs.
ASD in cops is also not the same as daily (ordinary) stress experienced by bankers, lawyers and/or business leaders, who don’t have to worry as police officers do about being physically attacked even when “taking a break” or when “off duty.” Being in an adversarial position during citizen encounters, such as approaching a stopped vehicle, knocking on the door of a domestic detail or just being approached by someone while walking a beat, means these small but stressful events accumulate anxiety and tension that might create or further amplify an unhappy home life. The tendered plan for treating ASD is quite different from PTSD treatments.
Suggested solutions to prevent accumulated stress disorder
- Agencies might best create an index for ASD — i.e., a rating system to determine the level of stress an officer has faced. Conditions should include the age of the LEO, years of service, crime rate where served, shift factor (e.g., day shift on weekdays equates to less stress than mid-shift on weekends), population of jurisdiction, education/training level and population density of beat.
- A preventative ASD conditioning should be required, where for every certain number of months of active duty, patrol officers shall rotate to observe and assist at a social service agency for a certain number of days. This on-the-clock, out-of-uniform exposure is to reacclimate the officers to civilian society — to experience how the “them” live from the “them” side. Yes, many LEOs have to deal with the “thems” on a regular basis — but only from the perspective of being a law enforcer. Social service workers are exposed to the “them” from the view of perceived (or real) persecution and oppression. Aside from imminent life-or-death conditions, no arrests or even acting as a CI should be allowed, as this reality-check detail is not for any law enforcement goals, per se. In other words, the officer’s identity as a LEO should not be known to the social service recipients. They will be stepping out of their role as a police officer for the purpose of (re)learning empathy for those they are charged with serving when on duty as an enforcer of the law. Inasmuch as the officer will be not acting as or be identified as a LEO while observing the recipients of the social service agency, they should experience a lower level of stress — at least during this learning stint.
- Upon completion of each social service tenure, the officer should be required to submit to their superior a written report of the experience for evaluation. Stress is part of the territory of LE and cannot be eliminated. But by taking periodic “civilian” breaks, the accumulation of stress is disrupted.
Dr. Kenneth Manges, a forensic psychologist, consultant and recognized vocational expert covering PTSD and other such conditions, wrote in response: “Your analysis is correct, and prolonged exposure leads to increased irritability, and in layman’s terms, a ‘shorter fuse.’ The plan you outlined has merit.” His analyses have been documented for their clarity and scientific rigor. Well regarded in the litigation arena, his evaluations have been consistently upheld in both state and federal courts.