Increased public scrutiny of police work has also increased concerns for officers who are worried about being under investigation or facing legal action. These situations can be extremely stressful and worrisome for all involved, including the officer’s family. So, how do you cope if faced with this during your career?
Let’s start by identifying some of the common experiences of officers who are under investigation or facing legal action:
- Intrusive thoughts about career survival, financial constraints and the process itself
- A range of emotions, including disbelief, confusion, anger, betrayal, fear, worry, anxiety, depression and a sense of powerlessness or helplessness
- Behavioral changes, including sleep disturbance, isolation, pacing or difficulty keeping still, lack of routine and substance abuse
Now let’s look at how to begin sorting through these experiences.
Share how you are feeling, or ask for help establishing a new routine or managing uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
The brain dump
This is exactly what it sounds like. On a piece of paper, write down all the questions, thoughts, emotions and anything else on your mind. On a separate sheet of paper, draw two columns and label them “Take Action” and “Other Stuff.” Now look at your brain dump and list things in the appropriate column: things you can do something about (take action) and things you cannot do anything about (other stuff). Common action-oriented things include contacting your union to discuss your rights and eligibility for legal representation, revisiting your budget to address any financial constraints and talking with a peer who has been through this process before for guidance on what to expect. For the other stuff, your task is to develop an action plan to help you manage these issues.
Riding the wave
Think about how you cope with emotional discomfort. Many cops have become skilled at suppressing and compartmentalizing difficult emotions in service of being able to do their jobs effectively. When under investigation or facing legal action, doing this with your emotions can make them worse. The solution: Ride the wave. Instead of focusing on getting rid of or avoiding the emotion, engage it. Identify the physical sensations associated with the emotion, such as muscle tension, stomach discomfort or increased heart rate. Name the emotion(s) — for example, worry, anxiety, anger, fear, sadness and so on. Shift back to the physical sensations and focus on breathing at a slow and steady pace. This will help train your body to work through the emotion and ultimately reduce feeling overwhelmed during what can often be a lengthy investigative or legal process.
Establishing a new routine
Your routine may change abruptly if you are placed on administrative leave, especially if you are assigned to remain at home. Take action and establish a new routine that includes some exercise and a healthy diet. It is also helpful to wake and sleep around the same time each day. If you are going to watch television or play video games, limit this to just an hour or two so that you are not sedentary or falling into a pattern of emotional distraction activities. Think about hobbies or interests that you used to have or have wanted to try; sign up for a college class or training on subject matter that interests you; learn something new such as cooking, hiking, biking or scuba diving; or read a book.
It takes a village
No one can go through this alone. Lean on your supportive friends and family members. Utilize available peer support, spiritual support or counseling, if needed. Seeking support while under investigation or facing legal action doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to someone. Share how you are feeling, or ask for help establishing a new routine or managing uncomfortable thoughts and emotions.
If you’re supporting someone who is going through an investigation or legal proceedings, here are some suggestions:
- Buddy checks: Lend your ear, take a partner to lunch, bring them food, or join them for some exercise or time outdoors. Be consistent and check on them regularly throughout the process.
- Be a good listener: It is best to not get caught up in issues of guilt or innocence, right or wrong. Instead, focus on how the person is feeling and give them a place to vent. If needed, point them in the direction of additional supportive resources.
Internal investigations and legal proceedings take time. By knowing what to expect, implementing healthy coping strategies and utilizing your support system, you can buffer the impact of the stress inherent with these situations. If you prefer to talk with someone outside of your peers and family, I recommend calling CopLine at (800) 267-5463 (copline.org), or seeking the support of a law enforcement chaplain, licensed mental health professional or trained peer supporter.