Police work is highly stressful since it is one of the few occupations where employees are asked to continually face physical dangers and to put their lives on the line at any time. The police officer is exposed to violence, cruelty, and aggression and is often required to make extremely critical decisions in high-pressured situations (Goolkasian et al. 1985; Territo and Vetter 1983). Officers are often called upon to maintain social order while working long hours, experiencing conflicts in their job demands, and having to face hostile feelings of an unusually nonsupportive community (Fell, Richard, and Wallace 1980).
Law enforcement officers can use both adaptive and maladaptive strategies to cope with stress. Whether a police officer uses adaptive or maladaptive approaches depends on the officer’s understanding the stressful situation, making sense of it, and developing appropriate responses to it (Lazarus 1967).
Adaptive coping strategies are problem-solving approaches that help law enforcement professionals deal directly with the stressful situation by seeking and implementing solutions. The active-cognitive coping category includes trying to interpret the meaning of the event, logical analysis, and mental preparation. Problem-focused coping involves the practical aspects of seeking information and support, taking action, and identifying alternative rewards. These are adaptive strategies.
One of the functions of adaptive coping behaviors is to decrease the impact of the demands of stress (Marshall 1979; Pearlin and Schooler 1978). Therefore, the use of an appropriate coping strategy might function as a buffer against stress, both present and future, and limit the negative impact of the stress. A model offered by Zeitlin (1984) depicts adaptive coping as a process in which personal resources are used to manage stress. This model approaches adaptive coping from a cognitive and behavioral standpoint and emphasizes the importance of both external and internal resources for coping with stress.
In contrast, maladaptive approaches are emotion-focused coping strategies. These maladaptive strategies include affective regulation, emotional discharge, and resigned acceptance of the stress. These maladaptive coping approaches frequently do not deal directly with the problem and therefore are not likely to relieve the individual’s anxiety. Indeed, maladaptive coping strategies are more likely to exacerbate stress and have a negative effect on job satisfaction (Parasuraman and Cleek 1984).
Research by Kirmeryer and Diamond (1985) indicates that the personality type of each police officer strongly dictates that officer’s selection of a coping mechanism. Police officers who have a type A personality are more likely to make emotive-focused coping decisions, while type B personality types are more likely to react slowly to the stress and maintain their emotional distance. All of this research indicates that police personnel are experiencing high levels of stress without a clear understanding of how to alleviate that stress in acceptable ways.
Research by Violanti and Marshall (1983) has indicated that police officers utilize coping mechanisms that increase the stress rather than alleviate it (Violanti and Marshall 1983; Violanti, Marshal, and Howe 1985). This research showed that police officers used maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs, deviance, and cynicism. The use of these emotion-focused solutions has a tendency to change the law enforcement officer into a law violator, thus increasing not only personal stress but also that of the department and fellow officers.
Additional research has shown that law enforcement officers have no preference for adaptive coping mechanisms over mal-adaptive coping mechanisms, and in many instances could not identify coping mechanisms that were maladaptive (Fain and McCormick 1988).
The coping strategies of police officers can be enhanced by training programs that are designed to improve their use of adaptive coping skills rather than mal-adaptive skills (Anderson and Bauer 1987). Ellison and Genz (1983) offer techniques for individual stress management that include goal setting, time management, financial planning, and physical fitness. Norvell and Belles (1987) have designed a forty-hour training program for supervisory personnel. The purpose of this training program is to reduce the stress of the participating officers and at the same time provide them with information that will allow them to observe stressful behavior in fellow officers.
In addition to counseling by professionals, the use of police peer counseling has become increasingly popular. Klein (1989) describes the program that eligible police officers go through, under the guidance of a clinical psychologist, to be trained as a peer counselor. These peer counselors are trained to help officers with developing constructive ways of dealing with stress and with recognizing what they can change and what they cannot. Peer counselors also make recommendations for further counseling or other types of mental health assistance.
An example of a training program that has proved successful with other professionals in high-stress occupations is the stress management workshop. This four-hour workshop focuses on the individual and attempts to increase the participants’ awareness of stresses both at work and at home. The majority of the training involves helping the professional learn techniques for healthy coping. The areas emphasized are personal management skills, relationship skills, outlook skills, and stamina skills.
This training helps law enforcement professionals create a supportive environment for others, improve contact skills to help form friendships, enhance listening skills to attend to others, as well strengthen assertiveness skills to address self needs. Outlook skills are taught to enable the participant to view life from different perspectives, to learn what situations must be surrendered to, and what situations must be taken on faith. However, it also includes learning how to use positive self-reaffirming statements, imagination, and humor effectively. Finally, stamina skills involve learning how exercise, relaxation, and nutrition will fortify the participant to resist stress and relieve tension when they arise.
Of equal importance are the external resources that a police officer can depend upon. Social supports play a ”buffering” role in the potential impact of stressor events, contribute to overall improved physical health by placing the individuals in a better position to cope with the stress, and, finally, play a preventive role in reducing the number of stressful events that one experiences (Steinglass, Weisstub, and De-Nour 1988). Many times police officers hold their families and spouses at bay, not allowing them to experience the hardships that accompany being a police officer (Besner and Robinson 1982; James and Nelson 1975; Stratton 1984). This can be alleviated in part by providing the same training to family and spouses that is provided to police officers for stress management. In addition, social support systems should receive additional training in the recognition of the danger signs of burnout from occupational stress (Stratton 1984).