Tactical Police Psychology

Tactics are supposed to be the life blood of policing. Being 'tactical' not only applies to specific calls for service, but is extended to every aspect of our lives. Cops are forever vigilant about ‘officer safety’ and the safety of our families. The universal salutation of peace officers is, ‘be safe.’ Police tactics are based not in folklore, mysticism or intuition. They’re based in science and what’s termed the ‘scientific method of inquiry’. In fact, what Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman calls ‘Warrior Science’ has developed into its own industry within law enforcement.

The same science that informs our tactical practices has provided many insights into the psychological impact a career in law enforcement can have on individuals. The news isn’t good.

Police officers lead shorter and sicklier lives than the general population. We are prone to some types of cancer, heart disease, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, marital discord, alcoholism, early death and suicide. The list goes on.

For many, law enforcement was more of a calling than a career choice. We made a conscious decision to give up material wealth for the peace maker’s noble path. Unfortunately, we give up more than wealth or community recognition or fame. We also give up our bodies and our entire pre-law enforcement world view. We become pessimistic, cynical and jaded.

Modern science clearly points to a need for extending tactics beyond where we park during crimes in progress or how we clear a room. Those that study police psychology have articulated a need to apply to the same concern for the preservation of our physical integrity to the psychological realm. We’ve learned the hard way that officers are eaten up and spit out by ‘the job.’ The police personality, exacerbated by a ‘suck it up and drive on’ ethos within our well-defined culture has produced generations of officers suffering in silence.

Until recently, the stress-related diseases associated with a career in law enforcement were ignored. Officers suffering from cumulative traumatic stress, organizational hassles and years of seeing people at what Kevin Gilmartin calls ‘their maddest, baddest and saddest’ were left to their own devices. As an industry, we reaped inaction and sewed alcoholism, depression, suicide and disease. Such has been the historical lot of the police officer.

I’ve seen the infamous Officer Implosion from several angles. I watched my father, a proud California Patrol Officer, struggle with depression and alcoholism. He was injured on the job forcing his medical retirement and unceremoniously kicked out of the ‘police family’. I’ve seen well respected officers develop drug and alcohol problems. All too often they wait until their wheels are falling off before finally asking for help.

Now, the good news. A growing army of psychologically injured yet strong officers, retirees, researchers and police mental health professionals have been building bridges, connecting the science to the cop. Ivory tower social science research isn't worth the paper it's written on unless it's applied to real people.As the name suggests, ‘Tactical Police Psychology’ encompasses a set of practices and knowledge aimed at preserving officer's psychological integrity. A pre-requisite for utilizing Tactical Police Psychology is the capacity to be honest with one’s self. This is many times easier said than done. We ask questions like, ‘Do I drink too much?’ or ‘Could I be depressed?’ It also requires a willingness to take positive action to improve our mental health. It involves a sense of ‘not knowing,’ never easy for cops.

Using Tactical Police Psychology helps us ‘be safe.’ The spouses and children of officers benefit from our utilizing physical tactics because those tactics allow us to come home in one physical piece at the end of our shifts. They also benefit from our using psychological tactics because they allow us to come home in one piece mentally at the end of our shift. An emotionally broken, depressed, alcoholic warrior may still be able to push a patrol car around, but he's not much of a father or a husband.

Our mission is to bring primary mental health prevention to officers. Primary prevention is well known in community health initiatives. Until recently, it's been non-existent in law enforcement. We invite you to cross the bridge, free of charge. If you believe, as many do, that thoughts, feelings and attitudes are ‘touchy feely’ and therefore have no place in law enforcement, you’re wrong. You’re also in danger.

Policing is one of the helping professions. As such, it behooves us to treat our minds with the same great care we give to our bodies.