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Residuals of Police
Occupational Trauma

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1997-3

Residuals of Police Occupational Trauma

John M. Violanti, Rochester Institute of Technology, Department of Criminal Justice, 93 Lomb Memorial Drive, Rochester , New York Email: jmvgcj@ritvax.isc.rit.edu
Keywords: police, trauma, addiction, occupational exposure

John M. Violanti

Rochester Institute of Technology
Department of Criminal Justice
93 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester , New York


This paper describes possible consequences of exposure to trauma in the police occupation. During the span of a career, police officers are generally exposed to traumatic events more often and more intensely than those in other occupations. Under such conditions, the probability of addiction to and residual effects of trauma increases. Trauma addiction may be a result of physiological and psychological processes that increase the need for exciting or dangerous activities. Residual impact of trauma may be the result of separating from police service, diminishing stimulation from police activities, and loss of social support from a cohesive police culture. The paper concludes with suggestions for therapy.

Residuals of Police Occupational Trauma


This paper examines after-effects of trauma in police work and draws upon a more extensive military literature to highlight problems and issues in police work. The exposure of police officers to trauma, while generally not as intense as combat, may be for a period of twenty years or more. With such long term exposure, officers who separate from policing are still likely to experience symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Paton & Violanti, 1996). Police officers are in many ways similar to military combatants, experiencing events in their work that involve treachery, violence, and death. It is argued here that police officers with long term exposure to trauma may, like the soldier, experience the after-effects of trauma long after separation from the war. For some, symptomatology may be full-blown, for others, a residual condition may exist.

With return to civilian life, police officers take with them emotional baggage remaining from traumatic work experiences. Solomon (1992) suggests that persons who leave traumatic situations tend to generalize avoidance to stimuli resembling the trauma in their new environment. As a result they constrict their scope of activity, social ties and civilian functioning. This is viewed as a detrimental pattern of residual trauma carried over into the new environment of the separated police officer. The officer's family and close friends may also contribute to this problem by adapting themselves to this widened avoidance.

Officers may experience full or residual PTSD at the time of their separation from service. The "residual stress hypothesis" proposes that prior trauma exposure leaves residual effects which are widespread, deep, and long lasting (Figley, 1978). Solomon (1989; 1990; 1993) in studies of Israeli Veterans, concluded that the trauma of combat leaves marked stress residues among combatants. On the whole, Solomon found that trauma-related symptomatology declined over time, but psychiatric symptomatology remained stable. Her conclusion was that war becomes internalized and continues to cast a shadow on the lives of veterans. Repeated trauma during the combat experience appears to be progressively more severe and limiting and leads to the deepening of symptoms. Scaturo and Hayman (1992) report clinical observations of separated combatants as displaying acute generalized anxiety, worry, and depression. Many of the patients seemed to experience a strong desire to resolve whatever ongoing psychological conflict they struggled with regarding the war. Yet is possible that, unless diagnosed with full PTSD, those presenting with partial symptoms may not receive the attention they deserve, laying a foundation for future and more entrenched difficulties.

Weiss, Marmar, Schlenger, Fairbank, et al (1992) conclude that PTSD morbidity rates should include those individuals who experience partial as well as full PTSD symptoms. Evans (1987) states that it is necessary to attend to subclinical phenomena because individuals who only partially meet the full set of diagnostic criteria for PTSD also contribute to the level of morbidity. Egendorf, Kadushin, Laufer, Rothbart, and Sloan (1981) noted that literature on problems of combat veterans seldom distinguishes between those with full or "partial" PTSD. The terminology of the person being in a "residual state" is used to describe the disorder. Weiss, et al (1992) commented that individuals who, on a life-time basis, never meet the full criteria for PTSD are indistinguishable from those who do.

Persons who experience long term exposure to trauma and separate may have what Horowitz (1986) describes as "post-traumatic character disorder", or what Brown and Fromm (1986) call "complicated PTSD". These categories would better describe individuals who have exposure to repetitive, prolonged trauma (Kroll, Habennicht, & Mackenzie, 1989). Symptoms of persons chronically exposed to trauma appear to be amplified. Hilberman (1980) states that chronically traumatized people are hypervigilant, anxious and irritated, and without any recognizable baseline of "calm". Studies of returning POWs exposed to repetitive trauma document increased mortality as a result of homicide, suicide, and suspicious accidents (Segal, Hunter, & Segal, 1976). The general conclusion that can be drawn from these studies is that, although not presenting with full PTSD following isolated traumatic episodes, repeat exposure can, over time, increase risk status. Consequently, it becomes necessary to consider the wider implications of such experiences, including the risk becoming addicted to traumatic incidents and carrying the effects of work experiences beyond the point of separation from police work.

Addictions To Prior Occupational Trauma

Police officers spend much of their careers preparing for the worse. Training generally emphasizes the "worst possible case scenario" and prepares officers to deal with that event only. As a result, many officers become occupationally and personally socialized into approaching situations with considerable suspicion. This defensive stance towards life activities can become an obsession and a liability for officers (Williams, 1987; Gilmartin; 1986). As one result of learned defensiveness, it is not uncommon to find a proportion of what Wilson (1980) refers to as "action junkies"; officers who are addicted to risk behavior. Police work is mostly routine, but it is also interspersed with acts of violence, excitement, and trauma. Some officers become addicted to this excitement and cannot function effectively without it when they separate from service.

Addiction to highly stimulating and dangerous encounters has been explored by several authors. Solursh (1989) defined two factors which appear to exacerbate the addiction of those exposed to such encounters. The first is the "existence of a series of mutually reinforcing excitatory states beginning with multiple combat experiences and the recurring exciting recall of such experiences" (Solursh, 1988). Such "highs" are frequently followed by a depression of a "downer" mood which borders on numbing (Kolb, 1984). Solursh (1989, p. 251) describes such "highs" in his clinical experiences with Vietnam veterans:

"They (the experiences) appear to be highly reinforcing in the presence of a history of multiple combat exposures and seem to interact with other related excitatory experiences such as a compulsive need for presence of readied weapons, reenacting combat-like activities, seeking physical confrontation, and self-administered substance abuse patterns."

van der Kolk (1987) has discussed an "addiction to traumatic re-exposure" and theorizes that an endogenous opiod release could account for the calm upon re-exposure to stress that is reported by many traumatized persons. van der Kolk (1988) states that increased physiological arousal of traumatized persons decrease their ability to assess the nature of current challenges, and interferes with the resolution of the trauma. Such persons have difficulty in making calm and rational decisions and tend to rely on instant action rather than thought. Kolb (1993) hypothesizes that arousal of intense emotional response to traumatic events lead to hypersensitivity and impaired potential for habituation and relearning.

Grigsby (1991) states that "combat rush" is a conditioned emotional response to trauma. While war is frightening and traumatic, combat may be characterized by periods of intense pleasurable stimulation. These experiences may be reinforcing, leading persons to "seek out" similar trauma. Solursh (1989) views the "rush" experienced by traumatized persons as a response to dullness and boredom in life. They crave excitement as an alternative to a calm lifestyle.

An interesting hypothesis by Gilmartin (1986) purports that adrenaline addiction may be a result of learned behavior. The author suggests that police work creates a learned perceptual set which causes officers to alter the manner in which they interact with the environment. Statement by officers that "cop work gets into the blood" are provided as evidence describing a physiological change that becomes inseparable from the police role. The interpretation of the environment as always dangerous may subsequently reprogram the reticular activating system and set into motion physiological consequences. This will be interpreted by the officer as a feeling of energization, rapid thought patterns, and a general "speeding up" of physical and cognitive reactions (Gilmartin,1986).

Gilmartin adds that police work often leads officers to perceive even mundane activities not from a neutral physiological resting phase, but from a state of hypervigilance, scanning the environment for threats. Once a hypervigilant perception set becomes a daily occurrence, officers alter their physiology daily without being exposed to any types of threatening events. Thus, officers may continuously be on a physiological "high" without stimulation.

Prior Trauma and The Loss of Group Support

Many authors speak of the existence of a police subculture, a closed mini-society where officers maintain a sense of strong cohesion, a code of silence and secrecy, and dependence upon one another for survival (Westley, 1970; Reiss & Bordua, 1967; Wilson, 1973; Skolnick, 1972; Neiderhoffer, 1967). The police subculture resembles military sub-groups, where teamwork is necessary for survival against the enemy. One police officer commented that "the job is too tough without having to battle the public, the administration and the courts by yourself". It is not easy for police officers to leave this interpersonal web of protection. One of the major regrets of separated officers is that they no longer feel a part of the department. It is as if someone had removed an integral part of their personality (Violanti, 1992).

Separation and loss of support from the police group may serve to increase the already heightened physiological and psychological state associated with PTSD. Social interactions with such groups is important after a traumatic event to reduce psychological symptomatology (Green, Wilson, & Lindy, 1985; Green, 1993). Lindy, Grace, & Green (1981) first described this function as the "trauma membrane" effect, where a network of trusted, close persons served to protect traumatized persons from further distress.

Lin (1982, 1983) and Lin, Woelfel and Light (1985) found that strong social ties, which resulted from association with others of similar characteristics, lifestyles, and attitudes were successful in ameliorating distress. Kazak (1991) found that near-group "social context" is an important element in recovery from distress. Boman (1979) found that a cohesive social network helps to reduce the effects of trauma stress.

Tyler and Gifford (1991) found that cohesive military units facilitated trauma resolution in soldiers and their families. Studies of the absence of close ties have also demonstrated effects on psychological distress. Ottenberg (1987) suggested that members of dissimilar groups who experience trauma do not feel a sense of "connectedness" and therefore do not cope well with the traumatic event. Young and Erickson (1988) noted that victims who experience isolation from strong cultural ties had an increased vulnerability to traumatic stress disorders.

Matsakis (1987), found that military wives who experienced isolation from cohesive military social groups did not cope well with emotional distress. Ursano, Holloway, Jones, Rodriguez and Belenky (1989) reported that military families who experience prolonged absences of spouses, isolation from the civilian community, and potential loss of a family member to war do not cope well with trauma.    

The powerful role of social support, particularly in groups with a strong, cohesive identity, in ameliorating distress has been acknowledged. Upon separation from police service, officers exposed to trauma will lose ready access to the group and may no longer be able depend on other officers, the police agency, or police benevolent groups to reinforce a sense of understanding and recognition of their trauma (Williams, 1987; Reiser & Geiger, 1984).

The Police Family: Issues of Left-Over Trauma

For police as well as military families, traumatic duty experiences and emotions that follow are a genuine disruption of emotional attachment and bond (Scaturo & Hayman, 1992). Solomon, Mikulineer, Fried, and Wosner (1987) found that married soldiers had higher rates of PTSD than unmarried soldiers. Solomon attributed these results to many of the added pressures of marriage, including leadership, companionship and taking care of one's family and other marital responsibilities. Married soldiers carried traumatic symptoms back to the family which made many of these responsibilities seem more difficult.

Another factor that police officers must face upon separation is getting another job. Many officers who leave at mid-life and are too young to actually retire. For the officer who has been exposed to trauma, job related concerns may be affected in different ways. Blank (1983) has observed that persons involved with trauma in their lives often devote considerable amounts of psychic energy to deal with those traumas. This leaves the person void of energy to direct towards career and marriage.

Scaturo and Hayman (1992) note the lack of adequate and satisfying work for the trauma-exposed person has its emotional costs in the family. Often there is an "assault" upon the person's sense of accomplishment and place in the family. The authors add that therapy may help the traumatized person to reappraise previously unexamined aspects of their lives, including traumatic experiences.

Police family members may have never experienced or cannot fully understand the nature of trauma that officers faced in their daily work. What they see are the effects of such trauma. As Scaturo and Hayman (1992) state: "the therapist must asses the impact of two phenomenologically separate worlds which have collided in the family system". The integration of these two systems is necessarily the way to family well-being.


Retiring or leaving police work may not leave officers or their families free of the haunting vestiges of trauma. A recognition of this fact is needed among persons who work in this occupation. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but effective intervention during the police career may help. Officers separated from the force may benefit from therapy which reorients the officer's perceptual set into other roles. As a civilian, the officer must learn to adjust to a role which does not involve constant scanning for threats. Therapy may require teaching the officer to learn new reactive patterns. In addition, the wider family consequences of trauma work must be recognised. More research into the implications of repetitive and addictive traumatic stress phenomena is required to augment support and therapeutic strategies.


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John M. Violanti © 1997. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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