The toll of police work

Posted on October 24, 2022 in Child & Family Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials
Oct. 23, 2022.   By Star Editorial Board

Police officers will always be required to engage in high pressure, traumatic situations. But in recent years, we’ve asked police for much more than they’re able to give. 

Twenty-nine days. That’s all it took to lose three Ontario police officers to gunfire.

First it was Toronto Police Service Constable Andrew Hong, who was, according to police, ambushed in a coffee shop in Mississauga on Sept. 12. Then it was South Simcoe Police Service Constables Morgan Russell and Devon Northrup, who were killed while responding to a call at an Innisfil home on Oct. 11.

The recent spate of police killings isn’t confined to Ontario either. RCMP officer Shaelyn Yang was stabbed to death on Oct. 18 while on duty in Burnaby, B.C. as a member of the homelessness and mental health outreach team.

Hong, Russell, Northrup and Yang paid the ultimate price, and their deaths reveal the lethal dangers police officers face. But there’s a hidden price of these tragedies, and it’s being paid right now — by their families, friends and fellow officers, who are experiencing the trauma of losing a loved one.

Police officers are, in fact, subjected to traumatic events on a daily basis, though that doesn’t make it any easier. According to the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT), more than 95 per cent of Canadian officers have been exposed to sudden violent deaths.

A similar percentage are exposed to physical assaults and serious car accidents, more than 85 per cent experience serious events such as fires and explosions, and about 80 per cent have dealt with sexual assaults.

In addition to this “operational” stress, officers are also experiencing high levels of “organizational” stress. Thanks to recent class actions against the RCMP, we have heard about the serious organizational problems within the national police service.

According to reports prepared for the lawsuits, sexual assault, sexualized comments and degrading and discriminatory slurs directed at both officers and support staff appear to be common within the organization.

Organizational stress also affects members of municipal police services throughout the country. A survey of more than 1,000 officers obtained by the CBC found that since many organizations prioritize work, more than 30 per cent of officers go to work while physically or mentally unwell.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health further reports that police culture’s emphasis on toughness and teamwork stigmatizes officers who need time off and discourages them from seeking help.

Needless to say, these operational and organizational stresses take their toll: CIPSRT reports that 36.7 per cent of municipal and provincial police and 50.2 per cent of RCMP members screen positive for mental disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.

Furthermore, a 2018 CIPSRT study reported that in just one year, eight to 10 per cent of officers had suicidal thoughts, while three to four per cent engaged in planning.

This isn’t just a crisis for the police: Given officers’ role in protecting public safety, it’s a crisis for everyone. And we must all therefore address the organizational and operational causes of stress.

Addressing organizational stress will require nothing short of a fundamental change in police culture, as police services need to value — and need leaders who champion — respect, diversity and physical and mental health as much as they value toughness and teamwork.

As for operational stress, police will always be required to engage in high pressure, traumatic situations, and adequate mental health support for police is therefore critical.

But in recent years, we’ve asked police for much more than they’re able to give. Due to tears in the social safety net, many vulnerable people fall through the cracks, and it then falls to police to pick them up.

Police therefore become, by default, de facto doctors, nurses and social workers, as they have to deal with issues for which they’re neither qualified nor equipped: homelessness, addictions and mental illness.

This adds enormously to operational stress — and to trauma — for overpoliced, vulnerable people who need care, not cops. Addressing this problem involves a broader cultural change — one whereby we recognize that police can’t solve all social problems, but that we can prevent these problems with an adequate commitment to health care and community services.

The welfare of police officers is therefore inextricably intertwined with the welfare of our most vulnerable citizens. And if we care about healthy communities, we’ll commit to ensuring the welfare of both.

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