Police Officers Learning to Cope with Effects of the Job

February 18, 2013

The day-in and day-out grind for many local law enforcement officers can take an emotional toll, especially over time.

Now, one local police department is making an effort to get ahead of any physical or psychological effects before it's too late.

"Police officers are not robots. We're not programmed to accept or endure things," said Albemarle County detective Carl Brown. "We're all humans. We feel and cry and hurt just like everyone else does."

When on the go, a police officer must be prepared for the worst. A routine traffic stop could become anything but.

"Police officers are exposed to a wide variety of traumatic and critical events," Albemarle Police chief Col. Steve Sellers said. "You don't know what to expect. You don't know how you're going to react."

Police officers are trained how to handle many situations. Now, there's a new effort to train officers how to handle the potential psychological effects. The solutions are resources like peer support and a contracted psychologist.

"Over time, if not effectively addressed internally, that can build up," Sellers said.

Petersburg-based Dr. Byron Greenberg is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in police psychology. Last summer, he became involved with the Albemarle County Police Department.

"Police officers have a specific role in protecting and serving. But they have another role to be the container of memories that the public doesn't want," Greenberg said. "You see someone who is eviscerated in a car accident. You see someone who set their child on fire. Your brain can't really get around or comprehend these things.

Officers' responses to traumatic incidents can lead to many physical and psychological effects like ulcers, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

"You never think about being out there in the wet, cold and rain in the dark to stand between the people who want to harm somebody who's innocent and that person who would harm them," Greenberg said.

Greenberg said some officers hold onto the stress of the job, some work it out with exercise and others find family support. But he said perhaps some of the best help can be falling back on the law enforcement agency itself.

"I believe it's probably the single-most powerful institution to help our officers out," Greenberg said.

Detective Carl Brown is a member of Albemarle County's new Peer Support Team, a growing group of officers and civilians trained to help colleagues cope with the stresses of the job. The challenge, though, is getting the seemingly stout officers to open up.

"In the past, it used to be, when I was a young police officer, you didn't share what was bothering you because you were afraid people would see you as weak," Brown said.

But with the help of a Peer Support Team, a dedicated psychologist and other resources, the goal is now to get ahead of the effects and help protect the wellbeing of those who work to protect everyone else.

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