Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The most important support

Last night was family night in the police academy--an evening when we invite the new recruits' family and friends down to see the police station and hear a little bit about what they will be experiencing during the next year in training. It is important for families to know that we intend to help their daughter, wife, brother, or friend succeed and that we are committed to helping these men and women enjoy fruitful careers.

There are huge misconceptions about policing that can cause officers' family members to be especially apprehensive about their career choice. The 10 o'clock news is all about violent crime: shootings, robberies, and aggravated assaults. But there are thousands and thousands of traffic collisions, motorist assists, shoplifts, disturbances, lost items, runaways, and child neglect cases in that mix that don't get reported very often. It is noteworthy that of our 140,000 police dispatches last year, less than 10% were the FBI Part 1 crimes that capture the headlines.

If you watched TV police dramas and police-themed movies, you would probably conclude that most police officers are suicidal alcoholics with an average of three failed marriages. In truth, on the Lincoln police department's 17-person command staff, there are at least seven 30 year+ marriages that I can think of. For this group, a 20 year relationship is a good start. We have some veteran police officers like Paul Aksamit, Ray Kansier, Mike Davis, Mark Johnson, Dave Goehring, Charlie Solano, Scott Arnold, Sid Yardley and Steve Wetzel who've been doing street police work for over 30 years and do it withe skill and enthusiasm that people half their age have a hard time matching. They have had an unparalleled opportunity to make a huge impact on their community. Each of them has saved many lives and changed many lives.

More than anything, though, the immediate family of new officers worry about their safety. Here's another misconception: that police work is the most dangerous occupation. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles and publishes detailed statistics concerning on-the-job deaths and injuries. Construction trades, farming, and a variety of other occupations involving such things as heavy machinery, heights, confined spaces and motor vehicles are way, way out in front.

If you limit your examination to murders on the job, though, we were tied with retail cashiers at the top of the list in 2006. Other occupational groups near the top were management occupations and transportation occupations. Apparently supervisors, store clerks, and taxi drivers join police officers at greater risk for violent death than other workers. Police officers have actually become much less likely to be victims of fatal attacks over the past 35 years. Largely due to better training, body armor, and safer tactics that have been developed and widely implemented in the field, the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty has fallen precipitously since 1993.

This is not to minimize the risks. It is only through good training and practice that this number is kept low in the United States, and one is one too many. But the greatest risk in policing, in my view, is psychological rather than physical. Our employee assistance program, internal resource officers, critical incident stress debriefings, and mentors are vital for protecting new officers from the stress of intensely demanding shift work and the cumulative trauma of dealing with some of life's most distressing events and circumstances. Support systems allow them to focus instead on the boundless opportunities they will have to do socially-significant work the likes of which most people can only dream.

The most important support system to protect our officers' psychological well being, however, is nothing the police department or the City provides; it is the love and support of their intimate partner, their family, their friends, one another, and their community. That's what family night is about.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm just a dinosaur, because I grew up watching Dragnet and Adam-12! They helped form a very positive image of the Police Officer in young minds, much to the chagrin of the entertainment industry.

With contemporary police dramas, there are a few things you failed to mention that must be added to alcoholic and suicidal. Let's see - unbelievealy attractive, bending over and shoeing lots of implant-enhanced cleavage, adulterous, and hotheadedly engaging in yelling matches with their colleagues. Did I miss anything?

The screamfests with their colleagues don't seem to harm their careers at all. That's probably because unrealistic interpersonal conflict keeps people from changing the channel. At LPD, how quickly after the yelling match would you have such unstable hotheads like that on the carpet, front and center, in front of a Captain?

Anyway, those shows are all crap! Rent an Adam-12 box set on DVD and watch that instead.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I'd like to blame you for the link that introduced me to the NIBRS, of which I was previously unaware.

The NIBRS looks extremely interesting, even more so than the UCR, and as such will likely eat up hours and hours of my time digging into it. I really didn't need yet another hobby, but it looks like I now have one.