"In our profession, we see a lot of sadness. We see a lot of tragedy."
That's what University of Maryland Chief of Police David Mitchell told me about being a police officer a few weeks ago.
It was a heavy statement, and one I didn't want to spend much time pondering. But a recent Citizens' Police Academy class forced me to really consider the kind of stress that an officer undergoes in the line of duty.
At last week's class, a representative from the Prince George's County Police Department's psychological services division discussed scenarios that require quick decision making, keen communication and effective data collection through the use of all five senses. The examples he provided emphasized the importance of knowing just how to react as a police officer, given the specific situation.
A misstep can have serious impacts, not just on the citizens involved, but on the involved officer as well. Our instructor shared a video clip of one officer—not from the Prince George's department—that exemplified the psychological impact of the job:
"Everyday you'll see something that tears your heart out," the officer explained. He said that as an officer, he must have a front, a way to store away the emotions associated with witnessing tragedy. But then he shared a story about an incident that wasn't so easy to file away—the time he witnessed a teenage girl commit suicide.
Finding individuals who can manage and recover from such stress can be difficult. Military experience, a family history of police experience, a degree in higher education don't promise a successful police officer, our instructor said.
What are the best predictors?
Values. A successful officer must exemplify the values of integrity, and the ability to follow and lead, our instructor said.
Thankfully, our police department has a division to assist officers in managing the stress that they encounter in the line of duty. But I wonder if one of the most effective ways to deal with the tragedy is to also balance it with positive experiences.
That's one strategy Chief Mitchell discussed with me at the Inspiration Walk and Run last month at the University of Maryland campus, which benefited the Special Olympics. Police departments across the nation traditionally support Special Olympics causes. When I asked Mitchell why, he said it just makes sense.
After witnessing sadness and tragedy as a police officer, helping with Special Olympics—“It’s immediate payback," he said.
This is the most recent post in a series of blog posts about my experience as a student in the Prince George's County Citizens' Police Academy. Do you want to learn more about blogging? Email Shannon.Hoffman@Patch.com.