Police Brutality and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Link?

Enduring Freedom
The first idea that comes into one’s mind when you think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will most likely be the picture of a veteran coming back from a war in pretty much a severe form of the condition. The “severe” being exhibition of the sensationalized symptoms of an individual pacing back and forth in the backyard of his home with a loaded gun past midnight or in hearing the slightest resemblance of a gun shot causing you to have reenactments of the traumatic event. Those severe symptoms are what unfortunately some patients with PTSD suffer. However, in PTSD, there is mild, moderate, to severe conditions of the diagnosis. With each level varying degrees of symptoms that affect the sufferer’s life in different ways(1). In any case, it is important to, I think, bring more awareness to this condition that affects the lives of not only military personnel but law enforcement, victims of bullying and domestic abuse, rescue and humanitarian workers, and most importantly people in direct contact that have a personal relationship with the person that suffers from such a condition. Though PTSD is manageable to some, depending on severity of the condition, it is important that we bring awareness to possible signs and symptoms we should be looking for in us and those around us–and also encourage the treatment to the sufferers of this condition that has ruined the lives of many. It is truly a horrible condition in all its vicissitudes and the more understanding we bring to this condition, the more it would improve the welfare of those we love.

My Focus

I wanted to focus specifically on PTSD and law enforcement ever since the incident involving Christopher Dorner. I had in my mind since the occurrence of police misconduct, within the LAPD, that Christopher had experienced while on duty as a police officer and the possibility of its connection with untreated PTSD. Many of you, who have been following the story and read his manifesto, have probably recognized him as a whistleblower and indeed that is what he represented himself as in his manifesto. Regardless, The Cato Institute, a public policy research organization, released their annual report on police misconduct around the US. In 2009 an estimation of 578(2) of police misconduct have been reported as opposed to the 2010(3) rate which was 679 in the state of California; an increase of 101 of police during the 2009-10 period. In my opinion there should be 0 occurrences of misconduct in our law enforcement. Our tax dollars go to these individuals so they can serve and protect the law, not to commit acts of misconduct to the taxpayers that fund them. However that is besides the point. I think it is important to focus on what is the course of action taken in order to treat the possibility of PTSD sufferers in the department of not only the Los Angeles Police Department, but other departments around the country as well.

police_brutality_baton_PRVWChristopher Dorner mentioned explicitly in his manifesto that “the department (LAPD) has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse”(4), he says, in regards to the police misconduct occurring within the department. He also mentioned that he had experienced an instance of police misconduct while on patrol with an officer into which he reported to the Board of Rights. Nothing was done on the police department’s side to investigate the issue. He goes on to describe the conspiracy of injustice within the police department, that it sort of sweeps these problems under the rug for some reason. A sort of “hush-hush” policy to the issue seemed to be happening as he witnessed to his dismay.

Regardless, during the whole incident involving Christopher Dorner, one issue stuck in my mind; the possibility of police officers suffering from untreated PTSD. In spite of all the accusations you can draw up to the suspect police departments; whether they are poorly managed or an inadequacy in providing mental health care, I think it is important to focus on the possibility of PTSD inside the police department and how it can be contributing to police misconduct.  We nonchalantly attribute the causes of police misconduct a temper flare-up in the heat of the situation; all the while without realizing the possibility of an abnormality in temper and its potential origins. Maybe the cop had a bad day? maybe the criminal had it coming? or is it probably something that occurs normally? We can probably think of a lot of explanations as to rationalize such unacceptable behavior by law enforcement, but it is crucial here to realize the line that separates the need for excessive force and what constitutes as police misconduct. I, nevertheless, propose that the majority of cases involving police misconduct is the result of untreated PTSD. As I will get into more later on.

Is it PTSD?

An article by CBS Evening News mentions the fact that police officers with PTSD face a stigma in getting help and that many of them are not getting the attention they very much need. The article states the same heir of concern;

Across the country, there’s growing concern for police involved in shootings, even when they are not physically hurt. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but few get help dealing with it”(5)

Without any “visible” signs of distress and the assumption that these bumps and bruises are all “part of the job”, it is no wonder that many police officers are without concern or are careless in their mental well-being  Maybe they do notice some symptoms but it never crosses their mind to go seek medical attention? Maybe they feel they are “normal” or  that nothing is out of the ordinary? Maybe they feel their symptoms are not too troubling? Or maybe it might not be worth the hassle going through the procedures with the police department? Many hasty assumptions are probably used to explain away such brief and sporadic occurrences of symptoms that come from certain levels of PTSD.

The problem comes, I think, that in a lot of these cases, police officers, and specifically male police officers, feel their masculinity threatened by admitting there is something wrong or allowing yourself to be vulnerable to treatment. The American Medical Association would agree; because in 1990 they did a study that found out that men do not go to the doctors because of emotions like fear, denial, embarrassment, and said threatened masculinity. Billie Pugh, a Texas physician, remarks;

“From Little League on, you hear boys told to ‘shake it off.’ To admit to having pain or some other problem is seen as a confession of weakness. It threatens our male pride and our provider roles–the things we’ve grown up with and that we’ve been taught”(6)

Surely the male culture of bravado we are taught at a young age plays a part in getting treatment. “Weakness” is abhorred and looked down upon in our culture.  So it would make sense why some, if not all, police officers are resistant to the idea of treatment from that view. Having the identity of a protector, he must not show signs of weakness or else the enemy will see the cracks in his armor, he might think. Living under such an identity day in and day out would create a complete identification of the character of a police officer until he loses himself in it. He knows no other mode of being as a result of long hours on the job; hence it has simply become a way of living. In any case, in this expression of bravado; having the denial, the fear, the probability of embarrassments lingering over your mind, or a threatened masculinity can cause you to miss out on potentially career, marriage, family, or even life saving results. As we will soon see.

Perceptions of PTSD

Like I said before, most individuals think that PTSD is something that happens to war veterans because they face the worst possible experiences out in the battlefield, or maybe those individuals that have really traumatic experience like witnessing a loved one pass away before their eyes, or even having to be the victim of horrible physical or sexual abuse. These perceptions could not be further from the truth; in fact they leave out some of the minor, less-than-severe cases which also negatively effect peoples lives. More often than not, people have the skewed notion that PTSD is something you only get from having a very traumatic experience, and that is something we have unfortunately we inherited from our pop-culture; movies we see in our theaters, story-lines we read from epic novels or narratives from real-life bibliographies–and sometimes even in our folklore and legends! We think that we have experience something sever and impactful to acquire something like PTSD. None of that actually reflects the reality of the condition.

A false sense of security is provided when we think in such a way because in reality “a traumatic experience” is relative. That is, it is made by a value-driven appraisal. And what I mean by a value-driven appraisal is the fact that what we experience as painful, bad, hurtful, or scary is made on how we perceive the past event. The reason why I say that is because psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge, of University of Toronto, is quoted in saying the same; that the traumatic events are not a collection of memories but of perceptions of that memory;

“The [traumatic] event so overwhelmed the brain when it first occurred that it overwhelmed the circuitry that allows the victim to turn the event from a perception into a memory, something our brain normally does the moment an event is over[…]Each time people have ‘flashbacks,’ they are experiencing unified perceptions of the horrible event–not memories”(7)

Many individuals think that regardless of the way you perceive an event you have no chance of escaping a repercussion such as PTSD–but in all actuality, as I mentioned earlier, it is the perception of that event that is the cause of PTSD! Dr. Diodge also mentioned that forming memories into perceptions is something we automatically do after an event. So perception forming is not something we can actually stop or cease in any way, we can, however, consider how we might perceive that event in order to gain some sort of effectiveness in treatment. The peculiarity about PTSD is that in some cases, individuals with the most traumatic experiences have no sign of PTSD, or that some can obtain it with a less than traumatic experience. It has also been said that, in treating PTSD, the best form of care out there has no effect on the condition(8). All these particularities about the condition of PTSD, I think, further lay more believability that the source of PTSD is centered around the idea of perception as the cause–not in the experience that is “plainly” traumatic to the outsider, as we far too often think.

In fact, those premature judgments we make about PTSD, in part, contribute to the police officers inability in getting treatment for their PTSD–that and the male culture we inherit from our society when considered holistically. I imagine that even some of the veterans coming back from war also express the same sort of resistance to treatment since much of their working conditions and perceptions mirror each other.

Police Brutality and untreated PTSD linked?

Most individuals have probably seen footage of victims being beaten disproportionately by law enforcement once or twice in their lives. As confirming as it may seem to some of you, it is not what is considered a normal expression of anger as the circumstances can afford. Sure one might get riled up in such a provoking experience but let your suspicions be your guide here; something is wrong. Laypersons watching the same footage probably write it off as a temper issue or anger that came from the “heat of the moment”. But I do not think so.

Fighting crime out on the streets is no easy job. In fact, many officers experience harsh treatment daily depending on the crime rate in the area. Drug busts, prostitution stings, seeing death, dealing with irate individuals, having to pull your gun out in self-defense, maybe even a gun fight or two depending on the day. Having to go through these type experiences, without some form of release or coping mechanism, can take its toll on an officer that is not receiving attention to the possibility of untreated PTSD, and even more damage will be done to if it remains undiagnosed throughout the years.

To put it into perspective; when a police officer is in a high-speed chase or in a shoot-out with a criminal, his/her nervous system jumps into survival mode. However, with sufferers of PTSD, when the survival mechanism is on during such an event, symptoms of PTSD become more prevalent. One of the most basic reactions in the survival mode is anger, and in individuals with untreated PTSD that basic response becomes “cemented” whenever their survival response is active during those intense moments, and repeated exposure only multiplies the problem. A site provided by mental health practitioners, At Health Mental Health, confirms this notion;

“Recent research has shown that these responses (anger) to extreme threat can become “stuck” in persons with PTSD. This may lead to a survival mode response where the individual is more likely to react to situations with “full activation,” as if the circumstances were life threatening, or self-threatening[…]Often, the most effective way of dealing with extreme threat is to act aggressively, in a self-protective way[…]Again, as stated above, while these strategies for dealing with threat can be adaptive in certain circumstances, individuals with PTSD can become stuck in using only one strategy when others would be more constructive. “(10)

It seems that the problem of being “stuck” possesses a self-sustaining assurance to the condition of PTSD within the law enforcement. Consider these intense moments repeated over and over and how it can cause more problems for the officer that is untreated; when a police officer with PTSD is in an intense situation, the survival response activates and an over-aggressive response is elicited as a result, and because of the problem of such a anger response is stuck, most likely the officer will react, and keep reacting, to the situation in a similar way. It is not surprising, then, that there are cases of police brutality in the light of untreated PTSD.

However, not only does the anger, via PTSD, become wedged in our behavior but also in our brain. Dr. Norman Doidge says that over time repeated behaviors can cause wiring in the brain to crystallize itself and become rigid and resistant to change;

“And since the brain thinks the [traumatizing]event is still happening, this triggers the threat system in the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together, so each time the flashback occurs, it more deeply connects the images involved in the flashback with the threat system. Soon the threat system is on when it shouldn’t be” (11)

Because the mirroring event, survival response intensifies PTSD symptoms, reactions to that event can become repeating and rigid in light of the “plastic” nature of our brain; and also how it rewires itself according to the impressions our environment leaves. Any event that mirrors the traumatic event elicits the symptoms and as a result causes the officer to behave excessively–behavior which furthermore is established in the crystallization of the brain. This fact presents a more urgent call to police officers dealing with untreated PTSD. They go throughout their lives and jobs experiencing the reoccurring symptoms possibly thinking it can be some other disease or disorder, when in fact they are dealing with PTSD. Maybe even risking misdiagnosis, which presents another issue unto itself.

Conclusion

It was my hope that I brought a little more awareness to the possible connection of PTSD and police brutality. Certain jobs carry with it certain consequences and so it is important that we become responsible for those very consequences. It is also important not only for ourselves but for those directly effected by this unfortunate condition. The gravity of some experiences are not to be taken lightly. We must not go on thinking that there are no reactions to some of the experiences that we face. Never ignore gut feelings about yourself or someone else. The longer PTSD is left unnoticed the more difficult treatment will be, and this is because some of the symptoms (e.g. anger, seclusion, paranoia etc) can be assimilated into daily life. It becomes part of your self-conception. When it is undertaken as such, treatment practically becomes a change of lifestyle and thus complicating treatment. Age becomes an issue too; the older you get, the stronger your mental sets will be. Not only is the wiring of your brain rigid, through repeated exposure, but how you are used to solving problems becomes a custom as well. The quicker we recognize PTSD in our law enforcement, and also recognizing it as a problem, the better we will be for ourselves, our family, and, in the police officer’s case, the more representative of a protector that he so identifies himself to be.

References:

1. Brown, H. (n.d.) The Effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the Officer and the Family. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Retrieved from http://www.aaets.org/article132.htm

2. Packman, D. (2009). NPMSRP 2009 Preliminary Police Misconduct Statistical Report. The Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Retrieved from http://www.policemisconduct.net/npmsrp-2009-preliminary-police-misconduct-statistical-report/

3. Packman, D. (2010). 2010 Q3 National Police Misconduct Statistical Report. The Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project. Retrieved from http://www.policemisconduct.net/2010-q3-national-police-misconduct-statistical-report/

4. McKay, T. (2013, February 13). Chris Dorner Manifesto FULL TEXT: Read the Full Christopher Manifesto. PolicyMic. Retrieved from http://www.policymic.com/articles/26194/chris-dorner-manifesto-full-text-read-the-full-christopher-dorner-manifesto

5. Doane, S. (2012, April 17). Cops dealing with PTSD face stigma, lack of resources. CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley.  Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57495737/cops-dealing-with-ptsd-face-stigma-lack-of-resources/

6. Why men don’t go to the doctor. (n.d.) Male Health Center. Retrieved from http://www.malehealthcenter.com/p_check.html

7. Newhouse, E. (2012, March 22). When Plasticity Poses a Problem. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/invisible-wounds/201203/when-plasticity-poses-problem

8. Brown

9. Anger and Trauma. (2012, January 11). At Health Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.athealth.com/consumer/disorders/angertrauma.html

10. Newhouse

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