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Law Enforcement Traumatic Stress: Clinical Syndromes and Intervention Strategies

NCJ Number
Laurence Miller, Ph.D.
Date Published
7 pages
This article assists law enforcement supervisors and administrators who are interested in providing the best possible psychological services to their personnel, as well as mental health clinicians who may be considering law enforcement consultation.
The article first describes the types of critical incidents and other stresses experienced by law enforcement officers. Police officers regularly deal with the most violent, impulsive, and predatory members of society, put their lives on the line, and confront cruelties and horrors that the public can only imagine based on media descriptions and portrayals. Police officers generally perform their duties with dedication and courage, but some stresses overcome even the most experienced and resilient officers. Every officer has his/her breaking point. In some cases, the traumatic critical incident can precipitate the development of a full-scale posttraumatic stress disorder. Symptoms may include numbed responsiveness; impaired memory alternating with intrusive, disturbing images of the incident; irritability; hypervigilance; impaired concentration; sleep disturbance; anxiety; depression; phobic avoidance; social withdrawal; and substance abuse. In addition to identifying critical events and symptoms of stress experienced by police officers, this article also describes the interventions and psychotherapeutic strategies that have proven most practical and useful for helping law enforcement officers in distress. Generally, one-time, incident-specific interventions will be most appropriate for addressing the effects of trauma on otherwise normal, well-functioning personnel. When posttraumatic symptoms persist, more extensive individual psychotherapeutic approaches are needed. Intervention services should be part of an integrated program within the department, with full administrative support. This article reviews the features of critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) which is a structured intervention designed to promote the emotional processing of traumatic events through the ventilation and normalization of reactions, as well as preparation for possible future experiences. Therapeutic strategies and techniques are discussed in the concluding section. 49 references