Alumni / Social Justice

Policing and Trauma: Changing the Culture

Brian McVey_154x154Brian Mc Vey, MAP, is an Adler alumnus with more than 10 years of law enforcement experience with the Chicago Police Department. He is currently a Crisis Response Leader with Chicago Police Survivors, where he helps officers recently involved in a critical incident connect to support services. You can reach Brian at btmcvey@comcast.net

Imagine one day you’re at work when, out of nowhere, someone shoots at you. You’re not hit, but the round impacts a filing cabinet behind you with a deafening bang. Now imagine your boss just claps you on the shoulder and says, “Glad you’re okay. Now, shake it off and get back to work.”

Sounds absurd, right? Yeah, unless you’re a cop. That really happened to me. The only difference: I was in my squad car. But it was back to work like nothing ever happened.

Maybe that doesn’t surprise you. After all, it typically makes the news anytime a cop shoots someone or gets shot. And you wouldn’t be wrong to point out that we signed up for this. It’s common knowledge that stress is part of the job.

Stress is one thing; trauma is another. We face trauma on a regular basis. Some examples:

  • I once examined a toddler with a bloody diaper. He’d been sexually assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend. When I interviewed the mother, she insisted her boyfriend wasn’t a bad guy because he had a job.
  • I’ve been to countless scenes of domestic violence, including murder/suicides in which the whole family was killed.
  • I’ve worked around the gruesome sight and smell of a badly decomposed body.
  • While on the gang unit, I shot a young man in a gunfight. Contrary to popular belief, I thank God he lived and that I don’t have a kill on my conscience.
  • I’ve seen people beaten and stomped beyond recognition.
  • I’ve seen young children and teens shot dead in the street.
  • Ultimately, my career ended with a devastating car accident, in which I sustained injuries that required dozens of surgeries over several years. I just recently underwent another to repair nerve damage in my shoulder.

It feels gratuitous to write all this down—I’m sure it might be overwhelming to read—but I promise it’s nothing close to a comprehensive list of the traumas I encountered in more than a decade as a cop. Any one of these experiences would stand out as major life events for most people, but they are common among my fellow officers.

But we don’t talk about it. These aren’t the kinds of things you mention at a dinner party, when someone asks, “So, what do you do?” or “I hear you’re a cop; what’s that like?” These aren’t even things we typically like to share with our spouses. We end up feeling very alone as a result.

If we do talk about these experiences, it’s with other police and we’re usually cracking jokes. Humor helps people cope in the short term, but it’s a band-aid. We rarely admit how much it hurts to carry the weight of bearing witness, because no one wants to be the weak link who can’t handle the job. Sadly, many officers don’t actually realize the impact this job has on their lives and families—even though rates of divorce and suicide among cops are sky high.

I think there’s a misconception—by both police officers and the public—that cops are either trained to be or somehow are inherently different, in that they aren’t affected by these experiences. But that’s not true. The job is different in that it is inherently traumatic. But the cops are just regular people. They experience and process trauma in all the ways that people do.

It’s time we wake up and respond appropriately. In the same way we recognize that poverty and broken and oppressed communities create dysfunctional and even criminal behavior, we have to also see that unrelenting exposure to violence and other traumas can do the same to police.

Without the proper supports, officers too often get depressed and cynical, they turn to alcohol and drugs to cope, they become angry and violent. Departments have to provide regular counseling and mental health services to officers as they experience disturbing scenes and dangerous encounters.

I know this from experience. After my accident, being in pain all the time, I knew my temper was shorter but I thankfully did not turn to the bottle or abuse my prescriptions. Instead, I relied on a strong faith, a wonderful wife, and a great support system in family and friends who helped me find better ways to cope—and get some professional help.

My wife and I were not prepared for this incident. Getting assistance from the department’s Employee Assistance Program and other organizations, like the Chicago Police Survivors Foundation, was a blessing.

The Chicago Police Survivors Foundation is a group of active, retired, and disabled officers who use personal experience from their critical incidents to help other officers suffering from their own critical incident.

The Survivors Foundation is recognized by the Chicago Police Department as a formal organization and works under the umbrella of Phil Cline and the Chicago Police Memorial foundation.

We not only support survivors of trauma–we are also actively changing the culture that has impeded cops from seeking help. We meet with future officers, while they’re still in the academy, to educate them about the importance of maintaining healthy emotional processing of their experiences and seeking help when they feel overwhelmed or burned out.

Where past generations were taught to bury those feelings, we’re teaching the next generation to accept and share those feelings. Policing will always be dangerous and traumatic—there’s no changing that—but it doesn’t have to be so isolating.