Sun | Dec 8, 2019

Good cop, bad cop, stressed-out cop

Published:Monday | April 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dr Michael Abrahams - File

Michael Abrahams, Online Columnist

So
yet another cop has killed himself, following fast on the heels of a
policeman who, days earlier, killed his spouse and then himself.
Unfortunately, these murder-suicides and attempts are not uncommon among
our cops and now barely cause eyebrows to be raised among members of
our jaded society. We hear stories about our police shooting and killing
unarmed civilians under questionable circumstances, extra-judicial
killings and death squads being investigated by INDECOM, and we have an
inherent distrust of members of the constabulary force.


Like any
other police force in the world, we have good cops and bad cops. But we
also have many stressed-out cops, men and women who pledge to protect
and serve but whose ability to perform their duties satisfactorily has
been compromised by woefully unsatisfactory working conditions and other
challenges.

Our police force lacks financial, infrastructural,
technological and, perhaps most important, psychological support. Their
salaries are unsatisfactory, their health insurance is often inadequate,
and their stations are in various states of disrepair and dilapidation.
They sometimes travel in vehicles with no air conditioning, making
travelling in rainy conditions a challenge.


These
situations are demotivating and demoralising, and the negative public
perception adds to this, with insults and vitriolic remarks often hurled
at them by members of the public who have lost confidence in them. The
chronic stress resulting from their negative experiences takes a toll,
and if you add changing shifts and the resulting disturbance of sleep
patterns, it is not surprising that physical and mental fatigue often
appear.

Then there is the exposure to extreme violence, which often
helps to push them over the edge. The murder rate in our country is
consistently in the top 10 of the world, with people being killed at a
rate comparable with a country at war, and, in our society, police are
habitual targets for gunmen.


Seeing
dead bodies, sometimes mutilated or decomposing, including those of
children, must take a toll, as well as dealing with grief-stricken
family and community members. Losing a 'squaddie', especially witnessing
his or her death, must be psychologically debilitating, and being
injured in the line of duty can leave physical and emotional scars that
may never heal.

It, therefore, follows that the rates of depression,
anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be significantly
higher in the force than in the general population, but, unfortunately,
our cops are not being managed satisfactorily.


Depression
usually precedes violent meltdowns by police officers, and although the
disorder is extremely easy and inexpensive to screen for, requiring
just answering a set of questions on a form, our police are not
screened, reliance instead being placed on looking for signs of stress
and on officers presenting themselves for help. This approach,
unfortunately, is ineffective for several reasons.
First, we live in a
society that is not particularly emotionally intelligent. We tend to
see depression not as a medical condition requiring treatment, but as a
sign of weakness, and in the hero culture of the police force, where
officers are trained to be strong and to protect others, this perception
is likely to be magnified, along with the stigma attached to being
diagnosed with a mental disorder. Affected cops may fear being mocked or
ostracised by colleagues or passed over for promotion, and hence may be
reluctant to ask for help.

The problem with looking for signs of
stress is that depression may not present with psychological symptoms,
but rather with physical manifestations such as headaches, chest pain or
gastrointestinal disturbances, and affected individuals may be seen to
be mentally intact while their minds may be gradually discombobulating.
And when they do require help, there are only two psychiatrists assigned
to a force of more than 10,000, a situation that is obviously
unacceptable.

Routine screening for depression in our cops would be a
great start, in addition to the assignment of more mental-health
professionals to the force. Screening, if performed in an organised
manner, will identify members at risk and afford timely and appropriate
intervention.

Based on the crime and murder statistics in Jamaica,
and the reported cases of cops freaking out or losing it, it stands to
reason that our force is likely to have many unhealthy members whose
needs are not being met. We cannot realistically expect our cops to
protect and serve us if they themselves are not being protected and
served. We must look after our cops.

Michael
Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician,  comedian and poet. Email
feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com