The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 18, 2013

Training helps police officers become aware of the unique role stress plays

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— A police officer is more likely to be killed by his own gun than by a criminal.  

“You have three to four times better chance of dying from your own gun with your own hand than you do a felon shooting you,” retired Lt. Jim Glennon, owner of Lifeline Training and Calibre Press said Tuesday.

Glennon, a retired Illinois police officer who now trains other officers, spoke Monday and Tuesday to around 300 officers from 32 law enforcement agencies around southern West Virginia as part of required ongoing police training.

His topic on Tuesday was sobering, but he said it’s something police officers need to understand.

“What we’re trying to make them aware of is how officers die,” he said. “We start really simple.”

Around 150 officers listened Tuesday to Glennon’s seminar.

After suicide, the three most common ways an officer dies is by felonious assault, on the roadway or heart attack, Glennon told the police.

Law enforcement is a career that forces them into a different mindset than they could have as a civilian, Glennon said. An officer may worry that his own or someone else’s life depends on one of his choices — and it would be a legitimate concern. They can be asked to step into a fight or a crime at any moment or may have to rush to an emergency.

Police also see atrocities and a side of human nature that most of the general population usually don’t encounter.

Some crime scenes involve violence or death. Some involve children.

The average person gets five or six “adrenaline dumps” a year, according to Glennon. An “adrenaline dump” is when a suddenly stressful event sends the heart rate to around 200.

By contrast, Glennon said, an officer can have five or six adrenaline dumps a day.

“That much stress affects your cells,” said Glennon. “It affects you mentally.”

If an officer isn’t aware of the stress, the higher levels can lead to poor decision-making, said Glennon.

One goal of the seminar was to let officers know that they may be carrying stress that can impact their decisions.

When stress levels go up, Glennon told the police, the ability to think “goes down.”

“Stress affects everything they do,” said Glennon.

An officer in a gunfight, for example, may develop “tunnel vision,” being focused only on one goal. This can make an officer less likely to notice weapons or surroundings.

Decisions that might seem less severe can also get impacted by stress.

“The stress gets to the point we drive our cars too fast, we don’t wear seatbelts because we always think we have to hurry and get out of cars,” explained Glennon. “So we can make poor decisions based on stress.”

It’s not uncommon for officers to develop “a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Glennon.

PTSD develops after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events. In severe forms, it can be debilitating.

“(Officers) develop a form of PTSD, and they have almost no outlet for it,” said Glennon. “Eighty-five percent of officers are men.

“Men, they just keep their feelings,” he said. “They can’t go home and say, ‘I’m weak,’ and they try to force their way through it.”

The nature of police work may lead to more family break-ups, Glennon noted, which creates more stress, which may, in turn, be a factor in suicide being the largest risk factor in an officer’s premature death.

Glennon said the goal of his training is to help officers become aware of the unique role stress plays in police work and how it can take its toll on an officer.

Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner, who brought the training to Beckley, said the event has been successful.

He added that it’s boosted inter-agency morale and trust, which leads to better cooperation among law enforcement and better service to the community overall.