Wouldn’t You Run?

When I was deciding how to specialize my psychotherapy practice, one of my advisors suggested her own area of expertise — working with police men and women. When I asked why, she replied, “because they have a lot of issues and great insurance.”

It’s not that all cops are assholes, of course. It’s just that the recent high-profile cases of extreme aggression and anger from the people who are meant to protect us has shed a new light on the need for psychiatric care and counseling for our nation’s police force. The recent event in McKinney, TX is a perfect example. We’ve all seen it by now: the viral video shows Officer Eric Casebolt in an uncontrolled state of rage demonstrating an abuse of power, excessive force, and literally doing the opposite of any interventions that would have diffused the seemingly routine process of breaking up a rowdy high school party.

I’m from Texas and I went to many similar parties. When they were broken up, we all waited around for our parents to come get us, which is what it looked like these kids were doing until the Hulk barreled in, chasing down and violently restraining the very people he was supposed to be sending home. He also pulled a gun — not a taser, a baton, or mace — on two unarmed teens. The fact that this officer had a playlist of escalated police situations points to a certain amount of pride in “laying down the law”. The argument goes that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t run… but if you’re familiar with even one of the #BlackLivesMatter stories and see this guy coming, wouldn’t you run?

Growing up we were taught to call the police if we were ever in trouble, but recently brown and black people are learning that when the police are called, things can quickly get worse instead of better. So, what’s the deal with cops? Communities of color, living in areas with high crime rates and high police presence, are at risk, and the methods we’re using to help both sides aren’t necessarily fixing the problem. How did we get to this incendiary point?

Police in the United States are required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to screen for pathological thinking that would inhibit their abilities to protect and serve: paranoia, proclivity to violence, inflated egos, gender or racial biases, overly defensive or sensitive to perceived slights, fantasies of revenge, etc.

The testing is very thorough with rigorous psychological assessments. And most police officers pass those exams and go on to serve their communities with distinction. Yet, others don’t. Is this a product of individual personality disorders or is their behavior a result of the extreme circumstances of their daily job duties?

In some cases, it seems as if it’s the former — take for example, the Seattle police woman who arrested an elderly black veteran for just standing on the corner. Or off-duty officer, Dante Servin, who was unbelievably acquitted after confronting and recklessly shooting at a group of unarmed young people, killing Rekia Boyd. But in many, many other cases across the United States, it’s not as clear. In consistently distressed conditions, could the nature of their careers alter their personalities to the point of poor instincts, lower stress tolerance, destructive decision-making, or prejudiced behavior? The answer may be yes.

After he was acquitted of killing Boyd, Servin displayed a lack of empathy or remorse and an inflated sense of self, among other traits. These behaviors are highly correlated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

In the case of Freddie Gray, six trained men and women collectively decided to use extreme force to beat a young man unconscious to the point of severing his spine, and ultimately killing him. Not one of them chose to intervene or diffuse a charged situation. Anger and risky, self-destructive behavior are associated with clinical depression; were these individuals suffering from a mental illness, or were they so overtaken by mob mentality they didn’t have the courage to speak up and do the right thing?

Officer Michael Stager chose to shoot an unarmed Scott eight times in the back, rather than give chase to a fleeing suspect. Hyper vigilance and an “us vs them” mentality are symptomatic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And in Stager’s case, he had previously received a complaint of excessive force. As had Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner.

These are all disturbing and frustrating incidents, but it is important to remember that behind the badge, police officers are people, too.

They are people who live under the constant threat of violence or death and receive little respect or appreciation from others besides their peers. As a result, there is a tendency to develop a “battle field” mentality. Yet police aren’t strenuously prepared for combat in the same way American soldiers — and many gang members — are. It would seem then that cops and criminals have more in common than you think.

Both groups are living with PTSD and in fact, experience something closer to current and ongoing traumatic stress, with sustained cumulative and dangerous situations affecting and altering their mental health and emotional stability. Without treatment, it is understandable that one’s thought processes and rational behavior would deteriorate.

It can’t be easy being a police officer. People are rarely happy to see you, even when they call you. And on most days, you are witness to the worst of the worst of human behavior. The situations, sights and even smells go beyond acceptable standards of human life. Still, I do believe the majority of people who enter the force do so to help people and keep them safe.

They’re here to help clean up and rebuild crime-addled communities, not rage against them. So to protect our communities, we have to help our cops. I hope that our police officers, in order to preserve their mental and physical diligence, can receive regular counseling and emotional support in order to process their overwhelming stress. Because they have become victims of crime as well.

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