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CONN – Cops Under Attack


January 30, 2016
By Stephanie Conn

880 words – MR

Police under attack

by Stephanie Conn

Police officers seem to be under attack from every direction these days. I’m not referring to suspects resisting arrest but more offensive attacks such as excessive scrutiny by the public, media and the justice system.

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Officers are being physically attacked in planned ambushes by anti-police individuals and groups and attacked on moral and legal grounds by unsupportive segments of the population. They are also being attacked legally by a justice system that attempts to prosecute police for doing their job; a job many couldn’t imagine doing due to the danger involved.

Recently, I was sickened to see a television program showcasing police officers’ “inability” to make good decisions managing situations with persons with mental illness. Police were portrayed as trigger happy killers gunning down innocent people.

The program interviewed family members of shooting victims to humanize the troubled person while ignoring the human side of officers. Police were not portrayed as human beings — people who didn’t want to kill anyone but felt threatened or feared for the safety of others, leading them to have to make the difficult choice to stop the threat.

Nobody talked about how having to shoot another person affects officers. They also didn’t mention the injuries police sustained at the hand of the shooting victim. Discussions of systemic failures for people in mental health crisis were offered sparingly.

Positive interactions between police and those with mental illness were also scarce, despite the fact officers interact with them in roughly half their daily calls for service. Of course these points would have complicated the story. Television programs such as these promote violence against police and unduly pressure the legal system to penalize officers for doing their job.

This is not to suggest that police misconduct does not exist. I know it does, but it is clearly exaggerated. Increasingly, police officers are viewed as oppressive authority figures, not human beings with parents, partners, children and their own stresses, strains and feelings. This likely contributes to the rise in orchestrated violence against police. I can’t imagine how these programs help.

One of the outcomes of inflammatory programs is the contribution to the “us and them” mentality between police and the public. This mentality keeps the two groups from interacting and maintains misunderstandings.

Police officers like to spend time with other police people and tend to reduce the amount of time they spend with non-police because they don’t feel understood or have the energy (or inclination) to explain the ins and outs of their job. Unfortunately, this remoteness perpetuates the divide between police and other members of society.

Another negative consequence of this television or YouTube depiction of police is the tendency of officers to hesitate to take action (paralysis by analysis) because they fear legal sanctions for doing the job they have been asked to do. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, therefore they hesitate.

Hesitating to consider options may not have consequences in most incidences but has resulted in the officer or another person being injured or killed.

Lastly, biased and harsh criticism of officers is likely a factor in recent police suicides. I don’t have any evidence to support this idea but can recall instances where officers have been scrutinized publicly and later took their lives. Research I conducted with officers shows they felt public and media scrutiny interfered with their ability to cope with traumatic stress.

Officers spoke of “Monday morning quarterbacking” as offensive and frustrating because they could not respond to the criticisms. They just had to try to ignore it while dealing with the aftermath of the traumatic event.

I am an advocate for crisis intervention training and using minimal force. However, having been a police officer working in a dangerous neighbourhood, I understand that sometimes the minimum force required to quell a threat is deadly force.

Until far-reaching systemic changes provide proper prevention, support and treatment to persons suffering with mental illness, police will continue to be called upon to manage the situation in service of the public: that includes the segment of the public which asks them to protect and serve and attacks them for doing so.

I’ve ranted enough about what I don’t like. It isn’t helpful to ruminate about the problem without considering its exceptions and, therefore, possible solutions. For one, Tema’s work in humanizing first responders is a large step in the right direction. In particular, Tema Conter’s tour offers talks in 48 cities across Canada, allowing first responders to share stories which reflect their humanity and resilience in the wake of operational stress injuries.

Tema is gathering media attention for its cause and this will help with positive first responder coverage. It is also building capacity in first responders to manage difficulties and better help fellow officers.

An innovative new program, which I am proud to be a part of, is a Tema Conter/Simon Fraser University joint initiative called the First Responders Trauma Prevention and Recovery certificate program. Offered online, it’s designed to help first responders mitigate the impact of their work and help others do the same.

I urge you to check it out on Tema’s web site (www.tema.ca) and become part of the positive story of police resilience.


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