Study Results and Publications


A study of critical incident and routine work stress in 747 New York City, Oakland, and San Jose police officers.

What we found:

• Although officers reported having experienced a large number and range of critical incidents during their careers, average levels of critical incident stress symptoms were low. The majority of police officers in New York, Oakland and San Jose did not report on-going difficulties caused by the critical incidents they had experienced.

• 7% of the officers reported significant critical incident stress. While most police officers reported low levels of current traumatic stress symptoms, 7%[CM1] were experiencing symptoms similar to those reported by Vietnam combat veterans who have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

•There was high agreement among officers that certain critical incidents are more difficult to cope with than others. These included such incidents as making a mistake that lead to the serious injury or death of a fellow officer or bystander, being shot at, receiving serious threats towards your loved ones as retaliation for police service, and being present when a fellow officer was seriously injured accidentally. These results highlight the importance of supporting police officers after they experience relatively uncommon but disturbing critical incidents.

• The level of PTSD or critical incident stress was not determined by the number of critical incidents that the officers had experienced during their careers. Other factors such as the amount of emotional distress and dissociation experienced at the time of their career''s worst critical incident, were related to greater levels of distress symptoms at the time of the survey.

• Nearly 30% of officers reported sleep difficulties at the level of someone who has clinical insomnia. The level of sleep disturbance experienced by the officers was related to routine work stress rather than to critical incidents experienced during police duty. Sleep disturbance, however, was strongly related to PTSD symptoms and overall distress.

• When asked to select the most distressing incident of their careers, 33% of officers described an incident in which they felt that their life was threatened, 20% an incident in which a fellow officer was injured or killed, and 21% an incident involving a child or elderly victim.

• The highest ranked sources of routine work place stress for police officers were feeling underpaid, the impact of police service on personal and family functioning, criticism from the public, unfair criminal sentencing, and administrative pressures. Women and minority officers reported greater discrimination in the work place. Higher levels of routine work place stress, but not critical incident stress, were associated with higher levels of stress-related symptoms and general emotional problems. This suggests that improving the general work environment, for example by reducing discrimination, fostering good relations with the general public, and addressing the impact of police service on officers'' families, will not only increase general work satisfaction but will increase officers'' ability to cope with traumatic critical incidents.

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