Difficult times ahead for police

Sunday, February 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:23 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The loss of a colleague can be difficult, even for those whose profession demands toughness and bravery.

“There can be very strong personal reactions on the part of police officers,” said Wayne Anderson, professor emeritus of psychology at MU and adjunct professor of criminal justice at Columbia College.

Anderson, the author of a book titled “Stress Management for Law Enforcement Officers,” has done stress-management training and loss counseling at many law enforcement agencies for several years. There has been a change in attitudes during the course of his career, he said, toward officers and their emotions.

“Originally, the attitude was that officers should just ‘suck it up,’” he said. “But they’ve discovered over the years that officers can have very personal feelings.”

Anderson said that recently, more and more police departments have brought in psychologists to talk with officers after unusually difficult situations. According to the Columbia Police Department, counselors from Columbia Regional Hospital were available at the department after the shooting of Molly Bowden and her death.

The loss of a fellow officer can evoke strong reactions, he said, partly because officers are part of a select group the general public doesn’t always understand. Anderson said this camaraderie can be seen when an officer is lost in a big city or when a large number of officers attend a funeral for someone most didn’t know.

“Officers will come from miles and miles,” said Michael Kernan, director of the Eastern Missouri Police Academy in St. Charles. “You’ll see long lines of vehicles in the funeral processions.” Kernan added that the sense of brotherhood shown at officers’ funerals comes from being part of a team of people doing a difficult and dangerous job.

Anderson said that Columbia as a whole was taking Bowden’s death very personally, in part because of her month-long post-shooting struggle. He said communities tend to remember victims in two important and necessary ways. Survivors need a physical memorial, permanent or temporary, to remember those lost.

Communities will also focus on remembering moments of the person’s life, usually in the form of stories from colleagues and loved ones. This often happens at a funeral, but can also occur on a community-wide level, such as on KCLR/99.3 FM’s Friday morning show that featured callers sharing Bowden stories. People like to focus on humorous and positive events to show the person’s life was meaningful.

Anderson said police could do more to train officers to deal with stressful events. Most of their stress management training is general, such as focusing on proper exercise, diet and productive leisure time. What they learn from dealing with emotional events, they generally must learn from other officers and experience.

At the Eastern Missouri Police Academy, Kernan said training includes a two-hour class on stress management that focuses on coping and relaxation techniques. There is also a two-hour class titled “Dealing with Death,” aimed at teaching officers what they will feel when losing a colleague. Later training depends on individual departments.

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