Police Officer Stress and Coping in a Stress-Awareness Era

Date01 September 2021
AuthorKerry Lynne Edwards,Sarah Kuehn,Yvonne M. Eaton-Stull
DOI10.1177/1098611120984162
Published date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Police Officer Stress
and Coping in a Stress-
Awareness Era
Kerry Lynne Edwards
1
,
Yvonne M. Eaton-Stull
1
, and
Sarah Kuehn
1
Abstract
This study was conducted as controversy and turmoil engulfed police worldwide.
Police-community conflict was widespread and conceivably increased officers’ stress
levels. Because stress affects officers’ health and job performance, it is important to
understand the phenomenon. This study was designed to ascertain officers’ stress
levels, coping mechanisms, and perspectives regarding police-community relations,
their perceived stress-related needs, and their perceptions of departmental assis-
tance. Participants (N ¼128) were police officers across several jurisdictions of
various sizes in the northeastern United States. Both quantitative and qualitative
data were collected; analytic methods included statistical correlations and regres-
sion, as well as qualitative, thematic analysis. Results indicated the following:
Participants experienced stress across multiple areas; some coping mechanisms
predicted higher expressions of stress, as did certain perspectives of police-
community relations and years in law enforcement. Participants’ perspectives of
their needs and their suggestions for action contributed to data-driven policy rec-
ommendations regarding both prevention and symptom reduction approaches.
Keywords
police officers, health and wellness, stress, coping, police-community relations
1
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock,
United States
Corresponding Author:
Kerry Lynne Edwards, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Slippery Rock University of
Pennsylvania, 211H Spotts World Culture Building, Slippery Rock, PA 16057, United States.
Email: kerry.edwards@sru.edu
Police Quarterly
2021, Vol. 24(3) 325–356
!The Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/1098611120984162
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Presently, there is a confluence of attention directed towards addressing police
officer stress and strained police-community relations which likely increase
stress (McCarty et al., 2019). This current study was conducted amid stop &
frisk controversy and nationwide ongoing court cases regarding controversial
police shootings in the United States; one of these shootings occurred just prior
to the data collection. The data collection timeline provided a unique opportu-
nity to explore officers’ experiences regarding stress related to community
attitudes.
Gradually, over the last 60 years, law enforcement administrators have grown
well aware that stress significantly impacts officers. Although Selye (1936) intro-
duced the concept of stress to academia considerably earlier, it was not until the
1950s that researchers began to rigorously explore stress in police work (e.g.,
Rankin, 1959). Still, it took several more decades to garner widespread atten-
tion. Violanti (2018) stated of the research trend and its importance, “It’s only
recently that we’ve become more aware of the mental strain placed on our police
officers in this country and it’s starting to take its toll” (Podcast-minute 01:45).
Studies have confirmed that officer stress is widespread (Collins & Gibbs,
2003; Scott, 2004). Research has offered links between officers’ stress and prob-
lems related to physical health (Kamble & Phalke, 2011; Violanti, 2014), mental
health (Bishopp et al., 2019; Chae & Boyle, 2013; Johnson & Jaeckle, 2018;
Santa Maria et al., 2018) and job performance (Bishopp et al., 2019; Manzoni
& Eisner, 2006; Shane, 2010). The breadth of these areas has prompted police
departments to approach the problem as both a health matter and an organi-
zational matter (see Hill & Giles, 2019). Interest in police officer occupational
stress initially focused on psychological distress from traumatic incidents but
has expanded to organizational factors (Toch, 2002), personality and resiliency
(Collins & Gibbs, 2003; Toch, 2002), and personal circumstances (Oliver &
Meier, 2004; Scott, 2004).
The dissemination of such research findings has resulted in ubiquitous officer
health-and-wellness guidelines generated by prominent organizations, such as
the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) (2020) and the
Fraternal Order of Police (2020), and in related standard operating procedures
and programs of large and small police departments, such as the Atlanta Police
Department (2017) and the Columbia Heights Police Department (2016). We,
the present study’s authors, perceive this current state of knowledge regarding
this issue and the resultant steps taken across the nation to address this problem
as the stress-awareness era.
Departmental response to officer stress is dependent on the assessment of
both the origins of stress (operational and organizational stressors) and possible
interventions, such as aiding resiliency or eliminating stressors. Operational
stressors are primarily those that happen in the field, such as responding to
calls for help, officer-involved shootings, etc. Organizational stressors are
those that fall under the purview of management discretion and decision
326 Police Quarterly 24(3)
making, such as work schedules, tools and resources, etc. However, researchers
have varied in the demarcation of these items and choice of focal areas. Ma et al.
(2015) found that although police officers working particular shifts encountered
more physical and psychological threat events in the field, they also reported
more events related to organizational stress. They noted, “Because physical/
psychological threats are an inherent part of police work, there is relatively
little that can be done to reduce their occurrence in the police workforce.
However, it may be possible to reduce or eliminate many of the administrative
and organizational stressors within a police department” (Ma et al., 2015, p. 28).
Thus, the issue of stressor classification is laden with possible implications—
methods to control stress and avenues for change.
The health-and-wellness approach for officers has focused on addressing
field-based trauma, prioritizing psychological intervention and the reduction
of stress symptoms through officers’ stress management measures. More recent-
ly, departments and research partners have engaged in earlier stress manage-
ment education at the training academy level (Arnetz et al., 2013; Johnson &
Jaeckle, 2018). Additionally, the content of stress management training has
expanded. The training that had largely focused on nutrition, exercising, social-
izing, getting adequate sleep, taking vacation days, etc. (Agolla, 2008; Beshears,
2017) has incorporated strategies that are relatively new to mainstream dis-
course, such as resiliency and mindfulness (Christopher et al., 2018; Toch, 2002).
We began this research project after noticing that police officer health-and-
wellness models advocated by police-oriented organizations and implemented
by police departments had seemingly reached a plateau in design, which
appeared reactive to stress rather than preemptive of stressors. This reactive
approach allows the opportunity for strain to take place—the presence of
unwelcome, unpleasant stimuli (Agnew, 1992). Additionally, these health-and-
wellness actions were presented as counters against traumatic stressors, thereby
neglecting everyday stressors, some of which may be avoidable. This not only
posed an ethical quandary regarding whether there should be efforts to prevent
all stressors as practicable, but this also was problematic because some research
has suggested that officer stress affects interactions (Bishopp et al., 2019) and
police-community relations have been negatively impacted due to problematic
interactions; in this sequence, negative police-community relations can be out-
puts of strain. Thus, it seems paramount that officers have the best possible
emotional demeanor when they enter an interaction with a community member,
bringing less stress into the situation. The following question describes our
broad interests: In light of the present stress-awareness era and state of
health-and-wellness approaches, how stressed are officers, in what ways, and
how do these conditions fit within the organizational structure and community
relations environments? This study used mixed methods, quantitative analysis
and qualitative thematic analysis, to explore officers’ stress and coping experi-
ences, jurisdictional size, the factor of police-community relations, and the
Edwards et al. 327

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