COPS AND TRAUMA
By Kathleen Hoy Foley
Experience, I suppose, was the sergeant’s crystal ball. Either that or he was just being sadistic when he told the class of rookies that most of them would end up divorced. Or as alcoholics. Or entangled in some kind of vice from which there would be no return and no reprieve. The price of the job, he warned. Ominous predictions for a bunch of idealistic, fresh-faced young warriors out to save the world, or at least the city of Trenton. That was a lot of years ago. Phil was barely twenty-five.
In order to achieve its goals and protect and keep its members functioning successfully in a profession that by its nature involves conflict, aggression, and violence, law enforcement maintains a closed society, a tight culture that governs itself with the unwritten codes of silence and image. It is an issue of mission and survival. Chaos may or may not erupt between long stretches of mind-numbing boredom and endless, mundane report writing. When chaos does erupt, the law must be imposed. The chaos controlled. Order restored, by force if necessary. There are protocols and procedures. Sometimes they fail. Bodies on both sides get injured. Catastrophes occur. The goal then becomes survival.
Nothing could have emotionally prepared me for the morning Phil walked through the front door after a midnight shift, his uniform dirty and torn saying, “I’m okay now.” But he wasn’t. Not after staring down the barrel of his own service revolver pointed at his head by an enraged suspect during a domestic dispute. An old timer, probably only in his thirties at the time, used to say to Phil, “Any day I don’t get shot at is a good day.” That’s a pretty low standard for a workday. In the end, the suspect didn’t pull the trigger. I suppose that then qualified as a good day. I don’t want to be overly dramatic here, but I’m eternally grateful that I dodged widowhood that morning and that our young daughters were spared a dead father.
However, you don’t have a gun pointed at your head and get spared trauma. No one is immune from trauma, not even cops. Cops might not think about trauma, but trauma always messes with cops. No one on the front lines of law enforcement escapes its shadow. Trauma comes with the territory. Phil and I didn’t understand this. We do now.
Trauma does not discriminate between witness or victim, instigator or mediator. A basic principle of living is that sustained contact with violence and aggression damages and weakens our life force—our vital energy—at its deepest level. When normal reactions to highly-charged, distressing events must be suppressed and are consistently refused a truthful voice, the possibility of gaining strength through resolution and healing is overpowered and trauma quietly begins laying its groundwork. So when young officers relinquish parts of their tender hearts to the misguided, unspoken oath of strength through silence, they are truly surrendering parts of their souls. Phil and I didn’t understand this either. We do now.
So it is that when the idealism of serving a noble cause fades under the weight of incorrigible realities, it yields to the path of least resistance. During the course of any workday shift, where a hastily made decision can severely and irrevocability alter the course of a life, a culture of cohesiveness is the muscle that offers protection and support. And once the external environment of conflict that pits good against evil splits and turns inward, it solidifies into a stoic, emotional posture of “us vs. them”—a survival mode that resists emotional growth and evolution.
In the void created by the growing separation between the authentic, innermost, compassionate self and the projected outward image of power tasked with dominating aggression with aggression, distance from home--from your true self—continues to expand. And any notion that there exists a possibility of inner peace and the necessity of consistent, nourishing self-care, remains a constant basis for ridicule in such a closed, authoritarian environment. Without the ability to stay connected to your deep-down self, suppressed trauma becomes your authority.
It’s not as if retirement can dissolve the layers of embedded trauma. Once the uniform is packed away for good, the energy of aggression and conflict—so integral to policing— remains. Only now that energy has no focused place to be. So it goes everywhere. Black and white, militaristic thinking tries to control the lax civilian world, which only invites anger and frustration. And the predictions made by the fortune-telling sergeant come true.
Transformation from the constraints of duty-aggression and the trauma it conceals is doable. A life can expand beyond its controlled boundaries and indoctrinations, and the blocks created by the stranglehold of entrenched, difficult emotions can be dissolved. An inner world will unlock and self-compassion and self-honor will begin to heal the secret wounds hidden behind the blue wall. And through that experience of deep reconnection with the tender heart of the young warrior within, trauma dissipates and a new, profound power rises. It is called strength. And it is real.
(To schedule a confidential healing session, email: PK@anunobstructedpath.net