Combat Deployment Affects Police
Officers Returning to Work

On Veterans Day, thousands of police officers across the country take part in events to honor and respect the men and women who have served in the military. For domestic police officers returning from combat zone deployment, the process of transitioning back to their former lives can be challenging.

Combat Deployment Cover A new COPS-funded report prepared by Barbara Webster of the Institute for Law and Justice, Combat Deployment and the Returning Police Officer, explores some of the issues and challenges that returning officers and their employers face as the officers settle into the day-to-day duties of police work. It also provides recommendations on what police agencies can do to assist returning officers and their families. The impact of combat zone deployment on the mental health of the returning officers is given particular focus, with possible effects ranging from problems readjusting to family life, to anxiety and depression, to symptoms characteristic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The need to raise awareness of the issues contained in this report is paramount. While much research has been conducted on combat and mental health, little has been conducted on the effects of combat deployment on police officers returning to work. Combat experiences cannot be directly compared to work or to responding to critical incidents at home. Some research, however, suggests that the prevalence of depression and symptoms associated with PTSD among first responders and other survivors of Hurricane Katrina is similar to that reported among Iraq veterans. For example, a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 19 percent of the 912 police officers surveyed in the New Orleans Police Department reported PTSD symptoms and 26 percent reported symptoms of major depression.1

A key to understanding the complexities underlying officer reintegration is through understanding the nexus between mental health disorders and the nature of police work. The mental health effects of combat deployment can manifest themselves in the daily activities of police work with more severity than perhaps other lines of work. Officers’ combat experiences can affect how they use their weapons, their adherence to use-of-force policies, how they drive their police vehicles, and how they treat citizens with whom they come into contact.

As the report points out, “. . . police who have unresolved mental health concerns—whether or not those concerns are associated with their combat-related experiences—are at risk of harming themselves or others because of the nature of their jobs.”2 For example, police are governed by use-of-force policies that differ greatly from military Standing Rules for Use of Force and Rules of Engagement in the combat environment.

Raising the awareness bar even higher is the fact that mental health problems are often not fully addressed by the time the officer returns from a combat zone. It can take months or years for symptoms even to appear. Many returning vets are less-than-eager to volunteer information that might suggest they have a mental health disorder, such as PTSD, and risk the possible stigma with which it is associated. It is incumbent upon supervisors and fellow officers to maintain a work environment that is supportive of returning officers, understand how to recognize the signs of traumatic stress, and ensure that confidential sources of assistance are available.

Some police agencies have undertaken efforts to address these issues. The report highlights proactive measures being taken by four police agencies to support officers returning back to the force: Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department, and the Richland County (South Carolina) Sheriff’s Department.

Some of their strategies include physical exams, meetings with psychological services or other employee assistance providers in a confidential setting, or implementation of policies such as these:

Police agencies will also need to consider the effects of combat zone deployment on new recruits. As agencies strive to fill vacancies, they may need to review their hiring policies and consider whether they are doing all they can to assist Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who apply for police work.

Overall, the report makes a strong case for police agencies to establish some form of reintegration program. What that should look like for each agency, and what can be considered best practices, is still largely unknown; but to do nothing risks the safety and well-being of returning officers and those with whom they associate and also has implications for the agency as a whole. For example, what is the impact of combat deployment on the practice of community policing by returning officers? How does it affect officers’ and the agency’s ability to build trust and develop effective partnerships within the communities they serve?

While more research needs to be conducted on the issues raised in the report, police agencies can begin now to review whether they are doing all they can to assist returning officers, taking to heart the core community policing principles of problem solving and partnership building. Agencies can start by simply asking officers who have returned from combat zones what the department could have done differently to assist them and their families. In exploring the issues and devising solutions, they can engage multiple partners, including mental health professionals, human resources and employment law experts, military and veterans’ representatives, and employee representatives (unions, peer assistance programs).

Readers are encouraged to view the report for an overview of related issues and current practices. The full report is available online at www.cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/ResourceDetail.aspx?RID=471 or in hard copy by calling the COPS Office Response Center at 800.421.6770.

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