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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Dr. John Violanti, University of Buffalo, is a retired NYPD Officer and conducts research on Officer Safety and Wellness Issues.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may occur when a person is exposed to traumatic events. Persons so exposed may experience symptoms such as distressing memories of the event, avoidance of any reminders of the event, and physiological emotional difficulties. Police officers are often exposed to traumatic events, such as seeing abused children or dead bodies, severe assaults, and involvement in shootings, and are therefore at risk for PTSD. Such exposure can impair the mental well-being of officers and affect their ability to perform duties to the public. The potential long-term effects of PTSD in police officers may additionally lead to behavioral dysfunction such as substance abuse, aggression, and suicide. It is estimated that, on average, approximately 15 percent of officers in the U.S. experience PTSD symptoms. Unfortunately, it is not definitively known what the true scope of this problem is among police.
A critical aspect of police work in the field is making good decisions that are beneficial to the safety of public. We are presently engaged in research examining the effect of symptoms of PTSD on decision-making brain functions among police. According to cognitive psychologists Drs. Janet and David Shucard, decision making refers to an “adaptive feature of brain executive mental function that allows one to attend selectively and respond appropriately to a varied and often rapidly changing environment while monitoring conflicting response options and inhibiting inappropriate responses.”1
Nowhere is this more critical than when officers are faced with the use of deadly physical force. Decisions not to shoot, missed shots, and inappropriate tactics can cost officers or bystanders their lives or leave them grievously injured. It is of critical importance for accurate, rapid decision making in deadly force confrontations despite the fact that they often occur in complex, fast-paced, ambiguous and low-information situations. As difficult as decisions to use deadly force are in themselves, such decisions may only be exacerbated by PTSD. Decisions involving deadly force, albeit critical, are not the only significant decisions that police officers are faced with.
In a recent preliminary study, we used measures of brain function to determine the effects of PTSD on police decision making.2 We recorded electroencephalography (EEG) while police officers were presented with a decision-making situation. Then, we compared the decision-making abilities of those officers having higher levels of PTSD with those that have low or no PTSD levels. Results suggested that officers who have higher levels of PTSD had greater brain activation in areas related to rapid decision making. Disruptions in rapid decision making by an officer who has PTSD may affect brain systems due to heightened arousal to threats, inability to screen out interfering information, or the inability to keep attention.
We are hoping our research will help develop methods to deal with the problem of PTSD among police. Of course, the best way to deal with this problem is primary prevention of PTSD before, rather than after, it develops in officers. Techniques such as trauma inoculation training, trauma awareness, and proactive assessments are needed. Training in PTSD awareness is especially important at the police academy level. Reducing the risk for trauma and subsequent PTSD will likely result in improved professional performance (e.g., better decisions, decreased distraction, less risky behavior, and fewer occupational injuries, accidents, and assaults) and benefit both the community and police officers.
Dr. John Violanti
University at Buffalo, State University of NY
New York State Police - Retired
1. David Shucard and Janet L. Shucard, “Electrophysiological and Neuroimaging Studies of Cognitive Control: Introduction to Special Issue,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 87 (2013): 215–216, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.03.009.
2. T.J. Covey, Janet L Shucard, John M Violanti, and David Shucard, “The Effects of Exposure to Traumatic Stressors on Inhibitory Control in Police Officers: A Dense Electrode Array Study Using a Go/NoGo Continuous Performance Task, International Journal of Psychophysiology 87 (2013): 363–375, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2013.03.009.
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