Time to pay more attention to our “human fleet” E-mail
Written by Jim Jordan and Patrick Bradley   

In recent years most law enforcement agencies have thoroughly modernized their preventive maintenance and repair programs for the motorized fleet. Administrators should, with the encouragement of police unions, apply the same level of effort to maintain and care properly for the fleet of humans who drive the cars and do this uniquely complex work. We know that the miles on the law enforcement odometer represent much more punishment to the vehicle than the same number of miles on a civilian vehicle. 

We would not wait until our vehicles break down under extreme conditions of cold, heat or operation at high speed. Why isn't the same true for the humans? By effectively addressing what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin calls the "emotional survival" of our personnel we might improve health; support emotional and spiritual well being; and boost overall happiness.

Dr. Kevin Gilmartin and others found two decades ago that officers at all ranks must operate in a physical state known as hypervigilance in order to be safe and effective in their work. Hypervigilance is a physiological response to risk in the work environment.

On their own, individuals cope with the effects of hypervigilance across a range of behavior. At one extreme are the small number of especially resilient people who understand what they are experiencing and take the appropriate actions to be successful law enforcement professionals and happy mothers, fathers, sons, husbands, wives, etc. They have fulfilling lives outside the job.  

On the opposite extreme are the individuals who cope through addiction to alcohol and drugs, other self-destructive behavior and suicide. In the vast middle people suffer on their own.  Sleep disorders, cardio-pulmonary problems, habitual use of nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, steroids, dietary sugar and fats.  Here we see and hear the burnout.  

We begin to hear, "us versus them."  As a career progresses the "us" gets smaller and the "them" gets larger.  "Them" at first might be the bad guys. Soon, though, the "them" are the administration and the supervisors.

After a few years it's the public, too. Finally, "them" can come to include the loved ones who are bewildered by the person who comes home, or fails to come home, after his or her shift.

This effort should include the heroic work performed by the better peer-created stress units and those EAP programs that enjoy credibility among the rank and file. But a program in surviving on the street and in your larger life - surviving inside and out© - requires more.

We need to teach recruits about the unique stresses of the law enforcement business. The hypervigilance response to unknown risk on the job is normal. Indeed everyone's safety depends on it.

Hypervigilance is what the medical community calls an autonomic response, meaning roughly that it is automatic.  We do not control it.  That's because the brain has been trained by evolution over many millennia to get you home after the shift. Dr. John Violanti found in a study of effects on stress on police that long-term unmanaged exposure to the unique occupational stress of law enforcement work puts personnel at significantly increased risk for a host of diseases and disorders.

Historically police administration have overlooked or underestimated the impact of the issue.  It's absent from our recruit and in-service training regimens.  Research is slim.  Dr. Gilmartin's 2000 book Emotional Survival is still the best current training text. 

You can't find human maintenance in the Policies and Procedures.  Bosses have no expressed responsibility for the maintenance of the human beings.  (Read your department's P&P on vehicles and you'll see spelled out lots of supervisory and line officer responsibility for cars).

As often as not accepting help is experienced as vaguely punitive. The experiences of hypervigilance and engagement with human suffering wear down the physical, emotional and spiritual/psychological systems of our personnel. 

The LE job changes people.  Research and experience teach us that the work can make people feel anger, cynicism and a sense of isolation.

The ways in which personnel manage these effects are within an individual's control.  But only if he or she knows what he or she is experiencing and has tools to manage the experience.
No officer should be sent into the grip of hypervigilance without education and a program of action for survival.

Patrick Bradley is co-creator of the program, Surviving Inside and Out. In his 32-plus years in corrections and private security has served as a corrections officer; the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Public Safety and Security; and as Superintendent of the Norfolk and Suffolk County (MA) Houses of Correction. Pat has been doing outreach work to alcoholics for over 20 years.  He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Jim Jordan is co-creator of the program, Surviving Inside and Out and is former director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He is a management consultant and educator in law enforcement and has been involved in outreach work to alcoholics since 2007. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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