How does trauma affect police officers?

A few years into his career with the Provo Police Department, Senior Patrol Officer Scott Nielsen stands beside his police vehicle with his K9 Unit. (Scott Nielsen)

See also “Provo police officers try to cope with loss of fallen brother while honoring his memory”

It was Christmas Eve. Scott Nielsen, senior patrol officer for the Provo Police Department, was on his hands and knees pulling himself beneath the underbelly of a train. When Nielsen scuffled out on the other side he found himself facing the shooter. The man clutched a gun — the same one he had stolen earlier that night from a pawn shop — with unsteady hands. Nielsen had received the call while getting a drink at a 7-Eleven. He wasn’t even on duty yet.

Facing the man, Nielsen noticed a number of things at once. First, the shooter was looking over his shoulder at the other officers farther down the tracks, but they were on foot and too far away to do anything. Second, Nielsen had his own gun in his hand — the man had already shot at the pawn shop owner. Third, the man wasn’t aiming at him. Not in that moment. Instead, he brought the gun to his own head and yelled at Nielsen to kill him.

Nielsen ordered him to drop the gun. He didn’t. The man continued to shout and then suddenly pulled the trigger, but it misfired and no bullet was ejected. When he lowered the gun, Nielsen saw him point the gun in his direction and wrack the slide — this time he could see the bullet.

In that moment, Nielsen realized the man would probably shoot at him next.

He pulled the trigger of his shotgun to defend himself, but the safety was on and Nielsen realized he’d never taken it off after exiting the car. His heart sank. Before he could fire again, the man had put the gun back up to his own head and pulled the trigger.

It went off that time. The man died on the spot.

“This incident really bothered me and it bothered me for a number of different reasons,” Nielsen said.

In part because it was right before Christmas, but also because another officer actually caught the entire situation on his dash camera.

When Nielsen watched the footage back, he realized that what he had thought he’d seen hadn’t been entirely accurate.

“I really thought after he wracked the round that he pointed the gun at me,” Nielsen said. “But when I watched the video he actually just brought the gun straight up to his head — he didn’t leave it pointed at me or anything.”

It bothered Nielsen because he had been certain the man was going to shoot at him, but the video didn’t show that. It made him think about what would have happened had his safety not been on — he’d probably have shot the man right about the time he put the gun to his own head.

Nielsen said he has never wanted to hurt anybody, but at the same time he was also upset because he hadn’t been ready to defend himself — the shotgun’s safety had been on.

Seeing the man blow his own head off was deeply upsetting too, he explained.  

“The next few weeks, anytime I had a quiet moment at all, that whole incident would play in my head like a video,” Nielsen said. “I would be driving down the road  and it would be playing through my head. I basically saw that over and over and over.”

From all of his years in law enforcement, Nielsen said this incident affected him the most.

He even recalled telling his wife at one point that he didn’t think dwelling on it was healthy and he wanted it out of his head. But he never got professional aid.

Nielsen said he’s not sure why he didn’t. He thinks it probably would have helped.

A graphic depicting the impact daily trauma can have on police officers over a prolonged period of time. (Sahalie Donaldson)

Post traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, typically sparked by traumatic events and the accumulation of stress day after day, are not an anomaly in law enforcement. Police officers face a much higher rate of suicidal ideation than the general public. According to a research study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one in four police officers think about dying by suicide at some point in their life.

The Ruderman Family Association also conducted a study and concluded more police officers and firefighters died by suicide in 2017 than were killed in action.

Nielsen wanted to be a firefighter as a child, but like his father, a steady figure who served in law enforcement for about 45 years, he was eventually drawn to police work.

He started out at a prison and hated it, but considered it a necessary evil as it paid for his schooling. Two to three years later, Nielsen traded prison employment for the Provo Police Department.

Like most Provo officers, Nielsen works a weekly shift at the Utah Valley Hospital, in his case, every Friday evening.

“We always talk — the nurses and the doctors and me — about how much of an increase there has been in mental health crisis patients in the last 25, 35 years,” Nielsen said.

In response, police officers are taught how to deal with other people in crisis rather than their own issues, Nielsen said, but that doesn’t meant there aren’t any resources available.

The Provo City Police Department provides each officer eight visits with a psychologist a year. The services are free and confidential, but also highly underutilized, according to Nielsen. He has never gone, though he said he probably should have, especially after the incident by the train tracks.

Nielsen said the negative stigma associated with mental health and perceived weakness is what drives a lot of officers into themselves rather than turning to professional help.

“We don’t want to be weak. We are supposed to be able to go into critical incidents and be OK,” he explained.

The department does training and understands officer mental health is an issue, but it’s complex, Nielsen said. Police look at others, who in their eyes appear strong and unaffected, and think they should respond to trauma in the same way. But people deal with things in different ways, and police officers are no exception.

Some officers tell jokes, others are innately cynical. Nielsen tells stories.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with, at least for many officers, is keeping work and home life separate, he said.

Sleeping is difficult after a late night shift. Nielsen said his head is “too busy.” Other times, while driving around with his wife or sitting in a restaurant, he finds the alertness hard to shake. Nielsen said he always sits in a position where he can survey the door. Sometimes he’ll point out random drug deals while going about his day.

“I’ve had some buddies who have recently retired and told me they feel a weight lifted from them,” he said. “My guess is there is kind of a stress that goes along with (police work) and some guys don’t even notice until they leave.”

The Provo Police Department has also started doing debriefs after critical incidents — anything that involves death, serious bodily injury or other gruesome occurrences. The sergeants try to bring everyone involved together to talk about it.

Officer Russ Billings, also with the department, serves on a peer support group intended to help officers cope with traumatic incidents. He called it a stress management unit, but said the name will be changed soon.

The support group meets with struggling officers and refers them to different treatment resources, but Billings thinks the team is also underused, which he said is a shame.

“We deal with a lot of crappy stuff sometimes, and when you deal with that over and over and over again you either become very numb and withdrawn or you get severely affected,” Billings said. “There’s very little between those. You’re either messed up or it stops phasing you at all.”

Neither is healthy, he explained.

After spending 28 years in law enforcement, Billings said he wants his fellow officers to be safe — mentally and physically. He thinks the group has been instrumental in helping some officers free themselves from cycles of depression and stop trauma from consuming them.

The stress management unit is fairly new — about three years in the making. And like Nielsen, Billings said he thinks toxic societal stigmas contribute to why officers avoid outside help while dealing with trauma.  

“Most of us feel like we try and fix everything else and we don’t need to be fixed as much as the people we are trying to save, so we tend to push help away more than others,” he said.

Ashley Greenwell, psychologist and director of the Trauma, Stress and Resilience Program at the Utah Center for Evidence Based Treatment, has dedicated a large portion of her life to researching first responders’ interactions with trauma.

Greenwell said the majority of post traumatic stress disorder research has been centered around the military, not law enforcement, and while there is some overlap between soldiers and first responders, not all the findings are a perfect fit.

The biggest distinction is that soldiers are involved in combat continuously while deployed, and while jumping back into civilian life is challenging, it’s generally more final than police work. Law enforcement balances a more precarious line where officers straddle work and home life for the entirety of their careers.

“There is this rapid, highly challenging role switch that has to happen with police officers in particular,” Greenwell said. “Sometimes they are going to be rescuing someone and calming someone down, and then they have to also be able to rapidly switch into subduing someone.”

There is a physiological difference between giving warmth and calming people compared to subduing foes and defending oneself, she explained. The lack of funding, the social stigmas that Billings and Nielson mentioned, increased liability risks, societal climate and negative attitudes toward police don’t help officers cope with their trauma either.

It is an incredibly demanding job and pressure comes from all different fronts, Greenwell said.

Statewide, police department retirement packages are also being cut, which has exacerbated the problem. 

“This idea that you used to be able to endure a highly stressful job for 20 years and then retire comfortably has sort of evaporated. Now people need to work 25, 35 years in a really adverse setting,” she said.

Another factor is that police officers receive lots of training on how to manage stressful situations, but very little on how to take off the uniform and relax. Law enforcement officers will regularly leave work and struggle to calm down, which leads some to turn to alcohol, worry excessively and lose sleep, Greenwell said.

“What you see around some of the norms of toughness is that it’s left to the men and women who are serving as first responders or police officers to figure it out themselves,” she said. “Over time there can be an accumulation of stress that can impact the whole body and increase risk of heart attack, back pain and nightmares.”

Police officers have been conditioned to hide distress, so Greenwell learned to recognize small, subtle signs of struggle.

Greenwell said recognizing those signs is vital because when a police officer is struggling with trauma and prolonged exposure to stress, there are generally two outcomes. One, she said, the officer silently suffers and then one day there is an unexpected suicide. Two, the officer will struggle to transition into retirement because their entire identity is built around protecting others at their own expense.

Greenwell said the promising news is there are good treatments. Researchers have delved into post traumatic stress disorder and other stress management treatments. The situation is not hopeless, but for many police officers, it is not easy, either. 

“The  challenge is, how do we get officers to utilize those despite internalized stigmas and other varying barricades?” Greenwell said.”That’s the issue.”

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