Further Research is Needed to Determine What Impact PTSD has on a Police Officer's Ability to Serve
Written by Nikki Boggs
There are several distinguishing characteristics of police work compared to someone, say in construction, an office job, or a public servant. One such good example is the authorization to use different levels of appropriate force to apprehend criminals, prevent crime, and protect citizens in addition to protecting other police officers and themselves. The Criminal Code of Canada allows police officers to use force in the lawful execution of their duties based on reasonable grounds and necessity.
Undoubtedly, another instance of a distinguishing characteristic would be an officer having to see and deal with the worst of what one human can do to another, accidental or intentional, and not just a one-off occurrence. For illustration, one only needs to turn on the TV or radio or read any news outlet online. So what impact does Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have on a police officer's ability to serve and protect? Again there is no shortage of responses; perhaps one of the most impactful, aside from death or a permanent physical disability, would be that of PTSD.
PTSD may involve disruptions in threat perception and threat sensitivity in addition to emotional functioning. A police officer's ability to perceive threats while on duty with instant access to lethal weapons is concerning. Therefore, one of the most important questions should be what procedures are in place to ensure an officer's mental fitness? This should be of the utmost concern not only for the personal impact of the job on the officer's mental health but also for what kind of impact the officer's mental health can have on their ability to police citizens.
Winnipeg Police Service's (WPS) qualification section for new recruits indicates that applicants who progress to the final stages must undergo psychological testing followed by an interview with a psychologist. The RCMP also requires new recruits to meet minimum medical standards, which include a psychological examination. However, even if every police force across Canada had this requirement, which they likely do, it would do little to assist officers or agencies with ensuring the psychological standards continued to be met for active members.
Psychology Today reports that screening is only a snapshot of the entrance-level officer, deemed valid for one year. After wear and tear, performing the job can deliver a psychological profile very different from when the officer started, "…especially for those who had problems before being hired." Agencies would have to require ongoing mental health standards similar to the physical requirements for all active members to even remotely begin to ensure these standards are continually met.
The mental fitness standards for active members are not clear for WPS. In the Collective Agreement between the Winnipeg Police Association and the City of Winnipeg, there is mention of fitness and fitness standards. However, there is no mention of the requirement or what it entails, and there is no clarity on whether it includes a physical and psychological component or just physical. Further research on the requirements for active members across the country would be helpful to determine any gaps and inconsistencies and best practice models relating to mental health fitness. As well further updated information on mental health services within police agencies could be beneficial. Data from 2014 states that WPS had only two members in their behavioural-health unit to support the full benefit of over 1400 members.
From a criminal justice perspective, a police officer's ability to appropriately do their job is crucial. The most catastrophic outcome where an officer's mental health could impact their job is the excessive use of force and fatalities involving police. Granted, not all officers involved in such situations are contending with PTSD. If they do, their job may not necessarily be impacted by it. However, given the very nature of PTSD, it cannot be discounted as influencing an officer's ability to handle the job's high-stress and dangerous environment.
A 2019 study in the United States examined the association between abusive policing and PTSD symptoms. The study suggests that abusive police practices can impact the public health of the communities being policed. The results were similar to the findings among Vietnam War veterans, with symptoms being "most strongly associated with self-reported perpetration of harm towards civilians or prisoners." Although the study could not test alternative casual hypotheses regarding why PTSD symptom severity may be related to police abusive practices, such possibilities are discussed. Namely, how symptoms may increase the likelihood of an officer reacting to a difficult or stressful situation with excessive force or violence. The study reports, "it has been found that hypervigilance plays a central role in PTSD by increasing a threat-detection network and subsequently creating the potential for an error in interpretation of the evidence for a suspected threat." Further research exploring some alternative hypotheses and Canadian perspectives could be beneficial.
In addition to the officer's ability to legally use force against the public, other symptoms of PTSD affecting their ability to police could be difficulty with attention or concentration, increased startle reaction, and panic attacks. These could cause problems with an officer being required to testify in court and interview victims or witnesses. In addition, long-term effects can be irrational decision-making and cognitive distortions, impacting an officer's ability to investigate crimes. Dependency on alcohol is also a concerning issue as it relates to an officer's ability to do their job. A survey of WPS members found that 8 percent of 420 officers were dependent on alcohol. That was as of 2014, and the respondents to the study only accounted for 28 percent of the total force.
Ensuring officers are mentally and physically fit to do their job is a small piece of ensuring such individuals who put on the uniform can serve the public. However, for anyone of the family members who has lost a loved one as the result of a police officer's actions, or anyone of the all too many officers who has taken their own life – officer mental health cannot be underestimated or overlooked. When an officer is in a high-stress situation where split-second decisions with a lethal weapon on their hip mean the difference between life and death, in addition to the impact on other police duties, ensuring the officer can interpret the situation in the best mental state possible every time is critical.
Further research is required to determine what the impact of PTSD can have on an officer's ability to police. In addition, further research is necessary to determine what resources would best support officers on an ongoing basis and after a traumatic event to ensure mental health fitness. Standards within police forces relating to mental health should be a continuous assessment if such is not already being conducted, similarly to that of the annual physical fitness assessment for active members.
 Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 25(1)  See, Shane Gibson, “Man arrested in Rebecca Contois murder charged with 3 more homicides: Winnipeg Police,” Global News (1 December 2022) online: https://globalnews.ca/news/9318582/man-arrested-rebecca-contois-murder-charged-3-more-homicides-winnipeg-police/  Melanie Greenberg Ph.D., “How PTSD and Trauma Affect Your Brain Function” Psychology Today, (29 September 2018) online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning [PTSD Affect].  City of Winnipeg “Police Constable” Recruiting online: https://legacy.winnipeg.ca/police/policerecruiting/constable.stm#4  Royal Canadian Mountain Police “Qualifications and standards to become an RCMP officer” Application Requirements, online: https://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/qualifications-and-requirements [RCMP].  Ellen Kirschman Ph.D. “Pre-Employment Psychological Screening for Cops” Psychology Today, (05 September 2017), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/cop-doc/201709/pre-employment-psychological-screening-cops [Screening Cops].  Ibid.  The City of Winnipeg and The Winnipeg Police Associate “Collect Agreement: Effective Deceember 24, 2016 to December 31, 2021, online: https://legacy.winnipeg.ca/hr/department-information/collective-agreements/pdfs/WPA-CA-2016-2021.pdf at 77.  Austin Grabish “No culture of binge drinking, says Winnipeg police chief, but union wants more resources” CBC News (01 December 2017) online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/drinking-culture-winnipeg-police-1.4429372 [Winnipeg Police Chief].  Jordan DeVylder, Monique Lalane & Lisa Fedina, “The Association Between Abusing Policing and PTSD Symptoms Among U.S. Police Officers” (2019) 10:2 Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, online: https://www-journals-uchicago-edu.uml.idm.oclc.org/doi/epdf/10.1086/703356  Ibid at 267.  Ibid at 268-269.  Ibid at 269.  Winnipeg Police Chief, supra note 9.  Ibid.
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