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Law Enforcement During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Part One: Risks and Realities

By Dr. Konstantinos Papazoglou, PhD, C. Psych.

(This is the first of two blogs exploring the increased risks to the law enforcement community and their families during the coronavirus pandemic)

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on all aspects of society, but there are additional considerations for law enforcement officers. Policing during the pandemic stands to serve as a significant stressor to officers, compounding existing operational realities. Requirements for heightened vigilance and mental health awareness are always worthy of discussion, particularly within the COVID-19 paradigm. 

Risks and Realities

Already in a stressful profession, officers face increased stress and risks to mental health during these unprecedented times. The existing pressures of shift work, threats of physical violence, exposure to potentially traumatic events that could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health reactions requires heightened, protracted vigilance from officers.

The notion of heightened vigilance is viewing the world from a threat-based perspective and having the mindset to see unfolding events as potentially hazardous (Gilmartin, 2018). The biological engagement of the body with elevated blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure may lead to faster reaction times, but can also leave the officer detached, withdrawn, and exhausted. A threat-based reaction, combined with elevated physical arousal, can lead to hasty decisions resulting in situational overreaction. While acknowledging the psychological impact of the cumulative stressors of policing, we also cannot ignore the physiological impact.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to regular duties, co-ordinating shutdowns, enforcing social distancing and stay-at-home mandates, and adapting existing practices to virus reality, officers can find themselves turning to maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., abusing alcohol/drugs), struggling with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or sleep difficulties, and encountering familial strife as a result of increased levels of stress. 

In addition to the risk of direct exposure to the virus, officers are more likely to encounter members of the community with mental health issues exacerbated by fear of contagion, isolation, and economic uncertainty. Demonstrations and mass gatherings further expose officers to the virus’s risk. During COVID-19, procedures have likely changed, impacting officer duties from changes in protocol, including the use of PPE, to overtime, and altered routines due to staffing deficiencies. 

Law enforcement officers face the additional fear of exposing family members to the virus, or the isolation and loneliness of physical distancing in the home, thus interrupting social and family support structures. 

We cannot minimize that exposure to infectious disease can trigger psychological distress in the responder in the same way other potentially traumatic incidents can, although we tend to think of those in terms of death or injury to a child, line-of-duty death, suicide, or multi-injury accidents. When dealing with COVID-19 stressors, officers may be less able to deal with new stressors even though crises are endemic in law enforcement work. There is a compounding effect or stress proliferation, considering the negative impact of past stressors and challenges to the new stressors brought by the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a societal reality, and crises are a matter of course in policing, but recognizing stressors and their impact on an officer’s physical and mental well-being cannot be ignored. In our next blog we will look at positive coping mechanisms including the role of families and peer support structures along with the necessity of involved leadership in enhancing officer well-being. 

Sources:

Gilmartin, K.M. (2018). Emotional survival for law enforcement: A guide for officers and their families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press

In collaboration with Vic Gladwish, Gladwish on Demand Editorial Services.