One of the major challenges encountered by police officers in their line of duty is increased levels of stress. Work-related stress contributes to a variety of problems — both for the individual experiencing stress and for the organisation for which they work. The problems can range from reduced performance to open violence at the workplace.
Police work entails an extraordinary degree of occupational stress. Not only do officers face the prospect of death and violence in the line of duty, as well as administrative matters, but also relationships with the public represent additional stressors.
But then, our police officers are trained to be strong and tough enough to handle any situation that might be thrust at them. If an officer shows signs of depression, stress or anxiety, he or she believes that others, or the system, will perceive them as weak or ineffective at work.
Police officers appear at the scenes of accident, homicide, robbery and many other crimes. They are always expected to be in control and often do not have time to deal with their own emotions during emergencies. They often “just suck it up”.
These “tough guys” are routinely exposed to special kinds of traumatic events and daily pressures that require a certain adaptive defensive toughness of attitude, temperament and training without which they cannot do their job effectively. Sometimes the stress is too much and the very toughness that facilitates smooth functioning in their daily duties becomes an impediment to these helpers seeking help for themselves.
Policing is a psychologically stressful work environment filled with danger, high demands, ambiguity in work encounters, human misery and exposure to death. Police officers routinely deal with the worst that society has to offer and a criminal justice system that offers more protection to the offender than it does to the victims or even the law enforcement officers.
Police officers are human and are just as susceptible, if not more, to mental disorders as the rest of society. Research has indicated that the pressures of law enforcement put police officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eventually engage in sociopathic behaviour.
Law enforcement is an extremely stressful field and some police officers become overwhelmed by the daily stress of the job. Troubled officers become disorientated, indecisive, lack concentration and end up becoming chronic pessimists. This is witnessed by Kenyans in their daily encounter with the officers.
Troubled officers may also experience decreased self-esteem, thoughts of harming themselves or others and a feeling that they are losing control. They end up becoming apathetic or experience an increase in absenteeism, engage in acts of lawlessness and indulge in alcoholism.
Officers who fail to adapt to this multitude of pressures of work often feel powerless and helpless and some seek to re-establish control through suicide and homicide. Killings perpetrated by police officers, whether extrajudicial or suicide, have continued to attract national attention.
Unfortunately, in Kenya, there are a few police psychologists to offer the much-needed assistance.
To address these challenges, identification of stressful situations and development of new methods of dealing with conflict and stress in the National Police Service should be embraced. The police managers may need to change the way business is conducted to reduce stress and also concentrate on coaching officers on coping mechanisms while under intense stress.
The government needs to focus on these challenges and involve all stakeholders in seeking to resolve the myriad problems affecting officers.
The occupational health and safety of officers need to be addressed with the urgency they deserve. That will increase the fading trust between the police and the public and will work for the good of the country.
Mr Kamau, a security risk management professional, is a PhD student in security and police studies. [email protected]