Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat

Anthony M. Valentino (University of Central Florida)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 1 June 2000



Valentino, A.M. (2000), "Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 268-272. https://doi.org/10.1108/pijpsm.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat is an edited book that contains a collection of articles compiled by John Violanti and Douglas Paton that explores the psychological impacts of police work on officers and their families. The text includes 22 separate articles, which are broken down into three different sections. The eight chapters in the first section address the conceptual and methodological issues in this area. The second section is comprised of seven articles about what Violanti and Paton call “special police populations.” Last, recovery and treatment are discussed in the final section of the book.

Violanti and Paton’s book not only includes a number of their own writings on the subject of police trauma, but also the writings of several other respected researchers in the field. Police Trauma’s main strength lies in the fact that it is comprised of competing viewpoints from several different authors; each of these authors brings their own expertise to the forum.

The first section of the text concentrates on explaining the factors that lead to the traumatization of police officers and their families. The stressful situations that police officers encounter are frequently thought of as being analogous to military combat (Williams, 1987; Rothberg and Wright, 1999) and therefore symptoms and management are typically treated the same. It is true that officers are subjected to many disturbing events including confrontations with sexually abused children, suicides by colleagues, shootings, riots and “other situations of threatened or actual brutal violence” (Carlier, 1999). These factors as well as many others threaten to traumatize the psyche of individual officers.

Just as certain incidents that occur in the field trouble police officers, there is a significant amount of information that shows that administrative and organizational events are more highly correlated with psychological distress than events in the field (Patterson, 1997; Violanti and Aron, (1994); White et al., 1985). Police agencies need to be cognizant of the fact that not only do officers have to deal with traumatic stressors that occur while on the job, but they also have to manage administrative problems within their organization. Current research states the job of the police agency should be to sustain and support the level of commitment required by officers to perform their job (Patterson, 1997; Violanti and Aron, 1994).

It is made apparent that police officers are subjected to elements that contribute to posttraumatic stress disorder, but one of the most important contributions this text makes is the realization that the families and children of these officers are potential victims. The second section of text that Violanti and Paton call “special police populations” contains a number of articles that describe Secondary Traumatic Stress. One article in particular is devoted to the subject of duty‐related death, its impact on the surviving children and the methods to help them cope with the sudden loss of a parent. These methods include the use of rituals and expressive techniques that allow the child to describe their feelings about death as well as grieve and mourn.

The majority of the third section deals with strategies that are used to prevent and treat traumas that occur in work related situations. This section of the text concentrates on prevention and postvention of post‐traumatic stress disorder in police officers. Several of the articles stress the importance of training and conditioning as well as the existence of a critical incident stress‐debriefing program. Rothberg and Wright’s (1999) article illustrates the steps the United States Army takes to condition their soldiers against duty‐related trauma. In their article describing the emotional impacts of the Waco raid on the Branch Davidian Compound, Solomon and Mastin (a former ATF agent and a special agent in charge at the raid) (1999) explain how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ implementation of a critical incident program and specialized psychological services contributed to enhanced recovery among those agents involved. Loo (1999) states in his article that “policing is a high stress occupation with exposure to occupational demands and critical incidents manifesting itself [in] posttraumatic stress reactions, burnout and suicide” (p. 241).

It is important to note that not all of the data support the theory that police work is highly stressful. Hart et al. (1995) found that police exhibited a higher level of psychological well being than the community norms. Terry (1981) also suggests that police work is not highly stressful. Although the study performed by Hart and his colleagues found that psychological levels of police officers were significantly different from others in the community, they did report that “organizational rather than operational, experiences are more important in determining psychological well being” (p. 150). Plainly, there are many conflicting viewpoints on the topic of police trauma and the stressors that contribute to post‐traumatic stress disorders among police officers. In their conclusion, Paton and Violanti state:

In the course of protecting and serving the public, police officers must contend not only with the kinds of occupational stress that characterize contemporary organizations, but also with the violence, abuse, and other events capable of eliciting traumatic stress reactions (p. 293).

My overall assessment of Police Trauma is positive. Although the book has some continuity issues, this is to be expected of a text comprised of articles by several different authors. Section II is titled “special police populations” and this section of the text seems to be a “catch‐all” for all topics that did not fit into the other two subheadings. Psychologists wrote the majority of the articles so there are some terms in the text that readers may not be familiar with. Taken as a whole, the individual authors do a good job of explaining most of these terms. Readers lacking an understanding of psychological terminology may find some parts difficult to understand but with minimal effort it is possible to achieve a working comprehension of the subject matter. Police Trauma does an excellent job of providing a cursory discussion of several topics that are pertinent to the field of police stress. It was disappointing, however, that with such a broad spectrum of material covered, there were several interesting topics that were only superficially touched upon.


Carlier, I. (1999), “Finding meaning in police traumas”, in Violanti, J. and Paton, D. (Eds), Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat, Thomas Books, Springfield, IL, pp. 22739.

Hart, P.M., Wearing, A. and Headey, B. (1995), “Police stress and well being: Integrating personality, coping and daily work experiences”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 68, pp. 13356.

Loo, R. (1999), “Police suicide: the ultimate stress reaction”, in Violanti, J. and Paton, D. (Eds), Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat, Thomas Books, Springfield, IL, pp. 24152.

Patterson, G.T. (1997), “The effects of social factors, socialization, and coping on psychological distress among police officers”, Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, NY.

Rothberg, J. and Wright, K. (1999), “Trauma prevention in the line of duty”, in Violanti, J. and Paton, D. (Eds), Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat, Thomas Books, Springfield, IL, pp. 20313.

Solomon, R. and Mastin, P. (1999), “The emotional aftermath of the Waco raid: Five years revisited”, in Violanti, J. and Paton, D. (Eds), Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat, Thomas Books, Springfield, IL, pp. 11323.

Terry, W.C. III (1981), “Police stress: the empirical evidence”, Journal of Police Science and Administration, Vol. 9, pp. 6175.

Violanti, J. and Aron, F. (1994), “Ranking police stressors”, Psychological Reports, Vol. 75, pp. 8246.

Violanti, J. and Paton, D. (Eds) (1999), “Trauma stress in policing: Issues for future consideration”, Police Trauma: Psychological Aftermath of Civilian Combat, Thomas Books, Springfield, IL, pp. 2937.

White, J.W., Lawrence, P.S., Biggerstaff, C. and Grubb, T. (1985), “Factors of stress among police officers”, Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol. 12, pp. 11128.

Williams, C. (1987), “Peacetime combat: treating and preventing delayed stress reactions in police officers”, in Williams, T. (Ed.), Post‐Traumatic Stress Disorders: A Handbook for Clinicians, Disabled American Veterans, Cincinnati, OH, pp. 26785.

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