Bipolar Effect of Policing

Research shows that while on the job, law enforcement officers are physiologically experiencing a “bipolar effect.”  While on shift, their bodies are in “fight or flight mode” akin to being in a manic state. However, when they come off shift they come “down,” akin to the depression state of bipolarism. The expected result of this bipolar effect is a higher rate of divorce, suicide, and alcoholism.

Research suggests police officers from large jurisdictions suffer more psychological and sociological consequences than police officers in smaller jurisdictions. Alternatively, officers with longer commute times experience less psychological and sociological strains than police officers with shorter commutes to and from the department.

This study was conducted because there is little, if any, empirical data regarding correlations between job stressors and psychological and social consequences for law enforcement officers I was interested in the physiological response of law enforcement officers while on and off the job, as well as the high rate of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide among those in the law enforcement field.

As a way of background, addiction among law enforcement is 20–25 percent higher than the national average (Riley, 2012). Suicide is most likely to occur between year 7–14 on the job (Riley, 2012). Substance abuse generally manifests after 10 years on the job, generally due to a traumatic event that’s treated with drugs, or an injury treated with drugs (Riley, 2012). Other cited contributing factors include command structure and isolation. It is important to note that law enforcement officers who are actively involved with community policing experience less isolation.

A survey was conducted that asked respondents about gender, department size, shift, years on the force, commute time, level of criminal activity in their jurisdiction, use of force, death of partner, marital status, alcohol consumption, and suicidal thoughts. The study included 98 subjects, 87 of which were male. Therefore, the gender variable was removed from analysis. All subjects were from police departments in Ohio. The majority of the subjects were between the ages of 24–48 and had some college education. The survey was disseminated to the officers by their police chief via a link to an online survey taker.

The results of the study were interesting:

Divorce  

  • 26% married once
  • 48% married twice
  • 8% married three times
  • 15% Never married
  • 3% No Response

Suicidal thoughts

  • 67% yes
  • 30% no
  • 3% No Response

Alcoholism

  • 59% 1–3 drinks a day
  • 9% 4–7 drinks a day
  • 3% 8 or more drinks a day
  • 8% drink occasionally
  • 15% never drink
  • 6% No Response

Important correlations in the data: Of the 71 percent of the officers who admitted to drinking daily, 69 percent were from large jurisdictions, and 66 percent had been involved in shootings. Of the 67 percent of officers who admitted to having suicidal thoughts, 80percent were from large jurisdictions, and 92 percent had been involved in shootings. Finally, the divorce rate was nearly the same for both large and smaller jurisdictions; 51 percent of those in larger jurisdictions had been married twice, and 49 percent of those in smaller jurisdictions had been married twice.

More research like this needs to be conducted to further understand triggers. Furthermore, women need to be identified and researched in a duplicate study, as I suspect the findings may be different. The size of the jurisdiction and the number of years on the force influenced whether the subject had been divorced, consumed more alcohol, and had suicidal thoughts. The commute time did not have a statistically significant finding as 93 percent of the respondents had a commute time of less than 15 minutes. Also, the shift did not have a statistically significant impact on any of the variables, likely since shifts change throughout a career.

There were some notable limitations in the research. The higher number of response rates from respondents in larger jurisdictions and from veterans arguably skewed the results. A larger sample is needed for more reliable results. Also, the survey link was disseminated by the police chiefs in the targeted jurisdictions. It is believed officers were fearful the results could be traced back to them.

In conclusion, more research needs to be done to further understand the correlations. There are too many intervening variables to say which are statistically significant. For example, it is not surprising a veteran of 25 years on the force may have had more marriages than the 24-year-old rookie, or that the same veteran would have suicidal thoughts the new rookie has not had. The more awareness law enforcement officers and their families have about this effect, the better they will be able to recognize and adjust behavior.

 

About Gretchen Schmidt, JD 2 Articles
Gretchen Schmidt has been in academia for nearly 20 years. Currently she serves as the Faculty program director for the MSCJ program and the Paralegal Studies Program at Excelsior. She earned her Juris Doctorate from the University of Toledo College of Law in 1998 after several years in the legal field she determined that she could give back more and make more of an impact on peoples lives through teaching. She went back to school and earned an MSCJ with a forensic psychology concentration and an MBA. As a lifelong learner herself, she truly believes in Excelsior's mission.