A Salt Lake officer is called to the scene of a family fight. He enters the apartment house with a backup officer, wondering if this is the time someone will try to kill him.
While some contend police officers are "adrenaline freaks" who enjoy the excitement, coping with the stress that accompanies the job can mean a long career in law enforcement or a short entry on a resume.Psychologists and studies of law enforcement personnel say it is not the physical danger of the job that gets to officers - it is the administrative and co-worker hassles that cause mental overloads.
"The obvious things are not the things that are dangerous in police work," said Mark Zelig, a psychologist who specializes in police work. "The most dangerous part of police work is not the physical dangers but the psychological dangers."
Stress has become the 1980s buzz word for personnel and occupational professionals. But stress has afflicted police officers for years.
Stress kills more police officers than bullets. A police officer's risk of death from an armed attack is about the same as a woman's risk of dying during childbirth.
Clyde Palmer, director of Utah's Police Officers Standards and Training, which trains and certifies law enforcement recruits, said fewer than 100 officers out of more than 500,000 in the United States are killed each year by bullets.
"They're not worried about going out in the streets and getting hurt. What these guys need and what these women need is to know they're supported by their administration and by their co-workers," said Zelig.
The physical and psychological workout officers endure ranges from rude citizens amazed they get speeding tickets to a judicial system that lets bad guys go free, from missed anniversary dinners to missed work days from injuries suffered on the job.
"Most of the frustrations in a police officer's life are those outside his control," said a veteran of Salt Lake City Police Department. "Rules and regulations, manpower, pay - those things really impact on their lives."
How officers deal with their anger, frustration and stress is essential to their mental, physical and professional survival.
"A lot of the stress they feel is because they are out there alone," said Salt Lake police Lt. Norm Thompson.
"Even if they're out there on a call with one or two officers, the officer that's assigned the call by and large has the responsibility for making the decision on how to resolve that call. It's an ominous responsibility at times.
"A lot of the guys eat that responsibility up. But it also takes its toll," said Thompson, a 21-year veteran of the department.
Police officers suffer more injuries, illnesses and job-related stress than any other occupation, according to research.
Law officers commit suicide up to six times more often than those in other occupations, according to a 1950 study, the most recent and reliable available.
A 1974 study found digestive disorders were reported by nearly one-third of the respondents; a quarter reported headaches.
Research also indicates officers are twice as prone to coronary heart disease, 56 percent were up to 20 pounds overweight and some 50 percent of officers' claims for workman's compensation involved high blood pressure.
Some turn to alcohol. Estimates are that up to 700 officers on the job in Utah are alcoholics, said Palmer.
And some officers let their anger fester: Salt Lake officers say the number of complaints from citizens to the Internal Affairs Division has increased dramatically as the number of officers on the street has dwindled.
In 1982, 362 officers handled 115,000 calls for service a year, said Chief Mike Chabries. Now, because of budget cuts and an ever-increasing crime rate, fewer than 300 officers must respond to about 140,000 calls per year.
On a busy summer Saturday night, just five officers were on patrol for a graveyard shift in the east division.
Police officers are supposed to deal with long hours and lousy treatment. And they aren't supposed to admit it gets to them, because that would be disloyal to the city, the chief and their colleagues.
Officers cannot go to the media, because, depending on who is administering the justice, talking to the press can mean 10 days off without pay. Talking to a psychologist or other counselor is also shunned by many officers, though it is becoming more acceptable.
"It used to be a stigma with respect to seeking psychological help for a long time; there still is in some people's minds. And there are a lot of people who will avoid seeking help because that would show weakness and be contrary to the way they were raised in a police context," said Thompson.
"There's really a bit of John Wayne still hanging on to a lot of people. They don't think they should ever admit they have feelings, they have weakness," he said.> "They utilize, even unknowingly, defensive mechanisms to overcome some of the things they have to face."
Seeing victims of rapes, murders and other violent crimes heightens officers' stress and awareness of human vulnerability. Said one officer, "Citizens get the peace, we get everything else."
"I think there's an awful lot of officers who wouldn't admit that they feel anything," said Thompson, who now is head of the Internal Affairs Unit after a stint on watch command.
"But there's a lot of other officers who have become victims of their feelings because they haven't the mechanism to deal with the serious things they see, the having to deal with victims, the having to deal with somewhat horrid situations at times, injured people, brutalized people, dead bodies."
On the other side of horrendous situations is boredom.
Boredom is a real part of the stress law officers face: estimates are that up to 90 percent of the patrol officer's time is spent in service tasks.
"We tell our recruits' wives that their husbands are a lot more likely to die from eating coffee and donuts for meals in their patrol cars than from bullets," said Palmer.
Yet when the adrenaline kicks in, officers must act in a judicially acceptable manner when dealing with suspects and situations.
"Sometimes that doesn't do it - you're left over with all that hype and adrenaline," said a 15-year veteran.> Other causes of stress identified by researchers include shift work, constantly changing schedules, revolving emotions and reactions needed for diverse situations, departmental policies that are contradictory, a justice system that doesn't always administer justice, and politics.
"You can't control the administration," said one officer who is working toward a law degree. "They'll capriciously enforce a trivial rule with maximum penalties at one time . . . and then say, if you don't break a couple of rules, you're not a good cop."
"The greatest source of stress in police work that has been documented in numerous studies is the police administration. It's not the streets," said Zelig.
"I don't think I've had a person come in and complain of the stress of the streets," said Zelig, who counsels officers in Utah and Wyoming and also teaches a stress management course at the state's police academy.
Frustration also results because officers can too seldom stop a crime in progress - because of low manpower, convoluted communications from dispatchers, too many criminals and not enough time.
Officers are reduced to tracking crime instead of preventing it. They're "going from one crime to the next," not on the beat preventing crimes from occurring, said one veteran officer.
"You as a police officer go to things and you're a step behind the person that just did some horrible thing and you've got a victim in front of you and you have to deal with their feelings," said Thompson.
"And you have to almost close their feelings off . . . you can't empathize with 12 people or 15 people a day - you're gonna be bled out."
While an officer is riding around, going from call to call on frequently busy shifts, the radio blares out what is going on where - an aggravated assault investigation, a hit-and-run accident, a family fight.
Officers are most likely to be injured in family fights and while investigating vehicle accidents, statistics show.
"Our job may or may not be as stressful as others because of the uncertainty," said Lt. Col Ed Johnson.
"An attorney, an accountant, a reporter, a judge, a congressman have many people to fall back on."
With nearly three dozen new officers on Salt Lake's police force, teaching the cadets how to deal with their jobs is essential.
Johnson, a 25-year veteran of the Salt Lake department, said programs are available to help police officers deal with the stresses peculiar to their occupation.
The city has an anger management program that teaches officers how to deal with frustrating situations, and how to find an outlet for their stress.
"Sometimes people go to jail because they cannot control their anger. And the officers are going to be affected by a person's reaction to them. What do they do the rest of the day? One in 10 people are going to cause you grief," said Thompson.
Salt Lake City's anger management program began when a major in Traffic Division decided his officers received an excessive number of complaints about curtness, Johnson said.
The major ordered officers in his division to go through the program and the number of complaints against them, which "was really out of whack with the rest of the department," went from the highest in the department to the lowest, Johnson said.
The program teaches officers coping skills including relaxation techniques, breathing, systematic muscular relaxation and self-hypnosis. The course, now mandatory for all Salt Lake recruits, encourages officers to have physical workouts and practice general good health habits. For some officers, working out in a gym helps release stress.
"Through the training, the officers learn to channel their feelings," deal with the specific stresses and "somewhat overcome the John Wayne thing," Thompson said.
Eric Nielsen, the psychologist on contract with the city to counsel officers, refused to be interviewed for this article, saying it might damage his rapport with officers.
Some officers contend that people attracted to the profession enjoy excitement. "They're adrenaline freaks," said one officer who comes from a long line of policemen.> Zelig disputes that label. But he said, "There's some evidence in psychological testing that people who apply as police officers are more comfortable taking risks than other people."
"I think a police officer today has to be a bit of Gary Cooper, (Sigmund) Freud, John Wayne and Howdy Doodie," Johnson said.