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Recently we have seen the difficult situations faced by police officers every day in carrying out their duties.  We have also seen the terrible outcomes that have resulted from what appears to be poor judgement and excessive aggression on the part of a limited number of officers.  Part of the reason for this is that some people employed in law enforcement are mentally not sufficiently equipped to cope with the extremely high pressures and quick decision making required by that line of work and should not be employed in that line of work. Other people are suited to the job, but may suffer PTSD due to the nature of their jobs which may reduce their effectiveness on the job.  Consequently, they may need counseling to cope with the trauma of their jobs and maintain a high level of job performance.  They deserve to have available every service and support available to help them do their jobs well.  Periodic screening and counselling can pro-actively help officers stay mentally healthy and prevent over-reaction to dangerous situations when they are suffering from PTSD.

There are other examples where instances of violence by those in dangerous and high stress jobs have shocked the world. One example is Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who locked the pilot out of the cockpit mid-flight and flew the plane into the Swiss Alps killing all 150 people on board.He was found to have severe mental health and anger management issues, but the tracking of his compliance with treatment and the measuring of his mental health were neither implemented nor tracked.   Other examples include police officers that have been arrested, charged, or forced to resign as a result of excessive use of force on the job. Officers at Abu Ghraib prison used brutal humiliation tactics on inmates detained at the facility.  A police officer resigned after being shown in a viral video breaking up a pool party of teenagers using excessive force and going so far as to draw his weapon against an unarmed teenager.  It later emerged that the officer had just come from answering two suicide calls.  Because of this, he may have been suffering acute stress disorder which can cause one to over-react to stress and perceived danger.  

All of these are incidents, which might have been prevented with good assessment and treatment for those at risk for aggressive or inappropriate behaviors on the job. Therefore, improving our systems of ongoing assessment, care and supports for those at risk for excessive use of force is extremely important.

More psychological pre-employment screening of applicants for jobs in correctional facilities, the military, airlines, and police departments should be the way of the future. In positions where people are responsible for the lives of others, the standard should be very high when it comes to their behavioral health. There are people that should not be in a position of authority over others, have access to top secret documents, be in war zones, fly planes, or be the engineers of trains.  Psychological screening with interviews, background checks, and standardized tests should be the norm to determine which people should not be placed in jobs of authority or responsibility for the lives of others.

The research is very clear. No one can determine a person’s risk to harm other people through interview alone.  A thorough evaluation that includes a valid and reliable risk assessment is also needed. This risk assessment needs to be an essential part of the health screening procedures in sensitive jobs where those undertaking these roles have a duty of care to others. Counseling and clearance is needed for the men and women working in sensitive jobs where they can experience Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD. This should be standard in the military, police department, correctional field, for airline pilots, and others in sensitive positions. 

We also do not need to take people out of jobs forever because following successful interventions many people can return to their jobs and be more effective than they ever were.  However, ongoing and periodic assessments for any behavioral health issues among this population will still be needed to ensure their continued health and well-being. Documenting gains in the skills needed to reduce the likelihood of future violence such as social support, staying in treatment, problem solving, and anger management is a way to measure outcomes and the success of such programs. Improving our systems of assessment, treatment and ongoing monitoring can help bring out the best in employees, keep the public safe, and strengthen the public safety workforce.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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