The record of police work

Twenty-nine days. That’s all it took to fatally shoot three Ontario police officers.

First it was Toronto Police Service Constable Andrew Hong who police say was ambushed at a cafe in Mississauga on September 12. Next were South Simcoe Police Service Constables Morgan Russell and Devon Northrup, who were killed while calling at a home in Innisfil on October 11.

The recent spate of police killings is not limited to Ontario either. RCMP Constable Shaelyn Yang was stabbed to death on October 18 while on duty in Burnaby, British Columbia, as a member of the Homelessness and Mental Health Outreach Team .

Hong, Russell, Northrup and Yang have paid the ultimate price, and their deaths reveal the deadly dangers facing the police. But there is a hidden price to these tragedies, and it is being paid right now – by the men’s families, friends and fellow officers, who are dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one.

Police officers are indeed daily subjected to traumatic events, even if that does not make things any easier. According to the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CTRIPS), more than 95% of Canadian officers have been exposed to sudden violent deaths.

A similar percentage are exposed to physical assaults and serious car accidents, more than 85% experience serious events such as fires and explosions, and around 80% have experienced sexual assault.

In addition to this “operational” stress, officers also experience high levels of “organizational” stress. Thanks to the recent class action lawsuits against the RCMP, we have heard of serious organizational problems within the national police.

According to reports prepared for the lawsuits, sexual assaults, sexualized comments, and degrading and discriminatory insults directed at officers and support staff appear to be common within the organization.

Organizational stress also affects members of municipal police departments across the country. A survey of more than 1,000 agents obtained by the CBC found that since many organizations prioritize work, more than 30% of agents report to work when they are physically or mentally unwell.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health further reports that the police culture’s emphasis on toughness and teamwork stigmatizes officers who need time off and discourages them from seeking help.

Needless to say, these operational and organizational stresses take their toll: the ICTRFP reports that 36.7% of municipal and provincial police and 50.2% of RCMP members screen positive for mental disorders, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.

Additionally, a 2018 CIPSRT study reported that in just one year, 8-10% of officers had suicidal thoughts, while 3-4% had engaged in planning.

It’s not just a crisis for the police: given the role of officers in protecting public safety, it’s a crisis for everyone. And so we all need to address the organizational and operational causes of stress.

Tackling organizational stress will require nothing less than a fundamental shift in police culture, as police services must value – and need leaders who uphold – respect, diversity, and physical and mental health as much that they value tenacity and teamwork.

When it comes to operational stress, police will always have to engage in high-pressure, traumatic situations, and therefore adequate mental health support for police is essential.

But in recent years we have asked the police for more than they are capable of giving. Due to tears in the social safety net, many vulnerable people fall through the cracks, and it is then up to the police to retrieve them.

Police officers therefore become, by default, de facto doctors, nurses and social workers, as they must deal with issues for which they are neither qualified nor equipped: homelessness, addictions and mental illness.

This adds enormously to operational stress – and trauma – for vulnerable, over-policed ​​people who need care, not cops. Addressing this issue involves a broader cultural shift – a shift whereby we recognize that the police cannot solve all social problems, but that we can prevent these problems with an adequate commitment to health care and community services.

The well-being of police officers is therefore inextricably linked to the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens. And while we care about healthy communities, we are committed to ensuring the well-being of both.

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