Glenn Tucker | Cops in the line of (mental) fire
Another police officer has died, allegedly by his own hands, and there is, understandably, grief among his colleagues. Whenever this happens, we usually hear an "appeal to members of the force to avail themselves of the services available to them when they are having problems". And I usually say to myself, "Bull manure!" Why? Because it is well known here and elsewhere that policemen won't, generally, seek counselling.
Maladies of the mind carry a stigma. They are seen as a sign of weakness. And for some reason, policemen refuse to accept that Rambo is a fictional character, created for the movies. There is absolutely no need for them to jump from speeding cars or helicopters.
One day, in 2011, I heard a strange sound coming from a police car parked under the ackee tree outside of my home. I checked and saw a policeman, bawling. At first I thought he may have been injured. I approached cautiously and asked if he needed help. Surprised, he quickly regained his composure, ordered me to "step away from the vehicle" and sped off down the road.
A few days later, word came of a multiple shooting and suicide by a policeman at Three Hills in St Mary. I have no way of knowing if the two incidents were related as I had never seen that policeman before, but I wrote an article which appeared in The Gleaner a few days later on April 18, 2011. In that article, I spoke of the stress associated with police work and how it could lead to depression, suicide, and worse. The only reaction I remember was the same "appeal to members of the force to avail themselves of the services available to them when they are having problems".
Has anyone ever stopped to reflect on the work of a Jamaican policeman? They are called to accident scenes to look at mangled bodies. Then they are called to crime scenes to deal with more horrible sights of dead and sometimes decaying, bodies.
Day and night, they have to be alert to the fact that someone passing by, or in a crowd, or in the bushes may be trying to harm them. And all the time knowing that those who will not harm them do not like them or don't appreciate them.
Add to this the long hours, the 'graveyard shifts' that upset circadian rhythms (a sort of body clock that tells you when to eat, sleep, rise, etc). This is an enormous burden to be carrying daily.
And what is happening at home? There are missed holidays and family events. The result is often isolation, anger, suspicion, and hostility. So home, sometimes, becomes as hostile as the crime scenes. Where can he go? He has no disposable income. Maybe the shade of an ackee tree to cry under. Without knowing it, depression sneaks in.
Researchers have proven that individuals coping with depression have a higher level of stress hormones present in their bodies, and brain scans of depressed patients show decreased activity in some areas of the brain. The brain is the command centre. It is the most complex and delicately balanced organ.
Among all medical illnesses, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the US. Many, many of our police officers are exhibiting clear signs that they are at this stage. Beneath the facade of toughness, some are just hiding feelings of sadness, emptiness, guilt and hopelessness. All their colleagues may see is irritability, loss of interest, and reduced energy.
Two weeks ago, a group of policemen were sent to one of those ants' nests off Mountain View Avenue to keep the peace. They came under intense, prolonged gunfire from residents bearing superior weapons. The JDF headquarters is 30 seconds away by helicopter. But it took an eternity for help to arrive. These men are expected to just go home and turn up for duty the next morning. It doesn't work like that.
I hear that it was 'OK' because the criminals didn't 'draw any blood'. Hear this: The most lasting wounds are bloodless!
These problems exist in other countries, but rarely is it as bad as the Jamaican situation. The level of violence and recklessness here is remarkable. Human beings were not made to endure this on a regular basis. We are not being fair to our policemen. This cannot be allowed to continue.
I know of some police stations that are in some peaceful locations. The officers seem to be always bored, sleeping, or getting into mischief. They are OK. But I am thinking of those who are constantly in the line of fire. They should not be expected to be working every day or overtime.
The brain, just a 3lb mass of 100 billion neurons and 1,000 billion glial cells, is still not fully studied or understood. What is known is that factors that increase the activity or reactivity of the brain stem will increase their aggressivity, impulsivity and capacity to display violence. This type of assault could trigger reactions that may still shock us - because this kind of assault on the brain was never intended to be.
Every member of the force should be trained to recognise the early signs of stress and depression in their colleagues and report it. Policemen who are exposed to violence regularly should be the subject of mandatory evaluation, and, where necessary, counselling - family counselling. Colleagues and family members must realise that telling the person to 'cheer up' or 'try snap out of it' won't work. Nor will a trip to the bar. They need professional help.
Our police are overworked, underpaid, and not appreciated for the distasteful job they undertake daily to protect us. A change is needed, and we could start by showing them that we appreciate them, while the authorities prepare a more realistic work schedule and a sensible pay package.