The mind of a copby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
The first class of this year's recruits has graduated from St. Paul's Police Academy. During training they've punched and jabbed each other and their teachers, they've shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and learned how to take control of dangerous situations.
But there's another aspect of a police officer's life they're preparing for -- the emotional stress of facing physical danger and possibly using deadly force every day.
St. Paul, Minn. — Twenty-one recruits began police academy, but just 15 graduated.
In just over 10 weeks, the recruits have learned everything from how to talk to a victim, to how to take down a suspect.
In a use-of-force exercise at the academy, 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound recruit Charlie Anderson is hitting and kicking one of his instructors who's dressed in a thick, red, head-to-toe rubber suit. Classroom drills like this are designed to create muscle memory. So when Anderson's out on the street, he can fight.
"We have to do some of those things because of our desire to help," says Anderson. "Not because we like shooting people, but because we like protecting people, that sometimes we have to shoot people, or mace them, or taze them or handcuff them, or hit them with a baton."
As a police officer, Anderson needs to be willing and able to react to violence with violence at any moment. Nonetheless, he's aware of the irony in using force to maintain order.
"We ride a weird line of trying to act in a socially acceptable way, but trying to combat asocial or anti-social behavior," Anderson says.
But human behavior is unpredictable. One of the veteran officers who helped train the recruits, Sgt. Cory Tell, says enforcing the law is like riding a roller coaster.
"You'll be in a fight one minute and the next minute you're taking a very low priority call," says Tell. "And a low-priority call can turn into a big, stressful, knock-down, drag-out fight in a matter of seconds. And so it's kind of the unknown you approach each call with."
Tell says working under those conditions every day, fundamentally changes you.
"I think cops are kind of wired a certain way, that when you go home at night, you don't necessarily shut it off," Tell says. "I don't investigate things like I normally would while I'm working. But at the same time, I think your general officer is a lot more observant of things going on. My wife always accuses me of, 'What are you looking at?' or, 'Why are you looking around?'"
Another veteran cop who helped train the new officers, Laura Syrint, says she's felt the changes in her 10 years on the job.
"Cops will go into a restaurant -- we could go in with our family -- and I'd lay money on it, that the cop in the family is going to make sure his or her back isn't facing toward the door," Syrint says. "You just get so used to dealing with things on the street on a daily basis, that it seems kind of normal."
Syrint and her colleagues know at any moment they could come face-to-face with the biggest threat to their safety -- guns.
Police often say shootings are rare in an officer's career. But St. Paul police are seeing more illegal guns on the street than ever. Last year, the department recovered 650 guns used in crimes, and over the past 10 years there have been 22 officer-involved shootings.
Sgt. Patrick Kane, a 24-year veteran who has led the department's Employee Assistance Program for the past five years, says the stress of being constantly on guard, knowing that any day could turn violent, can lead to emotional problems.
"[Police officers] have -- higher than the general population -- three things," says Kane. "One is substance abuse, one is relationship issues, and one is suicide."
Over the past 30 years, five St. Paul police officers have committed suicide. St. Paul does not have statistics on divorce rates or substance abuse in the department. But surveys estimate the divorce rate for cops to be as high as 75 percent nationally.
"That's why, when you talk in the academy you ask a lot of young recruits, 'Is there anyone in here that has a family member that doesn't want them to be a police officer?' And I would say, probably 90 percent raise their hand," says Kane.
Kane says the Employee Assistance Program tries to help cops keep things in perspective. That means not letting police work become all-consuming. It means having responsibilities and hobbies outside of work. It means time for family, and maintaining relationships with friends who aren't cops.
Kane and his colleague, a contracted therapist, work with a couple hundred cops a year either by phone or in their office.
"A lot of times what they're looking for is just support, and a safe place to be able to explore and talk about things," Kane says. "When you think the words 'counselor' or 'mental health,' I think what you think is something's broken. And what we're trying to do is show them this is kind of like the gym for the physical side of things. That the EAP is out there for support, and more as a tuneup or an oil change."
Kane says more St. Paul officers have started to come see him in the past few years. But, he says the paramilitary culture of the police department still creates a stigma.
"You can't show any weakness, not only with the public. But sometimes it's hard to show weakness -- you don't want to show any weakness or vulnerability to even your coworkers," Kane says. "So certain topics and certain things aren't really talked about for fear that, 'Are people going to worry about that?' or 'What are people going to think?' Even though I think everyone thinks the same thing, it's just that there's certain things we can't talk about."
Charlie Anderson, who just graduated from the police academy, says he's aware of the emotional pitfalls of the job, and he says he'll try to avoid them.
"Just like my duty belt, I've got all these tools that are available -- my family, my friends, faith, other police officers, the Employee Assistance Program. All these professionals out there that are ready to help us," says Anderson. "I know that I'm going to have to deal with it. But I'm going to have all these great people that are ready to help me out, too. If you don't take advantage of those things is when I think you might get into trouble."
Anderson says he formed a tight bond with many of his academy classmates. But, they'll all be split up now, and head to their street assignments throughout the city for field training.
Away from their mentors and the cocoon of the academy, they'll start finding their way toward balancing the stress of the job with their lives outside the police department.
- Morning Edition, 05/25/2007, 7:50 a.m.