The Disabled Police Officer--Gone and Forgotten

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Police Suicide - What It ISN'T
Master Police Coaches - Building a Better Cop
PTSD - The "Hidden Injury"
Police Suicide - Making a Difference
The Importance of Therapy
Police Suicide - the SOLUTIONS
Interview with the BOL Chairman
So-Called "Helpers"
A MATTER OF PUBLIC TRUST
2016 Police Suicide Study
Annual Mental Health Checks
Stigma - The Human Stain
2016 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Chiefs Lead the Way
"Bring a Buddy"

by John Violanti, PhD

I couldnt figure out for the life of me what had happened. The phones stopped ringing, the visits dwindled. I made a lot of friends in twenty years. Where were they? No matter how much damage was done to me, I was still the same Richard Pastorella I had been before the bomb went off. Then I began to understand it. My broken body reminded them of how vulnerable they were.

 

These were the comments of Detective Richard Pastorella, New York City Bomb Squad. Detective Pastorella was placed on disability after a terrorist bomb ravaged his body. He suffered the permanent loss of his eyesight, hearing, and most of his fingers. Richard Pastorella could not understand why the job had abandoned him. Unfortunately, this is all too common an occurrence for disabled officers. No one wants to be reminded of a tragedy that could happen to them. This is a real disservice to disabled officers, because the best support at a time like this are other officers.

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THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

 

Particular attention has been given in recent years to the high rates of disability retirement among police officers.  According to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, 56% of all retiring officers terminate employment due to disability.  Police retirement pensions generally provide disability retirement eligibility after five years of service.  Payments range between one-third and three-quarters of the officers annual average salary.


Information received from four major metropolitan areas, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco, indicated that the average age of disability for police was ten to twelve years less than the average of other service employees. In general, police disability retirees were in their early forties.

 

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), protective service workers reported higher than average occurrences of acute conditions over a one-year period. Fifty-three point eight percent reported that they had seen a physician regarding their health problems. Acute conditions included injuries (18.8%), respiratory conditions (50.1%), digestive conditions (4.4%) and infectious conditions (9.7%).

 

Several chronic disabling conditions had high occurrences among protective service workers. Rates for diabetes were almost twice that of all other occupations, 50% higher for rates of heart disease, 40% higher for chronic bronchitis, 10% higher for asthma, 25% higher for arthritis, 10% higher for back problems and 3% higher for ulcers.

 

From these findings, it appears that protective service workers as a group, which include a variety of law enforcement and police functions, suffer significantly from both acute and chronic disabling conditions. This is not only evident in statistics, but also in the perceptions of protective workers. When NCHS conducted their survey, they asked workers to assess their health status as “excellent, very good, good, fair or poor,” approximately 7.2% of the protective service work force responded that their health was poor. This response was higher than average for all occupations. The problem certainly exists and must be addressed by police administration and health professionals.

 

ATTITUDES TOWARD DISABILITY

 

The definition and use of disability pensions in police work remains ambiguous. Police administration can use this type of pension to eliminate problem officers, while some officers can use it to get out of police work with a lucrative pension. It appears that the original intention of disability pensions, to assist disabled officers, has become distorted.

 

In some cases, officers who get a disability retirement are admired by peers. They view this as a victory over the police system. A police officer commented on a recent fellow officer who received a disability pension after ten years of service:

 

I dont blame the guy for taking a disability. Otherwise, he would have had to put in another ten years for his retirement pension. Why should he? He didnt like his job anyway, so this was a good opportunity to make out like a bandit. Its not a bad deal…three quarters of his salary for the rest of his life and tax-free. I could use that myself.

 

Comments like this are common among police officers. Some see the disability pension as an easy way to retire. However, it is generally a minority of officers who use the system. The majority of police officers like their job and want to remain on the force. When these officers are forced into a disability retirement, they may experience adjustment difficulties.

 

ASSISTING DISABLED OFFICERS

 

When a police officer is injured in the line of duty or disabled due to a disease, he or she may be forced to retire on disability. However, police officers lose more than their health when they become disabled; they also lose their identity. Often, the disabled officer is forgotten both by the department and fellow officers. To assist the disabled officer, it is first necessary to become aware of certain stages that he or she may experience after the injury occurs.

 

STAGES OF DISABILITY RECOVERY

 

Richards (1990) has outlined several stages of recovery form injury that may apply to disable police officers. They are: 1. The survival honeymoon; 2. adjustment shock; and 3. recovery.

 

The survival honeymoon usually lasts from four to twelve weeks and is a welcome period during which officers gain strength. During this stage, survivors will frequently involve themselves in activities that will prove their normality. However optimistic and encouraged the survivor may be at this point, their only reality is that they are alive. They have not yet grasped the full impact of possible limitations and lifestyle adjustments.

Following the survival honeymoon is what Richards refers to as adjustment shock. Officers injured or traumatized may begin to feel unsure of themselves and their abilities

to cope with the future. They begin to experience less attention from friends and family.

Soon, no one calls or stops in to see them. This may leave the disabled person isolated and alone. In cases of serious physical injury or disfigurement, the survivors become keenly aware of their different and abnormal condition. Survivors may also feel guilty for failing to meet their recovery goals. Often, they blame themselves for not trying hard enough.

 

The recovery stage occurs when the injured person shows signs of successful adjustment to the event or injury. Losses or physical limitations are accepted and overcome as best as possible. One fo the first encouraging signs of recovery is when survivors can talk about their life-changing event comfortably and discuss how they have adapted to the situation.

 

Police officers are not the only ones who experience the effects of a disability. The officers family experiences its own shock, fears, anguish and expressions as a result of the officers ordeal. Richards comments on the affects on families:

 

Children are especially vulnerable. They can become confused because they don’t understand the dramatic changes that are happening, either physically or emotionally.


Often they interpret events as a rejection by their parents or as if somehow they are being blamed for all the hurt and unhappiness they sense. Children need constant loving attention, and strong reassurances throughout the entire recovery period…spouses are usually the ones with the most difficult struggle. Typically, they are torn between two extremes: on the one hand, they don’t want to accept major life adjustments. They continually hope that life will return to what it was before the injury. On the other hand, they see physical and emotional problems and realize that life will never be the same (p.53).

 

Thus, police families of disable officers require just as much love and compassion as the officer does. Often, the attention of everyone is on the disabled officer, at least in the beginning, and the family is left without support or care. Later, both are left with the support of friends or the department.

 

COUNSELING THE DISABLED OFFICER

 

Providing help for the disabled police officer is not an easy task. Police officers are a special breed, they are proud. Most officers have an attitude which may work against them in terms of rehabilitation. They expect too much of themselves because they are police officers, and tend to forget that they are human. Imagine the psychological let- down when the actually do get injured or incapacitated.

 

Agent Jim Horn of the FBI Critical Incident Team often mentions the case of the agent who was shot in an ambush situation. Jim counseled the agent and happened to ask him a question: You were hurt pretty bad, yet you didn’t cry or complain at all.” In confidence, the young man told him that he was suffering from terrible pain but that he couldn’t cry in front of his peers. His comment to Jim was that “John Wayne never cried.” For the police counselor, this type of macho image is difficult to break through.

 

Becoming disabled in an environment where health, strength and good physical functioning are the ideal can be psychologically difficult. Fellow police officers should be made aware of these complications. Many officers view their disabled comrades as useless simply because they can no longer fulfill police duties. Nothing could be further form the truth. Other officers are cynical towards disability-retired officers, viewing them as taking advantage of the system. The disabled officer may thus experience prejudice from society and his/her own peers.

 

DISABLED POLICE OFFICER GROUPS

 

The group is a useful tool for the disabled police officer to reach out and share problems with peers in a safe environment. Groups can facilitate the transition from police work to civilian retirement, especially in cases of disability. Detective Richard Pastorella, mentioned earlier in this article, started a group to help disabled officers cope with their problems and to educate other officers about disability. To date, his program has been very successful.


Tom Williams, Director of the Post Trauma Treatment Center in Aurora, Colorado, was one of the first to formally apply the group concept for disabled police officers. His contention was that law enforcement is a way of life, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and that it affects all aspects of one’s life. A loss of that life is potentially devastating.

 

Dr. William’s first groups consisted of twelve police officers with various problems. They have lost their jobs due to law violations, accumulated job stress, shootings, medical injuries and police combat wounds. The overall theme was that years of good service to the department were soon forgotten the moment the officer became disabled or separated. Resultant feelings of rejection by the department and their brother officers were hard to overcome.

 

Group members often expressed the feeling that former peers saw them as diseased. If the working officer accepted the reality of police disability, it seemed to make the feel vulnerable and unsafe, feelings not congruent with being in control on the street. The working officer would rather blame the disabled officer than the job. Police officers in Williams’ group felt penalized by their former peers.

 

Williams found that the loss of a power base, mystique, respect, the ability to control others and instant deference left many officers in the group feeling powerless and confused. There seemed to be no employment or retirement hobby that could replace the authority and responsibility they had in law enforcement. Most had wanted to be cops all their lives and could not envision themselves in any other occupation. These feelings, coupled with a disability, devastated most of the officers.

 

It is evident that disability leads to serious adjustment difficulties for police officers. Perhaps two factors can help to alleviate the pain. First, it is important that disabled police officers not be abandoned and forgotten by peers and the department. For most officers, this appeared to be worse than the physical injury itself. Secondly, police officers should perhaps reconsider the need for help from professionals or peer counseling groups. They are, after all, human first, police officers second. Paulie Ciurcina, a highly decorated officer who left the New York City Police Department on a disability discharge, said it best:

 

This job took my dignity from me…You cant be ashamed to go to a therapist. You deserve to know why, after you pick up a dead child, you go home and cry like a baby in the corner. If a cop asks for help, you should be proud of him. PROUD! (Quoted in Hirschfield, 1986, p.26)