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Check it at the gate, avoid the burnout
By Barry Evert, Sergeant
Published: 06/18/2007

Match A lot of time and effort is spent on ensuring our physical and tactical readiness should we have a major incident in our institution, or even in our community. Countless hours and dollars are spent by research companies working for law enforcement to determine the best and safest tactical practices for almost every conceivable situation; but very little time is spent on our mental well-being.

With a rate of suicide almost ten times more than the general public, we are a sick society. Our divorce rates are staggering, and many of us barely live long enough to enjoy our retirement. Most of us have come to accept these grim statistics as “part of the job.” It is high time we change our attitude about this problem, and spend a little time working on our psychological well-being.

The problem is that few departments offer classes or other resources for you to learn from, so it is up to the individual to make change. A colleague joked to me years ago that maybe I should start a support group. After a long debate on whether or not anyone would show up, I decided it was worth a try. Very informally, I invited several officers to join me during our down time at work to talk about our experiences under the ruse that it would help the rookies learn from us.

What I found out that day was staggering. Out of the fifteen officers who came, eight were divorced, three were in bad health, and two had contemplated suicide at some time while working for the department. The bottom line was the same for all of them: “This job changes you.”

More than a little distraught over what I had learned, I decided to talk to more officers, and over the years I have found this pattern among our law enforcement community across the state of California. In my years in corrections, I have encountered numerous officers who have gone over the edge. Everything from suicide to alcoholism seems to be prevalent.

So what is the solution? The old saying: “leave it at the gate,” oversimplifies what needs to happen. Many Officers consider themselves correctional or police officers first, second to family life and their community. This way of thinking is admirable, but also needs to be checked.

I can identify with this line of thinking because truthfully, I feel the same way in many respects. But a clear line needs to be drawn for all of us to appreciate life a little more than we do now. It is bred into us from the academy that we are held to a higher standard than the rest of the community, and we should exemplify morality and trustworthiness at every turn in our private and professional lives. As dedicated professionals I believe most of us do in fact participate in this.

Having said that, it does not mean that we cannot enjoy a dinner at a restaurant because there are too many people, or enjoy our vacations without constantly scanning the crowds for convicts or crooks. This hyper vigilance is what keeps us alive at work, but it needs to be checked at the gate to some extent.

It will always be in our nature to scan a crowd for bad guys, but this does not mean it has to infect every part of our life. We know there are bad guys out there, and we can spot them quicker than anyone else; but does it mean that we have to “patrol” Disneyland as we walk through it with our family? This is the exact behavior that spouses often notice and do not understand. Comments like “you’re not at work honey” can be heard from many officer spouses on outings. Still feeling committed to public safety, we continue our “patrol” but this eventually could put our families in harm’s way if we’re not careful.

The second biggest problem is our inability to share our problems. Who do we talk to about what we have seen and experiences? Many of us have no-one to go to. We do not want to share last night’s homicide with our spouse because we were taught to “leave it at the gate.”

So our emotions fester inside of us, and we often turn to humor to quell our emotion when something happens at work. How many times have we caught ourselves, or seen other officers standing over a crime scene making jokes about it. A sense of humor will keep you alive, but be aware that it is also how your mind places a barrier against your emotions. The next time you are at a homicide or stabbing in your institution, think to yourself how you really feel about seeing this scene. If it truly does not bother you in any way, consider getting some help.

The solutions are surprisingly easy. First and foremost, make friends outside the department. Make sure that at least half of your friends are not correctional officers, police officers, or in any other way involved with law enforcement. This establishes and retains a baseline to guide you into the “outside world.”

Second, do not try to leave your troubles at the gate if they haunt you. Although it is not always necessary to get professional help, this can be beneficial. Try talking to a trusted friend, or better yet, a spouse, about your problems. Many believe that we should shelter our spouses from the dangers and problems of work, but ask any spouse who has been called to the hospital, and they will tell you they wished they knew how dangerous the job was so they could be there for their officer. Yes, spouses will worry about your well-being, but they will be better prepared with an understanding of your job if something, God forbid, should happen. Understanding the risks of any situation makes it inherently easier to deal with. Not only that, it will make your spouse a lot more understanding of your problems as your marriage ages.

Finally, understand that your career as a correctional officer is just that; A career. Nothing more, nothing less. You will not be less of a person when you retire from service, or if you are injured and can no longer work. Many studies have been done, and have found that our badges become our personality and life. Many retirees, or people separated from duty for other reasons, go into a deep depression because they feel they are no longer important.

I am proud to be a CO, and even prouder to be a supervisor in one of the best prisons in America. Having said that, I am also very much aware that it could end in an instant, either because of an injury or family situation. I am aware that my past service, and the service of so many before me, is much more important than “what could have been.”

This is not a perpetuation of the myth that we must be “more sensitive” as a society. It is a simple plea for officers to consider their emotional survival on the job. How many of our colleagues retire, only to whither away physically and emotionally months later?

Considering the average recipient in our profession will only see 18 retirement checks before death, we see it a lot. Don’t get caught trying to be a tough guy when it comes to your emotional well being. This will only result in a decrease in your quality of life, or a lead to a total loss of your family and friends.

Above my desk there are two quotes I find are applicable in our line of work.
  • “People sleep peaceably in bed tonight because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
  • “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”
We are public servants, and most of us are proud to be so. However, do not confuse public service with unreasonable sacrifice. We took an oath which stated in part that we would lay down our lives if necessary. Nothing in that oath requires us to “give up” our personal lives.

Sgt. Barry Evert is a Correctional Sergeant at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, and has been with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for eight years. His specialty lies in teaching, riot tactics and officer safety improvement. He is a firm believer that a good home life breeds a good officer, and is currently writing a book, which supports that idea and details the essential skills and techniques new COs should learn in the first two years of their job.

Related resources:

Mind & Heart: Are you really listening? 5/29/07

From Fatigue to Fulfillment, 12/20/06

Total Emotional Intelligence: Inside & Out, 12/6/06


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