Like millions of Americans, I’m a sucker for a good cop show; that’s been the case ever since “Hill Street Blues” was on TV. (For those of you who have a few more gray hairs than I do, you might insert “Dragnet” or “The Streets of San Francisco” into that sentence.)
Judging by the number of cop shows on TV, I’m not the only one who is intrigued by the professional and personal lives of law enforcement officers. Their lives seem tailor-made for Hollywood, what with all the high-speed chases, gunfights and in-your-face interrogations.
We know, of course, that law enforcement officers lead much less glamorous lives than their TV and movie counterparts. Yes, bad guys sometimes shoot at them, and yes, there are dangerous high-speed chases (which sometimes end badly for the good guys, unfortunately). Still, University of Buffalo epidemiologist John Violanti suggests that real-life police officers struggle with far more occupational hazards than we see on TV.
“Police officers are exposed to danger from so many different elements – many of them unexpected – that they are dying not just on the job, but for the job,” says Violanti, an expert on police culture, psychological stress, illness and mortality.
Anxiety, obesity, trauma, stress, toxin exposure and sleep deprivation are among the workplace hazards that take a toll on police officers, Violanti asserts in his new book, “Dying for the Job: Police Work Exposure and Health.”
These hazards are sending many officers to an early grave. A previous study by Violanti found that on average, the life expectancy of police officers was significantly lower than the U.S. male population – which he attributes to the high and protracted degree of job-related stress.
In the book, Violanti and several other authors from NIOSH explore the unusual health risks that law enforcement officers face. They begin by considering the alarming number of environmental hazards to which police officers are exposed, such as clandestine methamphetamine labs, dead bodies, lead exposure from firearms, noise, radar, bloodborne pathogens and fingerprint powder – the latter of which has been linked to occupational lung disease.
“These threats are compounded by the high levels of job stress in police work, which manifest as higher-than-average rates of anxiety, obesity, PTSD, high blood pressure, metabolic disorder, cardiovascular disease and suicide,” Violanti says.
The authors also point out that police subgroups distinguished by gender, ethnicity and military experience are at even greater risk of ill health than their peers.
In one chapter, Franklin Zimmerman, M.D., senior attending cardiologist and director of critical care at Phelps Memorial Hospital in New York’s Westchester County, discusses the growing risk of cardiovascular disease among police. Zimmerman notes that most fatal heart attacks among police strike at younger ages than they do in the general working population.
So what’s the point? Violanti says it’s to educate police, their families and the communities that they serve.
“They should be aware of the hidden risks of this job,” he says. “The hours are long, the pay is frequently low and a range of stressors provoke physical and psychological damage that can be severe. The police themselves, along with the public, are paying for that damage and should be aware of programs and practices that can alleviate and even prevent the consequences described here.”
I don’t need to read Violanti’s book to know that law enforcement is one of the most demanding and thankless jobs on the planet. Even when scofflaws aren’t shooting at them or trying to evade capture, police officers deal with people’s crap every single day – from drunk, belligerent idiots to everyday, average citizens who pull out every excuse in the book to avoid a speeding ticket.
That’s why, in the rare instances that I’ve been pulled over, I always have my driver’s license ready and go out of my way to be respectful and courteous. I can tell that they notice and appreciate it.
I realize that there are bad apples in some police forces, and many of us have read news stories about law enforcement officers who abuse their authority, use excessive force or engage in criminal behavior. But based on my experience, I believe that the vast majority of police officers truly are dedicated to serving and protecting the public. And the evidence suggests that they’re dying young just to fulfill that mission.
I don't have the answer to the question of how to mitigate the occupational health risks in law enforcement. But I’d like to think that I can play a small role in the solution by offering a smile and a kind word to a cop on the street, by showing them respect and cooperation, or by simply saying, “Thanks.”