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Police and Mental Health: Exactly whose traumatizing who?

In response to ‘Opinion: For Ian’s sake — change’

by anonymous

Update: This letter was sent to the Hamilton Spectator on January 15, 2014. Although they did not publish it, they did write two more stories about the fragile mental health of police officers in the three days following.


In response to the anonymously written piece by 'a concerned cop' (View original article here: I would like to offer the following points.

The op-ed published by the Hamilton Spectator was just as likely to have been penned by the Hamilton-Wentworth Police public relations department in order to elicit public sympathy for police and increase pro-police sentiments, as it was to be written by a local officer struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That said, this is only one hypothesis, which I can neither currently support nor refute, and thus I will assume that an actual local officer did in fact submit it.

Myself? I will also remain anonymous, not due to the potential impact on my career, like the reason Concerned Cop cited for anonymity, but for my own actual safety.

Considering the limited explanation surrounding Sergeant Matthews’ death in the media, and consistency in referring to it as a 'death,' rather than a suicide, this single op-ed was able to shape the narrative in a way that it can neither be questioned (due to an anonymous source), or even debated, seeing as it would appear in bad taste to refute the version provided by another officer, who sees Matthews as struggling with PTSD like himself.

To elicit a sense of patriotism, the article starts with nationalist imagery associated with Matthews’ funeral framing him as a hero. Concerned Cop then goes on to list all those people likely impacted by his death. Clearly the difficulty his friends, family, and those who cared for him now face, cannot be denied. However, it's not reason alone to erect him to the status of hero. Their pain is real and they are of course deserving of emotional support, as we all are in rough times.

‘Concerned Cop’ then plays on this sympathy (who can't relate to grieving a lost loved-one?) and goes on to describe a police force struggling with the traumatic aspects of their work and lack of respect by the community.

There is no doubt that cops see their share of crisis, human suffering, and death, as do paramedics, firefighters, nurses, doctors, crisis workers, mental health workers, and countless other professions. The difference being, of course, the approach with which those other professions take to such crisis. The other professionals listed are there strictly to assist, not to enforce, detain, or incarcerate, wherein police brutality often occurs.

If only we didn’t regularly hear about people with mental health and addictions issues being gunned down, racial profiling, patterns of a cop repeatedly killing members of a specific race, human trafficking officers having sex with the people they are there to assist, and harassment of the homeless and criminalized youth. There is a reason that cops arresting someone with ‘appropriate force’ recently made the headlines. This so often is not the case. How long will we believe, it’s “just a few bad apples?”

It has been well documented that occupying a position of power over others reduces empathy for them, promotes violence against them, as well as justification for that violence. For police, this justification is bolstered by the racist, sexist, and classist attitudes endemic in policing. (This justification needs to exist for them to feel comfortable in their role as enforcers). The trauma Concerned Cop speaks of wherein someone experiences it vicariously through another’s account of it is a result of empathy for that person and identification with that person. This empathy and identification is incompatible with the enforcer attitudes listed above.

Though I don't doubt there are people that police encounter on the job that they do identify with and have empathy for, (think middle-upper class people with the privilege of education, home ownership, health benefits, and RRSPs), a general level of empathy for those they more regularly interact with would only get in the way of their role as enforcers. Cops are paid (quite well, I might add) to clear the streets of 'undesirables,' such as those of us struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, and other such struggles the working class regularly faces. The harassment and subhuman treatment with which these folks often encounter with police is likely to be contributing to their own trauma symptoms. However, without the access to healthcare those with health benefits receive, they are more likely to be marginalized and incarcerated than provided the supportive therapy which Concern Cop demands for police.

He complains that it is unacceptable that Employee Assistance Plans for police only provide phone support and limited hours of therapy. Perhaps cops struggling should use some of their large salaries to obtain counselling if they feel they need it. Undoubtedly, managing their own PTSD might decrease some of the violence they impose on the rest of us.

Though arguably, if we really wanted to put a dent in the creation of traumatic experiences of Hamiltonians, we might do better to limit police power, take away their guns, do not give them tasers, and require some semblance of accountability beyond the pathetic level offered by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU). The SIU is a body that exists to investigate police action and to hold them accountable. However, it often fails to do so.

As the Toronto Star reported in 2010, in 20 years, the SIU did at least 3,400 investigations, laid criminal charges in only 95 of them (less than 3%!), only 16 officers were convicted, only three sentenced to jail time. However, Concerned Cop claims he is overly scrutinized.

It's very sad indeed to watch the traumatic experiences of others for any professional, though there's something quite worse than that. What’s worse is actually living those traumas. This is the case for many people in Hamilton on a daily basis, much in part due to economic inequality, a system enforced by police. Not only do they maintain the status quo for the wealthy that benefit from the current state of things by squashing dissent and spreading fear of standing up for our rights, but their existence also makes things worse in still another way.

So much of what the police respond to could be far better handled by concerned neighbours, community members, or other types of unarmed professionals willing to co-operate with each other. As long as the police are there to call in crisis situations, we rely on them when we are likely far better equipped to handle it ourselves with the support of those around us. If we banded together to take care of each other, including everyone in our communities, so much trauma could be prevented.

Imagine the difference for someone hanging on by a thread between having armed cops show up to intimidate them into compliance, or having friends and neighbours gather to express concern and offer assistance.

So when Concerned Cop complains he worries people may ‘spit in his food,’ I think he should be thankful he can afford to buy food or go to restaurants. When he says that he has been "kicked, punched, screamed at, and spit on," I say that so have we, and without the power of a gun to defend ourselves hanging from our hips. And when he says, "no one else is coming," to help him at the scene of the crime, I counter that a call into his radio would materialize several more cops with more weapons. Do not lie to us, Concerned Cop. We are not stupid.

When he says his family struggles and worries about him, I do not doubt this is true, though knowing the greater prevalence of domestic violence in police families, that may not be their only policing-related concern. In all fairness, Concerned Cop does allude to taking frustrations home and impacting loved ones. However, that doesn’t quite speak to the extent of violence some police enact in their own homes using the privilege and power bestowed upon them.

The have access to weapons. They are less likely to be arrested. They know where shelters are located, have access to databases, and knowledge of the court. Cops are trained in intimidation, restraint, and investigation. Survivors of domestic violence by police face an incredible battle.

It is for reasons such as these that when we are painted an idealistic picture of the police that we must remain critical, seeing through propaganda, and putting the picture into the context of the police brutality that does occur.

What's perhaps most frustrating about Concerned Cop’s stance on Matthew’s suicide is the liberty he takes in creating the narrative of 'why' this happened. It is not his place to say that Matthews took his life due to the trauma he witnessed. And perhaps it’s not mine either, but I now feel compelled to offer alternatives.

Perhaps Matthews was being bullied by his peers, policing being a brotherhood known to be fraught with machismo. Another possible reason for Matthew’s suicide is guilt. Perhaps Matthews no longer felt good about his role as a cop.

The fact that he ended his life at central station, surrounded by his coworkers certainly suggests his death may have been related to policing. He could have undertaken this in a multitude of ways, and in privacy as many tragically do, but he chose to expose his peers to this act. That leaves me asking, "Why?"

What exactly was Matthews’ message to fellow police and Hamiltonians?

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