What led to McKinney, Texas, Police Corporal Eric Casebolt’s unnecessarily aggressive approach to breaking up a crowd of predominantly black teens at a pool party last week? As I wrote previously, police training that emphasizes a Warrior mentality likely contributed, and implicit racial bias may also have played a role. But there was perhaps another factor, one that’s too often overlooked: stress.
Let me be clear: Corporal Casebolt’s actions were profoundly inappropriate; the McKinney Police Chief accurately described his actions as “out of control” and “indefensible.” In no way am I attempting to absolve him. But according to his attorney, Corporal Casebolt responded to the pool party after dealing with two different suicide calls earlier that day, including one in which a man publicly shot himself in the head. That’s extremely telling. Taking officer stress seriously could have potentially prevented the McKinney debacle.
The law enforcement culture has a deep and abiding regard for bravery, resilience, and strength. Officers are expected to take care of business, to keep it together and do what they need to do. They are supposed to handle each call—no matter how stressful, disturbing, or emotional—and go onto the next without missing a beat. Struggling to deal with the stress of the job is considered a sign of weakness, an inexcusable personal failure. Within the profession, officers who can’t handle the realities of police work may be viewed with thinly veiled distrust, if not contempt.
As a result, officers may deny—even to themselves—that the stress they’re under is getting to them. If they do recognize that they are having difficulties, they’re unlikely to share that with peers or supervisors. Officers take pride in their ability to do a tough job, a job many people simply are not cut out for, so they are often reluctant to do anything that may call into question their fitness for duty. Self-worth isn’t the only thing at risk; many officers fear that admitting to emotional difficulties will limit their opportunities for advancement or even jeopardize their careers. Even when officers realize that they are emotionally shaken, they may feel especially obligated to ignore their own infirmity when they feel that other officers are depending on them.
In that light, Corporal Casebolt’s response to the pool party is entirely unremarkable: According to his lawyer, Corporal Casebolt was initially reluctant to respond to the pool party. However, “once the call was escalated [from trespassing to a possible assault], he felt and believed it was his duty to respond.”
But an officer in a vulnerable emotional state is a liability, not an asset. An officer who is struggling to deal with the stress of the last call is much less likely to be able to effectively manage the next one. Attempting to do so endangers not only the officer themselves, but also their fellow officers and the community more broadly. Corporal Casebolt was struggling under the very real emotional weight of two stressful calls. That may well have contributed to his overreacting to a group of non-compliant teenagers. His overreaction exacerbated the situation, created avoidable resistance, and led to violence that was, in all likelihood, entirely preventable.
Solving the problems of police stress requires better training for officers and supervisors as well as deep changes to law enforcement culture. As a 2014 symposium on police suicide by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) put it, “officer mental health is an issue of officer safety, and we should treat it as such.” Various sources report anywhere between 2.5 to 6 times more officers take their own lives every year than are feloniously killed in the line of duty.
Mental wellness is also a critical component of ensuring civilian safety and community trust. Officers must be taught about the stressors they will face and about positive coping mechanisms. They must learn to be alert to the symptoms of stress not just in themselves, but also in their fellow officers and, for supervisors, their subordinates. And they must be taught that they have a duty—to the public, their families, their co-workers, and themselves—to acknowledge and deal with stress in a healthy, productive way. Sometimes, that will mean taking themselves out of service and not responding to a call.
In the same symposium, the IACP recognized that “in many law enforcement departments the culture toward mental wellness or addressing emotional problems of any kind is one of disdain and avoidance.” This, too, needs to change. Law enforcement agencies must create an environment where officers at all levels are encouraged to acknowledge and deal appropriately with the emotional challenges of policing. Officer stress should be a regular part of performance evaluations and annual physicals. Peers should be comfortable having candid conversations about stress and intervening when they see another officer struggling.
And officers should know that pulling themselves off the line when they’re grappling with emotional issues is not just professionally appropriate—it takes more bravery, resilience, and strength than denying or ignoring the problem. Officers who do ignore such problems should be disciplined appropriately; a police culture that takes stress seriously will have little tolerance for officers who endanger themselves, other officers, and civilians because of their refusal to acknowledge potential problems.
Stress is not the only factor to consider, of course. Systemic issues like agency culture and supervision and individual factors like fatigue and attitude all play an important role. But we should still recognize that police work inherently exposes officers to death, tragedy, violence, and trauma. Being aware of how those stressors affect officer decision-making and performance is an important part of improving law enforcement by protecting officers and civilians alike. We should expect and demand that officers’ actions will not be burdened by emotional baggage that they bring with them from a prior call or from their personal lives. But in order to do that, we must create a culture where stress is dealt with honestly and openly, not frowned upon as a weakness.
Seth Stoughton is a law professor at the University of South Carolina, where he is affiliated with the Rule of Law Collaborative. He served as a police officer and investigator for more than seven years. Follow him on Twitter @PoliceLawProf.