Last month Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, acting as the new president for the National Sheriff’s Association, attended a Department of Justice Conference in Washington D.C., on the mental and physical health concerns among those who wear the badge. Perhaps not surprisingly, the findings weren’t positive for those who dedicate their lives to the motto “to protect and serve.”
“It’s a continuing concern when you look at the mortality rates among law enforcement officers,” Amerson said. “When you look at the personal issues that seem to go along with the law enforcement profession you start to see why.”
Amerson said among the alarming statistics brought up by the Department of Justice include the average age of death for a law enforcement officer – 66, or about 11 years less than the national average – and the fact that on average a law enforcement officer will die within four years of retirement, according to a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1997 led by University at Buffalo Sociology professor John Violanti.
Attempts to reach Violanti Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Part of the problem is simply a matter of physical activity, or lack thereof, involved with the job.
“In general, law enforcement is not a very healthy profession,” said Mark Lanier, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama. “It’s a job where you go from complete boredom to complete excitement in a matter of seconds.”
Lanier said studies about health for police officers really began to pick up steam in the 1970’s, when the stereotypes about police officers eating jelly doughnuts on the job started to look more like a reality.
“Firefighters can spend a lot of time working out or training,” Lanier said. “A lot of what police officers do is sit in a patrol car all day.”
And the long hours and lack of free time not only mean officers aren’t getting proper exercise, they’re also not always making the best choices when it comes to nutrition, Amerson said.
“It’s getting a little better today, but when you have less time for a meal, a lot of times these guys are eating fast food,” Amerson said. “That’s a lot of calories, high fat and a lot of grief.”
Piling on the physical side of the equation is the mental stress that comes with the job.
“We have the highest suicide rate, the highest divorce rate, the highest alcoholic rate,” said Oxford police Lt. L.G. Owen, pointing out the hazards most people don’t even think about when considering the profession.
“It’s a calling,” he said. “No one does this for the money.”
Again, numbers indicate the dangers associated with law enforcement. According to numbers published by the Badge For Life organization in 2009, police have a high rate of suicide – 14 in every 100,000 compared to the national average of 11.
“A uniform police officer goes from 99 percent boredom to 1 percent sheer terror in a matter of seconds,” Owens said. “They’re suddenly making life or death decisions in a matter of seconds. That’s hard for any officer to have to go through.”
Amerson said common sense solutions to the problem, like mandating more exercise or a certain level of physical requirements for officers, may only exacerbate the problem.
“As you get older, it gets harder to find the time to exercise,” Amerson said. “Now you’re adding this extra stress that if I don’t get this run in, I could lose my job.”
Amerson said he thinks the best strategy is to incentivize rather than force a healthier life style on people, and to provide the proper outlets for stress. The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office allows deputies 20 minutes of exercise every shift, and it works with the Northeast Alabama Crisis Response Team, which can provide counseling and group therapy to deputies going through stressful situations including response to homicides and other violent crimes.
All of which can help, Amerson said, but the reality is the job will always have its hazards that will be hard to shake.
“The problem is every law enforcement officer has their demons,” Amerson said. “That’s just a tremendous amount of stress.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.