Police officers seeking counseling about the pressures of their work are less likely these days to be chastised for visiting "the shrink," says Harvey Goldstein, chief of the Psychological Services Division for the Prince George's County police.
"At one time when people went to a psychologist or psychiatrist, it was viewed with a jaundiced eye," said Col. Elmer Tippett, a 19-year veteran on the Prince George's force. "The whole tone has changed. Officers see this as an avenue for help -- you aren't seen as a sick individual."
While Goldstein does not keep track of how many clients he serves, he estimates that two out of three of the 900 members of the department have been to his office in the five years it has been around. While some officers are ordered by superiors to see psychologists for particular problems, the vast majority come voluntarily, he said.
Goldstein said his office of three psychologists is counseling an increasing number of individuals and families. During one quarter in 1981, that division spent 76 hours counseling, compared with an average of 163 hours a quarter in 1984, he said.
When Goldstein began his program, he insisted that the office be moved from police headquarters in Forestville to an unimposing frame house in Upper Marlboro, far removed from other police facilities. He said he did this to create a more private atmosphere for police and family members to discuss problems with the counselors.
"Police work is the Love Canal of public service -- it's emotionally toxic," primarily because the problems have not been widely addressed until recently, Goldstein said.
Officers' problems range from headaches and sleep disorders to alcohol abuse and sexual dysfunction, he said. The paramilitary management style of police administrations and long hours and shift work that require officers to frequently change their eating, sleeping, working and social patterns, lead to problems just as often as life-threatening confrontations, police psychologists say.
The Los Angeles Police Department was the first to set up a full-service program for distressed officers in 1974, and many other police departments have had employe assistance programs for some time.
Goldstein said the division he set up in 1980 was the most wide-ranging of its kind to be established in this metropolitan area. A former researcher at American University, Goldstein has become highly visible in the field of police stress and is the founder of the police psychology section of the American Psychological Association.
It's hard to get such a police counseling program going, said Carol Marcy, the psychologist who runs Montgomery County's office of stress management. Officers tend to be a secretive, closed group, she said.
"Confidentiality is very important to them," she said. Marcy rode along on patrol with officers for several weeks to get a sense of what they did and to help spread the word that she was approachable.
In addition to dealing with problems such as drug abuse and alcoholism, Marcy is trying to set up programs to address more basic issues, such as smoking and weight control -- the last in part because police consume more than their share of junk food, she said.
"In policing, the most popular drug is alcohol," Goldstein said. While illegal drugs are used by some, the psychologist said more officers opt for alcohol because it is legal and therefore more socially acceptable.
While some researchers have suggested that drinking problems are more common in police officers, both Goldstein and John Stratton with the Los Angeles police, said they have not seen reliable figures on that point and believe that police have an alcoholism rate similar to that of the general public.
Stuart Brownell, executive director of Melwood Farm, an alcohol treatment facility in Montgomery County, said that at least 10 percent of people who drink will become alcoholics. This disease he said, affects one in three American families.
In Prince George's two years ago, one corporal who had been drinking steadily for seven days was nearly carried to Goldstein's office by friends who recognized that the officer's problem was out of control. Goldstein said that about a week prior, the man's supervisor had called the office asking for suggestions in handling the officer.
Goldstein and another psychologist, Paul O'Neil, gave the corporal a choice: go to a rehabilitation program or face disciplinary action. Hours later, the officer was enrolled in a 28-day residential treatment program at Melwood Farm.
For a while after that, the corporal, now 36, was put on a lighter schedule at work so he could attend an aftercare program at night. Now he's back on the job as a patrol officer in the Clinton station. His coworkers have been supportive during his recovery, he said.
Through counseling, he said, he now knows that "I drank because I could not handle the stress." He said his police badge became a shield behind which he hid all emotion. "A child being abused would totally crush me -- but I couldn't show that," he said.
During the last six months of his drinking, the corporal said, he kept a bottle in his cruiser and drank to keep from shaking. He used excessive amounts of aftershave and mouthwash to cover up. His daughter would no longer hug him goodnight. "You stink, you've been drinking," he remembers her saying.
Excessive drinking, drug use or fighting are often responses to the pressure officers think they're under to appear macho, Goldstein said.
"We ask police to exert controlled violence," but until recently, he said, no one was teaching them how to turn that reflex off, he said.
Goldstein said female officers have their own peculiar set of problems. Most who come to his office are having personal relationship or personnel problems.
For instance, the psychologist said, some men do not relish the idea of dating a woman who carries a gun. On the job, Goldstein said, some women believe male officers shun them becasue of their physical differences, but this situation is improving, the psychologist believes.
The psychological services office has initiated several projects to deal with these police stress problems. The most recent was the establishment of an Alcoholics Anonymous group for working and retired Prince George's police officers.
In an effort to establish regular hours for police, Goldstein recently pushed for an experimental shift plan at the Hyattsville station. Some of the officers there volunteered to work permanent shifts starting at midnight, while two other groups rotate on the day and evening shifts every two weeks. Police in the District have used a similar program successfully for several years.
A program to help deal with the aftermath of traumatic incidents makes a visit to Goldstein's office mandatory for any officer involved in a serious or fatal shooting. Goldstein said he has counseled about 70 officers involved in shootings in the past few years. At the initial meeting Goldstein said he advises the officers that they may experience flashbacks and nightmares, and he invites them back for voluntary counseling.
Pfc. Mike Michaelis, 33, who shot and killed a man in 1982 in Langley Park, said the impact of what happened did not hit him until the next day, when it was reported in the news. Even today he says, "I don't remember the recoil; I don't remember the sound."
The man he shot had assaulted a woman and was running away. "My partner and I chased him, he turned on my partner with a knife and I shot him," Michaelis said. Goldstein called that night to talk about it.
In further counseling, Michaelis said, Goldstein gave him support by reinforcing the notion that the officer had been protecting his partner. Michaelis said it was important that "an outsider was telling me it was okay."
That discussion, the officer said, also helped him talk to his partner, who was feeling guilty about the shooting.
With that dramatic demonstration that police work can become grave within moments, Michaelis said, he now takes his job much more seriously. He also has volunteered on several occasions to talk to police recruit classes about that shooting.
Spouse and child abuse is also a significant problem among officers, Goldstein said. In the past six weeks, department supervisors have reported five cases of spouse beating to his office, he said. The call for help is usually initiated by the battered wife, but sometimes by the officer's supervisor.