John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about politics and urban affairs. He is senior editor of Spacing magazine.
After a Toronto cop peacefully arrested a man who allegedly killed almost a dozen people with a rented van last week, his superiors sent him off for a debriefing with a psychologist. They later reported to the media that Constable Ken Lam, though widely praised for his restraint, was feeling conflicted. He had endured a sleepless night and would likely experience flashbacks triggered by the conflicts that come up daily in policing.
The disclosure came from Toronto’s deputy police chief, who explained that he himself endured lingering trauma from an incident early in his career.
The unexpected sight of law enforcement officials talking openly about the psychological toll of their profession offers a clue about how a growing number of Canadian police services have opted to confront the emotional cost of a profession with especially high levels of corrosive stress, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and alcoholism.
Since 2015, more than 80,000 Canadian first-responders and supervisors — mostly cops, but also firefighters, paramedics and 911 operators — have been trained in a program called Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR), developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada based on a model developed by the Canadian Armed Forces.
Andrew Szeto, a University of Calgary psychologist studying the impact of the program, says the steadily rising numbers of Canadian cops availing themselves of such psychological support and training programs can be read, perhaps counter-intuitively, as evidence of increasingly healthy workplaces for first-responders.
The significance of this cultural shift poses important but elusive questions: What role does untreated mental illness play in police violence? And if law enforcement agencies can figure out how to shed their traditionally macho and insular culture in favor of a more open approach to the demands of policing, will we see fewer shootings, unprovoked assaults or garden-variety acts of intimidation by police.
It would be wrong to overestimate the potential of such programs. Extensive research shows that racial minorities are over-policed and disproportionately victimized. A 2016 Yale University study found that blacks and Hispanics were 50 percent more likely than whites to be the victims in non-lethal police use-of-force incidents.
In Canada, CBC News recently compiled a list of 461 deadly force incidents involving police between 2000 and 2017. The numbers show disproportionately high numbers of black and indigenous victims. Indeed, in cities as disparate as Ferguson, Mo., and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, past evidence of abuses indicate systemic, widely tolerated racism as a significant factor.
Yet a small but growing body of neurological research suggests that some first-responders involved in extremely stressful situations, such as domestic violence or active-shooter calls, may experience such severe physiological responses (e.g., adrenaline surges that cause spikes in heart rates and irregular breathing) that their perception of an incident becomes impaired.
These include tunnel vision, so-called auditory exclusion (i.e., reduced hearing) or exaggerated flight-or-fight reactions that cause seemingly ordinary encounters to abruptly escalate with lethal consequences. After even 15 or 20 minutes of extreme stress, says Michigan State University chair of family medicine Bengt Arnetz, “your ability for impulse control goes down dramatically.” Under such conditions, he adds, “the risk is that they don’t apply their [use of force] training.”
Arnetz is among a group of researchers now looking at developing new types of scenario-based training that teach first-responders how to control these kinds of physiological responses in the heat of the moment, especially with “diaphragmatic breathing,” which has been shown to counteract stress reactions such as cortisol surges.
In the trials Arnetz has conducted, participants are given biometric monitors that show how they are reducing their physiological stress levels with these methods. “We never use psychological terms because that’s not very well accepted,” Arnetz says.
In a 2015 study, University of Toronto psychologist Judith Andersen reported that a group of Swedish police officers trained to use these “resilience” techniques reported “significant and clinically relevant improvements” and reduced health-care claims. “What we do is condition people’s bodies to respond in different ways,” Andersen says.
The Road to Mental Readiness program, which has been rolled out in 16 communities across Canada, focuses on stigma reduction, resilience skills such as visualizing how to handle various situations in advance and, crucially, a new language for talking about day-to-day mental health issues, Szeto says.
Both front-line staff and supervisors are taught to use a simple four-color code — green, yellow, orange and red — that corresponds to the way someone is feeling on a given day. “It’s more straightforward and replaces stigma laden words like ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious,'” Szeto says. “It re-conceptualizes how we talk about mental illness as a continuum.”
Surveys of 4,700 R2MR program attendees show that participants have improved their resiliency skills and feel less stigma about discussing mental health with colleagues and supervisors and in peer-support groups.
Calgary Police chief Roger Chaffin says that in recent years, he has seen more officers making use of the department’s psychological services team, but he doesn’t see that as a negative. And from a deployment perspective, there’s a recognition among the Calgary Police Service brass that the impact of highly stressful calls can linger. “We don’t just force them back into work and hope they’ll get better,” he observes. “Do we pay enough attention to people before they’ve made terrible decisions?”
It’s a good question. In an era when a cellphone video of a single cop’s terrible decision can go viral and trigger angry protests, it would seem that figuring out how to defuse the side effects of a grinding profession couldn’t happen fast enough.