Slaying the "Monsters" of Police Work

Posted on 04/04/2018

By Police Chief Robby Russo

It’s become widely publicized how difficult it is to find new police officers. Much can be attributed to retirement changes, poor pay and a general public perception about the job. But there is another factor: “stress.” Whenever I introduce a new officer to the City Council I note that the man or woman entering the profession is not the same who returns at the journey’s end. 

Cops are a unique breed. People often ask me what made me want to be a police officer; the answer is “it chose me.” Being a police officer truly is a “calling” and not just a job. Then it turns from a job into a lifestyle. A good honorable job, but it has pitfalls.

One of the most common and perhaps damaging aspects is finding that once close relationships with friends and family may fade. Sometimes that’s a natural thing and other times there is simply a lack of understanding of what stresses a cop endures in their day-to-day routines.

While my friend or neighbor grabs their Montblanc and briefcase for work, I clutch a gun and ballistic vest. People die every day. Accidents happen every day. But rarely do you get a front-row seat to despair and are tasked with removing a mangled body from a wreck, or the more daunting task of delivering the news to the family. Being a police officer requires preparation for tragedy, in which daily and year after year a scar tissue builds up. We keep reinforcing the importance of families because often, they are the only ones who keep the glue holding.

We train and warn police officers about how the job will affect them. The cynicism and distrust cannot be left at the department. The police experience will change them on duty and off duty. They will not sit with their backs to doors or people; they will often not carry on a conversation by looking someone in the eye because they are looking at every person coming and going. They may be overthinking that the guy in the line ahead of you at the grocery store probably has warrants and is paying with a fraudulent credit card he just stole out of a mailbox while driving drunk. It is very rare for people to call the police when everything is going well. Instead, the police arrive when dad hits mom. Still, despite this dark reality, nothing is more satisfying than helping good people navigate through the worst day of their life.

Officers are held to a higher standard, as we should be, and in Cottonwood Heights we have a standard of conduct that governs even off-duty behavior. Violations of that standard can result in disciplinary action or termination. Officers are constantly aware of scrutiny waiting around every corner, yet must courageously continue to go places no one else is willing to go and do things no one else is willing to do. That journey is a rollercoaster. Officers may be issuing a speeding ticket and then find themselves in a high-speed chase or administering Narcan to an overdose patient. More scar tissue.

Most officers I’ve known have served and bettered their communities. We mandate counseling sessions after tragic events, warn them about too much alcohol, encourage faith and force them to take vacations. Nevertheless, many suffer from substance abuse, PTSD, failed marriages and suicide.

I have a good friend who served his community with honor and distinction for many years who has decided to retire. He describes the feeling as an “internal monster who eats a hole in your soul.” I suppose that is somewhat accurate. He’s decided next month to start at the Mexican Border and begin walking north until he finds Canada. His strategy is that some of the demons will get tired of walking and leave him on his journey. I wish him well!