How PTSD Affects Military Veterans In Law Enforcement

Posted: August 28, 2017

Military veterans make perfect candidates for police departments. But how do you help those with existing PTSD?

By Dr. Allan Conkey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Civilian law enforcement is among the most sought-after careers for military veterans upon separation from the armed forces. This widely acknowledged trend helps explain why upwards of 20 percent of those working in law enforcement have military experience, compared to roughly 6 percent of society at large.

As a retired officer and a three-time military chief of police, I would be among the last to argue against the benefits of police agencies recruiting veterans. Many of the characteristics instilled in military veterans – such as discipline, integrity, responsibility, and the ability to make tough calls under pressure – also are qualities desired in police officers.

However, hiring military service members can bring along challenges.

PTSD from military service

Military veterans are known for having higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s estimated that upwards of 30 percent of Vietnam veterans and 10 to 20 percent of those who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars will suffer from PTSD in their lifetime, according to a report by Weichselbaum, Schwartzapfel, & Meagher.

However, PTSD from war combat isn’t restricted to retired military veterans—it also impacts officers who serve in the Reserves or the National Guard and find themselves deployed to a combat theater. During my 25-plus years of active military service—particularly post-9/11—my military police units were frequently augmented with Reserve troops.

Of those, many were full-time civilian law enforcement who, upon completion of their tour of duty, would return back to their civilian roles. Unfortunately for some of these officers, their time with the military left lasting emotional scars.

The impacts of PTSD on law enforcement

Dealing with war-related PTSD is a challenge for law enforcement agencies. Like military veterans, many police officers who bring the war home with them won’t talk about their experience and opt not to receive counselling or other treatment.

Although the stigma is changing, many still fear that coming forward will result in losing their job, being looked down upon, or somehow regarded as weak.

Around 7 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some form of PTSD. However, among law enforcement professionals, the rate of PTSD can be more than double that, with some estimating that it affects 19 percent of the police force, according to a 2014 study by McCanlies, Mnatsakanova, Andrew, Burchfiel, & Violanti.

That percentage brings police into a similar range as military veterans. Research by King’s College London identified that PTSD rates are as high as 29 percent among U.S. troops. Police officers who have, or are, currently serving in the military (via the Guard or Reserves) have even greater chances of suffering from PTSD. 

With those percentages in mind, in any medium- to large-size police department, it’s almost impossible not to have officers who suffer from PTSD.

The role of leadership

In order for officers to identify PTSD symptoms and receive treatment, there must be a change in the culture of law enforcement. Agencies must focus on improving the mental fitness of officers because there is no doubt that PTSD affects a large number of them.

Law enforcement leadership must acknowledge the impact PTSD-afflicted officers have on broader public service issues. While data on excessive use-of-force complaints is lacking (based on the majority of police departments choosing to withhold data) information collected by The Marshall Project showed that in the cities that did respond (such as Boston and Miami), there were more complaints against veterans than nonveterans.

Ultimately, PTSD and its impact on issues like officer suicide and excessive use of force are real life or death concerns. This highlights why providing mental health resources must be a priority for law enforcement leadership. It is essential that we support our officers both for their own wellbeing so they can continue to serve their communities.

About the Author: Dr. Allan Conkey is a retired officer and a decorated veteran of both the first and second Gulf Wars. His career has included being a criminal investigator, confinement officer, senior U.S. customs officer in Japan, and exchange officer with the Japanese National Police Forensics Laboratory in Northern Japan. As Commander of the Air Force’s Elite Guard, for two years he commanded plain-clothed security details in support of dozens of world leaders and heads of state to include President Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Kharzai. He is a three-time Military Chief of Police and member of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. In all, Dr. Conkey has more than 25 years of active service in the law enforcement and security realm. Today, a published author and faculty member for American Military University, Dr. Conkey teaches within the Criminal Justice Department, and holds the academic rank of Full Professor. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by American Military University.