BUFFALO, N.Y. – Policing is dangerous work, and the danger
lurks not on the streets alone.
The pressures of law enforcement put officers at risk for high
blood pressure, insomnia, increased levels of destructive stress
hormones, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and
suicide, University at Buffalo researchers have found through a
decade of studies of police officers.
UB researchers now are carrying out one of the first large-scale
investigations on how the stress of police work affects an
officer's physical and mental health, funded by a $1.75 million
grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health
The National Institute of Justice added $750,000 to the study to
measure police officer fatigue and the impact of shift work on
health and performance.
John M. Violanti, Ph.D., research associate professor in UB's
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in the School of
Public Health and Health Professions, is principal researcher of
the study, called the Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police
Stress (BCOPS) study.
More than 400 police officers have participated in the study to
date, with the researchers aiming for 500. The clinical examination
involves questionnaires on lifestyle and psychological factors such
as depression and PTSD, in addition to measures of bone density and
body composition, ultrasounds of brachial and carotid arteries,
salivary cortisol samples and blood samples. The officers also wear
a small electronic device to measure the quantity and quality of
sleep throughout a typical police shift cycle.
Results from Violanti's pilot studies have shown, among other
findings, that officers over age 40 had a higher 10-year risk of a
coronary event compared to average national standards; 72 percent
of female officers and 43 percent of male officers, had
higher-than-recommended cholesterol levels; and police officers as
a group had higher-than-average pulse rates and diastolic blood
"Policing is a psychologically stressful work environment filled
with danger, high demands, ambiguity in work encounters, human
misery and exposure to death," said Violanti, a 23-year veteran of
the New York State Police. "We anticipate that data from this
research will lead to police-department-centered interventions to
reduce the risk of disease in this stressful occupation."
Violanti and colleagues are using measures of cortisol, known as
the "stress hormone," to determine if stress is associated with
physiological risk factors that can lead to serious health problems
such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
"When cortisol becomes dysregulated due to chronic stress, it
opens a person to disease," said Violanti. "The body becomes
physiologically unbalanced, organs are attacked, and the immune
system is compromised as well. It's unfortunate, but that's what
stress does to us."
The investigation's two most recent studies report on the effect
of shift work on stress and suicide risk in police officers, and on
male/female differences in stress and possible signs of
Results of the shift work pilot study, involving 115 randomly
selected officers, showed that suicidal thoughts were higher in
women working the day shift, and in men working the afternoon/night
shifts. The findings appear online in the October issue of the
American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Data showed that 23 percent of male and 25 percent of female
officers reported more suicidal thoughts than the general
population (13.5 percent). In a previous study, suicide rates were
three times higher in police than in other municipal workers,
The findings, that in women officers working day shifts were
more likely to be related to depression and suicide ideation, while
in men working the afternoon or night shift was related to PTSD and
depression, were surprising, said Violanti. "We thought both men
and women officers would be negatively affected by midnight
"It's possible women may feel more uneasy and stressed in a
daytime shift, where there can be more opportunity for conflict and
a negative environment," he said. "On the other hand, higher
suicide ideation reported by males on the midnight shift may be
accounted for in part by a stronger need to be part of the social
cohesiveness associated with peers in the police organization.
Working alone at night without the support of immediate backup can
be stressful," he said.
"There also is the problem of physiological disruption of
circadian rhythms. Being awake all night while one should be
sleeping can affect judgment and decision making. The combination
of these two has a double-barreled stress effect."
Violanti is planning to conduct a longitudinal study of the
effects of shift work on officers, and has received additional
funds from NIOSH to study the effects of shift work on cancer
The stress and blood vessel reactivity research found that
females had higher cortisol levels upon awakening, and that levels
remained high throughout the day. Normally, cortisol is highest in
the morning and decreases to a low point in the evening. These
constantly high cortisol levels were associated with less arterial
elasticity, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This study is
in press in Psychiatry Research.
Violanti said these findings, once again, reflect the impact of
police work on women officers. "Women police officers are probably
under more stress than male officers. It's still basically a male
occupation, and women can feel socially isolated on the job. Also,
most women have more home responsibilities to worry about –
family, child care."
Publishing papers and conducting studies about stress may not
change police departments overnight, Violanti admits, but it is one
way of getting the message out that the negative effects of stress
must be acknowledged, de-stigmatized and treated.
"Intervention is necessary to help officers deal with this
difficult and stressful occupation," he said. "We want to educate
them on how to survive 25 years of police work. They need to learn
how to relax, how to think differently about things they experience
as a cop. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth. People
can grow in a positive way and be better cops and persons after
they survive the trauma of police work. That is an important
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive
public university, a flagship institution in the State University
of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus.
UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests
through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional
degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a
member of the Association of American Universities. The School of
Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, School of Dental Medicine, School
of Nursing, School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and
School of Public Health and Health Professions are the five schools
that constitute UB's Academic Health Center.