BUFFALO, N.Y. — The public does not realize — in
fact, police themselves may not realize — that the dangers
police officers are exposed to on a daily basis are far worse than
anything on “Law and Order.”
“Police officers are exposed to danger from so many
different elements — many of them unexpected — that
they are dying not just on the job, but for the job,” says
University at Buffalo epidemiologist John Violanti, PhD, an expert
on police culture, psychological stress, illness and mortality.
And they are dying younger than the rest of us. A previous
Violanti study found that on average, the life expectancy of police
officers was significantly lower than the U.S. male population
— a result, he suggests, of the exceptionally high and
protracted degree of job-related stress.
In Violanti’s latest book, “Dying for the Job:
Police Work Exposure and Health” (Charles C. Thomas Pub. Ltd,
2014), he and several other authors from the National Institute of
Occupational Health and Safety, Centers for Disease Control,
explore these unusual health risks.
It’s not a pretty picture.
Violanti begins by considering the alarming number of
environmental hazards to which police officers are exposed, things
such as clandestine methamphetamine labs, dead bodies, lead
exposure from firearms, noise, radar, blood-borne pathogens, even
fingerprint powder, which has produced occupational lung
“These threats are compounded by the high levels of job
stress in police work,” he says, “which manifest as
higher-than-average rates of anxiety, obesity, PTSD, high blood
pressure, metabolic disorder, cardiovascular disease and
“I think that the police themselves, their families and
the communities they serve should have a better understanding of
the information presented here,” Violanti says.
“They should be aware of the hidden risks of this job. The
hours are long, the pay is frequently low and a range of stressors
provoke physical and psychological damage that can be severe. The
police themselves, along with the public, are paying for that
damage and should be aware of programs and practices that can
alleviate and even prevent the consequences described
A research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and
Environmental Health in the UB School of Public Health and Health
Professions, Violanti is an internationally recognized scholar who
has published extensively on police culture, stress, working
conditions and health. He worked for the New York State Police for
23 years as a trooper, criminal investigator and, later, as a
coordinator of the state police’s Psychological Assistance
Here he contributes to several chapters on such issues as
sources of stress in police work and how police health is measured.
He and fellow authors compare police work with other occupations
using such variables as smoking and depression, sleep deprivation,
obesity, hypertension and metabolic syndrome, and more.
The figures are disturbing.
They point out, too, that police subgroups distinguished by
gender, ethnicity and military experience are at even greater risk
of ill health than their peers.
One chapter looks at the high level of cancer incidence and
mortality among police officers, and the role occupational stress
may play in the development of cancer. In another, Franklin H.
Zimmerman, MD, senior attending cardiologist and director of
critical care at Phelps Memorial Hospital in New York’s
Westchester County, discusses the growing risk of cardiovascular
disease among police.
Zimmerman says it is worth noting that most fatal heart attacks
among police strike at younger ages than they do in the general
Also included in the book are the health consequences of shift
work in policing, stressors and associated health effects for women
police officers, police suicide as an outcome of psychological work
exposures, vulnerability to work-related post-traumatic stress,
PTSD symptoms, psychobiology and coexisting disorders in police
officers. There is also an evaluation of several methods used to
treat trauma in law enforcement.
Violanti has been involved in the design, implementation and
analysis of police stress and health studies for 30 years. Recent
projects include a longitudinal study funded by the National
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health on psychological stress
and cardiovascular disease among police officers.
He is the author of more than 50 peer-reviewed articles on the
issues discussed in the book, and has written or edited 15 books on
these topics. He lectures nationally and internationally at
academic institutions and law enforcement agencies on issues of
work-related stress, trauma and suicide.