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Handling Threats: "I'm Going to Kill You!"

Every cop has to deal with scumbags and their idle threats. But what do you do when the danger is real?

October 10, 2011  |  by Kristine Meldrum Denholm - Also by this author

She says one undercover narcotics detective told her, 'I don't want my kids to say what I thought should go on my dad's grave: 'This dad was a jackass.'" He wanted to learn how to be there for his kids, despite his fears.

Some of the other manifestations of the stress of serious long-term threats include: an inability to concentrate, a big startle response, short temper, irritability, being overly restrictive of family's movement, feeling like you are not getting sufficient support from your family, trouble sleeping, anxious dreams, overeating, inability to complete tasks, overreaction, being overly aggressive, and self-medicating with alcohol or prescription drugs.

Stress on Families

Thurston County Det. Haller praises his other half and admits how stress takes its toll: "My wife is awesome...She has lived this life with me. It breaks my heart; she is subject to threats as much as me." He says he's been in law enforcement so long, he doesn't have as much anxiety, more so his family. "If I'm threatened, I go after the threat. I don't run away. I get the guy, put him in prison as long as possible, and hope he only comes out in a pine box."

But in the end, like the Cleveland officer, he doesn't "lose sleep over it."

McEntire believes families-as well as officers-deal with a loss of control, extreme fear, a distrust of people, and a loss of privacy.

"Your family is automatically swayed into believing evil is just around the corner," McEntire explains. He and his wife evaluated the threat together and devised a personal safety plan. They also tried to not let it disrupt their everyday habits.

Yet it did. McEntire says at one point his wife did not want to let their children out of her sight. Though they tried to keep the threats hidden from their children, their daughter even picked up on cues. He hadn't realized it until years later when, after a relocation, their daughter asked him, "Daddy, are the bad guys coming to get us?"

He warns the loss of privacy is unsettling. "When pictures of your home and face are suddenly published on the Internet, you and your family will experience outrage first, followed by fear. It is disturbing to know you are being watched...It will again raise the feeling of distrust toward others and build a wall of separation from others outside the family circle," McEntire says. "It will make you angry and you'll want to lash out at the SOBs who did it. You'll have that infamous idea cross your mind regarding driving over there, kicking his butt, and making him regret he ever knew you."

But don't. "Take time to breathe, put it into perspective, accept it, and learn to deal with it.... Remember to not let them win and do something crazy costing you your career," McEntire advises.

Handling the Stress

"Officers are exposed to more cruelty than most of us. Balance the negativity with positive things," advises Kirschman. Keep your job in perspective. Work is infinite, time is finite, she says.

"We had a rule in our home," says Norma Williams. "I told him, 'The minute you cross over that threshold, I outrank you.' So he left it at the door."

It's about managing anxiety in the face of threats, adds Dr. Suzanne Best, a Portland, Ore.-based psychologist specializing in trauma and duty-related stress. "I say to people, what are the odds this person will follow through with the threats? What percentage? Is it 10 percent, 15 percent, or 50 percent? They rarely say anything is more than 10 percent, so I say, there's a 90 percent chance that nothing bad is going to happen.

"And what's the chance you'll get in an accident someday?" Best adds. "They begin to see they've been anxious about the worst-case scenario. What purpose is it serving for you to ruminate about it? They say they're going through tactical maneuvers, and I say, 'How long have you been practicing them?' And it turns out they've done them daily for six months, which causes more stress."

In the midst of a drawn-out situation, self-care is important, Best reminds clients. "Relaxation, health care, getting the most sleep you can, exercise, and pay attention...Have someone to talk to." While she suggests talking to a therapist because of confidentiality, a pastoral counselor or a brother-in-law might help: anyone who can say, "You're having a reaction to an incredibly stressful situation." The officer needs validation.

Best appeals to logic and common sense, but threats often trump such rationality and the fear persists. The killer of Norma Williams' husband and his conspirators were convicted and remain incarcerated, but she remains vigilant.

Whenever in the Walmart parking lot, she still makes note of the cars next to and behind her car. "I give it a cursory check to make sure," she says. "I look under the car without bending down. Threats change your whole outlook," she adds.

Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance journalist who covers psychology, family, and law enforcement. Her POLICE Magazine article "Chasing Ghosts" on the Civil Rights-era murder of an African-American deputy won Best Feature at the 2010 Western Publishing Awards.

Dos and Don'ts of Handling Threats

Do:

  • Deal with the practical first: what are you doing to protect yourself, your home, and your family?
  • Realize your emotions are valid; it's normal to have anxiety to a threat.
  • Keep your job in perspective.
  • Monitor how over involved you are in your job.
  • Have two sets of interpersonal skills: one for home; one  for work.
  • Leave everything in the locker room.
  • Discuss the threat with your partner. Couples should decide what they need to reveal to each other.
  • Keep non-law enforcement friends. Involve yourself with other positive people.
  • Think of something you're grateful for; then thank someone for it.
  • Believe and understand that you can only do what you can do. You can't control everybody and everything.
  • Talk to peer support teams; make use of chaplains.
  • If it's a past threat you're still reliving and can't get off your mind, seek treatment for PTSD.

Don't:

  • Sacrifice your family for your job. If you can't slow down enough to be present for your family, you are creating more suffering.
  • Let things eat up your whole life.
  • Have a whole range of emotions on the job.
  • Just associate with other law enforcement officers.
  • Get into "I'm the cop, I'll decide what to do here," with your family. Hear your family's voices.

Source: Dr. Ellen Kirschman, psychologist who has worked with federal, state, and local officers for 30 years.

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Tags: Officer Safety, LAPD, Cops Killers, Officer Psychology


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Morning Eagle @ 10/14/2011 12:03 AM

Good article on a subject that affects most every officer to some degree even though it may not always involve direct threats. Just doing the job every day exposes one to threatening or traumatic situations that can take a toll over the years if one allows it to. Admittedly it is sometimes difficult not allow it to when the type of lying scumbags one continually deals with are considered. Threats in today's world of drugs, huge amounts of illicit money, and illegal firearms cannot simply be ignored.

Alan @ 10/17/2011 6:49 AM

Had a suspects brother call the county clerk who gave him my home address and corrected the spelling he had for my name. Rather than offer to black list officers information the County Clerk has said they are unable to restrict our private information.

Katherine Gotthardt @ 10/28/2011 1:00 PM

WOW. Really puts things in perspective. You always hear about how high stress law enforcement is, but this article is so specific, it reveals something most of us civilians don't consider. Many of these cops are really military figures fighting a war on our soils, but they aren't treated that way, which means they don't get the emotional or resource support they need.

Ahmir @ 12/15/2011 10:36 PM

The County clerk gave out law enforcement information? What! I'd file a complaint Attorney General's office for the state. That is ridiculous, that presents a major risk to those in our profession. That is inappropriate and unacceptable. I'm heated just thinking about if that happened to me. That shows that they don't give a damn about officer safety.

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