Police Dreams

Why Are Officers' Dreams Mostly Bad and Often Stressful?

DreamsImage: Getty Images

If you have a dog or cat, no doubt you've watched them sleep on the couch next to you and twitch as they appear to dream. We're guessing, as their legs, paws, and eyelids flutter, that they are chasing rabbits or mice in a rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep state that we duplicate ourselves every night in our own beds.

"I remember my first dream where my gun just didn't fire as it should. All my rounds fell short of the suspect who had pulled his gun and was firing at me. This was probably two years after the Academy. I was 33 years old at the time and had some great life experience before being a rookie. I worked through the thoughts and second-guessing in my dream and never shared the dream with anyone.

"I've had variations of that same dream over 25 times during my 20-year career. Each time, the same sort of 'bad gun' or malfunction occurs and almost every time the suspect starts to get the jump on me as I struggle to fix the problem, but before I am shot and killed, I wake up. There was no set pattern for my dream; it was very random for me. But it was always the same sort of malfunction, where my rounds just fell short in mid-flight or the round just came out of the barrel so weak it was obvious they were not making it to the target suspect. I never knew that was a dream that others had."

These are very common themes for police officers' dreams: our guns don't work; the bullets fall out, don't fire, move in slow motion, or miss the target, even at close range; the gun barrel bends (like an impotent penis, which is disturbingly emasculating for men); or the bullets hit the bad guy but have no effect. The bad guy laughs at us, or keeps attacking, or disarms us, or runs away, and when we try to chase him, our feet feel like lead or like they are encased in cement.

"Towards the end of my career as a supervisor, I had dreams of my guys getting shot while I was being held back by an unknown force. I was a sergeant and was getting pressure to discipline a cop for excessive force even though he was within policy. I also had the dreams of bullets not penetrating the target or just dropping out of the barrel."

You're Not Alone

Sound familiar? You aren't alone. In 35 years of being in or around law enforcement and writing about police issues, this is one that hits closest to home for many cops. And the reality of police dreams is we all have them, in various degrees of intensity, but we rarely talk about them with our peers or families. Many of the current and former officers I reached out to about their police-related dreams told me they were relieved to hear others had visions of the same scenarios. "I thought I was crazy; I thought I was the only one; I never told anyone, even my partners, about them" were common themes.

According to the two psychologists I interviewed for this article, the creation of these dreams starts with the anxiety that gets built into us about being killed while doing this job, from the Academy forward. It's all about feeling anxious about your pending performance in the field and asking yourself, "Will I have the right stuff to do the job?" Even though we have been successful many times before, our mind puts us into this worry state. We don't think about these things when we're awake, because we are being good at our jobs. It's only at night where the doubts creep in.

Our dreams are just a collection of weird, unrelated stuff that we gather while we are awake and it gets dumped out as we sleep, into our dreams as unconnected, odd, discouraging, and too many times repetitive field problems. Sometimes we only get peace from these dreams when we retire or leave law enforcement. Other times they just fade away over time.

Fear of Failure

The dreams about finding dead people or responding to suicides or fatal accidents don't often dominate police dreams. Even cops who have been involved in shootings and other traumatizing critical incidents tend not to dream about those events on a repetitive basis over long spans of time. The fear of failure, of not having the equipment or it won't work, are much more common. I'm amazed and not amazed by how many current and former cops have the same dreams. It's normal and healthy (because it reminds us to be vigilant and continue to train for officer safety and survival), but that doesn't make them easier to understand.

"My police dreams are almost never about being tactically unprepared; those are rare. Mine are always about being unprepared to go to work. I'm in the police station and everyone around me is busy getting ready to go out in the field or working at their desks. I'm in my uniform but I can't find the lineup room. I have this horrible feeling I'm going to be late for lineup or miss it.

"A variation of that theme is that I'm in the locker room and everyone is getting dressed and putting on their gear but me. I'm standing there and I can't find my locker. I know it's in the room but I just don't know which one it is. If I do find it, I can't remember my locker combination. I just stare and stare at it while the room empties of cops and I'm left alone. And a variation on that one is that I'm wearing the wrong uniform. In my career, we switched from khaki uniforms to blue. In my dream, I'm wearing the old tans and everyone else is in blue and I feel really anxious as to why I'm wearing the wrong colored clothes and I'm expected to go into the field."

For help with all this, I turned to David M. Eisenberg, Ph.D., LCSW, a retired sergeant from the Chula Vista (CA) Police Department and a longtime counselor and licensed clinician who has provided services to both police officers and military veterans. He is currently a psychotherapist for Lancaster General Health in Pennsylvania.

While many cops talk about their fears connected to these dreams, Dr. Eisenberg says it's really more about anxiety. "Fear is different than anxiety. Human beings are wired for anxiety as being normal; it's what keeps us safe. There is a foundational anxiety that cops live with. We manage those anxieties with our officer safety training and experience and by being successful in our jobs. If you have dreams about not having your equipment or it fails on you, it's because your equipment is associated with your safety and if it fails or isn't there, it's equal to you not being safe.

"We rise to fear because we believe we are not being capable. But it's really about the anxiety that gets built into us in our training, to be told we could be killed at any moment, to remain hypervigilant at all times. We use our officer safety as a training tool for managing our anxiety. Police work is about the potential for immediate problems. We are always vigilant for those possibilities. That doesn't go away when we sleep."

As cops, we like the structure, discipline, and order of our paramilitary profession. Our police–related dreams seem unstructured, outlandish, and disordered. Dr. Eisenberg says, "There are multiple origins to our dreams. Not all of that content has meaning. Some of it is just `psychological litter.' It doesn't have meaning; it just presents itself in our unconscious."

Understanding Your Dreams

I also spoke with Dr. Manny Tau, Psy.D., a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist based in Orange County, CA. Dr. Tau says the fears and anxieties police officers have about their equipment not working is similar to civilians who dream about falling from high places or their legs not working when they need to run away. "Our biggest fear as humans is annihilation, being completely destroyed, which is worse than death. We all fear loss of control, and fear of being found out that at the moment of truth, we won't be up to the task." Our dreams are emotionally charged symbolism, so for officers to dream that their guns, a powerful symbol of their authority, aren't available or don't work, is disconcerting, to say the least.

"After I retired, I had a lot of dreams where I was in the field or in the station in uniform but I didn't have my badge. I would wander around like a lost soul asking other cops if they had seen my badge. It was like once I left I felt disconnected from the job and one of the biggest symbols of my authority was missing. I had several versions of the dream where I was working in patrol and would say to myself, `I'll just cover my uniform with my police jacket and no one will know I'm not wearing my badge.' Those were disturbing because I felt like a phony. I had worked all those years and felt like I didn't belong anymore."

Dr. Tau echoes Dr. Eisenberg when he says, "Dreams are the `day's residue.' They actually help us discharge our anxieties," even though it doesn't feel that way at the time. "Our good dreams tend to be soothing," he says, "which is why we don't remember them as well as the bad ones. Dreams have no timeline. Time is distorted, so what seems like it takes place over many hours in our dreams may actually only be a few minutes."

While most police dreams don't end in the death of the officers, some do:

"In 2000 I got rear-ended while on my police motor, which got me two surgeries on my left shoulder and memory loss. I had a recurring dream since that crash until about a year after I retired. I dreamed that I got hit and killed on my police motor. I went through a vehicle's windshield. It would switch to the funeral. I would see the motorcade and the funeral service.

"On the day I retired, the tradition with the motor unit is they motorcade the officer home on his/her last day, if they want it. I was excited because it was my last day but I was also extremely nervous because of the recurring dream. It was a big relief when I arrived home without any problems. I kept having the dream for about a year after retirement. Even though that particular dream started in 2000 and ended sometime in 2015, I didn't hold back doing my job. I did the job to the best of my ability, not letting the fear the dream produced overcome me and not paralyze my decision-making process."

Dr. Tau encourages officers having frustrating police dreams to use a common therapeutic tool and start a dream diary. Keep a pad and pen by your bed and once you wake up from having a police-related dream, write down what you remember. Try this for a month and then look at your results. What kind of patterns and themes do you see? You don't need to interpret what you have written, just see what it's saying to you. "Maybe your dreams are telling you to be more careful," he says. "This process is what I call 'gathering intelligence on yourself.'"

The end result of this process, Dr. Tau says, should lead you to decide if you would benefit from meeting with a licensed clinician trained in trauma therapy to discuss the potential meaning of your dreams in a safe setting.

After decades of providing therapeutic help to law enforcement members, Dr. Eisenberg has his own wish list for better emotional support for cops: mandated, required debriefings for everyone involved in a critical incident; easy and confidential access to Employee Assistance Program providers, who are already known to the agency and its members as being a trusted resource; and knowing how and why and when to take a real break from the job.

This last one is all about learning how to turn off your hypervigilance, by taking your vacation and mental health days, and by being able to go to a "safe place" in your head that doesn't just involve hanging out with your cop buddies and drinking beer on your days off. It's about making a real commitment to "rebooting the mechanism" that is your brain and getting back to a place where you feel confident in your abilities and continually motivated to do your job.

Dr. Tau says, "The professional guardians in our world need to have two things: robustness and resiliency. Being robust means you can adapt to change; you can take a punch. Being resilient means you can adapt to adversity and get off the mat if you have been punched."

"I left the PD 20 years ago, but for like five years, I was plagued with recurring dreams. They were quite vivid too. Most frequently I dreamt I would be doing something routine, like a traffic stop, taking a report, or standing at a post. I would instinctively go to rest my forearm on the butt of my gun, and discover an empty holster. My immediate response was, `Oh crap, where's my gun?' My heart would race. I would retrace my steps, drastically trying to control my inner panic. I was also concerned that I would receive an urgent call while searching for my weapon and wonder, `How would I or could I respond?'

"My other frequent dream was equally as scary. I would be in a shootout (sometimes on duty, sometimes off-duty) and when I fired my weapon the bullets became rubber and fell to the ground before hitting the target. I would fire over and over again, with the same results. Sometimes the suspect would charge me, and I would fight him off, striking him with all my might, using the hard metal of my weapon to hurt him. Other times the suspect would laugh and run away. I know I'm not alone with these dreams. I'm happy to say I haven't had them in years. But understanding them would be a blessing."

Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. His 21 books include Albrecht on Guns; Albrecht and Farrow on Guns; Patrol Cop, Contact and Cover, and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. He can be reached at DrSteve@DrSteveAlbrecht.com.

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