column: Comparing on-the-job stress requires certain level of perspective
Photo courtesy of the Michigan State Police
I had to laugh. He had no more idea what I did than I had of what an electronic engineer or nuclear physicist involves.
I started to think about it, and took his perspective. He has been a patrol officer for the past 20-some years in Ann Arbor and has never worked as a detective. I remembered when I was a young patrolman.
At the time I wondered why the guys who transferred off the road got so different after they were detectives. Those detectives would not stop to talk and joke like they used to when they were patrol officers.
Patrol officers have plenty of stress, and their stress can be life and death at times. Taking the wrong turn on an emergency call can mean the difference between saving the choking infant, helping someone who is being assaulted, catching a criminal or not.
Unless you have been a patrol officer, ridden with one, or have a family member involved in law enforcement, it is difficult to imagine the level of ambiguity and uncertainty that officers deal with each day on their calls for service and traffic stops.
Things are seldom as black and white, right or wrong, legal or illegal in the infinite combinations of circumstances and predicaments that humans find themselves. There is no easy “cookbook” on how to handle each and every police case, because they are all different in some way. Great cops can think on their feet and function quite well in the “gray” area of human existence.
Professional police officer must use their knowledge of criminal law, experience, intuition based on experience and people skills to solve the problems placed before them.
Police work also is unique because the majority of the most important, immediately time-sensitive, potentially costly decisions in police departments are made by the employees with the lowest “rank.” The men and women on the front line of law enforcement—police officers, deputies, troopers or agents—make more decisions in a day than the chief of that organization.
A chief executive can shape the decisions made by officers, but first responders arguably are given more rights and authority than a United States Supreme Court Justice. A police officer, by law and faced with certain circumstances, is given the right and assigned the duty to take a human life immediately and without trial.
That decision made in the blink of an eye — an eighth of a second in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios — can mean the officer’s life, a citizen’s life or giving up everything that officer owns for a bad shooting decision.
All of this obviously can be stressful for a first responder. However at the end of a shift, a patrol officer goes home and he is done. Detectives, who were all once patrol officers, call it “eight and skate.”
A detective’s work is done when they turn in their badge and retire or are promoted back to patrol or another assignment outside of the Detective Bureau. There always is something more a detective can do on an investigation.
There are victims, witnesses, neighbors and suspects to interview. There is evidence to photograph, collect, interpret and perhaps send to the lab. There are search warrants to write, swear to, serve and return to the courts. There are reams of reports to collect and bundle in a package for a prosecutor to review.
If the detective has done his or her job, the prosecutor authorizes the warrant. The detective swears to it in front of a judge and a warrant is issued for a suspect. Either the detective arrests then, or arrests the suspect based on the warrant.
At that point, the case is closed and solved, and not counted on a detectives caseload — and the grunt work of a detective job begins. That prelude to getting the warrant was the “fun” work, now comes the hard labor-intensive and detail-oriented work of shepherding the case through the criminal justice system.
At any time, the whim of a suspect who jumps bail or an attorney who wants to delay a case can set a detective back. Changes in court dates so easily made by judges or attorneys force the detective to recontact everyone from victims, witnesses, officers and experts — most of which would rather not have to go to court.
In the meantime, new cases keep coming in every day.
Time management is a very important skill a detective must possess, but so many times things come up in a detective’s day that negate any schedule the detective had set for themselves.
It could be a major incident where all detectives are called to the scene.
It could be the detective sergeant informing the detective there are arrestees in jail who must be arraigned that day. That means there are reports to gather, perhaps interviews and evidence collection that must be done before the case goes to the prosecutor. The detective is on the clock and that case has to be made, submitted to the prosecutor for authorization, and sworn before a judge before the arrestee is arraigned in the early afternoon. Failure to meet the deadline means the crook goes free.
Perhaps detectives do not have the day-to-day officer safety stress incumbent with patrol work, but it does rear its head on occasion when knocking on doors of cranky people or serving search or arrest warrants.
A detective sergeant’s stress comes from organizing and assigning cases to a squad of detectives to make sure everything gets done. The detective sergeant must make sure every morning that no one went to jail that he does not know about—for the above reasons.
The detective sergeant also must know everything that went on in the last 24 hours. If something of substance happened, he better make sure his bosses, up to the chief, know about it. Higher command might be asked a question by the mayor, council or a random citizen. The bosses have to be able to intelligently answer.
In regard to job stress however, that stress is relative. Does a patrol officer or detective have the stress of the President, combat soldiers on the front line, doctors, lawyers, bakers, plumbers, carpenters or students? No.
No matter what you do, there will be stress. One can compare their own personal levels of stress, but should never assume they have a clue how much stress another person is under. To do so shows ignorance, lack of imagination and a rather narrow perspective.
My advice for you to enjoy a relatively stress-free day — find a job you enjoy, and you will much more effectively deal with stress it brings.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.