Police face higher health risks: UBuffalo study

Oct 15, 2012

Due to the stressful nature of police work, law enforcement officers face higher risks of obesity, suicide, sleeplessness and cancer, according to a new study from a University at Buffalo professor who has a unique insight into the issue.

Toward the end of his two decades as a cop,  John Violanti earned his PhD while on the job. Now, he uses his expertise to study the impact of stress on modern day police .

Violanti says officers today face increased scrutiny from the public, are often filmed while on the job and face stronger firepower on the streets. These and other factors make it hard to unplug from the job.

But police work can also be overly routine and even boring, with a bevy of downtime and uneasy anticipation. All of this can add up to break down the mind and body, making it more susceptible to serious ailments, says Violanti.

While negative health effects associated with police work have been suspected through anecdotal evidence for decades, Violanti’s most recent study, titled “Buffalo Cardio-Metabolic Occupational Police Stress (BCOPS),” confirms it. Over the past five years, researchers interviewed more than 460 officers in western New York about their health.

The results are dramatic. Police officers were also more likely to be obese than the general population. Officers were four to six times more likely to have trouble sleeping because of stress. And those in law enforcement were also at increased risk of developing Hodgkin's lymphoma and brain cancer.

Results also showed officers are more likely to commit suicide or see declines in mental health.

“[You’re] always wondering if what you’re doing is right," says Violanti. "For example, having to make a life or death decision in a matter of split seconds when someone is coming at you with a knife or a gun or something like that. What do you do?”

Yet, Violanti says, seeking mental assistance may hinder a promotion or result in an officer’s gun being taken away. The social and professional environment of police work can also discourage officers from talking about mental issues.

University of Buffalo researchers hope that this study helps take away some of the stigma around seeking medical attention and encourages law enforcement officers to take better care of themselves.

“You’ve got to expect that the feelings of stress and trauma in bad situations is a perfectly normal response and doesn’t mean that you’re crazy and doesn’t mean you can’t handle things,” says Violanti. “It simply means you’re a normal human being.”

The study was recently published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

For more on this and other stories from the Innovation Trail, visit their website www.innovationtrail.org.

The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between six upstate New York public media outlets. The initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), helps the public gain a better understanding of the connection between technological breakthroughs and the revitalization of the upstate New York economy.