Metro Atlanta police grapple with mental health amid violence, stress and scrutiny
Every once in a while, after working long and sometimes grueling shifts, after getting yelled at and spat on and occasionally having plastic cups thrown at him, Officer Brian Vaughan feels so worn down that he wonders if being a cop is still worth it.
“I guess the answer, for now, is I’m still here,” the 13-year police veteran says with a thin smile. Vaughan works patrol at the Brookhaven Police Department. It’s past eight in the morning as he sits down at the agency’s Buford Highway headquarters, the quiet beginning of a 12-hour shift that can spin into a major crisis within seconds.
After several high-profile police killings of Black Americans by white officers in recent years, tensions reached a boiling point in the late spring of 2020, when George Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Cellphone images were broadcast to the world, waves of protests and riots swept the country, and anti-police sentiment soared. (Chauvin was soon fired and was later convicted of murder.)
Police departments have been forced to reckon with charges of systemic racism, with their values, training and hiring practices criticized. Officer resignations have spiked, and morale has plummeted.
Discussions about police violence and police reform, the rise in crime, the Chauvin trial – they’re important and necessary, says Vaughan. “It’s just that you’re inundated with it. It consumes you at work. It’s in conversations with friends and family. It’s everywhere.”
Last year’s events have left another mark. Early data suggest that burnout and depression are rising among police officers, says John Violanti, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Buffalo, and a leading expert on police stress. According to preliminary data that he and his research team collected, the rate of PTSD went up by about 30% from January 2020 to April 2021.
“I’m very concerned about our officers’ mental health,” he says.
Officers like 35-year-old Vaughan may be among the luckier ones. Besides his moments of frustration, Vaughan – strong build, dark uniform, and black sunglasses shoved into his short light hair – says he likes working for the Brookhaven PD. The 85-member police force, founded in 2013 shortly after the DeKalb County community officially became a city, is better funded than many other agencies in Georgia. Officers are better compensated, and turnover and resignation rates are lower.
In contrast, the Atlanta Police Department, which declined to be interviewed for this story, is about 400 officers short of its “authorized strength” of more than 2,000, according to the department’s latest filled vacancy report.
A University of Nebraska-Omaha and University of Utah study, currently under peer review, suggests that voluntary resignations in some larger police departments in the nation may have increased by 280%. While the study doesn’t examine the reasons why officers quit, researchers describe a general collapse of morale. Burnout probably “plays a significant part in the trend we’re seeing,” both as cause and effect, says Ian Adams, a political scientist at the University of Utah and one of the study’s co-authors.
Mental health screening
For law enforcement across the country, 2020 brought a set of compounding and shifting pressures. First, COVID-19 added the risk of serious infection to an already high-risk profession, says Dean Dabney, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University. “The pandemic changed policing significantly.”
The job doesn’t allow for social distancing, he continues. “Officers are literally face-to-face with the public.” In 2020, as the pandemic raged, more law enforcement officers died from COVID than from gun violence, car accidents and all other causes combined, according to data compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page and the National Police Foundation.
For metro Atlanta police, a critical moment came three weeks after Floyd’s death when white Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, an African American, after a DUI stop turned violent a year ago. Brooks had grabbed a police taser and fired at Rolfe while attempting to flee.
Rolfe was dismissed a day after the shooting and later charged with felony murder. He has since been reinstated by an oversight board because of questions about how he was dismissed. The murder case is still pending. (Recently a judge allowed Fulton County DA Fani Willis to recuse herself from the case, citing the conduct of Willis’ predecessor, Paul Howard. But it is still unclear who will be the new prosecutor and what the timeline is.)
Officers, in Atlanta and elsewhere, feel like police and city administrations often don’t have their backs, Dabney says. They fear losing their livelihood and freedom for doing their jobs, he says.
“We want better policing. And if we want better policing, we’re going to need healthier police officers.”Ian Adams, political scientist at the University of Utah
Only recently has there been a growing awareness “of the psychological dangers of being a police officer,” says Violanti. A 2019 study by the University of Texas at Dallas found that 26% of police officers screened positive for a mental health condition, such as burnout, anxiety, depression or PTSD.
Stress arises from the dangerous and unpredictable nature of police work. “Most officers see more accidents, more dead bodies, more ‘blood and guts’ in one single day than many people see in their lifetime,” says Gary Yandura, Brookhaven’s Chief of Police. “That takes a toll.”
Police develop what psychologists refer to as cumulative PTSD. While soldiers often experience post-traumatic stress from a single horrific event, PTSD in police officers tends to build up over time because of multiple stress-related incidents.
Then there are administrative demands – work hours, bureaucracy, supervision. Patrol officers typically work 10- to 12-hour shifts, alternating between day and night schedules. Many supplement their incomes by working off-duty gigs in security.
Between long hours, shift work and moonlighting, most officers are overworked and sleep-deprived, says Violanti, resulting in deep physical fatigue and emotional exhaustion, both major components of burnout. It affects their performance and decision-making, can fuel anger and irritability and lead to an increase in citizen complaints.
Another component of burnout, found at high levels among police officers, is depersonalization, says Violanti. Common signs are cynicism, indifference, and at times, what psychologists describe as a blunted or flat affect – when someone’s facial expression or body language suggests a reduced emotional response.
Violanti says when officers become depersonalized, “they also tend to depersonalize other people, treat them as objects instead of humans.” It often happens to officers who work in high-crime areas and experience trauma for prolonged periods, he adds. “They become jaded to feelings, and it takes away their empathy.”
There is also a known impact on physiological health, says Violanti. Law enforcement officers are more likely to be affected by cardiovascular disease than the general population, according to his research, as well as a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.
There are other grave consequences of officer burnout, like alcohol and drug abuse, says Brookhaven police chief Yandura. “And too many die from suicide.”
Police suicides have steadily risen in recent years. A record was set in 2019 when 238 officers took their lives, more than twice the number of those who died in the line of duty. That’s according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues in law enforcement.
“There was more of a ‘suck it up, buttercup’ type of attitude. You were supposed to deal with it and get on.”Brian Vaughan, Brookhaven police officer
Vaughan recently lost a friend and fellow cop to suicide. Other friends, all seasoned officers, decided to quit. “That’s been weighing on me,” he says, as he leans over and rests his arms on his knees.
He adds that in his career as a first responder – before joining the Brookhaven police he was a patrol officer at the Marietta Police Department and a firefighter – he’s experienced burnout symptoms. “Just feeling tired all the time, never getting enough sleep,” he says.
He admits there have been conflicts with his family – his wife, his 10-year-old son and his 5-year-old daughter. “When I get home, they want to go out and do things. And I just want to be closed off from society.”
Also, he and his colleagues “have to constantly be aware of the public perception and its possible impact,” he says. He recalls a recent situation where he responded to a shoplifting incident near Peachtree Road.
The suspect was armed and combative. When Vaughan finally detained the man in handcuffs, traffic on all five lanes had come to a halt, bystanders had gathered and were recording the incident with their cellphones.
“I’m all for video images,” Vaughan says. “But it often feels like people want to catch us doing something wrong.”
Situations like the one on Peachtree Road have a unique dynamic that can escalate in milliseconds, Vaughan explains. He was by himself, trying to control the suspect, the traffic, the pedestrians, while rapidly assessing the risk and notifying dispatch. That’s what he’s trained for, he says. But now he also has to keep other things in mind: “How does this look in the media? Am I going to be the next viral video?”
‘Too exhausted to talk’
Victoria Williams has witnessed how demoralizing the increased public scrutiny can be on officers’ morale and mindset. Williams, an African American woman with a cheerful demeanor, is a licensed professional counselor and one of four mental health professionals assigned to the Brookhaven Police Department through a partnership with Behavioral Health Link (BHL), a state contractor. She helps officers respond to calls where suspects are in a mental health crisis, which can range from psychosis to substance abuse to suicide threats.
Brookhaven was among the first police departments in Georgia to hire mental health professionals. Williams is part of a crisis intervention team created during the coronavirus pandemic.
She works with officers “who experience stress or feel mentally strained.” She conducts debriefings after potentially traumatizing situations like shootings and other violent encounters, but also encourages officers to just stop by for an informal – and confidential – chat.
In the past couple of months, some of those chats were longer than normal, she says. They revolved around work, the growing public animosity, and also the officers’ private lives and their concern about COVID.
Williams noticed a lot of fatigue and frustration, but also resilience.
At other metro Atlanta police departments where she worked during the pandemic, she didn’t see some officers for weeks, she says. Staff has been stretched thin. For a while, a good number of officers were out sick with the coronavirus, and others resigned. The remaining officers had to work overtime, often 24-hour shifts.
“When I finally saw them weeks later, they were too exhausted to talk,” Williams recalls. “They just shut down.” She pauses, briefly listening to the cracking voices coming from her radio. “It was hard to watch.”
Williams also observed that many African American officers felt torn between their identity as a person of color and a police officer. “We had a lot of talks about that,” she says.
Talks that Police Lt. Abrem Ayana has not only encouraged, but also initiated. Ayana, 35, is the unit commander for Brookhaven’s criminal investigations division and oversees crisis intervention training.
“In the wake of the George Floyd killing we brought our African American officers in to have this conversation,” says Ayana, who is Black. “And we talked about our own experiences with the police prior to being in law enforcement.”
He also had conversations with his white colleagues about poverty, crime, history and trust. With 22% of officers being African American and 17% Hispanic, Brookhaven’s police force is among the more diverse in Georgia.
Ayana, who worked patrol until recently, says he can relate to both sides. “I get the anger and the angst that’s been out there” in the African American community, says the Atlanta native. As an officer, he also understands the job that police are doing. “I know my role.” And he adds that personally, “I never had a negative experience with police.”
He, like Vaughan, has experienced a rise in animosity toward police. Sometimes it helps to strike up a frank conversation with citizens about race and policing, he says. He also sees it as part of his responsibility as a public servant to maintain his mental health.
“Because if you don’t, it can become destructive,” he says. Dwelling in the belief “that everybody hates you is a hazardous attitude, it’s poisonous, it can lead to outbursts and ultimately cost you your job.”
Stigma of mental health
Police agencies and criminal justice experts have long looked into options to better support officers’ mental health and wellbeing. Employment Assistance Programs, or EAPs, designed to provide officers with mental health counseling and occupational stress management, have been around for decades, but never seemed to work well for law enforcement, says Violanti.
Counselors like Williams, who are embedded in specific departments, get to know individual officers over time. Police chaplains are another resource to support officers’ mental and spiritual well-being by offering a listening and confidential ear.
However, most police officers prefer to speak with one of their own, “because people outside of law enforcement often don’t understand what their job is like,” says Williams. That’s why most police departments have some sort of peer-to-peer support program with specially trained peer counselors.
Experts like Violanti have found that the so-called “cop culture” – where showing vulnerability is considered a sign of weakness – stands in the way of true mental and emotional self-care, and the stigma around mental health, even though it’s getting weaker, is still out there.
“Officers are hard to crack,” Williams says, adding that there have been pilot projects offering meditation, mindfulness and yoga at police departments, but overall, she’s found that “those are a tough sell.”
Vaughan believes it’s also a generational thing. “When I came on to the force in 2008, there was more of a ‘suck it up, buttercup’ type of attitude. You were supposed to deal with it and get on.” Newer officers are more open to mental health awareness and emotional well-being, he says.
Regardless of age, many officers are also wary about addressing their mental health struggles because they fear that it could be used against them, adds Ayana. “As police officers, that gun and badge are how we identify.” If a supervisor takes the gun and badge away and sends the officer to a psychiatrist, “they take your identity and along with it, the means to provide.”
That’s why Ayana chooses to address mental health openly and proactively. He talks about his own challenges and tells his team about the benefits of counseling.
“I talk to a therapist myself,” he says. “It really helps me prioritize and put things into perspective in my personal and my professional life.”
Violanti agrees that breaking the stigma of mental health in law enforcement is primarily a leadership issue. Right now, he says, future officers at the academy learn how to shoot and how to drive, and they learn about the laws. “But what about psychological survival? A two-hour course in stress management won’t do it.”
Criminal justice professor Dabney says that some aspects of police reform that are currently being discussed may have a de-stressing effect. “We’ve known for years that among the most stressful calls for police are those surrounding mental health, addiction, homelessness, or domestic and youth violence,” he says.
In the future, under some reform proposals, social workers and mental health professionals should act as primary responders to these types of calls, while police should play a support role.
“That would take a lot of pressure off the officers’ plate and could have a significant impact in reducing police stress,” Dabney expects.
While police reform may be a highly contested political issue, all sides seem to agree at least on one goal, says law enforcement researcher Adams. “We want better policing. And if we want better policing, we’re going to need healthier police officers.”
Meanwhile, Brookhaven PD officers are grateful for gestures of support from the community, whether they consist of food and water deliveries or “thank you” cards. But it’s the small personal interactions that can make the biggest difference to an officer’s mindset, says Vaughan.
As he drove through town in his squad car one recent morning and stopped at an intersection, he looked around and noticed everyone staring at him, expressionless.
“Just one person smiling or waving would change my whole outlook on the day,” he says.
Katja Ridderbusch is an Atlanta-based journalist who reports for news organizations in the U.S. and her native Germany. Her stories have appeared in Kaiser Health News, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today and several NPR affiliates.