Cochise County Sheriff’s Office
One night after responding to another death call, my wife asked me, “How was it?” My reply was almost so automatic that it startled me: “I’ve seen worse.” I wondered where that quick reply had come from.
In my service as the volunteer chaplain for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, I have developed relationships with the deputies during ride-alongs, meeting them at stations, being with them on training days and responding to requests for chaplain presence on a call. When I spoke with a deputy after a tough call, I would ask how they were doing. I soon learned that the typical or usual answer almost every time was, “I’ve seen worse,” or “I’m OK.”
With the first answer, at times, they have undoubtedly seen worse, and in the second, they are OK, but that isn’t the whole story. I came to realize that I had begun to deal with the realities and challenges of law enforcement in the same way as the deputies. It was after my reply to my wife’s question that I began to research and think about cumulative career stress.
Cumulative career stress is a reality and a significant issue that all deputies have to deal with as part of the job. This is stress that accumulates from repeated exposure to the daily demands of law enforcement. The build-up of stress can be a very subtle and slow process, but it does happen. Studies have shown that this stress is generally not recognized as an issue and that it can be easily ignored, so deputies choose to do nothing about it. In Jonathan Hickory’s book Break Every Chain, a retired police officer from the Albemarle County Police in Virginia details very candidly about the job stresses that led him to alcoholism, severe marriage and family issues, conduct issues that put his job in jeopardy and the verge of suicide. Getting to this point can be a result of not recognizing the issue of cumulative career stress and so doing nothing about it. He said that “Acknowledging the pain would only alienate me from the rest of the people in the room and crack open the door where self-pity entered. I’d learned to keep it shut.”
I served as a U.S. Army chaplain for 26 years and started to provide volunteer chaplain coverage for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in 2019 as a member of the Sheriff’s Assist Team. From my Army experience, I have coined the term “the emotional rucksack” to describe the cumulative career stress that deputies experience.
For as long as soldiers have walked into battle, they have carried the needed equipment in different forms of a rucksack. Today’s U.S. Army infantry soldiers use a greatly improved rucksack that has more space but has contributed to a difficult issue. In 2017, a Government Accounting Office study determined that the rucksack weight for U.S. Army infantry soldiers was between 96 and 140 pounds and averaged 119 pounds. This carry load weight exceeds tolerable limits and has serious consequences. The study concluded that a rucksack that was too heavy resulted in significantly decreased combat mission capability and effectiveness of the soldier.
I believe the emotional rucksack presents a way to discuss how deputies carry cumulative career stress and the impacts that it has on them. Deputies see the worst of what people do to others and to themselves. The images of these calls get seared in their memories that they can’t un-see. I have heard deputies say, “I wish my mind would forget what my eyes have seen.”
As a deputy’s career continues, each call that they respond to becomes a rock that goes into their emotional rucksack. Some calls may be a small rock, and other calls may be a big rock, depending on the nature of the call. Over time as the rocks accumulate, they can be ignored as just being part of the job. While this is certainly true to a point, the emotional rucksack gets heavier with every rock. All the rocks have positive benefits and negative consequences. One benefit is that with each rock that goes into the emotional rucksack, the deputy gains important knowledge and experience that is absolutely necessary for them. Another positive benefit is that the rocks give the deputies the professional emotional distance that is required during a call. They are still human beings, but the emotional rucksack provides deputies with emotional distance from what they have seen and experienced so that they can do their job.
Part 2 of this article will be featured in an upcoming issue of PORAC Law Enforcement News.
About the Author
Dan Minjares, B.A., M.S., M.Div., served as a U.S. Army chaplain for 26 years and was previously licensed in the state of Kansas as a clinical marriage and family therapist. He has been a volunteer with the Sheriff’s Assist Team for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office for six years and for four years, has provided volunteer chaplain support for the deputies of the CCSO.