Death Work: Police, Trauma, and the Psychology of Survival

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In this fascinating new book, Vincent Henry (a 21-year veteran of the NYPD who recently retired to become a university professor) explores the psychological transformations and adaptations that result from police officers' encounters with death. Police can encounter death frequently in the course of their duties, and these encounters may range from casual contacts with the deaths of others to the most profound and personally consequential confrontations with their own mortality. Using the 'survivor psychology' model as its theoretical base, this insightful and provocative research ventures into a previously unexplored area of police psychology to illuminate and explore the new modes of adaptation, thought, and feeling that result from various types of death encounters in police work.

The psychology of survival asserts that the psychological world of the survivor—one who has come in close physical or psychic contact with death but nevertheless managed to live—is characterized by five themes: psychic numbing, death guilt, the death imprint, suspicion of counterfeit nurturance, and the struggle to make meaning. These themes become manifest in the survivor's behavior, permeating his or her lifestyle and worldview.

Drawing on extensive interviews with police officers in five nominal categories—rookie officers, patrol sergeants, crime scene technicians, homicide detectives, and officers who survived a mortal combat situation in which an assailant or another officer died—Henry identifies the impact such death encounters have upon the individual, the police organization, and the occupational culture of policing. He has produced a comprehensive and highly textured interpretation of police psychology and police behavior, bolstered by the unique insights that come from his personal experience as an officer, his intimate familiarity with the subtleties and nuances of the police culture's value and belief systems, and his meticulous research and rigorous method. Death Work provides a unique prism through which to view the individual, organizational, and social dynamics of contemporary urban policing. With a foreword by Robert Jay Lifton and a chapter devoted to the local police response to the World Trade Center attacks, Death Work will be of interest to psychologists and criminal justice experts, as well as police officers eager to gain insight into their unique relationship to death.

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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Nicholas Greco IV, MS, BCETS, CATSM (Columbia College of Missouri)
Description: This is a unique and one-of-a-kind exploration into the minds and experiences of New York City Police Officers pre-9/11 as written and interpreted through the author, himself a 21-year NYPD officer - now retired. The author delves into the trauma and the psychology of survival through real-life interviews and discussions with NYPD officers — from rookie to seasoned veteran.
Purpose: According to the author, the purpose of this book is to explore "the psychological struggles and transformations urban police officers experience as the result of their routine work-related exposures to the deaths of others, as well as their own mortality." However, this book goes beyond taking the reader into the "hidden world" of the police officer and seeks to promote a higher level of understanding and awareness of the everyday situations. It is this level of insight that the author provides in hopes of stimulating research in this area - an area of which we as a mental health field know little. Beyond the badge and the job are human beings who dealt with and have seen more than their share of trauma. The book exceeds the author's objectives and certainly could be considered a landmark book in the field of trauma
Audience: The author did a superb job of making this book readable to every discipline within the field of mental health. Those who specialize in trauma as well as those in research will be quite moved and stimulated by the frank and unbiased content. The author spent several years as a police officer interviewing NYPD officers, capturing their narratives, conducting structured interviews, and performing field observations. He is not only a credible authority on the subject matter, but he is a dedicated individual who has provided the field with a monumental work.
Features: The book is quite in-depth and exposes the readers to the various perspectives on death as seen through the eyes of rookie officers, patrolmen, patrol sergeants, homicide detectives, and crime scene unit technicians. Discussions of the various traumas, responses to trauma, and the conflict that the individual officer faces in trying to tell their story to other fellow officers, to family, and to friends are captured. As all of the interviews and observations were captured pre-9/11, the author wisely placed an epilogue describing his own experiences on that day and the weeks that followed. One cannot help but be moved by that chapter alone. The author's notes help the reader understand police jargon and cast a more favorable and sympathetic light on the world police inhabit.
Assessment: I consider this an exquisite and timely piece of literature, which is one-of-a-kind. This book is destined to become a classic and one which future research in this area will have no choice but to reference time and again. Strongly recommended!
From the Publisher
"Vincent Henry introduces a new and important line of inquiry into the emotionally dangerous labor of American police officers by offering up a considered appraisal of how NYPD cops approach, cope with, and more or less survive their recurrent and seemingly relentless occupational encounters with death. Scholarly, literate, tightly focused but broadly framed, Death Work is a must read for those who seek to understand both the psychological demands and cultural context of urban policing. By taking readers into the often helpful, if numbing, routines worked out on the ground for the grim yet necessary business of attending to the dead, Henry casts unusual light on matters surprisingly ignored in studies of the police work. This is a read that sticks with one long after putting it down. And properly so."—John Van Maanen, Ph.D., Erwin Schell Professor of Organization Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

5 Stars! from Doody
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195157659
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/1/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Lexile: 1610L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Pace University
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Table of Contents

Foreword, Robert Jay Lifton
Introduction: The Death and Policing Nexus
1. Death Work: The General Context
2. Police Survivors of Death Encounters: Theoretical Perspective and Strategy of Inquiry
3. Becoming a Cop: Basic Social and Psychological Processes
4. The Rookie's Experience: Introduction to Death
5. Patrol Sergeants: Routinization of the Death Encounter
6. Crime Scene Detectives: 'Technicizing' the Death Encounter
7. Homicide Detectives: Emotional Reactions to Violent Death
8. Police Survivors: Genuine Threats to the Sense of Immortality
9. Reflections and Observations

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