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

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Contemporary urban police officers are routinely exposed to the death of others, as well as to frequent and profound encounters with their own mortality. Here, Vincent Henry draws on two disparate bodies of theory and research — policing and the psychology of human responses to death — to illuminate how officers and their subculture are shaped by exposures to death. Through extensive field observation and structured interviews with NYPD officers, Henry defines and distinguishes the range and types of exposures to death in four "task environments:" the rookie cop, patrol sergeant, homicide detective, and crime scene technician. He differentiates the officers' experience from others involved in death work, such as doctors, soldiers, and rescue workers, by exploring their singular occupational culture — the potential for violent death, the ritual of police funerals, strong in-group solidarity. Ultimately, the book reveals patterns of psychological transformation and social consequences of police encounters with death. Henry identifies five common themes, including psychic numbing, the death imprint image, suspicion of counterfeit nurturance, death guilt, and the quest to make meaning. 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 with 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!

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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