Police veteran and stress expert on the trauma suffered by Capitol police

Lawmakers are pushing for mental health resources to support police officers who came under attack the U.S. Capitol on January 6. John Violanti, professor of environmental health and epidemiology research at the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions, joins CBSN to share his insights as a law enforcement veteran and expert on police stress.

Video Transcript

- Capitol police officers are recovering from the injuries they suffered during the attack on the Capitol. The injuries are both physical and mental. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who later died as a result of a head injury endured that day, is one of at least 140 officers who were injured in the attack.

Two more officers who were at the Capitol on January 6 took their own lives in the weeks after the riot. Lawmakers are now pushing to provide mental health resources to police who were in the Capitol on January 6.

My guest, Professor John Violante, is a police veteran who served as a New York State Police trooper for 23 years. He's an expert on police stress as well as an epidemiology and environmental health research professor at the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Welcome. So great to have you with us. You are the author of 17 books, just a few books, examining police stress, psychological trauma, and even suicide. How did you feel when you saw Capitol Police officers under attack as they defended the nation's Capitol?

JOHN VIOLANTI: Well, I felt frightened for them because I understand a situation where you are totally outnumbered. And you're trying to stop someone from coming in. If you think about it, being one officer behind these doors and having thousands of people trying to break the doors down, that particular officer probably didn't feel like he was going home that night. So it's a feeling of fear. And it's a feeling that sometimes, the fear stays for a long time.

- And Professor, when you saw that, did you imagine that there would be several mental health issues that these Capitol Police officers would be facing in the days and weeks following that attack?

JOHN VIOLANTI: Oh, sure. It was obvious that there was going to be a lot of trauma there at that situation. Now, these events are not-- they're not usual. Usually, you don't have people attacking the Capitol like that in huge numbers. And these officers were not prepared to deal with this.

So they have a situation where they're being torn between trying to stop these people and at the same time, not being able to because they didn't have resources. Post-traumatic stress or PTSD-- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

- No, no. Please, continue.

JOHN VIOLANTI: I'm trying to say that post-traumatic stress is about 15% of police officers in the United States have PTSD. And this is a situation that's not going to go away. And the mental health of these officers are going to suffer for a while because this was a severely traumatic event.

- And Professor, how has your own personal experience in the field informed the work that you do now?

JOHN VIOLANTI: Well, I think being a police officer, I was a trooper. And doing this kind of work, you get a good inside view of what these officers feel when they go through these situations. You know, as a police officer, I think in a period of 20, 25 years have all experienced trauma. And they've experienced various kinds of trauma-- anything from the same abused kids to having to get involved in a shooting to see people die-- all of these things add up and are cumulative.

And then after a while, the mental psyche of people who are officers is damaged. And those who cannot cope well with these problems eventually end up using maladaptive strategies such as alcohol and ultimately suicide.

- Well, that's my next question. In the culture of law enforcement is mental health or, you know, the asking of help for one's mental health. Is that something that is still looked down upon? Or are attitudes about that changing? Because we know in several cultures and fields, there can be a stigma attached to asking for help with mental health issues.

JOHN VIOLANTI: Sure, yeah. I think you've got the point there. I think the police culture is one of we're not supposed to be affected by these things. We're supposed to be superhuman and not be affected by our emotions. Officers are-- they're not afraid to come forward to seek help.

What they're afraid of is what's going to happen to them if they do seek help. And that involves things, like in that by losing the trust of their comrades, losing the trust of supervision, perhaps not getting a promotion because they claim to have a mental disability.

All of these things add in. When officers are hesitant to come forward, the best solution for that, of course, is to provide for officers confidential places for them to go where they can get help and not be subject to the stigma of having a mental health problem.

- Right, keeping it confidential-- that's a very good suggestion. Well, we're out of time. Professor John Violante, thank you so much for joining us and sharing with us your insight on this subject.

JOHN VIOLANTI: Thanks for having me-- appreciate it.

- If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or would just like some emotional support, the Lifeline Network is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone--