Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


Louis Schlesinger

Committee Members

William Gottdiener

Chitra Raghavan

Subject Categories

Clinical Psychology | Criminology and Criminal Justice


Police, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, World Assumptions, Trauma, Critical Incidents


The present study examined the presence of traumatic stress reaction symptoms among active law enforcement officers, and the relationship between potentially traumatic work related experiences, officers’ cognitive views of the world, and the expression of those symptoms. The range of police roles and responsibilities arguably subjects officers to a greater variety of potentially traumatizing experiences than any other population, and the literature reflects that police officers express traumatic stress related symptoms at a greater rate than the general population. This study differs from previous work in that it utilizes snowball sampling to anonymously identify officers willing to participate without involving their employing agencies in any way; participating officers were asked to forward the study’s survey instrument along to other potential participants. This methodology virtually eliminates any concerns on the part of officers that reporting psychological symptoms will lead to negative career ramifications such as work reassignment, employment termination, or stigma from the command structure or colleagues.

The study addressed the relationship between the number of critical incidents that an officer has experienced and his or her current expression of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the relationship between exposure to potential traumas, symptom expression, and officers’ assumptions regarding the benevolence of the world, the meaningfulness of the world, and the worthiness of the self. The non-random international sample consisted of 879 active duty police officers and federal agents; this group included a convenience sample as well as those referred to the study by other participating officers. Officers’ expression of traumatic stress reaction symptoms, exposure to law enforcement related critical incidents, and world assumptions were measured using an online questionnaire. Of the officers studied, 9.8% reported a level of symptom expression that would merit a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and an additional 9.7% of officers reported a level of psychological distress consistent with subthreshold PTSD.

Findings indicate that officers’ levels of psychological distress were directly related to the number and variety of critical incidents experienced in the course of their careers and to the strength of certain world assumptions, specifically those assumptions described by Janoff-Bulman (1989, 1992) relating to self-controllability and the randomness of the world. Those world assumptions also served to mediate the relationship between an officer’s exposure to traumatic incidents and the expression of PTSD symptomatology. In comparison with their colleagues officers with symptom expression levels sufficient to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD displayed significantly weaker assumptions of the benevolence and meaningfulness of the world and the worthiness of the self as gauged by Janoff-Bulman’s World Assumptions Scale (1989). Those officers that experienced more potentially traumatic events experience the world as a more dangerous place, and perceive less meaning and order in the outcomes of their actions.