Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


Robert Jay Lifton

Committee Members

James P. Levine

Dorothy Bracey

Subject Categories

Criminology and Criminal Justice


All human encounters with death, whether they involve a casual contact with the death of another person or the realistic threat of one's own demise, have important psychological consequences that result in new modes of adaptation, thought and feeling. In the course of their duties, contemporary urban police officers frequently encounter the deaths of others and some participate in mortal combat situations that credibly threaten their own lives. The psychological dimensions of police officers' professional exposures to the deaths of others are to a large extent shaped by the specific duties and responsibilities prescribed by their formal task environment, while the experience of surviving mortal combat is shaped by a range of objective and subjective situational variables. This dissertation applies Robert Jay Lifton's formative-symbolic paradigm and his psychology of survival to explore police officers' death encounters and their individual, cultural and organizational consequences and implications. These psychological transformations become manifest in the psychology of survival's five themes: psychic numbing, the death imprint image, death guilt, suspicion of counterfeit nurturance, and the struggle to make meaning of the experience. Using a shared themes approach and relying upon depth interviews and other forms of direct observation, it examines the experiences of officers operating in four task environments (rookie officers, patrol sergeants, crime scene unit technicians and homicide detectives) as well as officers who survived mortal combat events in which they participated in the death of another person. The study illuminates how death encounters serve in a functional and integrative way to socialize new officers, how the 'professional numbing' they develop protects them from various emotional hazards of police work, how the themes of survivorship are reflected in the officer's working personality and the occupational culture's ethos, and how these encounters shape the development of the officer's personal and professional self identity. Finally, it explores the formative-symbolic paradigm's utility in explaining various aspects of police behavior through the paradigm's emphasis on achieving and maintaining a sense of symbolic immortality and feelings of movement, connection and integrity in the face of profoundly threatening death immersions.


Digital reproduction from the UMI microform.