Betrayal: The hidden driver of PTSD

Jun 25, 2018

 June 27th is National PTSD Awareness Day. Last year at this time I posted a blog giving a general overview of  PTSD.  (The preferable term is  post-traumatic stress injury or PTSI. People recover from injuries, whereas a disorder sounds like a life sentence). This year I’m going to write about betrayal and its role in worsening trauma.

 Betrayal comes in many forms; personal, organizational, and social. Whenever and however it occurs, it makes everything worse. The rigors of police work, from the daily grind to headline-making events, are all made worse when officers feel unsupported by their friends, family, co-workers, the administration, and/or the communities they serve.

Many cops will tell you that what first attracted them to law enforcement was the promise that no matter what, the police family would have their backs. The idea of a loyal and loving police family is a point of pride and part of an officer’s identity. Cops expect the bad guys to hurt them. When their work family turns on them, in obvious or subtle ways, the consequences can be dire and long-lasting.Officers who experience betrayal lose faith that their agency, friends or community can be counted on for support when the next crisis occurs, as it must. The dream of an idealized family is shattered, leaving them depressed, angry, demoralized, and grieving the loss of joy they once took in the job. Old childhood issues and emotions relating to loss, abandonment, and helplessness may be reactivated without the officers’ conscious awareness. Unless officers make the connection between the current incident and early family issues (usually with the help of a therapist) this can lead to emotional and behavioral problems.

Betrayal comes in several forms.  (See my post from February 2018 for a prime example of how an officer was betrayed by his agency and in the court of public opinion).

1. Administrative betrayal comes from an officer’s superior officers, often the chief, and constitutes both “sins” of omission and commission.

An officer shot and killed a suspect who was randomly shooting at people, including himself. After the incident, the chief asked him to write a letter of apology to the dead suspect’s family in hopes the letter would avoid a lawsuit.

A disabled officer, at home recovering from a work-related injury,  never received a call from his chief or any other administrator inquiring about his welfare, until a lieutenant called to ask when he was coming back to work.

2. Organizational betrayal is similar to administrative betrayal, but is more bureaucratic than personal.

After he was injured on the job, this officer filed a workers’ compensation claim. Workers’ compensation had 90 days to accept or reject his claim. At the end of 90 days, they rejected it. He turned to his employer for help and was told there was nothing anyone could do.

3. Personal betrayal happens when people within the organization, or in the officer’s personal life, let him or her down.

When a work-related injury forced this officer to take early retirement, only one or two of the many co-workers he considered friends ever called to check on him or offer help. A different LEO  discovered  her wife was having an affair with another co-worker.

4. Community betrayal occurs when the community turns against the officer or the agency.

This is especially damaging to an officer’s personal and professional well-being (as well as that of their families) when the accusations are unfounded or based on stereotyping. Fragile or hostile community responses are demoralizing and may cause officers to second guess not only their actions and reactions, but their choice of career.

Feeling betrayed: What can you do?

Deciding what, when and for how long to deal with betrayal is a personal decision. Get support. Assemble a team of trusted advisors to provide guidance. If you need professional help include a therapist, one who is culturally competent to work with law enforcement. Be wary of letting bitterness consume your life and damage your family. Discriminate being what you can control and what you can’t.  Remember that the only person over whom you have control is yourself.

Have you been betrayed? What helped you cope? 


Kirschman, E., Kamena, M., & Fay, J. (2014). Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. New York, N.Y. Guilford Press.

Kirschman, E., (2017). Cops and PTSD: Why You Should Care, What You Can Do.

Kirschman, E. (2018) The Parkland Massacre: Why Did the Deputy Freeze. Or did he?


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