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Sex differences in posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms in police officers following exposure to violence in Ferguson


Published online on


Policing: An International Journal, Volume 41, Issue 5, Page 623-635, October 2018.
Purpose Women comprise a significant and growing proportion of the law enforcement population. Despite this, their potentially unique reactions to job-related posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) and depression have been underrepresented in the relevant literature, particularly within the context of exposure to community violence. Also understudied is the role of empathy in the development of post-trauma reactions, which has been a risk factor for the development of posttraumatic distress in previous studies. With the recent endorsement of empathy training by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, it is important to examine ways in which empathy may contribute to differences in PTSS and depression for male and female officers. The paper aims to discuss this issue. Design/methodology/approach Male and female police officers (n=189) exposed to violence during the 2014 Ferguson protests completed a battery of measures designed to assess demographic information, prior trauma history, and mental health outcomes. Findings Moderation analyses showed that empathy moderated the relationships between exposure and PTSS and exposure and depression in female officers, such that exposure was associated with higher posttraumatic stress and depressive symptoms only for female officers with high levels of empathy. These relationships were not found for men. Originality/value This study is the first to examine sex differences and the role of empathy in the mental health effects of law enforcement secondary to violence during community protests against policing.