Exploring Police Exposure to Critical Incidents, Perceived Stress, and Turnover Intention in a Suburban-Rural Jurisdiction

Yi-Fang Lu

Advisor: Sue-Ming Yang, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: David Weisburd, Cynthia Lum, Clair Uding

Online Location, #Online
June 26, 2024, 12:00 PM to 02:00 PM


Law enforcement is a physically and mentally demanding occupation. Police officers are not only repetitively exposed to traumatic events in the line of duty but also at higher risk of developing mental health problems. The accumulation of work-induced stressors such as primary traumatic incidents or exposure to citizens’ trauma/victimization over time may have deleterious impacts on officers’ wellbeing. While there has been some research focusing on officers’ mental health, the vast majority of the prior research was conducted in urban settings or large police departments, leaving a gap in understanding the unique challenges encountered by rural and suburban police officers and their mental health.

This dissertation contributes to the existing knowledge by demonstrating the prevalence of critical incident exposure in a suburban-rural jurisdiction and examining how cumulative exposure to critical incidents affects officers’ perceived stress at work and whether perceived stress, in turn, affects turnover intention. The cross-sectional survey data were collected from a suburban-rural police department in Southwest Virginia during the implementation of a departmentwide wellness checks program conducted by a local mental health service provider in 2022. In order to address the research questions, descriptive statistics were reported to demonstrate the prevalence rates of critical incident exposure and structural equation modeling (SEM) was used to examine the research hypotheses: (1) Officers with more critical incident exposure in the past experience a higher level of perceived stress at work; (2) resilience can moderate the effect of critical incident exposure on officers’ perceived stress at work; and (3) a higher level of perceived stress at work is positively associated with officers’ intention to leave law enforcement.

Overall, I found that critical incidents involving personal threats or exposure to citizens’ trauma/victimization are more common than use of force incidents and death/injury of a colleague. Notably, of all the critical incidents, the prevalence rates are high in certain types of incidents in this study site compared to urban jurisdictions including being threatened with a gun or a knife/other weapon and loved ones being threatened. The prevalence rates of all secondary traumatic exposure are comparable with the rates found in urban jurisdictions such as exposure to physically or sexually assaulted child/adult or death-related incidents like making a death notification. As expected, the overall cumulative exposure to critical incidents is not as high in this suburban-rural setting as in urban settings. Nonetheless, the SEM results showed that the cumulative exposure still presents a risk to officers’ perceived stress at work, which, in turn, is associated with a higher level of turnover intention. The analyses also revealed that resilience is a potential protective factor that can shield officers from feeling stressed due to exposure to repetitive critical incidents. 

This research provides important policy implications for law enforcement organizations. Collecting and tracking critical incident exposure data is crucial to identify officers who might be at high risk of mental health issues throughout their career. Moreover, implementing regular mental health screening can help promote awareness of mental health among officers. Finally, providing tailored interventions that are police-centered may increase officers' receptivity and utilization of mental health resources and possibly enhance their retention intention.