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The Kind Of On-The-Job Stress Only Police Officers Know

A record 53 French police officers committed suicide last year. The Courbat, a health facility, treats officers suffering from burnout, depression and alcoholism with a very specific therapy.

Riot control forces in Paris
Riot control forces in Paris
Cécile Deffontaines

LE LIEGEIn his orderly room of this unique establishment in France, where police officers have been treated for debilitating burnout since 1953, David speaks with the soft voice of a child. He still has the taste of metal and death in his mouth as he describes what brought him here.

"I was empty," he recalls. "The only strength I had left was to pull the trigger. I put a cartridge in. I loaded my gun and put it down my throat. With my other hand, I dialed the Courbat phone number. I thought, "Either someone picks up, or I pull the trigger." Someone picked up."

He's a robust 42-year-old with a shaved head. He used to be a jovial and loud-mouthed member of the Republican Security Companies (CRS), the riot control division of the French National Police. Then, rather suddenly, he hit a wall. It came after receiving an official warning — that he still considers unfair — for having celebrated a bit too much one night. After that, it all went downhill.

"My superior wouldn't get off my back," he says. "It became harassment. One day it was "How's it going?" along with a handshake, and the next he was yelling at me like a maniac. He said, "I'm going to train that one." In the end, it destroyed me."

David witnessed many of colleagues turning to alcohol. He swore not to fall into the same trap. "We're away four months out of the year. There are memorandums saying we're not allowed to touch it alcohol, but everyone wipes their ass with them."

Younger and younger

Every year, more than 300 officers leave their service behind to come and heal their wounds in this remote location between two ponds, where a few goats and ponies commune with the bare trees and sky. The patients are brigadiers, police officers, lieutenants, rookies and top-ranked officials.

And they're finding themselves here "younger and younger," says Frédérique Yonnet, the manager of the Courbat, located in the central French department of Indre-et-Loire. "They are fighting a general state of exhaustion, alcoholism. Sometimes both."

Dominique says he thinks about his first glass in the early afternoon. "It comes like a flash," he explains. The former CRS member is leafing through a car magazine in the break room, noting the long periods spent far from home, living in dormitories. "There's nothing to do in the evening. I drank out of boredom."

Here, during meals, only water is served. At 2 p.m., the call rings out, as it does four times per day. The small group gathers around outside, this day under a nasty drizzle. Some have appointments with the psychologist, the osteopath or are asked to attend support groups. Others will go to the gym or to workshops. Their lives follow well-organized schedules, which is what it takes to rebuild.

In 2014, a record 53 French police officers committed suicide. "One of my colleagues did it with his service weapon, at his workplace," says Chrisophe, who's here for burnout. "Nothing seemed to warrant it."

David arrived three days ago. He still has panic attacks in the evenings, and wakes up in a cold sweat. It's usually what happens in the beginning. Before bed, he goes to the infirmary to get his "candy for the night." One pill and he sleeps without dreaming.

Like a restless teenager, he describes his feelings in a notebook. On the wall in his bedroom, he has pinned a photo of his wife, his daughter and his grandmother, images he looks at to give himself courage. "I'm fighting for them."

Haunting images

Jean-François has been here for a month and a half. He's learned to control his nightmares. This morning, he has a therapeutic workshop. On a creamy white bloc, he carves a scorpion, the name of his eldest child and the motto of the police school: "strength and honor." His son is currently learning the ropes there, undeterred by the fact that the career has damaged his father. "He's been dreaming of it since the first time he saw me in a uniform," Jean-François says. "He was around 4 years old."

He's a proud dad but a troubled cop. "At school, they show pictures of accidents, autopsies. But you're never really ready."

What led to his collapse was a stream of haunting images. "You're walking in the woods, you smell a rotting carcass, and the memory of a decayed corpse jumps back," he says. "You're watching the news, they talk about a dead child, and it reminds you of the autopsy of a little girl. I see them just by talking about them."

He notes that it's the job of police officers to stay behind at crime scenes and accidents. "To determine the identity of the body, you have to go through pockets. We may try to joke about it, but inside, it's awful," he explains. "There's such a racket in my head! I was like a time bomb. The only way to be at peace was to kill myself."

One day, Jean-François went to get his pistol in his office and then drove off. He stopped in a cemetery and collapsed on a grave. "After that, I blacked out," he recalls. When he woke up, the police were around him. "I was admitted for two days in a psychiatric hospital." That was two years ago. Upon his return to the office, he was assigned to traffic. Car crashes.

"A few weeks later, I saw a woman cut in half. I felt I was relapsing."

The Courbat establishment opened its doors to him. Leaving someone behind is out of the question. Two former patients had already committed suicide.

Exercise to forget

When he talks about this chaos, Jean-François looks elsewhere. Later, at the gym, a towel around his neck, he rides miles on a bike as a kind of exercise therapy. "I pedal when I feel I'm about to lose control of my mind."

Others, like Pierre, who is here for the second time for treatment of alcoholism, feel the weight of work in the everyday grind. "Community policing is really the worst," he says. "You're given shit all day. People come to us with anything and everything, even just to say, "My wife cheated on me.""

At a wooden counter, where many patients come to have a cup of coffee, Pierre gets it all off his chest. "We don't do preventive work anymore, only repressive," he says. "Racial profiling, that gives some officers a hard-on. I, myself, have checked people out based only on their appearance, just for a laugh and to keep busy. The reasons we give for identity checks are 99% bullshit. One of my colleagues once wrote, "Came out of his house in a suspicious way.""

Pierre says a system of merit bonuses, created in 2004 when Nicolas Sarkozy was interior minister, can encourage racism and police violence.

"I know one officer who only arrested old Africans driving old cars," he says. "He got his bonus all right! Because of this system, some of us excelled in doing stupid things!"

Tough grounds

The Courbat residents are often strong-headed. Vanessa is no exception. She lets you know quickly she's not the kind to let people walk over her. She's tall and slim, with bleached blond hair that she ties up in a ponytail. It's 6 p.m. and she just returned from a short leave into town.

Vanessa wants to tell her story, but anonymously, determined to shine a light on this daily violence that transformed her. "When there's only three of you instead of six to patrol around the projects, you take more risks," she says. "And there are more and more sick leaves, and it's not because of the flu. It's for depression."

Her story is one of a cop who came from the countryside and for the past five years has been working in Seine-Saint-Denis, a tough "banlieue" northeast of Paris. "When I arrived, I thought I was in Africa. It was such a ghetto! The only white people were the cops."

Vanessa speaks with no restraint, referring to the youth in that area as "those bastards." She soon corrects herself, explaining she has had to learn to be tough in a world that is harsh towards women.

"They tell you, "We'll rape you, scorch your face, pass you around in a basement." For them, women aren't supposed to give orders to men. There's also the spitting, and we even get frozen onions thrown at us. So you have to make yourself heard, use the same words as they do. I'm on a first-name basis with them. Otherwise, they think you feel superior."

She has gotten punched, and done some punching. "It was self-defense. I don't let people mess with me." She lost some sight in one eye during an altercation, as a result of two well-placed punches. Little by little, it became too much.

Knots in the stomach

Early on in her job, she returned to her countryside home every evening. But it soon became impossible to keep up. So during the week, she rented a room on the university campus just opposite the police precinct. "I lived with guys I arrested," she says. "There was insulting graffiti directed at me. The caretaker took my name off my letterbox."

On weekends, she caught her breath at home, an apartment she shared with other people. But, "On Sundays, my stomach became knotted. So one Sunday evening, I drank half a bottle of whisky. I was plastered. Enough not to go to work."

The unbendable cop finally snapped, like a frozen window pane. That was three weeks before being admitted to the Courbat.

"You live, you eat, you sleep as a police officer," she explains. "It takes everything from you. My relationship exploded. Next time I meet someone, I'll be post-menopausal! I'm almost 36, I want to have a family life. I can't stand violence anymore."

Here, to calm down, she spends her time swimming laps in the pool, an attempt to clear her mind of dark thoughts.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the police officers.

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