Just a Typical Cop?

No definitive police personality profile has ever been identified, despite the widespread belief one must surely exist, but do most cops share some common personality traits?


Editor's Note: Throughout this article there are references which would normally be footnoted. Due to restrictions in our content management system, each is instead listed as a reference and numbered accordingly.

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Does a distinct, recognizable police personality exist and, if so, what does it look like? Or might there be a personality profile, that could be determined and tested by existing and accepted measures, into which police officers, and those who aspire to be police officers, fit and can be defined?

So, how would you answer the above questions?

We recently had opportunity to explore whether such a personality exists while compiling and studying existing scholarly research on the topic as we developed two new trainings. The trainings themselves were not about the personalities of cops, but understanding how crime fighters see their environment, through the prism of personality and its influence on worldview, was of significant importance to the trainings.

So, after looking at page after page, and then even more pages, of sporadic and obscure research spanning close to five decades and three continents, the answer to the question of, "Does a police personality exist?" became quite clear.

The answer is... "Well, sort of. Maybe."

Confusing? Well, not really when you break it down a little more. That there are certain characteristics you can expect to find in many, if not most, successful cops seems obvious. Whether these characteristics, or traits, reflect part or all of an officer's personality is somewhat debated, but let's assume that there are, in fact, personality traits common to many, if not most, police officers. These will comprise the police personality we are trying to identify. First it is important to understand one of the major deficiencies in past attempts to identify a police personality is a version of the classic "Which came first? The chicken or the egg" conundrum. Are the personality traits evident in so many cops preexistent in the person and brought to the job (predispositional model)? Are they created in the person after hire and certain time spent in the field (occupational-socialization model)? Or is their development some combination of the two modalities? (ref. 1)

Presently, almost all police officers hired in the last couple decades, and even most older cops who have been around longer than that, underwent some form of pre-employment psychological screening prior to hiring on. The purpose of such screening is twofold: first, it helps determine emotional and psychological fitness for duty and the stressors of police work and, second, it provides a measure of how well the officer will be able to weather the long-term effects of those duty-related stressors. For researchers studying the police personality, it has offered a third role, in that it provides "a baseline personality construct from which to compare the construct of experienced officers." (ref. 2) Most of you currently sworn officers who are reading this probably took one or more of any number of psychological tests (MMPI, CPI, Rorschach, etc) during your hiring process and, to the amazement of close friends and family, current supervisor and co-workers, and your high school guidance counselor, passed at least the one(s) required by your current agency. Some of these tests are designed to weed out the unfit and unstable. Others are designed to create a profile of the applicant by which his or her "fit" with the agency and its expectations can be assessed.

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