Chaplain: Empathic Policemen

As an officer have you ever had a bad day? I mean before you get to work: wife burnt the toast, battery dead on the car, a spot on the uniform. Maybe it was even more personal than that: trouble in your relationship, sick child, bills pilling up.

These things cause our mind to wonder as we dwell on them. They can be dangerous too. When our mind is not on our job we are a threat to self and to others. We can make deadly mistakes.

These matters cause us stress, raise our blood pressure - causing us to be snappy, argumentative and at times a pain to be around.

We tell ourselves, "I'm just having a bad day." Others are likely to agree and give us a break, not taking it personally. What about the traffic violator we make contact with? What about the theft complainant? What about the guy who just had an argument with his wife and we catch the call?

Have we ever considered, as a law enforcement officer, those we have contact with may be having a bad day? They are human just like us. Most have families and jobs, financial commitments, kids, and bosses.

As an officer do we ever consider being empathic?

The dictionary defines empathy as understanding and entering into another's feelings. The definition of empathic is showing empathy or ready comprehension of others' states.

In our discussion of empathy I'm not saying we don't write the ticket. I am saying we can be empathic and recognize what the violator might be going through.

The other side of the coin is officer discretion; in being empathic if we sense the person is under a lot of stress and strain. If we get the feeling the person is stressed or has a lot on his or her mind do we have to write the citation?

What if they are acting like a jerk? Do we write an attitude ticket? Maybe, but not so fast. If you have discretion, consider not writing the citation. Maybe issue a written warning instead.

I'm not saying everyone gets off the hook. What I am saying is when we use empathy we don't aggravate the situation.

In life people have excuses and reasons for what they do. An excuse is just that. It's blaming someone or something else for the malady. On the other hand the person may have a valid reason for doing what they do. Maybe they are on the way to the hospital where there is a critically ill family member. Perhaps their wife is locked out of the car in a secluded area. The list could go on and on.

For sure and certain, our job as officers is to protect and serve. Often we must protect people from themselves. If they don't have their mind on what they are doing they could be a threat. Yet if we become students of human behavior we learn about cause and effect. We come to understand that people are products of what they think and the life they have lived.

There are times officers make matters worse by failing to understand the people they make contact with are often like themselves.

What frequently happens to officers is the so called 80/20 Principal. 80% of the people we deal with are troublesome people, maybe even jerks. The problem is we begin to think all of the people we meet are that way.

The fact is 20% of the people in life cause 80% of the problems. But because we deal with that 20% day after day after day, we begin to feel that 80% of the world is bad.

So it stands to reason. If 80% of the world is bad, then virtually all our contacts are terrible people. So the obvious conclusion is officers are to treat everyone as a jerk, as scum, as a drain on society. Right? Wrong!

That is what causes officers so much trouble at home. We often treat our family like suspects. We may tend to treat our non law enforcement friends the same way. Then we wonder why no one wants to be around us. This causes officers major problems.

It creates problems in our families and it creates citizen complaints against us. We may have been rude and even "badge heavy". All because of the 80/20 Principal.

So what does the 80/20 Principal have to do with empathy? If we as officers believe everyone is a jerk and out to get us and society in general then no one gets a break. We may treat everyone heavy handed. Maybe - just maybe - the guy is having a bad day. Perhaps he or she is not one of the 20% that may really be the lower side of society.

When we treat every violator as if they are just trying to get away with something; if we treat every complainant as if they are wasting our time when real crime is happening all around us; if we treat people as if they have something to hide, then we as officers are the real losers. We have lost our trust of the public but worse yet, we individually have lost the public trust.

I don't want to open the can of worms in relation to profiling. Heaven knows we have heard enough about that in the news. But let me ask this question: Do you as an officer ever profile because of attitude? Failing to take into account the person may simply just be having a bad day; a day like you had yesterday or the day before.

I go back to the basic thought of this article: Can an Officer be Empathic and Still Do the Job? I think we can.

It's pretty simple. It's called the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Let's try practicing a little empathy. Why not become students of human nature?

When it comes time for a promotion I can guarantee you the department supervisors are not just looking for someone who writes a lot of tickets. Most are ever mindful that the age old motto for police has two parts: To (1) Protect and (2) Serve. When we get out of balance and the protecting overshadows the serving maybe we need to rethink if we are in the right profession.