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.

Whether police officers are homogenous in their pre-employment and off-duty personalities is fairly obvious, and the answer is No. In all the studies conducted to date, there is no definitive police personality profile that has ever been identified, despite the somewhat common belief among many people that one surely exists. Police officers represent a wide variety of personal backgrounds, interests, academic fields of study, hobbies, belief systems, and personalities. Look around your own department, if it is large enough to provide a good sample, or your academy class if you work for a smaller department. In my department, and looking back at my academy class comprised of recruits from many departments around northern Illinois, most have had at least some college education with more than a few holding advanced degrees, in major fields of study as varied as accounting, music, engineering, wildlife Biology/fisheries management and, of course, criminal justice. Musical tastes run from club to country, funk to punk, and Manilow to Metallica. Politically, cops tend toward the conservative end of the spectrum but with the occasional libertarian, or even liberal, thrown in it makes for interesting coffee-shop arguments.

Within any decent-sized department there are a number of roles to fill, many of which require a particular and unique personality to optimally man. Diverse personalities are good for a healthy police department. In fact, it is possible to take the exact entrance exam and personality profile for two different agencies, provide exactly the same answers on both, and score at the top of the eligibility list for one department and fail for the other. This usually indicates each department is seeking a specific personality type in their recruits.

Even with all the diverse personalities you may find in a large police organization, there are some commonalities that have been recognized. A 1975 study by researchers Robert Hogan and William Kurtines, in which they administered the California Personality Inventory (CPI) to a group of police candidates yielded some interesting results. After administering the CPI to a large group of police applicants, they were able to conduct a comparative study of successful (those ultimately hired as police officers) and unsuccessful (those not hired as police officers) in order to determine where the two groups differed. The CPI measures nineteen different scales; on ten of these scales, there were no significant differences between successful and unsuccessful candidates but on nine of the scales the successful candidates differed markedly. The successful candidates:

  1. were more assertive (dominance scale)
  2. had greater potential for social mobility (capacity for status scale)
  3. had greater social poise and self-confidence (social presence scale)
  4. had a greater sense of self-worth (self-acceptance scale)
  5. had more need for autonomous achievement (achievement via independence scale)
  6. had more functional intelligence (intellectual efficiency scale)
  7. were more psychological-minded (psychological-mindedness scale)
  8. were more masculine (femininity scale)
  9. possessed greater social acuity (empathy scale) (ref. 3)

Successful police candidates ranked significantly higher on scales of "poise and self-assurance... achievement potential, intellectual efficiency and social insight." (ref. 4) (It should be noted that the unsuccessful candidates were found to be a reasonably sound group in terms of personal effectiveness separate from the police role, but did not possess the traits sought by agencies.) All-in-all, not a bad representation by the successful police candidates.

Much later studies, focusing on small-town police officers and officer candidates, using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire Scales (16P) yielded additional interesting results. The 16P, when used to police candidates developed a profile group labeled as "Typical Cop" with group members found to be: self-disciplined, socially bold, extroverted, emotionally tough, and low in experienced anxiety. (ref. 5) The MMPI, when used to test a demographically similar group of active-duty police officers, compared their results against a normative (control) population. Male police officers were found to: present a better image of themselves, be less depressed and anxious, to be more assertive and energetic, and to be more likely to seek social contact that the control group. Female officers matched their male counterparts in the above measures, and also were more psychologically mature and more likely to be aware of the needs of others than the normative population. (ref. 6)

So, as a whole, cops tend to be assertive, self-assured, intelligent, empathic and sound-minded, at least at the onset of their careers. But these are characteristics and not necessarily a police personality profile by any means.

What has been found, however, is that over time, and in response to the job's demands, revelations and perspectives, a distinct personality does form within most of the otherwise unique individuals engaged in policing. What Jerome Skolnick describes as the police working personality is what many people, and police themselves, often describe as the police personality. The working personality is characterized as:

  1. distrustful of outsiders
  2. cynical
  3. conservative (not necessarily politically, but rather resistant to change)
  4. suspicious
  5. pessimistic
  6. pragmatic
  7. prejudicial
  8. and holding other widely-shared attitudes about and beyond the mainstream view. (ref. 7 & 8)

Other researchers in the police personality field generally agree with Skolnick's analysis, citing additional traits of the working personality as conventionality and distrust of the unusual, with a good policeman suspecting evil wherever he goes. (ref. 9)

Interestingly, a more in depth reading of many of these researchers, particularly Skolnick, seems to reveal a bias against the development and existence of this working personality and concern over its potential contribution to individual and systemic law enforcement abuses of power. There is some understanding of how the working personality develops and why, and even acknowledges that it enhances the effectiveness of officers as they do their job and is a product of occupational socialization that creates and nurtures it.

If there is, in fact, a characteristic police personality, it is likely this termed the working personality. To a great extent, we believe the working personality is a necessary part of the working cop but our concern is when it overrides or supplants the officer's primary personality. The personality traits the officer brings to the job are those that seemingly suit him or her for police work, and that are sought by agencies. How unfortunate, then, if those traits are lost to the officer, his family and friends, the agency and the community. How much better if your primary personality, the one you have formed through a lifetime of experience, can meld beneficially with your working personality, so both are tempered and made stronger. Our concern is always a holistic approach to officer survival, and that includes urging you ensure the dominant personality you brought to the job coexists with the one you have had to build to be a successful cop; bring your best self to the job, and take care to never lose that best self doing the job.

We are interested in your thoughts about personality and policing. Does law enforcement require a certain type of personality, or does it create the personalities that populate it? Do most cops develop a working personality in addition to the one they came in with, or does it replace it? Or is the working personality a myth, after all? Are there any dangers cops face because of their on duty personalities? Can a police officer's off-duty and on-duty personalities coexist, or will one always dominate?

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