Recent events involving law enforcement, the actions of officers in the face of threats, and public reaction in response – thinking Ferguson, MO specifically, but also lesser known incidents and those inflamed by coming in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting – have taken a heavy emotional toll on cops everywhere. It’s difficult to see fellow officers so harshly scrutinized, and with such a dearth of known facts, and to be assumed guilty by association, hundreds of miles from the center of the controversy, merely for wearing a badge.
In our last article, “Perspective and Insight in Difficult Times for Police”, we explored how perceptions of what we do may not conform with the reality, how to use perspective to protect ourselves emotionally from the toxic attitudes that arise from misperceptions and poor understanding, and also the responsibility of insight and self-critiquing officers share to remain above reproach. Now, we turn to look at the common outcomes of failing to keep perspective and how they harm officers individually, and the profession as a whole.
Distrust and Cynicism
Maintaining a degree of distrust is an important survival mechanism while on duty and, to a lesser extent, even away from the job. Successful cops learn to never take what someone says at face value; being lied to should be expected, even from the victims who most people would believe have no reason to shade the truth (a week on the job teaches otherwise). The smart cop is alert to subterfuge and begins to see and hear everything through jaded eyes and ears.
While this is arguably necessary for street survival and successful policing, a number of problems emerge from the distrust this knowledge breeds:
- Many cops refuse to accept when someone really is being truthful and accepts only this on faith – people always lie, are always working an angle, always have a hidden agenda. This comes to apply in personal relationships and with colleague as well as on the street. In time, the real concern for people that brought the officer into the profession turns to a grossly overgeneralized contempt;
- The corresponding ability to read truth and move forward with it is lost. The officer can lose trust in him or herself to discern when the real story has been arrived at and never quite buys into the victim fully, eroding empathy and effectiveness;
- Cynicism becomes the officers default mode. And the line between healthy cynicism and dysfunction is blurred. Never being able to let one’s guard down seriously messes with finding real enjoyment in life, harms relationships, and contributes to a host of physical and emotional problems.
- In the course of your work, seek out people you can trust within your agency, off-duty, and even the “regular” people you get to know who aren’t cops but who you encounter in your day-to-day travels. Return to them for friendship and to keep a lid on cynicism.
The "Us vs. Them" Mentality
The "Us vs. Them" mindset takes cynicism a step further. If the "us" are law enforcement and "them" are a community’s criminal element there is really nothing so wrong with that; it just exemplifies the idea of the thin blue line standing between law and disorder, good and evil. But as perspective is lost the number shoved into the “them” category grows, often without justification.
Pretty soon, anyone who has a scrape with the law – no matter how minor or even out of character – can be tossed onto the pile of "them." Anyone critical of law enforcement – or voicing even legitimate questions or concerns despite generally supporting the police – is included in the category of “them.” People disappoint, the most unexpected people can break the law, family or friends don’t always understand and come off critical of something they’ve witnessed or heard about, and many cops learn to just lump everyone in the same “other” category for the sake of ease and psychological self-protection.
Citizen complaints, media criticism, manipulative lawyers and judicial decisions that make little sense reinforce the “us-vs.-them” paradigm. The idea of the police as a vital part of society is replaced with the idea that it's an institution separate from, but designed to act upon, society.
Warrior Mentality as a Normalized Mindset
The warrior mentality is important preparing for and taking on physical threats; all cops must be ready to step into it at any time. Teaching its necessity is a critical component for officer survival. Winning – even surviving – a fight depends upon successfully transitioning into a warrior at a moment’s notice
But many officers have adopted the warrior mentality as their normalized mindset. They see themselves as crime fighters, forgetting that much of the job has little to do with actual fighting. Much of it has to do with responding to complaints from and about the mentally ill, assisting the homeless, sick, and confused, arbitrating neighborhood disputes, and a multitude of other tasks that don’t involve combat of any sort.
While cop needs to be able to transform into a warrior when called to, they also need to just as easily step out of warrior mode.
Cultural Disconnect Between Law Enforcement and Society
It is important law enforcement remember its role to serve at the will and pleasure of the people, and only so far as the laws allows. Disconnecting from those we serve, losing touch with – and understanding of – the culture of our communities, risks losing sight of their will and becoming self-serving.
This is not to say lawlessness should be ignored or situational ethics and enforcement become the norm, but understanding the needs of the community, as perceived by the community, and remaining a part of the community, able to engage it constructively, is essential. If cops and agencies are not proactive, empathetic, and engaged they will be forced into awkward reaction when ugly situations and controversy arise, and the fallout will only worsen the disconnect between police and the citizens they protect and serve.
Maintaining perspective and possessing insight are vitally important to officer survival, not only emotionally but even physically, as we move through a period of relative unrest and weakened trust between communities and cops. Be proactive, purge unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and stay safe!