Can caring too much be dangerous for cops? Is empathy in a police officer a strength or liability? Do certain personal attributes, perhaps including a left-leaning political affiliation, endanger a cop emotionally?
The importance of and need for greater empathy in law enforcement – being able to sense another’s emotions, and to imagine, understand, and share in how another might be feeling – is something we have written much about, both directly and in conjunction with different aspects of policing. This seems especially true with the expanded formalized roles officers are expected to take on when responding to mental health and domestic issues, engaged in community policing, and working with and understanding increasingly diverse populations.
Recent research raises some concerns about how more empathic officers find their emotional state and responses affected, and how effectively they are able to do the job over time. Police work is a psychologically dangerous career, and the research seems to indicate certain personality traits may be risk factors, including one of the very traits we encourage and believe important.
Dr Shefali Patil, an assistant professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted research in which she surveyed 164 police officers in two cities, in which she first asked them questions gauging the extent they believed the public underestimated or misunderstood the demands of the job.*
She then examined their attitudes and beliefs about how the criminal justice system should operate; for instance, did the officers see the goal of criminal justice as rehabilitative or punitive? Did they believe cops should be more engaged and cooperative with the community or should a distant, tough-on-crime-and-criminals approach prevail?
For Dr Patil, the question of whether police believe their communities and people they serve view them less than sympathetically or with a great deal of misunderstanding is important; she ponders how well the officers in question will perform their duties and fare in a perceived hostile culture. According to Patil, “…that has to be a vital concern in this environment. Studies in other fields have shown that this kind of ‘image discrepancy’ — a mismatch between how people see themselves and how they think others see them — can hurt job performance… it’s hard to interact constructively with someone who has false assumptions about you.” (from “Empathetic Cops are Less Happy, Struggle More on the Beat” by Lee Simmons; Texas McCombs, June 2018)
Interestingly, when almost 800 body camera captured public interactions of the surveyed officers (stops, arrests, crashes, transports, calls for service, etc) were evaluated the officers who felt they were misunderstood performed on par with their peers who did not share the sentiment. But when officers felt the public viewed them unfairly, regardless of their policing philosophy and performance, they struggled emotionally with the discrepancy between what they knew or believed to know about themselves and what the public they served believed about them and the job itself, and they struggled to maintain their effectiveness over time.
Of particular note was when Patil took into consideration officers’ ideological views, in which…
…a different — and startling — picture emerged: More conservative officers, those with a strict law-and-order outlook or who equated justice with punishment, were more likely to think the public misunderstood them, but that didn’t faze them. “The conservative officers were completely fine,” Patil says.
But cops who thought about the social causes of crime and favored a more compassionate, rehabilitative brand of justice — in short, those with traditionally liberal ideals — were another matter: When they felt the public viewed them unfairly, these officers often struggled.
Now, understand, the pieces from which we’re quoting and that first brought to light Dr Patil’s findings are to some extent equating empathy with more liberal views, which may not be entirely fair; conservatives can and are empathetic while having very different ideas about how best to respond to that which tweaks their empathy. What seems most important is that of the “traditional liberal values” referenced above or the officers’ self-described ideology. Continuing…
…Why the difference? “Conservative cops believe there should be a divide between themselves and the community,” Patil explains. “They’re not looking to start a dialogue. They see their position as one of authority, and that means keeping a certain distance. They expect conflicts and complaints and just discount them. It fits their worldview.
Liberal officers, on the other hand, are more inclined to listen, but what they hear may rattle them. If their efforts to connect with the community are rebuffed, these cops may find themselves without a compass. For them, misaligned expectations can lead to debilitating stress, Patil says. “It creates uncertainty about how to respond in tense situations, to protect themselves and to present an image of legitimacy.
In other words, she says, having an adversarial attitude may help officers cope with public animosity.
The irony is that this antagonistic approach to policing is what causes the animosity in the first place. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle that’s very hard to break.”
- from Simmons, Texan McCombs
Police departments and officers can find themselves in a predicament. As departments struggle to connect with communities where there has historically been distrust of, and animosity toward, the men and women trying to protect them, the choice is between acting on the populace or acting with them cooperatively. The former fosters distance, some disconnection, and quite possibly distrust, the latter requires connection, communication, and empathy. And as departments focus on diversity in their ranks, they should seek to draw from a variety of ideological perspectives as much as more obvious diversity indicators, but know that the harsh demands of policing may weigh heaviest on those most likely to embrace the principles of connection and compassion. Taking care of the officers who are most vulnerable should be a priority for departments, their peers, and the officers themselves. Keeping good cops engaged, healthy, and in the profession will demand it. Taking care of yourself if you are in the latter, more vulnerable camp is something we can help you do now. In our next article, we will look at strategies to protect yourself emotionally and physically if you are at risk of “caring too much.”
*Although Dr Patil’s research is intriguing and should certainly be further explored and expanded upon, note that it is based upon a small and limited sample of officers in two department. All such academic research must be critically examined and considered in its own context, including for bias, limitations, and confounding variables. That said, it appears, at least for the officers surveyed by Patil, there is a correlation between their ideological viewpoints, personality characteristics, and operational philosophies and how they report being affected by the job and its demands. In light of Dr Patil’s research focus, her findings are worthy respect and further study, and serious consideration by law enforcement.