Becoming a cop at age 30 was the fulfillment of a childhood dream deferred and almost forgotten. I’d applied to a few departments right out of college only to discover that my terrible eyesight doomed any chance I had. I had given up on it but sometimes circumstances change, medical advances are made, and dreams are reborn. When I finally got into law enforcement I entered the field with not only the pride and excitement most young cops feel, but an extra helping of gratitude.
Also, surgically repaired eyesight or not, I never would have started applying again had Althea not undergone a change of heart to lend her blessing and support to the dream; before, she was firm that she didn’t want to be married to a cop because of the danger, because of the lifestyle, and because she knew how challenging it was to relationships. Ultimately, it was she who reintroduced me to the idea and acted as my biggest cheerleader.
So, when I entered the academy at age 30 I was somewhat older than most of my academy classmates. When I got to the street, many of the cops I was working with were younger but had several years of police experience already. Conversely, I had more life experience than many of them, was attending grad school for social work, and had built a diverse work history including significant and varied experience in the mental health field.
Learning it’s “Not Just a Job”
One of the benefits of starting a little later, I believed, was that I’d go into policing with a greater maturity and insight that would protect me from the cynicism and disillusionment that seemed to infect so many others that came before me. I knew myself, had been through burnout and cynicism before working with difficult populations, and would avoid the “inevitable” slide into jaded pessimism cops seemed to take for granted.
Law enforcement’s toll on its practitioners was no secret to me. Having found my dad’s copy of The New Centurions as a kid – a life-changing discovery! – I’d devoured all the Joseph Wambaugh books, then moved on to police procedurals, movies, and police TV shows of all kinds. I was a devoted student of all of them, especially those that pulled no punches about the impact of the job on those who did it.
But I was sure I was smarter; I would stay idealistic in the face of human frailty and failure. I had worked with challenging populations for years and was studying for my Masters in Social Work, after all, so what could shock me into cynicism if that hadn’t already?
And then, reality; just a few short years on the job and I was feeling disillusioned, cynical, and burned out. I even started wondering if following my dream had been a mistake, but leaving was out of the question, too, for my entire personal identity had become simply “Cop.” Law enforcement is a career that gets in your blood and infects your heart and mind even while it molds the way you think, perceive, and react in ways you never expected or wanted.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a cop, or identifying as a law enforcement officer, but I started to see the downside of such simple identification. When that identity supersedes all else about you, then maybe it is time to question its power over you. It took a toll on me, and on the other young cops around me. I began seeing cynicism supplant idealism in my highly motivated, well-educated, enthusiastic peers. I saw it in myself and realized I wasn’t so smart, after all.
Maybe there was a very good reason for the police stereotyping in popular fiction? Maybe the stresses of the job did wear on those who practiced it day after day?
Maybe it’s not even possible to avoid or dig out from the cynicism connected to law enforcement, the emotional wear and tear on those who live the police life, or the physical and psychological damage that has such negative impacts on health and relationships? Maybe this choice of career dooms us all, in a way? Maybe, but I didn’t think so and together Althea and I decided to protect ourselves from the “inevitable” slide into permanent cynicism.
The Tendency Toward Self-Imposed Isolation
One of the most significant problems affecting some cops — not all, of course, but enough to be obvious — is a self-imposed social isolation. It is not uncommon for officers to withdraw into an insular “police-centric” shell, isolating from past interests, non-LEO relationships, old friends, and sometimes even family.
It usually begins early in a career and can be traced to two different but interconnected sources. The first is simply logistical; shift work, frequently changing shift assignments or selection to units with unpredictable hours, and a job that must be staffed without regard for weekends and holidays puts the young officer’s schedule at odds with old friends and family. It is usually within the first six years on the job that the path to social isolation is established and made into habit.
The second source is insidious and serves to perpetuate continued isolation, even when it is no longer necessary. After years on the job, the officer has built a knowledge bank essential for his or her physical survival and professional success, but stored knowledge is beyond the scope of most other peoples’ experience and understanding, and often focused on the dark and sinister side of humanity. Social interaction with those outside the police world might even become wearying or stress-inducing, as young cops marvel at the naiveté and annoyance of “normal people”, or find themselves unable to let down their suspicion of others’ motives or sincerity.
After perhaps trying to stay connected to the outside world for a while, many young officers finally just give in, progressing from naive to suspicious to cynical, and eventually decide to simply isolate into the known and trusted law enforcement world.
On one level this makes sense. But then the job becomes all-consuming, life becomes one-dimensional, workplace dysfunctions (and we all know law enforcement is chock full of workplace dysfunctions) overwhelming, the worldview skews unrealistically, and emotional wellbeing suffers.
The unfortunate truth is that far too many officers suffer not just from professional burnout but also depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, broken relationships, and other dysfunctions stemming from (or worsened by) the stresses of a law enforcement lifestyle. Family and home life suffer, and isolation often bleeds from the officer to his or her spouse/partner, kids, and sometimes even extended family. Althea and I saw this in the cops and their families around us and, increasingly, in ourselves. We have since made a concerted effort to counter the slide into isolation and cynicism, protect our own emotional wellness, and put the personal over the professional, without letting quality of our professional lives slip. We applied the principles learned and practiced as social workers and in the field of mental health to our own lives, and then formed More Than a Cop as a vehicle to present them to others.
Being “more than a cop” means staying well-rounded — embracing all facets of your life. It means playing harder than we work, realizing work is first and foremost a means to an end, putting the other over self, and always protecting our own emotional and physical wellness from the dark and sinister.
We’ve had the privilege and pleasure of writing for Officer.com for over a decade now, with a primary focus on how officers can best take care of themselves and their families, peers, and subordinates physically, emotionally, and spiritually in a demanding and often dangerous career, often through the prisms of relationships, ethics, and leadership. We’ve occasionally gone deep into law enforcement’s relationship to and responsibility for persons with mental illness – always a serious and primary concern of law enforcement but perhaps more than ever now – by providing psychoeducation into some of the common psychological disorders cops are likely to encounter, and best practices for response. And most recently, we’ve offered opinion and insight into how departments can reach out to the next generation of potential cops and then support and nurture them once on the job.
Our suggestions and solutions for staying well-rounded and protecting your emotional and physical wellness can be found in our archived work, and we hope that if you’ve missed any of our many articles, or are just now reading us for the first time, you will go back and check them out. Maintaining physical and emotional health should be viewed as an essential job function, and one Althea and I – along with a small but devoted niche of officers and mental health professionals who have lent their writing and training talents to serving cops – have worked hard to assist you with.
Writing for Officer.com has been a remarkable experience, and one from which we’ve greatly benefited, but it is time to say good bye. We’ve said what we came to say and find it’s time to meet new and different challenges.
So, please, always remember to stay safe, strive to live a well-rounded life, and never, ever forget this job is supposed to be fun!