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To separate oneself or one's group to say, "Oh, no, we are different" is to set oneself against wholeness. To separate ourselves from the whole is to cut our options and erect the walls of our own prison. When we create duality in our thoughts and lives, we have created opposition.
- Joseph Campbell
There s a very dangerous idea tightly embraced by many in law enforcement that, although it s based on some real truths and held onto for the purpose of self-preservation, can destroy the emotional and physical health of those who too readily accept it. It goes something like this:Us cops, we are different from everyone else. We see things and know things about the way the world really is that most people could never imagine. No one else can ever understand except another cop, no matter what, so it s best to just stick with our own kind. I never even bother trying to interact with civilians off the job; it will just end up badly anyway.
Now, as we said, there certainly is some truth to that idea. Youaredifferent. Youdosee and know things most people never will, but socially isolating oneself from the whole non-law enforcement world isn t a very practical or safe thing to do. Unfortunately, it s exactly what too many LEOs ultimately do. As we refer to social isolation, this is this type we mean.
In our first two articles in this series on personal balance Are You Unbalanced? andRegaining Your Balance we first encouraged self-reflection by means of a series of questions to determine if you re leading a whole and well-balanced life. Next, we presented five practices designed to help you regain balance that may have been compromised or lost over time. Creating a self-imposed social isolation from all people and activities that aren t part of the law enforcement world is a common reaction. It s also a prominent cause of a personal imbalance. Overcoming that isolation and expanding personal horizons beyond the law enforcement world is critical to reestablishing balance.
The Roots of Social Isolation Among LEOs
The social isolation of a police officer usually begins early in his or her career, and its roots can be traced to two different, but often interconnected, sources. The first source is logistical and simple to understand; shift work, frequently rotating shift assignments, unpredictable work hours, and a job that must be staffed without regard for weekends and holidays places a police officer's available time-off at odds with that of old friends and family. Some research suggests it s during the first six years of an officers career, when seniority is low and the officer is most likely to work the shifts that run counter to those of most other jobs, that the path to social isolation is established and made habit.
The second source of isolation in some ways builds off the first but is more insidious and serves to perpetuate continued isolation, even when it s no longer necessary. Throughout the years on the job, a police officer begins building a knowledge bank that s essential for the officer s physical survival and professional success. The officer learns things don t always appear as they really are: People deceive for understandable, even inscrutable, reasons, and for absolutely no reason: The nice, outgoing couple everyone in the neighborhood likes regularly get screeching drunk and pound the tar out of each other behind closed doors; and last year's homecoming king deals coke. Violence can come from the most unlikely of people. The officer progresses from naive to suspicious to cynical, and eventually decides to simply isolate into the world that s known and trusted the law enforcement world. Even the non-LEOs rosier worldview is eventually treated with condescension and cynicism ( How in the world can these people NOT see the world as it really is? ). The officer retreats to the company of the like-minded.
For awhile, the officer may even try to remain a part of the outside, non-LEO world. An effort is made to stay in touch with old friends, and maybe even to remain connected to places where new friendships can be cultivated. But the fact that there is something different about the LEO often becomes the 800-lb. gorilla in the room. Walking into a party and hearing, Uh oh, better watch what we say now. The law is here to keep an eye on us, is understood as a joke but nonetheless twists a bit in the gut. Conversation about an innocuous, neutral topic somehow turns into another boring recitation of how someone's friend was unfairly targeted for heavy-handed enforcement so the cop could meet his (imagined but assumed to be real) quota. Sarcasm toward, anger at or misunderstanding of law enforcement expressed by non-LEOs in the officer's presence makes it clear: You are forever a little apart from the very world you are sworn to protect. You see and know things most people never will. You are different.
Ask most cops who they feel most comfortable with, who they socialize with, who they want to be with, besides their family, and they ll likely say other cops. Sometimes they even prefer the company of other cops over that of their families. There s safety and understanding within the LEO world. To be fair, most people want to be around others with shared experience and worldview and actively pursue relationships with those people, and cops are no different in that regard. What is different is the tendency of many to not merely gravitate toward the familiar and safe, but to actively isolate from those who are different.
For awhile this works. The young officer is working hard, having fun, learning and building relationships with other cops, and the roots of future social isolation are planted without notice. Family events are missed, but never a shift party. Calls from old friends grow infrequent they just know you can t make it to the barbecue, christening or reunion because of your weird schedule, so why bother asking and eventually stop altogether, and you re too busy with your new friends to miss them. Formerly favorite pastimes are set aside to gather dust, but who has time for those things anyway? Besides, life changes for everyone. Most people lose touch with old friends over time. Families scatter as kids grow up, become adults and take on new lives. Old pastimes are set aside and new ones adopted.
But change rolls on. The officer's new friends get married, have kids or take on different assignments and are no longer as available as before. The officer's own spouse or partner might tug on the reins to say working 3 11 p.m. and then hanging with your coworkers all night after is not acceptable anymore. The officer's colleagues might be more balanced and maintain social connections beyond the law enforcement world. The tight social connections within the department itself begin to loosen and the officer is now not only feeling isolated from the non-LEO world, but also isolated within the only world that felt socially comfortable before.
Social isolation doesn t affect every LEO in the same way. We understand this. Some may never even experience it at all, but to others it deals a blow that can damage lives, relationships, careers and the profession itself. In our next column we are going to look at the dangers social isolation presents.