FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
So far in this series on "Police Isolation," and in its related series on "Personal Balance," we've been focusing on the risks to law enforcement officers leading unbalanced and often socially isolated lives. Although by no means universal or inevitable--there are many fine and dedicated officers who step away from work and into a wholly different role at the end of each workday--there's enough truth to the characterization that it has spawned its own stereotype in literature and on film. Most of you can probably think of someone in your agency who fits the bill--maybe even you now or at some point in your career.
In our final piece in the series, we're going to take a different tack and examine how the tendency for many police officers to isolate themselves from anything outside the law enforcement world can ultimately harm their beats, their communities and their profession. The risks of isolation affect not just the individual and his or her family, but the police mission as well. In Part II, we discussed a number of risks related to police isolation that the individual officer faces. Now, we examine a few that you will see have a direct impact on the community as well, starting with depression.
Police Isolation and Its Threat to the Community
Depression is a very personal psychological, and sometimes biological, state. It does have a professional manifestation, however, that you may better know asburnout. Professional burnout can take the form of exhaustion (often despite getting enough sleep), boredom, stress, lack of motivation, lack of interest or loss of purpose on the job. Its effects may be restricted to the workplace, lifting once you're on your way home at the end of the day, or infiltrate time away from work. Burnout is actually very common in every profession at some time or another, and over time almost everyone will experience it. Its impact, however, can vary greatly among individuals. For some, burnout occupies a temporary season in their lives. Others may experience it as a waxing and waning, always temporary but looming. But for some, burnout is a chronic condition permeating every aspect of the professional self.
The problem of the burned-out cop for the community is that "mission disconnect" often occurs. Maybe you're the type who can feel burnout yet work through it with no ill effects on your job performance or productivity. If so, good for you, but are you sure? For most cops there's quite a difference between the investment and energy, and subsequent productivity, of their early, more idealistic selves and the more settled, steady, patient officer they have (or will) become.
For most burned-out cops there's a similar difference between who they used to be and who they have become. If someone is burned out are they less effective? Less likely to write timely and complete preliminary or follow-up reports? Less proactive and enforcement-oriented? Less invested in the community? More focused on collecting a paycheck, avoiding trouble and making it to the pension at the end of the road than on providing service and protection in the moment? That's what we mean by "mission disconnect." The burned-out cop is no longer invested in the job, and the community suffers. Have you ever been irritated by poor, inattentive, unmotivated service given by a waiter who clearly no longer gives a damn? How much more important than a cheeseburger is an officer's attention to duty?
Loss of Trust and Cynicism
Cynicism and losing trust in people may be something a burned-out officer experiences, but this can happen to even motivated, highly invested officers. That highly motivated officer, however, is more likely to lose connection with real society--that is, the world he is supposed to be protecting--in response to cynicism.
Dennis Conroy and Karen Hess, inOfficers at Risk, point out that having distrust is an essential survival mechanism while on duty. A successful cop learns to never take what someone presents or says on faith; being lied to comes to be expected. Suspects lie, witnesses lie, and even legitimate victims lie to protect themselves or others or present their position in what they believe to be the best possible light to the officer. In turn, the successful cop knows to always be on the alert for subterfuge and begins to see and hear everything with--arguably necessary--jaded eyes and ears. The problem is that many cops lose the ability to accept when someoneis being truthful and accepts only this on faith--that peoplealways lie,always have an angle,always possess a hidden agenda. Over time, genuine concern for people turns to contempt based on this grossly overgeneralized assumption.
Development of the "Us vs. Them" Mentality
The "Us vs. Them" mindset is the direct descendent of distrust and cynicism, but takes them a large step further. The "us" in this case are law enforcement, usually officers and sometimes their ancillary colleagues, who police a community. The "them" are initially the communities criminal element: predators targeted by the police in order to protect the good people of the community. Now, there's really nothing so wrong with that at first glance, it's the identity of the thin blue line standing between law and disorder, good and evil. But as distrust and cynicism grow, so do the number counted as "them."
Initially reserved for the inveterate criminal, the list begins to expand as the officer adds more and more to it. No longer limited to the incorrigible, anyone who has serious--or maybe even minor--scrapes with the law can be added as one of "them." People disappoint again and again, criminal acts come from unexpected sources, and the young officer not only sees but learns to anticipate the ugliest side of human nature in the most deceptively ordinary places.
And worse, it's not just the roster of people marching in and out of the jail who eventually are added to the list of "them." Continuous citizen complaints, media criticism complete with hate-spewing attacks by the blogging heads, manipulative lawyers and often unfathomable judicial decisions combine over time to further convince some officers of the validity of 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.
Adopting the Warrior Mentality as a Normalized Mindset
It's not unusual for police officers to develop the perception they work in a combat zone. In fact, there are many places in America today, both urban and rural, where the realities of policing support it. And recent tragedies--think Oakland, Calif., and Lakewood, Wash., among many others--graphically emphasize the risks of policing. Sudden, explosive violence can erupt anytime and anywhere, out of ordinary circumstances.
We would never suggest letting down your guard. You must remain aware of your surroundings and myriad risks you might encounter, whether your beat is an urban ghetto, a rural county dotted with hidden Meth labs or an upscale suburb where nothing ever happens. The desperate or unhinged can lurk behind any door and emerge unexpectedly during the most routine call. And you must be prepared and trained to meet violence with violence when necessary and without hesitation.
The warrior mentality works well in preparation for confrontation or combat, and you must be ready to step into either at a moment's notice. Teaching its necessity is a critical component for officer survival; if a cop has never had to suddenly transition from alert readiness to actively fighting with a subject it is because he or she has not had toyet. Winning, possibly even surviving, the confrontation depends upon successfully transitioning to a warrior in the moment.
Many officers have adopted the warrior mentality as their normalized mindset. They view themselves as soldiers in the war on drugs, the war on crime and the war on social decay. They emphasize their role as crime fighters, while losing sight of the fact that, realistically, much of their job has little to do with actual crime fighting. Although the warrior mentality works well in certain circumstances, "it is equally important to balance [this] warrior attitude with that of social service." Social service, you say? Yes, much of what you do is social service. What else would you call these common but unheralded duties: conflict mediation; responding to nonviolent domestic situations; offering referrals to appropriate service providers; community liaison work; responding to complaints from and about the mentally ill; assisting the homeless, sick, and confused; arbitrating neighborhood problems; and the innumerable other tasks you are expected to do every day?
The problem with the warrior mentality is that "it may distort perceptions of police work, and similarly, the effectiveness of service." A warrior fights an enemy--needs an enemy--and needs to be on guard against that enemy but if an officer has normalized the warrior mentality or is unable to balance that aspect with one of public servanthood, then it's likely everyone will be assumed as the enemy and treated as such.
Cultural Disconnect Between Law Enforcement and Society
Societies and cultures evolve. For better or worse, societal evolution is inevitable. Whether any particular change should be celebrated or mourned is in the eye of the beholder, but there is no denying our culture in 2010 is vastly different than it was in 1970, and 1970 was a world removed from even 10 or so years before.
We mention the years leading up to the early 1970s deliberately; they were years of great cultural change that had a profound effect on law enforcement and how it is done today. The actions of, and reactions to, the cops of that generation and their actions in cities as diverse as Chicago, Birmingham, Little Rock and San Francisco have impacted policing decades later. While many agencies and officers were able to adapt and change, faithfully recognizing their role as enforcers of the laws without prejudice, so as to help orderly facilitate the coming and inevitable changes, others saw themselves as protectors of the status quo and stood ready to put down what they saw as a revolution to be feared. Those cops who stood with integrity against disorder and lawbreaking in a difficult era should be honored, but those who sought to oppress the lawful who merely held radical ideas or who responded to otherwise peaceable protestors with inordinate force, should be remembered for the legacy they wrought.
It is important we in law enforcement remember our role. We serve at the will and pleasure of the people, and only so far as the laws allow us. When we become isolated or disconnected from those we serve, we may lose sight of their will and become self-serving or out-of-touch. This is not to say you, as a citizen and voter, should have no say as an individual or that the profession of law enforcement should have no input into policy. The input of law enforcement and its practitioners is critical. Equally critical is that law enforcement and its practitioners remain vitally connected to the society and people we serve and steadfastly resist the urge to isolate institutionally or as individuals.
- Conroy, Dennis and Hess, Karen.Officers at Risk. Custom Publishing Co, California. 1992.
- Modell, Scott J and Cropp, Dave.Police Officers and Disability: Perceptions and Attitudes. American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 2007.
- Chevigny, P.Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas. New Press, New York, NY. 1995.