Does policing change the personalities of officers? Most would suggest that it does.
“Being a cop in a isn’t for sane people. Being a cop destroys your soul.”
Are we as a society doing everything we can to help officers cope with the realities of the job?
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr.
Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. Aspiring drummer.
There are hundreds of thousands of police officers who enjoy the job. They appreciate the respect and accolades that come with being a cop. They save lives, find missing children, arrest the violent and protect the vulnerable.
But every cop understands that there are issues that accompany the profession. I believe that most would say that the levels of stress have never been higher.
Does policing change the personalities of police officers? Most (including a new article below) suggest that it does.
I Knew A Woman
I knew a young, very educated woman who joined the Baltimore City Police. She wanted the city to pay for her continued doctoral education. She was idealistic, caring and leaned left as to her politics.
She was assigned to high crime areas and the impact of the job changed her, and not for the better.
She came to my apartment one evening, slammed the door and loudly proclaimed, “I have no idea as to how the f_____g people in my patrol area exist with all the violence. I don’t know how I’m going to cope with this s___t. Being a cop in a isn’t for sane people. Being a cop destroys your soul.”
She left policing following year.
PTSD, Suicides, Drug and Alcohol Use
As a former cop, I’ve had numerous conversations with officers as to the stress of the job. Virtually all say the same things. Policing can destroy your soul unless you have a strong support system.
After my first fatal accident (an elderly decapitated woman) where we had to crawl over her body to get to her husband (he died shortly after extraction), I tried processing my feelings. Friends and associates were worthless, they didn’t have a clue as to what I witnessed. But my fellow officers did and after copious amounts of liquor and “counseling,” I was able to process my thoughts.
The data on police PTSD, suicides, drug and alcohol use and general stress is well documented, see Police Stress.
Now we have an endless array of negative stories regarding police use of force and misconduct, USA Today.
The data states that policing is one of the most respected professions in the US and the world, and research documents that the overwhelming number of people stopped by law enforcement felt that they acted responsibly, Confidence in Police, but nevertheless, cops feel that they are under siege.
Retention and recruitment are becoming difficult. Deaths and assaults are climbing. Critics seem endless. Spouses are demanding that cops get out, and get out now, Crime in America.
What Happens When We Run Out Of Cops?
I previously wrote, What Happens When We Run Out of Cops? It was a bit of a play on words but now I’m not so sure.
The job affects your sense of humanity. I suspect that we recruit and train decent, unbiased people to be police officers who are corrupted not by their beliefs or prejudices, but by the job itself.
Why would any police department hire a person who is remotely suspected of inappropriate behavior or prejudice towards anyone? Considering the multi-million dollar settlements for bad decisions, agencies try their best to find the right people.
Police academies preach equality and adherence to constitutional principles under stressful conditions and you don’t graduate unless you demonstrate that you understand the limits of decorum and the law.
But how many domestic violence calls can you handle? How many people shot? How much blood? How many abused children? How much violence can you process?
The literature is filled with trauma-related research as to the detrimental impact of violence and the threat of violence on the lives of children and young adults in high crime areas yet there doesn’t seem to be a corollary concern for cops.
No Walk In The Park
There are articles addressing “all” cops as less than human and I’ve done my best to condemn them, Just As Every Cop Is A Criminal.
But as the article from The Crime Report (below) documents, being a cop is no walk in the park. The job affects officers personally and deeply. Take away the mantel of protectors, and you ask why you want to be or remain a cop.
I’ve been derisively called a police apologist and let the critics be damned, if they think being an officer doesn’t affect your mental health, they are kidding themselves. Without good cops, what would society do?
It’s time for us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask, what happens when we run out of cops? It’s equally time for governments to start protecting the mental and emotional health of police officers, USDOJ.
Yes, cops make mistakes and yes, there are those who shouldn’t be officers in the same way that priests, ministers, Boy Scout leaders, lawyers, politicians, reporters, and many others shouldn’t have their jobs.
But most people don’t have a clue what’s it like to witness endless acts of violence, smell the blood, see the gore, and endlessly encounter man’s inhumanity to man. We can ask all the pressing questions we want about the behavior of cops, just understand that their patience and humanity is not unlimited.
It may be time to look at law enforcement like we view military service, Military Service.
There really are bad people out there and they will do you and your family immense harm. It’s your right to be critical and to question cops, just understand that it’s their right to walk away from the job.
Police Contacts Down
Per Pew, 72% say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons. Overall, more than eight-in-ten (86%) say police work is harder today as a result of high-profile, negative incidents.
About nine-in-ten officers (93%) say their colleagues worry more about their personal safety – a level of concern recorded even before a total of eight officers died in separate ambush-style attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Cops Holding Back?
Maybe cops have already made their decisions to disengage. Ask the citizens of Baltimore and other high crime areas if they want more aggressive policing.
Are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Are we creating unrealistic expectations for cops?
No one is condoning illegal or unethical behavior, but the PTSD and suicide data is concerning. You just can’t experience what cops go through without it impacting who you are and what you wish to be.
If officers go wrong, and if we are doing everything possible to recruit fairminded, unbiased people, is it the job itself that’s creating personality or ethical problems?
Can you seriously suggest that if you were a cop, the stress wouldn’t impact you and the decisions you make?
Are we as a society doing everything we can to help officers cope with the realities of the job? The obvious answer is no.
Does that make us co-conspirators as to problems in policing? The obvious answer is yes.
The Ambiguous Reality of Police Integrity (edited for brevity)
In the wake of the 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., Americans demanded answers from police leaders across the U.S. to questions that have been simmering for decades.
Does racial bias influence police use of deadly force? What kind of training dictates the procedure for handling imminent harm?
With so much autonomy granted to law enforcement officers, the National Institute of Justice challenged researchers to delve deeper into a characteristic tied closely to ethical decision-making: officer integrity.
In an interview on the Command Post podcast, “The results of the first leg of the study were just as I expected them to be. There was no significant change in integrity levels in academy recruits after they completed training.”
Continuing the research, he again approached the study participants after they spent one year actively involved in the profession.
“Once they were out on the streets, experiencing the realities of the job, their results changed,” Dr. Blumberg acknowledged. “Very bluntly, we found a significant drop in participants’ integrity scores. It sounds kind of shocking to me, but it appears that police work played a part in lowering participants’ commitment to ethical principles.”
Officers from across the country chimed in with their perspectives after hearing Blumberg share his research on the Command Post podcast. Each provided limited personal details, preferring to remain as anonymous as possible.
Lieutenant Aaron, who has 17 years’ experience in urban policing, appreciated that someone bothered to ask the question.
“For most of us, integrity is a huge part of who we are and one of the reasons we became cops in the first place,” he said. “When cops use bad judgment and violate our code, it reflects poorly on all of us.
“I may not like hearing that the job makes it hard to do the right thing all the time, but I’ve been doing this long enough to admit that’s true.”
What is the right thing? Using the definition of integrity from a scale created and validated by Barry Schlenker, a professor at the University of Florida.
An officer responds to a domestic violence call. When he arrives, he finds a battered woman and her children living in squalor. It’s clear the kids are neglected – they haven’t been bathed in days and there’s no food in the house. He arrests the boyfriend, of course, but then turns to the children and has a difficult decision to make. The reality is, the victim – the woman – is a meth addict. She’s choosing to buy drugs instead of food, which also makes her the perpetrator.
The kids are the true victims and they need help. But, calling children’s services could mean that the kids end up in a dangerous foster care situation. They could be separated, which may psychologically harm them more than their current living situation. They could be exposed to any number of abuses, which would make their lives worse. What’s the black and white answer?
Officer integrity is an important quality to understand and, unfortunately, there is evidence that some officers do not make principled choices. This is why Blumberg’s research is so important. It provides is a clear starting point for the journey into the moral dilemmas facing police officers.