When I apologized to my barber for being too cynical, he replied, “That’s okay, I think you know too much.”
Society asks police officers to approach or confront strangers on its behalf. This is what patrol officers do for a living. Many of these strangers are not society’s success stories. What these strangers hide in their pockets, their waistbands, their minds—all is unknown to the officer. What will happen when an officer closes the gap on a stranger? We don’t know.
To be a safe and effective cop, we must advantage ourselves by being on guard for sudden violence. We develop a unique view of world. Kent Williams puts it best when he points out that cops necessarily learn to trust less and control more. Many cops start out like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts: loyal, helpful, courteous, and kind. But, as it turns out, it’s hard to make the world a better place. And trying to be as rough and tough as the rough and tough world they police can come with increased cynicism and estrangement or separation from the rest of society.
Along with paramedics, EMTs, firefighters and others, cops are exposed to psychological trauma—the sights and sounds of the suffering of others, and the suffering they themselves succumb to—but what makes police work standout among other public safety jobs are these problematic adaptations: trusting less and controlling more, being on guard for sudden violence, cynicism, and estrangement from society.
Though necessary for self-preservation, these adaptations and adjustments can get over-developed, out of balance, misplaced, and, quite simply, too much of a good thing. Cops can get lost in what started out as an effort to do good and be good. My observation is that cops have a lot of heart, and the bigger the heart, the bigger the heartache. To relieve cops of some of their sorrow, the stress of negativity, the fear that something unnatural has happened to them and fear that they have failed or are damaged, we should acknowledge that being a good cop requires adaptations that are both helpful and problematic.
Harm can come with the direct experience of being a cop: confronting strangers, picking up after other peoples’ violence and neglect, and being parental to the weak, frightened or uncivil. We are right to focus on physical fitness and skill practice for officer survival. But survival and living well also require mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Surviving as a cop requires more than just additional layers of armor. We also need the agility that comes with alertness and the peace of mind thataccompanies self-awareness.
Once we have mastered the fundamentals of street survival, the challenge is to move on. We must learn to be more selective about when and how we manage our reactions and impulses and look for ways to turn our problematic adaptations back towards the center and rebalance our power and might. While these problematic adaptations can seem out of our control and like things that have happened to us. Our distress is more likely due to neglect and inattention to our health and wellbeing, something we do or don’t do to ourselves. We must continue to adjust our thinking and adapt some more.
The Broken Window criminology theory can be applied to ourselves as we look for early signs of trouble. A good starting point is to pay attention to our mental and emotional distress. In the next article I will describe how we can become more resilient and develop greater emotional competence by practicing what I call the Important Pause.
As we work to meet our responsibilities to loved ones, career and community, we are right to focus on our own self-improvement. We should not pretend that good help is unavailable. It’s often only a phone call away. Self-help resources are within arm’s reach, and honest self-reflection is immediately available and waiting. This requires something we are fully capable of: to look within and take responsibility for our own happiness.