Dealing with other humans is often stressful. That fact isn’t unique to police officers. Anyone in retail, medicine, teaching or a host of other public contact jobs will have a story to tell. Police officers are almost always dealing with people who are not in their happiest moments. Nobody calls 911 to invite the precinct over for little Johnny’s 12th birthday party, but they will invite the police when little Johnny didn’t get the pony he wanted and is now on the roof shooting out windows with his BB gun.
Most police officers begin their careers with excitement about being able to help people in need. This idealism never dies, but it does take a beating. How do police officers survive emotionally under the constant barrage of other people’s problems?
One way is to be aware of the God Syndrome. This is the feeling that one must solve everyone’s problems and bear everyone’s burdens. It is an ethos associated with all helping professions and many religious inclinations. It is also not possible and not healthy. Giving someone advice, resources, and allowing them to accept consequences for their own choices are things that helpers can do.
Police officers also have to be careful not to take things personally. Many police officers have used the “not in my town” lecture. Responsibility for a shift, geographic boundary, and maintaining peace rests on the officers’ shoulders, but ownership does not. A driver racing through the streets can be personally offensive to a police officer who cares about the safety of the community, but it is not an insult to the individual officer. Accepting stewardship of the grave responsibility of enforcing the law is different than accepting ownership of the law. Staying objective is a stabilizing influence
A challenge for police officers is dealing with stress. It would not be wise for a police officer to eliminate stress. It is essential for survival. The alertness required to be aware of threats protects officers. Short of paranoia, an officer realizes that they are always a potential target and that things can go from calm to chaos in a matter of seconds. Complacency is not acceptable even in the most mundane activities. This creates a set of biochemicals in the body that keep an officer in a state of readiness, but that chemistry must be diffused to reactivate at the appropriate time. That means rest, recreation, quiet reflection, and healthy relationships. Preventing stress is different than being resilient in a stressful world.
Officers also have to be able to accept failure and loss. The public expects a perfect ending to every situation, and so do the officers making critical decisions. But sometimes things simply don’t work out. Officers may be gifted with intuition born of experience, but they are not gifted with the ability to foretell the future. A decision made based on facts known at a given moment is a good decision, even if the outcome is not a good one. Accepting that sometimes the bad guy gets away, an innocent person gets arrested, or not taking action ends up leaving a person in a dangerous situation. Compare it to the medical field where not every patient gets the right treatment or survives the surgery. One can only do the best one can do.
Officers must delay emotional responses. Empathy has its place, but citizens expect their police to be compassionate without being overcome by their feelings. First responders are the ones who stay calm and stoic. Extreme sadness must wait. Anger must be suppressed. Frustration must be muted. Too often, these feelings don’t merely wait to be expressed in a safe place but are simply pushed aside to collect for another day. Even worse, the officer may forget how to have many feelings at all.
Law enforcement officers must be diligent and intentional in maintaining their emotional equilibrium. The public can help by showing their support and appreciation. Hearing “thank you for your service” may sound trite, but it is a little ray of sunshine in an officer’s day.
Joel Shults, Ed.D, is a retired police chief. He is an award winning writer, college professor, trainer, and first responder chaplain. He is the author of several law enforcement related books and articles. Shults currently serves as a municipal judge and a coroner’s investigator in rural southern Colorado.
This article originally appeared at National Police Association.