Police Psychology | The Noble Cause of Policing
by Mark Foreman, PsyD
“. . . every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.”
– Robert Kennedy, 25 September 1963 –
As I sit down to write, the 2016 Democratic National Convention is due to kick off in just a few hours. I recall, though only vaguely, the Democratic National Convention of 1968. That DNC was held amidst a year of violent protests. Protests against the Vietnam War and about civil rights. The year 1968, had also spawned the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Historically, the 1968 DNC has been repeatedly used as a focal point of change in American law enforcement. Police conduct during the protests was scrutinized, criticized, and in some cases condemned.
Law enforcement today has morphed into a profession rather than merely a blue collar job. Up until the 1970s, law enforcement hiring practices rarely entailed psychological screening nor post-secondary education. Officers hired today typically have significant college education experience and have passed rigorous background and psychological screening.
Law enforcement officers hail from all walks of life. They represent the diversity of the American and world fabric. To an extent law enforcement officers possess three traits that separate them from those they serve and protect.
First is the Noble Cause – Wanting to make the world a safer place; A better place; To right wrongs and protect the weak or less fortunate. Many professions share this first trait. Michael Caldero and John Crank in their book, Police Ethics: Corruption of the Noble Cause, have identified police corruption as an artifact of the Noble Cause being eroded or not present. Officer mental health and sense of Self identity can also be impacted when the Noble Cause is unduly challenged.
Second, Smelling the Victims’ Blood. Sometimes this trait is literally active. Frequently it is more of a metaphor. It is the ability to stand present, repeatedly, in others’ adversity and suffering. Every radio call, every contact with a citizen has the potential of presenting officers with someone’s emotional and physical suffering. There are other professions that engage this trait as well.
This last trait when present in concert with the Noble Cause and Smelling the Victims’ Blood is what sets law enforcement apart from the rest of society. Law enforcement officers are continually, almost constantly under constant threat of personal safety as they move to protect the public they serve.
As a matter of course, officers move toward danger while others are running away, freezing or hiding. Law enforcement officers push their body and Self forward, toward situations that their very nature would suggest a different response. They Run to the Tower.
These three traits employed in concert are what set law enforcement apart from other careers and professions. When news of officer ambushes and murders come into awareness. Law enforcement officers hundreds or thousands of miles away sense and feel threatened. Individually and as a collective their sense of Noble Cause is dinged or cracked. The Noble Cause is repeatedly challenged and threatened as hateful rhetoric is bandied about. As a profession most are able to continue to remain steadfast, stand tall, with strength of heart and compassion to perform and employ those other two core traits.
Law enforcement officers move through their careers balancing within a paradox. “Law enforcement is a dangerous profession” with “It won’t happen to me.” Events such as the recent ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge tend to dampen the sense “That won’t happen to me” and underscores how dangerous the profession can be.
What drives that sense of Noble Cause? One important aspect of the Noble Cause is the condition of compassion. Compassion can be simply stated as a desire to relieve another’s suffering. Hence, that strong sense of wanting to make the world a better place. Joan Halifax, a hospice caregiver and anthropologist suggests that the primary blockage to our ability to be compassionate is fear.
Fear and compassion operate within us as opposing forces. Fear activates the sympathetic nervous system. Compassion initiates the parasympathetic nervous system in an effort to sooth and calm the sympathetic nervous system.
Police work in general, but more specifically employ the Running to the Tower trait repeatedly, keeps the law enforcement officer’s body in a steady fear state. The parasympathetic nervous system becomes fatigued and begins to be less accessible. The result is compassion fatigue. In 2009, Laura van Dernoot-Lipsky and Connie Burk reported individuals working in professions with a strong sense of Noble Cause are susceptible to experiencing compassion fatigue.
In times of great stress, such as the occurrences of police officer deaths, ambushes, and murders, individual as well as entire collectives of officers may experience a heightened sense of personal fear and a sense of helplessness of impending harm. That enduring state can interfere with individuals’ ability to tap into a compassionate stance.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D. researches compassion and has identified three primary ways it is experienced. We can hold compassion for others, we can receive compassion from others and we gave give ourselves compassion. Dr. Neff identified that many of us hold a fear of compassion. Especially a fear of Self-compassion or of opening to ourselves to receiving it from others. Law enforcement officers are especially averse to Self-compassion and of receiving compassion. Sometimes to the extent that of sensing they do not deserve it.
Self-compassion and receiving compassion from others is major antidote to relieving the effects of the heightened fear state experienced during these volatile times. As each individual taps into their unique sense of Noble Cause and their drive to relieve others’ suffering, they can become Self-aware as to whether their ability to hold compassion is being overly challenged. To shore up that compassionate way of being can ensure that each officer can maintain the milk of human kindness.
Law enforcement officers are feeling emotionally and physically vulnerable. When we feel emotionally vulnerable, we can inevitably develop a sense that we do not matter or are not worthy. Brene Brown, Ph.D. reports that Self-compassion and opening to receive compassion from others are powerful mechanisms for soothing emotional vulnerability. The result is further development of courage or strength of heart.
When faced with adversity, our challenge is to “Forge meaning, build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.”
– Andrew Solomon, 2014 –
Life is suffering. Suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance produces character. Character forges hope.
– B. Obama July 12, 2016 –
Many law enforcement agencies periodically move times of unrest, either internally as a result of officer misconduct or community unrest. Agency interactions with the community have forever influenced police behaviors and actions. In the 1980s into the early 1990s crime rates nationwide were at their highest level ever. One west coast, major-city department held an unenviable position of leading the nations’ police departments in line-of-duty officer deaths. During that era, that department also went through major corruption scandals including accusations that police officers had been involved in murders of prostitutes.
The Department and the community worked fervently to make positive change. That department adapted and became a leader in problem and community oriented policing and the subsequent decades saw officer line-of-duty deaths reduce significantly.
The present challenges scream for maintaining individual and Departmental sense of the Noble Cause. Tending individually and departmentally to strengthening compassion will result in holding true to the Noble Cause.
The bottom line is that police officers are just like everyone else. They have a need to know they matter and what they do matters.
Just as law enforcement moved through voracious changes in the 1960s thru 1970s following the ’68 DNC, Watt’s Riots, civil unrest, war protests, Kent State student killings, the nation is experiencing major social changes on many fronts. Those changes are challenging policing and will result in changes the community insists on. Navigating through those changes will be possible and less painful based on how law enforcement and community leaders can let officer know they matter.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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