Police Psychology: Be the Solution, Not the Cause
by Lt. Jason Childers, Texas
We frequently hear about how stressful police work is, and the sacrifices we make in the service of our community is an oft-repeated narrative in police circles. The jerks we deal with on the street, the trauma of violent incidents, rotating shifts, the state of hypervigilance, concerns of personal safety and missed family time are all considered as sources of stress inherent to the job. These shared difficulties help to draw us together as a law enforcement family, but one factor consistently overlooked is that we are one of the main sources of our own problems. The cop staring back at you in the mirror may have more to do with causing job related stress than anything dealt with on the street. The good news is, the cop staring back at you in the mirror can also be part of the solution, especially if you’re a supervisor.
How was life when you entered the academy compared to how things are going today? With stringent entry-level standards in policing, most police officers begin their careers in excellent physical and mental health. Along the way, many officers develop signs and symptoms of stress which include poor job performance, sleep disturbances, marital discord, domestic violence, PTSD, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and even suicide. You’ve likely been through some of this yourself, or you’ve seen others deal with it.
But where does all of this come from?
The Source of Stress
There are generally two different types of stress: acute (immediate) and chronic (long-term). Acute stress is often associated with critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings or involvement in a violent situation. It is more easily identifiable than the long-term, chronic stress which develops slowly over time in an officer’s career. We talk about acute stress, we hold Critical Incident Stress Debriefings, and we send our officers for mental health care after major incidents. There is considerable improvement to be made in this area, but at least this type of stress is recognized, discussed, and steps are taken to mitigate its effects. However, do we consider the effects of chronic stress. Is our leadership – or lack thereof – the source?
In studies of police officer stress, many researchers are finding the primary cause is not the work itself, but the structural arrangements, practices, and policies of the organization which cause many police departments to be inhospitable workplaces where officers must deal with a wide variety of daily hassles created by the department. This comes from factors such as organizational politics, role conflicts, strained relationships between senior and junior officers, lack of clear communication, lack of administrative support, and inadequate training or equipment. In short, it comes from poor leadership, at all levels.
Leadership Style as a Source of Stress
There are many different leadership styles, but poor leadership in policing often takes one of two forms: authoritative or passive-avoidant. The authoritative leader exercises their power over others based on their rank, micromanages, and is often considered a “workplace bully.” This type of leadership almost develops naturally in police work. In the academy, in field training, and throughout our careers we are taught to be authority figures and to give orders with the expectation of immediate compliance from citizens. We are trained and equipped to resolve non-compliance through force if necessary. This mentality follows many as they promote, except other officers become the ones ordered around, and if they don’t immediately comply, the authoritative leader reverts to the same aggressive behavior which worked so well in dealing with citizens. In contrast, the passive-avoidant leader fails to exercise any authority and allows problems to spiral out of control. They excuse away misconduct, poor performance, and other employee issues. They also fail to train or equip their officers with the tools needed to do the job. Neither authoritative nor passive-avoidant leadership styles have a place in police work, but they are both commonplace.
There isn’t much we can do about the nature of the job itself. Police services must be provided 24/7, regardless of birthdays or holidays. Some people we deal with will be jerks. Violence will occur, and we must be ready for it. However, we don’t have to make life any more difficult than it already is for our officers. The common answer for police issues is more training, but more importantly than training is a long-term plan for the development of police leaders. Research has found officers’ job satisfaction is significantly impacted by supervisors’ hours of leadership training and level of education, and leadership skills themselves are best developed through a combination of education, experience, and mentorship. Leadership development plans should focus on training, formal education, and providing officers with opportunities to grow under the mentorship of experienced leaders. Lower levels of stress and fewer physical symptoms are associated with a police department which is viewed as supportive, but this view won’t develop without leaders who consistently have the best interests of their officers in mind. Additionally, these leaders are not likely to develop on their own without a solid leadership development plan.
We emphasize officer safety day in and day out, with the words “be safe” often exchanged as a farewell and at the beginning of each shift. The unknown and unforeseen danger from some unnamed assailant plays a constant role in a police officer’s daily life, but the reality is we are hurting our officers at a deeper level than anything they face on the street. If the goal is for our officers to be safe, happy, healthy, and productive, we need to make sure our workplaces and our leadership styles are in alignment.
If you’re an administrator, it is your responsibility to implement a leadership development plan for your entire department. If you’re not, stop waiting on the department and look for opportunities to develop your own skills. There is a wealth of information out there, including books, podcasts, blogs, and formal training and education. The EntreLeadership Podcast and Dr. Henry Cloud’s Leadership University podcast are two great starting points, and you can listen to them almost anywhere, whether at home, the gym, or while driving. Best of all, they’re free! If you enjoy reading, a simple search for the word “leadership” on Amazon yields over 190,000 results which can be filtered to several subcategories. If you prefer more formal training, regional leadership command colleges exist throughout the country, and most regional police academies offer courses on supervision and management. In addition, many university level criminal justice programs have a focus on management and leadership. With the rise in the number of online degree programs, shift work, time, and distance are no longer the impediments they once were for many officers wanting to finish their degree. Whatever you do, find what works for you, and never stop improving. Your fellow officers, your kids, and your spouse will thank you for it.
Site editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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