In police work, we know what it is to be generalized as a group. We know that it is not just the tree that suffers the reputation and shame of the bad apple, but the whole orchard. When one officer acts poorly, that blemish is felt across not just their department or region, but through the policing profession as a whole.
We know the dangers of generalization. Good cops doing good work know that painting with a broad brush is exactly what causes social ills like profiling, prejudice, and bias-based actions. Yet, as a profession we are forced to wear the stains of our peers and predecessors. It can be damaging organizationally. It can be jarring personally. It can take a toll emotionally.
Validate your Feelings
Feel confused? Feel frustrated? Angry? Good. Be aware of your feelings so you can process them. Like all problem solving, you can’t fix the issue until you appropriately diagnose it. Mental health awareness is critical to health and performance of all police officers. Thus, continue to do your self-check ins and work toward finding what helps you process your stress. Exercise and spend time with your family. Interact with nature and explore your faith. Journal and engage in your hobbies outside of work. Whatever it is that promotes your personal healthy life practice will help you process this.
Connect with Your Peers
Fortunately, mental and emotional health are becoming less stigmatized in emergency response. Although we are in a better place than ever before, there is much more work to be done and awareness to be built. Be an advocate for your peers and team. More departments are starting peer support programs, where confidential interaction is protected. If you are unsure of your department’s peer support dynamics, check with your policies and state laws. Although building a peer support program is optimal, peer support as a concept does not require an official program.
It is everyone’s responsibility to build a culture of peer support. You don’t have to be an official team member to check in and see how your coworkers or crew are doing. If you have concerns and stressors, chances are someone else has the exact same issues. Let others lean on you, and allow yourself to lean on them as well.
Have conversations with your bosses. This is not the time to be adversarial. All too often, we play the Us vs. Them game with the public, and all too often we play it in our own house. When faced with working on the public image of our profession, it needs to be “all hands on deck.” Administrators are out of touch. Line officers don’t see the big picture. Sergeants get free passes. And on and on. The truth is every position and rank has a different job. What we need to recognize is that we are on the same team, and infighting will only stall our goals. In the end, by playing games riddled with rumors and egos, we are prevented from doing our jobs most effectively. We suffer, and our communities suffer.
Ask permission; be respectful. We need to be collaborative and inviting to open, constructive conversations. We all have a role to play with optimizing our relationships with the community. Administrators develop and drive policy, but as a wise leader once told me, “those closest to the problem are usually closest solution.” As a commander he recognized that it was those boots on the ground with a critical view that he needed to receive, validate, and factor in toward his decisions.
We need trust and communication to be effective as a team. Every perspective is valuable to build a holistic response to promote our effectiveness and legitimacy with the public.
Be the Example
Let’s review. We’ve discussed the need to reflect on yourself, to regroup and get centered. Support your peers and encourage your team. Lead up and have meaningful, collaborative conversations. Think big picture and connect the dots.
Now bring it back to yourself. Your daily actions in the uniform. Each call, each contact. Be the best version of yourself in the public. Display the standard of what policing should look like. Be the officer that you believe should be the model. Act like the officer you want showing up on your front porch when your family needs help and you’re miles away in another city where you work. Take good notes. Write good cases. Smile. Hand out stickers. Encourage the youth. Be caring toward those in crisis.
Don’t get defensive. It may feel like a personal attack, but it is not. Your critics don’t see a person; they see the uniform. Being closed off, cold or callous will only validate their prejudice. So show them the person. Take the high road, the hard road. Be patient. Be personal. Empathize with them and they may better empathize with you. Even if you didn’t win that battle, others are always watching. You may be building advocates without even knowing it.
Public opinion may be shaped by the media, but it is truly owned by the public. While administrators may be meeting with public officials and community leaders, each line officer is making a much higher volume of new, varied contacts hourly. If you think about impact by numbers, it is the average patrol officer that has the most potential to shape and influence how police officers are perceived.
The Stoics in Greek philosophy teach us to focus on what we can change and abandon what we cannot. In that vein, I challenge officers to recognize that what we can change personally is a significant. We just need to take pause, recognize our different levels and spheres of impact, and get to work. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it has to be done right.
One officer’s poor actions can shame our profession. It can tarnish our reputations and undo our progress. However, we cannot dwell on the setbacks and victims of our circumstance. If we regroup and move forward with conviction, we can rebuild. Through passionately investing in ourselves, our team, and the public, each of us can help elevate our communities more than ever before.
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