Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Razor's Edge of Police Work: Good Cop, Sick Cop

Welcome. By way of introduction, I am a police officer and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. I became a cop at the age of thirty-seven and brought a lot of professional and personal life experience with me to this job.

My dad was a California Highway Patrol officer. Though I never asked for it, I had a front row ticket to the tragicomedy that became his life. Pops was pretty macho. He was an M.P. in the army, and served in Korea. After the military, he took on the police persona with much vigor. We had the BBQ's at our house. He golfed, stood around drinking beer talking home improvement and auto mechanics with the boys. We were part of the law enforcement "family." Ultimately, while eating popcorn and sipping 7-Up at the show, I found the "family" to be pretty fickle. My dad went out on a medical, and had serious chronic back problems. He became depressed and lost. Well, that's a buzz kill isn't it? It didn't take the family long to figure out that Shannon was no fun to hang out with. So, pops ended up a divorced, depressed, chain smoking alcoholic who died at fifty-seven. Weee!

When I applied to become a police officer I didn't need a new career. I already had a good one. Early in my professional life, and for better or worse, I decided I wasn't going to pursue making bucket-loads of money. Rather I was going to pursue work I found enjoyable and rewarding. Regarding policing, the thought wasn't "I want to be a cop," but, "I want to be a good cop." I've never taken on a job with the aim of merely being able to do it. I wanted to do it well.

When I was in the academy, our class was told ten percent of cops do the work of the other ninety percent. "Do you want to be part of the ten or the ninety?" we were repeatedly asked. After five years on the job I have found that ratio to be more or less accurate. Most officers have learned the "less is more" approach as a means for surviving this career. I'm part of the ten and feel proud of that. Enter the problem.

There exists some empirical support for the idea that the most hard-charging cops are especially prone to develop psychological problems. What! How could that be? We are the ones who embrace all aspects of the police lifestyle. If choir practice is what good cops do, well then sign us up. We're first on scene to the most dangerous, gruesome and tragic calls.

Good cops also quickly figure out they better be well ensconced within the police culture. You're either in or out. Out is a lonely, uncomfortable place. Unfortunately, it is the police culture itself that can make us sick. As cops, we pride ourselves in knowing about "reality." We feel smug about the fact that we see the cold, hard facts of life. This is an error. It's an example of what Kevin Gilmartin calls "cop illogic." We, in fact don't know all about reality. What we know is police reality. They're not at all the same.

It's through the police culture we learn some dangerous Truths. We learn those who dare to share their emotional upset at work are weak or weird. Or both. Never mind that such an attitude flies in the face of science. We learn to view the world in an oversimplified manner. There are criminals, victims and assholes and that's about it.

Think about sharing with your co-workers your experience of taking a meditation class. What do you think would happen? In police culture, meditation has no place. And, that's the problem right there. While I use meditation as an example, the point is that many behaviors and attitudes that science has shown to be life and health affirming are punted out of our briefing rooms. Good cops don't meditate, talk about their feelings, go to therapy or do art work.

Before you put me on blast for generalizing here, know that I'm not talking about you specifically, or your department specifically. We're here talking about police culture generally. Social scientists are busy writing scholarly papers on whether or not there is such a thing as police culture. As cops, we already know there's a culture to be reckoned with.

Can one be a good cop and not a sick cop? Stand-by.


  1. Glad to see you in the Blogging world, Jeff. An excellent point about the most hard charging cgps being prone to psychological problems. I would take it further and say that the "best" cops are more prone. They have the greatest dedication, they have both strength AND compassion, and they are conscientious--they take their mistakes seriously. That's a part that can catch up with them. They do their very best to (as you put it) be the best they can be, which is always unattainable. Finding a sense of good balance is particularly important for them!

    Andy OHara

  2. Jeff,
    After twenty years of being a cop, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to mentally survive in this "subculture" of law enforcement, is to completely detach oneself from the job when you are away from work. This is not to say that one has consume massive amounts of alcohol, which unfortunately the "subculture" feels is the way to do. One has to realize that as a police officer, you are only a gear tooth on a giant cog that does not and will not stop if you ain't there. That is what cops have to realize, they cannot save the world, the department or the profession by continuing embracing the ways of the old, i.e., Choir Practice, socializing only with cops, and having no outside interests outside the job. Police Work is not and NEVER will be a family, well it is, a DYSFUNCTIONAL family ... The minute an officer thinks he or she is part of this giant brotherhood/sisterhood, family, team -- whatever they want to call it, they are in for a gigantic downfall. New cops, and some veterans who haven't grasped the big picture, need to realize that the machine will go on without you, no matter what you are told or think.

    Just some food for thought from a fellow BOL member.

    -- Vince Augusta

  3. Vince and Andy -

    Thanks for sharing your insights here.

  4. Hello Jeff,

    I've just found your blog through another (Ann T. Hathaway) and thought I would start with your first post. You are bringing a very needed and welcome perspective to the world of policing, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

    As for good cops not meditating, talking about their feelings, going to therapy or doing art work? Well, I'll admit that even though I don't meditate or attend therapy sessions, I do talk about my feelings and i am an artist (in a loose sense of the word - photography and painting). Also, I'm a good cop. Is there room for improvement? Always...

    Cheers, from your neighbour to the North