Monday, December 27, 2010

Examining the Police Personality

If you studied criminal justice in college, chances are that at some point you were forced to write a term paper on “the police personality.” I wasn’t a criminal justice major myself, but I know this because every time something new on the subject finds its way on to the internet I get a Google “alert.”  
Researchers have been intrigued with the police personality for well over 30 years, beginning with criminology professor Jerome Skolnic’s work A Sketch of the Policeman’s Working Personality in 1977. Most cops, on the other hand, don’t really care about the topic. 
It’s when we’ve made a commitment to ourselves to lead healthy, happy, productive lives that knowing something about the police personality becomes valuable. Most of the land mines police officers hit throughout our career (divorce, substance abuse, depression, coronary disease) have roots in our own personality. Simply put, cops are a “type,” and that type can lead to our own undoing.  
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Let’s be more specific and say that for cops, the unexamined life will likely lead to a shorter, sicklier and less happy life. 
Personalities - our well worn attitudes, beliefs and worldviews - mostly remain stable over time. Our moods are fickle. They change all day long. Personalities, not so much. We can change our personalities, it just requires time and effort.  
The first question is, “Is there a police personality?” Yes, there is.  Okay, we’ve settled that, now let’s talk about two competing theories for how we “get” the police personality. 
Importation Theory says that the police personality is created by picking out from the sea of humanity, a certain type of person to be police officers. Pick, pick, pick. Remember the psych. tests you took when applying for the job? The ones where you felt they were trying to set you up?
True or False
1. I’d like to be a librarian?
2. Sometimes I hear voices that no one else hears?
Fill in the blank.
1. When my mother ___________ I feel ashamed.
2. Sometimes I cry when _________.
Those tests were meant to weed out “undesirable” types. Risk managers have decided that psychotic, impulsive, or timid people don’t make good cops. When all the schizophrenic, loose canon, introverts have been weeded out, the police department is left with us. Thus, we’re an “imported” type. You may be interested to know that police psychologists are much better at weeding “out” people than weeding them “in.” 
Then, there’s Socialization Theory, which states we’re not a type when we start the job but that the police culture shapes us into the police personality. I’ll leave it at that. A considerable amount of empirical support can be found for both theories. 
SO WHAT “TYPE” ARE WE?  [note: you’re probably going to think, “I’m not x or y!” Remember, there’s well over 900,000 cops in the U.S. alone. These traits are based on LARGE samples of law enforcement personnel].
Compared to the general population cops tend to be:
Action oriented
Scientists have developed scales for every trait you see above. They can be measured and compared to others. 
Okay, so now we know what that the police personality is a type and what that type is. How can knowing this make you a happier, healthier human being? 
Let’s call the above traits, The Big Seven. If you “examine” your life as my man Socrates suggests, the first thing to do is commit the Big Seven to memory. Put ‘em on a flash card or something. Why? Because awareness is more than half the battle. That’s what I tell my therapy clients. Really. If you’re aware of a problem, symptom or in this case, a personality trait you can begin to see how it operates in your life. For some reason, simply being aware of it can lessen it’s harmful consequences. 
Take one trait that and pay attention to how it creeps into your life, even when your not on duty. Suspiciousness, for example, is part of a cops hardwiring. It makes us better officers. However, our spouses, friends and children may find it trying when we’re constantly scanning for nefarious activity while at the movie theater or restaurant. Don’t completely let your guard down, just be AWARE of it. Awareness will give you more options. Maybe, just maybe, the weird dude two houses down isn’t a pedophile. 

Awareness is an attitude. It’s not as easy as it sounds because it requires attention and some level of personal commitment. I hope you pay attention and have made a commitment to staying in shape physically. You better have your ass in the gym because you don’t get to pick the time some parolee wants to kill you. They get to pick the time. 
Likewise, I encourage you to make a personal commitment to your mental health. Paying attention to how the police personality can detract from your wellness isn’t as concrete as doing push-ups, but the benefits are similar. 


  1. Dear Jeff,
    Four of those are "us and them". Isolative, Prejudice, Suspicious, Cynical.

    Adding danger to this, and the need for fast response times/overwork, it does seem like the possibility for a human connection outside your own group is very limited.

    Unless the language of recovery goes to the "extension of self"--which is Deeds--(assertive/action-oriented) it seems like this recovery is going to be hard to catch on.

    Just a comment. I wonder if you agree.
    Ann T.

  2. Hi Ann-
    "Cultural encapsulation" does exist with law enforcement. When I told an old friend and veteran cop that I was considering a career as an officer he said, "keep your old friends."

    Not sure exactly what you mean by "language of recovery." I don't see the police personality as something we need to recover from as much as just be aware of.


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  4. As a new dispatcher, I'm trying to figure out how to work with cops who seemingly have a problem with EVERYTHING. I'm a type A but have been through therapy and have learned to calm it down, be self-reflective and receive feedback well. Apparently, this is too touchy feely for them. If I apologize for something, I'm seen as weak. I'm trying to figure out how to balance being who I've worked hard to become (a person who deals with life and tries to minimize negative impact on self and others) and be the dispatcher they need, without falling victim to the Big 7.

    I know this is an old post, I'd appreciate any guidance you can provide.

    1. Hello Catherine,

      First of all i'm al police officer serving in the Netherlands. When i'm on duty i expect the following basic information from my dispatcher:

      - What is the call
      - When was the call made
      - Which parties are involved
      - Who made the call (still at the scene? telephone number?)
      - Background information (domestic violence? did it happen before?)
      - Other units who are responding

      When looking at psychological traits just remember that the person on the streets may have different priorities than you. They may be standing on the highway when you are sitting in a comfortable chair.

      I'm not saying this is wrong but try to understand how the officer on the street maybe feeling. Also i really like it when a dispatcher keeps me up to date of any changes (e.g: "the ambulance will be on the scene in 5 minutes").

      The dispatcher should constantly survey the situation and keep calm.

      I think that the job of a dispatcher might be tougher than the job of a police officer. You need to be constantly aware of the situation concerning multiple units on multiple calls. On top of that you are not at the actual crime scene and need keep track of all actions made by the responding units.

      Being a dispatcher is a different job than being a police officer. You will constantly be criticized and your ability to dispatch calls effectively will increase with time.

      The bottom line is that you will need to filter the most vital information and relay this to the responding units. Don't make excuses because you're doing the best you can.

      I'm happy to respond to any of your questions!



  5. Yeah, there's a police personality, in psychology it's called the Authoritarian Personality Type, which used to be called the Fascist Personality Type....anyone that thinks they're omnipotent enough to have life and death power over others isn't fit to have power over others.