Saturday, February 19, 2011

Building psychological resilience: An open letter to Field Training Officers

Your place in the department is established. You’ve demonstrated that you’re a good cop and have been elevated to the position of Field Training Officer (FTO). It doesn’t matter if you’re a crusty old veteran who’s trained more officers than you can count, or a 26 year old right out of FTO school. Either way, you’re a bridge for the new boot, and you’re job is to help the recruit transition from academy life to real life. 
As an FTO, you’re probably great at knowing which form to fill out for this and that situation. You’re officer safety skills and tactics are probably squared away. I’m guessing you’re a perfectionist. You're interested in more than just getting your recruit through FTO. You want to shape a good cop. 
Now, let me ask you this: what are you doing to build your recruits psychological resilience? Psychological what?
Resilience. It’s not on a duty belt or in a beat bag, it’s in your mind and in your body. It’s what ensures that a 20 plus career in law enforcement won’t chew you up and spit you out a bloody mess onto the rocky shore of your retirement. Resilience is something you model. Your recruit isn’t just watching how you clear hard corners, they’re watching how you deal with work stress. Included in work stress is what researchers call “organizational hassles.” As an FTO, you know all about those too, don’t you?
Allow me to speak for your trainee. He or she probably won’t say this to you directly because (a) they’re shaking in their boots already at all the stuff they have to learn, and (b) they’re on probation and don’t want to get shit canned for telling you how to do your job. What your recruit is thinking, but probably won’t say is, “How do I stay scratch that...Ah, you see I want to be a cop, but I also want to be emotionally healthy. I want to be a good romantic partner, parent, friend. I want to be both a good cop and a psychologically well person. How do I do that?” 
Since this probably wasn’t covered in FTO school, here are two behaviors you can model to build psychological resilience in your trainee. These two suggestions come both from my experience as a cop and as the son of a cop, and as a mental health professional. It also comes from recent research conducted by a some nerds in Australia. They wrote a piece for the Australian Psychologist, called, On being mindful, emotionally aware, and more resilient: A longitudinal pilot study of police recruits.
Here are the two behaviors,
Mindfulness. In the study just mentioned, the authors write, “Mindfulness is... an active state of consciousness, which involves being open to and engaging with all aspects of one’s moment to moment experience.” So, it means being aware of your thoughts, feelings and bodily experiences while doing your job. This behavior flies right smack in the face of police culture, which doesn’t much value introspection. Our allergy to introspection is one of the reasons so many cops lead miserable, abbreviated lives. 
To read more on mindfulness, see “Mindfulness on Patrol.” 
Secondly, FTO’s should know how to identify their own emotional experience, and be willing to legitimize the emotional aspect of policing. Frustration, sadness, helplessness and, yes, fear are all inexorably tied to police work. We just don’t usually talk about these feelings. We need to start. Don’t worry, neither you nor your recruit will become blubbering messes or incompetent by merely acknowledging basic human emotions. 
By modeling mindfulness and emotion identification you’ll make your trainee more psychologically resilient. As a result, that trainee will be less likely to engage in “experiential avoidance.” That’s where we don’t handle stress on the front end (i.e. mindfulness) and end up managing the psychic fallout later. And how do cops engaging in experiential avoidance manage stress? Gambling, boozing, sexing, playing first person shooter video games until 2 AM every night. You get the point. 
The Field Training Officer has perhaps the single most important job in a police agency. Building psychological resilience in new officers, along with tactical and administrative proficiencies, makes a rock solid officer. Such officers not only represent the agency in a more professional manner, they take less sick days, get fewer citizen complaints and make better people in the world. 


  1. Bravo! Emotional health doesn't happen by accident. You have to work for it, but first you have to learn how. For God's sake, teach these newbies good emotional habits before they learn bad ones!

  2. Good morning!I'am a police officer (military police - Brigada Militar) of Brazil (South). I have read and published his great e-mail to our partners work. Mental suffering is a characteristic of the police profession, but can be decreased. Is very good to have therapists who are also police officers, always know more the soul of the police. A fraternal greeting to all U.S. officers and that God protect us all. Sorry my little English. Good luck!