Changing Police Subculture
By Mark Malmin
No societal institution so critically links citizens to government like policing. This arm of government defends against anarchy and preserves the rules of law and due process in a democratic society. Policing as an institution reflects the health and viability of its social fabric. An organized, well-run, ethically just, and evenhanded police department tenaciously committed to excellence and the people it serves contributes significantly to a city well represented by its government.
Policing inherently offers law enforcement personnel the opportunity to either represent or misrepresent those values and ethics of democratic government. How society perceives law enforcement’s performance serves as a barometer for a community’s sense of peace and well-being.
When political turmoil, poverty, crime, and social injustice lead to civil unrest that challenges the very pillars of democracy, society asks the police to intervene to restore order, protect lives, and safeguard property. No other profession requires its employees to make complex legal and moral decisions that impact the lives of others quite like policing. Officers must chase criminals; expose themselves repeatedly to danger; and show compassion, kindness, courtesy, and respect to citizens. Yet, at the same time, they must possess the capacity to lawfully take someone’s life under the most stressful conditions, often in a split-second decision. For these reasons and many more, policing is a special profession.
As a result of the difficult and often dangerous duties that police work involves, the occupational stress that officers face is cumulatively debilitating and consuming. Yet, sometimes, law enforcement agencies offer only limited resources to help officers deal with this trauma. Worse still, these organizations typically exhibit a firmly engrained policing subculture that dismisses the need for such assistance. An agency always should consider personnel its most valuable resource; as such, officers deserve all the support and assistance the agency can give them to maintain their health and wellness.
As police officers and their unions negotiate with governments for wages, benefits, and working conditions, both sides must cooperate and collaborate to effectively manage with diminished financial means this precious human resource. Both sides need to focus on their common values and mutual concerns, and those should include more than just officers’ survival—they should extend to wellness.
Generally, police officers in the United States are well trained; in most instances, they receive the best training in the world, especially for tactical and operational skills. However, many law enforcement organizations struggle to understand fully how trauma and stress impact human beings, and, therefore, they fail to train their officers in this area.
Mr. Malmin retired from the Palo Alto Police Department and the San Mateo County Sherriff’s Office, both in California.
Greater attention must be paid to the various causes and impacts of occupational stress and mental anguish among officers, as well as how these relate to the law enforcement subculture. Once agency leaders understand and acknowledge this subculture and its repercussions, they can implement strategies to change it, thereby improving the health and vitality of their workforce.
Law enforcement’s common but dangerous subculture poses one of the most significant risks to the health and wellness of its personnel. This subculture leads officers to feel that they need to act as though they can handle anything; it emphasizes individual strength and independence, which encourages personnel to maintain a façade of invincibility.1 Out of fear that they will appear weak, police officers generally do not encourage each other to talk about their problems. They may cry at the funerals of their fallen warriors, but they usually avoid talking about their deepest wounds or fears. Law enforcement personnel represent the “good guys,” yet many officers seem to forget or ignore their own humanity.
This subculture results in a police force that struggles to show weakness (to each other and to themselves). Further, some departments may not pay enough attention to their people. However, such oversight is a bilateral phenomenon, and management and officers share responsibility. Administrators and line personnel jointly contribute to their institution’s subculture, and either side can act as enablers.
This occupational mind-set deeply permeates law enforcement organizations from the top of the management hierarchy down to the newest recruits. Both officers and administrators need to reexamine this issue. If today’s law enforcement professionals do not challenge this subculture, it simply will pass down to the next generation of officers who follow in their footsteps.
Officers become indoctrinated into this subculture and the accompanying mind-set early in their careers, usually during the field training program that they begin immediately after graduating from the police academy. The training that recruits obtain in the academy differs from what they experience during field training. Now, instead of remaining inside a classroom or firing range, they are on the streets, learning to become competent, independent officers.
Recruits receive instruction not from classroom instructors but from the experienced officers (known as field training officers, or FTOs) who accompany them on their shifts. FTOs provide on-the-job instruction and observe new officers as they attempt to fully master policing skills. Sometimes, FTOs tell recruits that they should forget everything they learned in the academy because their FTO will teach them about “real” police work—including the subculture.
An inherently stressful experience, typical field training programs include back-to-back shifts of “in-your-face” police work to prepare recruits for the daily realities of the law enforcement profession. As a result, some new officers display physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as stomachaches, headaches, or trouble sleeping. Daily evaluations cause enormous stress as does the knowledge that certain errors (especially those related to officer safety) will cause them to fail out of the program. The recruit’s career then hangs in the balance.
During this training, personnel receive their first real exposure to the traumatic events of police work. Even if academy instructors emphasize to students that they will witness more sorrow, death, mayhem, and horror in six months than many people see in a lifetime, nothing will prepare them for the first time they find a body hanging from a rope—nothing will erase the image of that event from their minds. Recruits likely will say that they can handle it, but not acknowledge their true inner feelings, consternation, or turmoil.
Many recruits have confided to other officers that at some point in their field training program, they almost lost the ability to care about what would happen that day even if they failed the training—they just wanted it to end. While they hoped they could make it through, they admitted reaching a point when they hardly could take the stress anymore.
To mitigate the risk that officers burn out during this program, FTOs need to bring appropriate expectations and attitudes to their instruction. Trainers should fairly assess recruits’ overall performance, ability to make decisions under stress, awareness of officer safety, use of appropriate levels of force, soundness of judgment, and all of the other skills that policing demands. But, realistically, they should not expect more of the recruits than they would from a 10-year SWAT team veteran.
Once personnel pass through their field training program and probationary period successfully, they become further inculcated in the policing subculture, which then defines them as part of an elite group. Veteran officers may communicate to them that “Now you are one of us, and precious few can make it.” Officers internalize this attitude long into their careers, and it may lead them to conceal or ignore their inner pain or feelings.
Law enforcement officers may not know how to deal with emotional pain, like a wounded psyche or a broken heart. Worse yet, their peers and superiors might not consider these injuries legitimate. Additionally, many law enforcement personnel feel that they cannot openly identify or discuss their personal pathology with mental health counselors who never have experienced police work.2
First demonstrated by FTOs and later by other colleagues, the police subculture leads officers to fear that expressing any emotional or mental turmoil will label them as weak. This toxic environment inhibits wellness training and therapeutic intervention despite officers’ routine exposure to debilitating, traumatic incidents of stress. It promotes secrecy, distrust, and duplicity. In the long run, the toll of this culture—on both personnel and the organization—becomes substantial.
Additionally, this dangerous subculture increases the potential risk that these injuries can cause police officers to be deemed unfit for duty. Law enforcement personnel realize this danger, and they become uncomfortable acknowledging their inner feelings and even less comfortable talking about them. Some officers worry that their medical records could be subpoenaed for criminal or civil court proceedings and that any examples of psychological problems could jeopardize a case. This can lead them to refuse to seek help for their emotional issues, even if they begin to contemplate suicide.3
The police subculture repeatedly is reinforced to personnel during their most vulnerable times. For example, if a new officer appears distraught after dealing with a violent child abuse case, a peer may enforce the attitudes of the subculture by sarcastically mocking the officer and asking if he or she needs a tissue to wipe away tears. This perverse humor, which serves as a vehicle for negativity, can persist.
The costs of avoiding, ignoring, or burying the emotional aftermath of traumatic events can lead to serious short-term and long-term consequences. Officers’ unresolved trauma and pain can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, and reliance on self-destructive coping mechanisms, such as heavy drinking and other substance abuse. A lack of wellness among officers can drive increases in sick leave usage, insubordination, suicides, lawsuits, and citizen complaints, just to name a few potential consequences. Research studies support these conclusions.4
Strategies for Change
Undoubtedly, there are many reasons why this subculture continues to flourish despite its pernicious impact on the lives of officers. Most law enforcement personnel likely would agree that they need to show more humanity to themselves and to their peers if they want to achieve a higher level of wellness and job satisfaction. However, most police administrators grew up within the ranks of their own organizations and are products of their environments; as such, they are engrained with the same mind-set that perpetuates some of the subculture.
Law enforcement leaders must set the example for their subordinates by first changing their own beliefs and priorities regarding officer health and wellness. But, a change in attitude among administrators will not suffice. Supervisors cannot just casually ask their subordinates in the hallway if they feel okay and then be satisfied with the perfunctory answers that will follow. Can supervisors realistically expect SWAT team members to admit when they feel traumatized and risk insinuating that they cannot handle this sought-after, prestigious, demanding position?
To break this cycle, administrators must implement departmentwide policies that force the culture to change. Personnel must have easy access to wellness resources, but, more important, the attitudes surrounding these programs need to improve. Officers must not fear they will be punished or denied their next promotion if they receive therapeutic counseling or assistance after a traumatic incident.5 Most law enforcement personnel never would forget to debrief each other on tactical matters after a crime, but they often fail to pay attention to other officers’ emotional needs following a particularly difficult case. Personnel should not have to search for such services—they should be part of standard operating procedure or policy.
Further, concerns for officer wellness cannot remain confined to occupational stress. An officer struggling through an ugly, prolonged, or pending divorce may feel as stressed as an officer involved in a shooting. The pain officers feel and their reactions to that stress are not always apparent.
My personal experience aptly demonstrates this issue. I had an exciting and rewarding 28-year career in law enforcement as an officer, detective, and hostage negotiator. I became a police officer for the adventure and challenge that came with the responsibility of handling life-and-death crises. Yet, when I had to deal with my own divorce, I became deeply distraught.
To facilitate my recovery, I took advantage of my peer support system and inner circle of trustworthy friends. This allowed some of my bottled-up pain to dissipate. I also sought professional counseling, which benefitted me tremendously. Additionally, spirituality helped me recover in a positive, realistic, and constructive way so that I could stop “beating myself up” about my perceived culpability and failure.
Unfortunately, sometimes the police subculture prevents personnel from seeking these necessary resources to cope with their struggles. Officers feel that they should be tough, overcoming warriors and that they should simply deal with their pain—all alone. Nothing could be further from the truth, and officers do not need to suffer alone. Instead, officers need to treat themselves with greater humanity and stop perpetuating this subculture.
To change this oppressive subculture, both officers and administrators need to acknowledge and expose the problem.6 Then, officers could be more honest with themselves and others about their pain and discomfort; this would allow personnel to examine, rather than suppress, their feelings.
Once administrators facilitate these changes in procedures and attitudes, officers should seek out support systems and available resources, rather than hesitate to take advantage of them. In my case, peer support, professional counseling, and spirituality all served as resources. Law enforcement personnel must remember that wellness relates less to the availability of these programs and more to the use of them. Strong men and women admit when they need help; if officers refuse to do this, wellness resources will remain underused, and a cultural shift never will occur.
Common knowledge should dictate that as humans, police officers cannot remain immune from the emotional and mental repercussions of exposure to traumatic events. Officers are trained to offer help, encouragement, and professional resources to victims of horrific trauma, yet they sometimes cheat themselves out of the same assistance. Currently, both officers and administrators too readily accept this subculture as an unchangeable aspect of the occupation. Law enforcement personnel do not have to tolerate this subculture. But, for significant changes to occur, courageous administrators must act as leaders to expose problems, establish new policies to remedy them, and promote an agency culture that embraces holistic wellness.
Officers should feel proud of the policing profession. Those who serve in this occupation are wonderful people who deserve more. Officers still can be as tough as nails yet also show compassion, tenderness, and humanity—to themselves and to each other—and live a healthy life.
The author welcomes further questions and discussions through his website, www.markmalmin.com and via e-mail at email@example.com.
1 Dell P. Hackett and James T. Reese, “Law Enforcement Suicide: The Supervisor’s Guide to Prevention and Intervention,” Suicide and Law Enforcement (2001): 97-103.
2 Chad L. Cross and Larry Ashley, “Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping with the Dangers of the Job,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2004, 24-31.
3 Stephen F. Curran, “Barriers to Effective Mental Health Interventions That Reduce Suicide by Police Officers,” Suicide and Law Enforcement (2001): 205-209.
5 Patricia A. Kelly, “Stress: The Cop Killer,” in Treating Police Stress: The Work and the Words of Peer Counselors, ed. John M. Madonna, Jr., and Richard E. Kelly (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 2002): 33-54.
6 Dan S. Willis, “Focus on Training: The Practice of Spirituality and Emotional Wellness in Law Enforcement,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, December 2010, 19.
“Law enforcement personnel represent the ‘good guys,’ yet many officers seem to forget or ignore their own humanity.”