July 8, 2020


Importance of Vulnerability in Law Enforcement

By Erin O’Donnell

A stock image of a police officer wearing a police motorcycle helmet.

The image is fairly universal—a uniformed police officer, strong, brave, and confident. If we asked a group of people to describe an officer, we would receive various responses and opinions, each based on the answerer’s individual experiences with law enforcement. However, even with many replies, it likely would surprise us to hear of one described as “vulnerable.”

From the time we are children, we learn that police officers are tough. They are portrayed in television and movies with an air of superiority and a take-charge personality. When fictional officers act outside of this characterization, it is usually through negative, antisocial behaviors like drinking, engaging in affairs, and participating in corruption. We rarely get to glimpse the human side of law enforcement—the struggles officers face and the toll this line of work takes on overall wellness.

Gap in Training

To truly understand why members of our society—and even ourselves as officers—have a hard time with the image of police vulnerability, we must look at our training. When we first walk through the door of a police academy, there is an immediate sense that we are about to embark on a journey that will impact our entire lives—as well as the lives of our families, friends, and members of the public we serve. It is both an exhilarating and a serious undertaking.

Police training programs around the world incorporate common concepts. The successful graduate proves proficient in firearms, defensive tactics, emergency driving, ethics, and law. We stress the importance of physical fitness and situational awareness. Officers need these skills to perform their jobs safely and legally. Overall, these academies produce well-prepared, high-quality, and enthusiastic officers.

However, one area missing from the curriculum is an emphasis on combining the technical skills of policing with the soft skills of interpersonal relationships. It leaves a gap in our training that causes a ripple effect throughout our careers. This can be the difference between an adequate officer and one who exceeds expectations.

One of the most difficult things to do in our profession is be vulnerable. We define someone vulnerable as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.”1 This concept directly conflicts with everything a police officer learns from the first day on the job to retirement. We do everything possible to avoid being hurt in any way, constantly working on our technical skills to ensure we are prepared for any circumstance that may harm us physically. Still, while we train ourselves to survive, we do not spend nearly enough time learning how to thrive.

Connection with Others

Why does being vulnerable matter to law enforcement? What can we gain from opening ourselves up to being wounded? Is there a positive kind of vulnerability that allows us to achieve a better-quality, longer-lasting career—one that leaves us fulfilled and well-adjusted when we retire?

“One of the most difficult things to do in our profession is be vulnerable.” 

The answer lies in our willingness to learn something that, on the surface, seems trivial or irrelevant to our job. This begs the question, what is policing? Ultimately, it is about helping people, doing the right thing, and providing stability in uncertain times. We accomplish these goals by building relationships with others. Being vulnerable allows us to connect with others and to build and maintain meaningful relationships every day. “Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”2 Without vulnerability, we cannot truly connect.

Learning to be vulnerable means opening ourselves up to the judgments and opinions of others. It entails admitting that we are not perfect and that we do not have all the answers. Both of these concepts prove difficult for police officers because the public puts a great deal of trust in our ability to solve problems and handle crises. When vulnerable, we risk letting people know that we are human and need help.

It is precisely in those moments that we become most connected to the people around us. In revealing our limitations, fears, dreams, and human side, we allow others the opportunity to participate in our growth as people. This, in turn, builds trust, which serves as the foundation for all our relationships. As police officers, we need the trust of the people we serve to be successful. We must remain diligent in our pursuit of trusting relationships and be as proficient in our self-awareness as we are with our firearms.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”3 The benefits of employing creative, innovative thinkers in law enforcement are numerous. If we do not open our minds to new ways of doing things, we are doomed to repeat past mistakes and become stagnant in our profession. When we embrace our vulnerability, we become free to expand our minds and think outside the box, propelling our profession forward.


The image of the strong, brave, and confident police officer is as real as it has ever been. The officer of today can be all those things and vulnerable as well. In fact, the most successful police officers are those who can be strong both physically and emotionally. That strength helps them navigate the difficult challenges inherent in police work and sustains them long after they retire.

“…the most successful police officers are those who can be strong both physically and emotionally.”

Captain O’Donnell serves with the Johnson County, Kansas, Sheriff’s Office and can be contacted at erin.odonnell@jocogov.org.


1 Merriam-Webster, s.v. “vulnerable,” accessed July 17, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable.
2 Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” (video of lecture, TEDxHouston, Houston, TX, June 2010), accessed July 17, 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
3 Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame” (video of lecture, TED2012, Long Beach, CA, March 2012), accessed July 17, 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.