Leadership Spotlight

Compassion in Law Enforcement

Stock image of two women talking in an office.

Compassion is characterized by a willingness to purposely assist others on an emotional level and to selflessly put the needs of others before yourself without expecting reciprocity. Having compassion and empathy for fellow human beings is essential for successful law enforcement personnel. When officers cannot treat those they serve with compassion and respect, they become ineffective and potentially a liability for their agency.

Maintaining compassion and empathy in a law enforcement career can prove challenging. Police officers face many crises and unique situations that can negatively impact their ability to cope and uphold their sense of compassion. This damaging effect can lead officers to have a void of compassion also known as “compassion fatigue,” which occurs when they experience an overload of sensitive or stressful situations.1

Continual confrontation, violence, and exposure to the uglier parts of humanity coupled with everyday stressors involving police work (e.g., professional frustration, lack of resources, slow judicial system) often may result in officers becoming unable to process and cope with all the tension. Compassion fatigue may cause them to shut down mentally, physically, and emotionally, leading to apathy, cynicism, and social dysfunction.

Most officers entered a career in law enforcement with the mission of serving their community and the drive to make a difference in their small corner of the world. They began filled with optimism and enthusiasm. However, as officers progress, they deal with the realities of police work that can negatively impact their zeal for the job. Such situations include making the late-night notification to parents about their teenager’s involvement in a fatal traffic accident or responding to the call to pull a toddler from a swimming pool—and, no matter the valiant effort, their attempts to resuscitate the child may be futile. There are other traumatic events, such as being involved in a shooting incident or having a fellow officer die in the line of duty. These scenarios, if not addressed at an emotional and spiritual level for both the individual officers and the agency as a whole, will lead to a breakdown of police personnel and organizational effectiveness.

How do law enforcement executives prevent and address compassion fatigue for their agencies? Compassion has to start with executive management so it permeates throughout the organization. Leaders have to continually display and emphasize the need for internal and external compassion from managers, officers, and employees. Having a robust agency wellness plan that addresses spiritual, physical, and emotional health also is a necessary resource for officers and other employees who may struggle with issues affecting their work performance.

Compassion and empathy are inherently important to us as humans in general and to officers in particular. Law enforcement executives must ensure that their officers and other personnel retain and strengthen their compassion and respect for the communities they serve. By doing so, not only will the officers and employees become more resilient but the entire agency will become more so as well.

Supervisory Special Agent William W. Beersdorf, an instructor in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at William.beersdorf@ic.fbi.gov.


Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, accessed March 7, 2017, http://www.compassionfatigue.org.