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January 10, 2013
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Everybody's crazy: Adjusting expectations for a happy career

Setting realistic expectations about the human condition can keep our own blood pressure in check

Nobody calls 911 to invite you to their kid’s birthday party — unless Johnny didn’t get what he wanted and is now on the roof taking pot shots at the neighbors with Daddy’s deer rifle.

Normal isn’t what we’re about.

Can you imagine a doctor complaining that everybody she sees is whining about being sick or a mechanic that finds it strange that all of his customers seem to be having car trouble? And yet, we often finish the day asking ourselves, “Is everybody out there nuts?”

Behavioral and Mental Health Issues
One of the soul-crushing aspects of police work is that most officers really do want to help people but find them ungrateful and unresponsive.

We enter the profession thinking that people will appreciate us. We train with role-players who respond rationally, know our language, and eventually comply. We get training on how to “de-escalate” and communicate effectively (both of which depend on the ability of highly emotional people to think rationally).

For the most part, we do amazingly well. But the reality is we seldom are dealing with victims or suspects who are at their best. If someone calls the police it likely means they are in crisis.

Our very presence makes people assume something is going wrong.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers!
Consider the fact that 26 percent of Americans have a diagnosable mental illness — half of those having more than one disorder. Although only six percent of the population has a serious mental illness and most mental illnesses are not related to violence, police contact for those who do act out is highly likely.

Nearly ten percent of the population will have a mood disorder in any given year and major depression affects nearly seven percent in a given year.

Twenty percent of the nation is on psychiatric medication. For college students, incoming freshmen are medicated at a rate of one in four for depression, ADHD, and a variety of other behavioral or mental health issues.

An estimated 30 percent of the population will have drug dependency problems at some point in their lives.

An average of nearly four percent of the population will seriously contemplate suicide in any given year.

One percent of the U.S. population has some level of autism. Sixteen percent of the population has hearing impairment. More than a million persons in the U.S. are legally blind. One in seven has a learning disability. Eighteen percent of Americans are classified as having a disability.

Perhaps one of 25 is diagnosable with psychopathy. 

Nine percent of the population has limited English proficiency. With 90 at the lower end of the category of normal intelligence, 25 percent of the population has an IQ under 90 (the average IQ of police officers is 104).

The Winning Lottery Ticket
Okay, enough statistics. Let me put it another way. What are the odds that you are going to deal with a citizen who processes thoughts and information the way you do?

How frequently do you encounter a suspect, victim, or witness with no cognitive impairment, not under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, and in complete control of their emotions and behavior, and who is not physiologically undergoing high stress?

If you find yourself living a day on patrol when everybody you contact is as together as you are, that might be the day to buy a lottery ticket.

It is no wonder that police officers who expect others to behave at a high or even average level are destined for disappointment. Setting realistic expectations about the human condition can keep our own blood pressure in check.

Expect challenges in communication and compliance. Maintain the tools to deal with everyone you meet, at every level of their ability. It is irrational to assume people will always act rationally. Even high-performing individuals have bad days.

Patience, respect, and empathy are important tools for gaining compliance in non-lethal encounters.


About the author

Joel Shults currently serves as Chief of Police for Adams State College in Alamosa, Co. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He currently serves on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at www.joelshults.com

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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