Are cops too ‘special’ for our own good?
When does a widely held belief hurt the profession more than it promotes healthy wellbeing?
During nearly 22 years of policing – including a full decade as police writers and occasional trainers – one of the most pervasive and enduring myths we’ve encountered is our “specialness” as cops.
Beginning in the academy, reinforced by our FTOs, and repeated continuously by bosses, colleagues and law enforcement’s many public admirers across a career, most of us are happy to buy into the specialness myth as when you often feel maligned and marginalized by an unappreciative public, being put on a pedestal feels pretty good!
But is it really true?
While it’s true we “run toward gunfire while others run away,” go nose-to-nose with an element few will ever see or refuse to even acknowledge, and slog into society’s dark underbelly to visit danger and despair, are we really any more “special” than the trauma surgeon who pieces someone together to live another day, or the ER nurse up to her shoulders in the blood of strangers?
Are we any more skilled than a teacher customizing a single lesson to 25 unique learners on the fly, or the psychotherapist who dives into the personal hells of client after client all day, every day?
And don’t we all rest pretty easy returning from vacation – even in 35 knot crosswinds and horizontal sleet – because we trust in the specialized skills of the pilots landing our plane?
We all have gifts, aptitudes and interests that lead us to our role in the world, and more than a few of these roles are pretty “special” when you think of the level of skill required and the challenges those roles present. None of this diminishes what we do as cops. But when we wield our own “specialness” as somehow greater than that of others, or subconsciously (or not) diminish others to elevate ourselves, we hurt them. And we hurt ourselves.
Some of you, if you’re even still with us, are probably pretty angry right now! We’re okay with that. The problem we face as a profession increasingly at odds with the public we serve is that many of the feelings we express, words we use and attitudes we adopt – including that of our specialness – only widens the gulf.
Is the desire to be “special” rooted in our genes?
This belief in and acceptance of our “specialness” isn’t necessarily unique to law enforcement but reflects a greater human tendency to psychologically organize and order groups and individuals into easily defined and classifiable subsets.
The drive toward such classification may even be deep in our DNA – an evolutionary adaptation operating at a primitive level of our subconscious to both keep us alert to possible dangers and to reinforce community (tribal) cohesion.
Imagine yourself as one of your early ancestors – probably a somewhat shorter, hairier, more ring-wormy version of yourself – living in a small tribal community of a few dozen interrelated family groups.
There are a few other such communities nearby, with which yours trades and cooperates, mingles and marries, and will band together for common defense and support. Others are a little more distant, less social, or even hostile.
Your village navigates a dangerous and uncertain world where the daily struggle to survive leaves little time for anthropological exploration of strange and sinister neighbors, and what energies you do have to devote to them are focused on defense over diplomacy.
Survival of the tribe relies on its ability to quickly identify and appreciate the dangers inherent in what is different (“stay away!”), and to instill a sense of loyalty and superiority in its members (“stay close!”). The groups and individuals who did both lived to pass on their genes.
The serious and self-destructive downside to our assumed “specialness”
Tens of thousands of years after the early days of and need for tribalism, the ancient drive lives on. We can see this tribal drive play out today in politics, regionalism/nationalism, clique formation and even team loyalty. Widely held and consistently reinforced beliefs become normalized and accepted to the point they are never to be questioned. And in law enforcement we see an occupational tribalism that still encourages and almost celebrates a suspicious isolation from outsiders, while lamenting the very isolation deliberately created.
We’re special, you see, and nobody can ever really understand us or what we see and know of the world.
But here are four ways holding onto that belief can hurt us:
1. It promotes concrete thought processes
Even if we remain able to think creatively and abstractly away from the job, surety about how we see and navigate the world as cops quickly turns into concrete, black and white thinking.
The job, however, has become increasingly complex with growing demands, requiring supple minds to match them. Understanding and adapting to our limits is the only way to meet these demands, which requires a large dose of humility.
2. We stop looking left or right, instead focusing on what we know
“Looking left or right” means remaining open to novel solutions, accepting the possibility of a better idea not yet discovered, and being willing to veer from the safety and comfort of the tried-and-true when needed.
Accepting the experience and expertise of others, especially experts and thought leaders even outside the profession, means letting go of trust in our specialness long enough to trust in others.
3. It reinforces the urge to exclude or diminish outsiders
Law enforcement can be a uniquely insular profession, treating outsiders with distrust or disdain. Whether directed at outside experts, regular citizens, or even old friends and family, many of us turn toward law enforcement as our sole social outlet, trust only other cops, and paint everyone outside the law enforcement family with a broad brush.
4. It contributes to cynicism
Isolation from the outside distorts our view of the world and is one of the leading contributors to cynicism among police officers, in turn leading to burnout, loneliness and depression. Engagement is the key to warding off the blanket cynicism that infects far too many police officers in detrimental ways.
Law enforcement is a crucial and demanding career requiring dedicated, highly trained and talented officers. It is easy to be sucked into the specialness myth. But we must never lose our sense of perspective. No one is special merely because they do the job; it is how you do it, and with what degree of humility and openness, that determines your caliber as a cop.