What it means to be 'more than a cop'
When the job becomes so all-consuming, as it does for many cops, life becomes one-dimensional
Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to welcome Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski to my roster of writers here on PoliceOne. Many of you are already familiar with Mike and Althea through their works published in other law enforcement venues — both print and online — and their training seminars for law enforcement officers and their families. Here, their focus will be on wellness and relationships as well as morale, responding to the mentally ill, and ethics. Please join me in welcoming them to the PoliceOne community.
My name is Mike Wasilewski. Becoming a cop was the fulfillment of a long-deferred and nearly forgotten childhood dream. I had given up on it, in fact, but circumstances change —miraculously, sometimes — and dreams are reborn and you get to do what you feel like you are born to do. So, while I got into law enforcement a little later than most, I entered the law enforcement family with pride and excitement.
At age 30, I was hardly grizzled, but still somewhat older than most of my academy classmates. When I got to the street, many of the cops I was working with were younger but had several years of police experience already.
Meanwhile, I had more life experience than many of them. I was a graduate student in social work and had a diverse work history including significant experience in the mental health field...
Not Just a Job
One of the benefits of my late start, I thought, was that I’d go into policing with a greater maturity to protect me from the cynicism and disillusionment that seemed to infect so many others that came before me. I was smarter than they were — I thought — and would avoid the “inevitable” slide into jaded pessimism.
That law enforcement took a toll on its practitioners was no secret to me. Ever since I’d found my dad’s copy of The New Centurions, I’d devoured all the Joseph Wambaugh books, then moved on to police procedurals, movies, and cop TV shows of all kinds. I was a devoted student of all of them and most pulled no punches about the impact the job had on those who did it.
But I was smarter. I could stay idealistic in the face of human frailty and failure. I was studying for my Masters in Social Work — what could shock me out of my idealism if that hadn’t?
Or so I thought. A few short years later I wasn’t terribly surprised to find myself feeling disillusioned, cynical, and burned out. I started wondering if following my dream had been a mistake.
It wasn’t long before my entire personal identity became simply “Cop.”
There is nothing wrong with being a cop, or identifying as a law enforcement officer, but I started to see the downside of such simple identification. When that identity supersedes all else about you, then maybe it is time to question its power over you. It took a toll on me, and on the other young cops around me. I began seeing cynicism supplant idealism in my highly motivated, well-educated, enthusiastic peers.
I saw it in myself.
Maybe I wasn’t so smart, after all?
Maybe there was a reason for the police stereotyping in popular fiction? Maybe the stresses of the job did wear on those who practiced it day after day? Maybe it’s really not possible to avoid the cynicism connected to law enforcement, or how it wears on those who live the law enforcement life? Maybe, but I didn’t think so.
The Emotional Impact of Self-Imposed Isolation
One of the most significant problems affecting some cops — not all, certainly, but enough to be evident — is a self-imposed social isolation. In varying levels, a lot of officers withdraw into an insular “police-centric” shell, isolating from past interests, non-LEO relationships, old friends, and sometimes even family.
It usually begins early in a career, and can be traced to two different, but often interconnected, sources. The first source is logistical. Shift work, frequently rotating shift assignments, unpredictable work hours, and a job that must be staffed without regard for weekends and holidays puts the young officer’s schedule at odds with old friends and family. It is usually within the first six years on the job that the path to social isolation is established and made into habit.
The second source of isolation is insidious. It serves to perpetuate continued isolation, even when it is no longer necessary. After years on the job, the officer has built a knowledge bank essential for his or her physical survival and professional success.
After perhaps trying to stay connected to the outside world for a while, the young cop finally just gives in, progressing from naive to suspicious to cynical, and eventually decides to simply isolate into the known and trusted law enforcement world.
On one level this makes sense. But when the job becomes so all-consuming, as it does for many cops, life becomes one-dimensional, workplace dysfunctions (and we all know law enforcement is rife with workplace dysfunctions) overwhelming, the worldview skews unrealistically, and emotional wellbeing suffers.
The unfortunate truth is that far too many officers suffer not just from professional burnout but all too often depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, broken relationships, and other dysfunctions stemming from (or exacerbated by) the stresses of a law enforcement lifestyle.
Being “more than a cop” means staying well rounded — embracing all facets of your life. My wife Althea and I are excited to join the PoliceOne community and discuss ways for officers and their families to effectively confront these types of challenges.
Stay safe, and never forget this job is supposed to be fun!