Expectations and disappointments in police work

“Expect nothing and accept everything and you will never be disappointed.”— Laurence Overmire


Does police work ever bring disappointment? Of course it does. Officers voice disappointment in leadership, long hours, shift work, poor pay, and especially the criminal justice system. Officers complain about seeing criminals back on the street before the ink dries on their reports. Others get upset about “lenient sentencing” and “bleeding-heart lawyers.” 

How could one not be disappointed after investing so much time and energy into a case, only to believe it was done in vain — watching the cycle of criminal activity repeat itself time and again?

Does it have to be this way? Do we have to feel disappointed? What if we changed our expectations?

Do Your Job
Officers constantly ask, “Why does the bad guy always seem to get off?” 

“Does my work really matter?” 

“Did I do enough?” 

Many believing they failed in writing reports, in case legwork, or in their sworn duties. 

I disagree. Sure, a small percentage of cases were lost because of human error. But the individuals in the system know how the system works. Many know the system better than the officer. 

And the truth is, many officers are upset because there is an expectation of justice. There is an expectation that the criminal will be punished. There’s an expectation that the work and time you invested would make your expectations reality. 

My response: you cannot be judge, jury, and executioner. Do your job and do it well. If you know you gave 100 percent on the report, the collection of evidence, interviewing witnesses, and the basics of the case, then what else can you do? Nothing. 

Your job is done. If, however, you choose to act as judge or jury, you will probably face disappointment. Checks and balances are in place to prevent mistakes and abuses in the area of police power and authority. 

You know this, but man, it is hard to accept. In order to allow the system to work, you must let it go. 

Changing Expectations
When expectations are not met, disappointment is often the result. Failing expectations can leave anyone feeling disappointed. Look, life happens, and much of it is out of our control. For example, you’ve probably missed a family holiday — only to be reminded by your loved ones how you “promised to make it this time” — because of a scheduling error or emergency.

Could we then learn to deal with disappointment, or at least deal with it better? I’m not suggesting we should just expect to be disappointed. Rather, we should understand that things will not always go as planned, especially in the criminal justice system and in police work.

How can disappointment be reduced without completely lowering your expectations? Start by reducing black and white thinking. Stop believing everything has to be all or nothing. 

Expanding the Gray
Many times, our expectations are seen as good or bad. But rarely do we see the stuff in between. A driver being pulled over for speeding sees the good as not being ticketed and the bad as receiving a ticket. But where is the gray? 

The gray could be a verbal or written warning. It could also be a ticket that reminds the citizen to slow down and be safe. By changing our attitudes, we can change our expectations and reduce our disappointment (notice that I did not say eliminate disappointment). 

Let’s consider the story of Officer Jones, who is testing for the position of sergeant. Officer Jones believes he either gets promoted — which is what he expects — or he doesn’t, which will result in disappointment. 

But is Officer Jones already setting himself up for disappointment? I believe so. Officer Jones needs to come to terms with the reason he is testing for promotion (i.e., prestige, increased responsibility, pay, power). Whether he gets promoted or not, there is much insight to be gained from the promotional process. 

This is the gray area. Even if Officer Jones is not promoted during this testing cycle, he may have an advantage in the future. Or maybe Officer Jones is not prepared to become a sergeant at this time, and the lack of promotion will give him additional time to prepare. 

However, Officer Jones probably will not see it this way. With his expectations dashed, does he then lash out about who received the promotion? Does he begin comparing his skills against the officer chosen? This happens way too often in police work. 

Haven’t we all had our expectations shot down from time to time? Haven’t we all faced disappointment? When we learn to think outside the box, we increase thinking in the gray areas. The ability to do this not only reduces black and white thinking, but it allows our minds to grow. 

When our minds expand, we are better able to see how dashed expectations can become disappointments, but also seeing that disappointments can become new opportunities. 

About the author

Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. Dr. Johnson is the founder of the Blue Wall Institute where she trains first responders, first responder families, and administrators on wellness issues, suicide awareness and prevention, peer support, stress and anger management, and leadership issues. Due to her perseverance in raising awareness of the issues facing our first responders, was named the Illinois State Representative and active Board Member for the National POLICE Suicide Foundation where she trains, conducts research, publishes articles, and communicates with agencies in need. 
 
Dr. Johnson is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a former police officer, and published author. She is an Associate Member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Associate Member of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police (ILACP), member of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers (ILEETA), the National POLICE Suicide Foundation (PSF), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance member and Suicidology Researcher (three-year term), Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA), a public safety expert writer for SilverHart, Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team member, Serve & Protect Advisory Board member, St. Clair County (IL) Suicide Alliance, and Suicide Prevention/Juvenile Justice Curriculum (SPJJC) Ad Hoc Committee member. Dr. Johnson is an Adjunct Professor for Lindenwood University in Belleville/Collinsville, Illinois. She also writes for several law enforcement and mental health publications and is the Peer Support Columnist for PoliceOne. 

For further information on the Blue Wall Institute and Dr. Olivia Johnson, visit  www.BW-Institute.com.

Contact Olivia Johnson

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