How to develop the mental tactics that are key to officer wellness
A 5-step plan to thrive in your police career
By Tony Moreno
In law enforcement, we emphasize tactics relating to our physical safety while often ignoring the “mental tactics” required to survive a police career.
Mental tactics are important because there is currently a “negative narrative” that exists that gives the impression there are no benefits or rewards that come from a police career. The current narrative implies law enforcement officers live a “thankless” existence and wind up “broken and damaged.”
I don’t believe our careers always lead to darkness and tragedy with the rewards never outweighing the damage. Sure, there are setbacks and even tragedy, but it is not necessarily our fate.
When I entered the LAPD Police Academy in 1975, I wanted to do a job that most people could not do. I wanted to be “special” in that way. I knew going in that the highs would be extremely high and the lows dangerously low. In my mind, I was ready for that rollercoaster.
Two incidents early in my career had a lasting impact on me. The first occurred in 1979 when a 4-year-old girl was shot in the chin during a drive-by shooting. My partner and I stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and I got some of her blood on me. I couldn’t believe a human being could do that to a little child and I was enraged. I decided at that point I was going to “terrorize the terrorists” who were terrorizing the community. I was going to do it legally and ethically, but I now knew my mission. The little girl survived, and I still have a photo of her from that night as a reminder of the emotions I felt at that time.
The second defining moment for me was when I couldn’t get accepted into the CRASH (anti-gang) unit. I knew as much about Crip and Blood gangs as anybody, but I was not allowed in because their lieutenant perceived me as “out of control.” I later learned I made him nervous because I wasn’t a “yes person.” So I developed a real chip on my shoulder regarding working gangs and an appreciation for making my “haters” wrong.
Those two incidents were significant to me because motivation is important when you are fighting for your job, your career or your happiness.
I applaud the efforts of law enforcement agencies currently addressing the topics of officer mental wellness, PTSD awareness and police suicide prevention. However, the real issue is a matter of “trust.” Your agency can have remarkable resources in place, but if the employee in question doesn’t “trust” the people or the process, he or she won’t access the resources.
One drawback is that in many law enforcement jobs, peer pressure is strong, acceptance by your coworkers is vital and any type of perceived weakness is harmful. Add to that, there is the fear that disclosing any type of distress to your employer can damage your career and create “shame” for yourself.
When people are not "feeling well” about themselves, withdrawing and avoiding others can perpetuate the problem and further promote a downward emotional cycle. Many times, no one notices the inner struggle.
In the past when I’ve felt down, I would contact one of my "go-to" people and interact with that person. I have different people I contact for different situations. Those people remind me I’m capable of overcoming rough patches because I’ve done it before...like all of us have done. Hopefully, these five tips can help you out as well:
1. The most important person affecting your morale is you.
We once had a chief of police who told a group of SWAT officers at a training session that “morale was their problem, not his.”
Word spread throughout the department and a lot of people were pretty upset. I was too, but I began to think about it. My opinion about the chief’s message then changed.
If every time you lose a case in court, are second-guessed by a supervisor or don’t get a day off you were hoping for, if you think the chief of police is going to come down to your station and hug you until you feel better, that’s not going to happen. Some things – most things – you have to work through yourself. It’s part of the challenges of the job and your life. Mostly, it’s on you.
“Morale” isn’t just job-related. Your “morale” is connected to all facets of your life because it is your state of mind and your spirit.
You are capable of repairing and revitalizing your morale or you wouldn’t be reading this article.
2. Control the “little clown” inside you.
I was once the subject of a widespread corruption investigation. The investigation broke and I was re-assigned and told not to have public contact. That meant not doing any police work, which was my love. I was devastated.
After a couple of weeks of no public contact, I developed a severe case of vertigo and couldn’t even drive. I saw a city doctor and was cleared of any medical issues. I was then sent to a psychiatrist figuring it must be stress. I didn’t want to go but I had no choice, as it was considered duty-related.
I explained my situation at work, and the psychiatrist said, “I know your problem. You have suppressed anger. You walk around mad all of the time because you keep saying bad things to yourself over and over.”
So basically, I was being my own worst enemy and we all probably do this more than we realize.
He then told me, “You have to learn to stop doing that. Every time you notice your mind starting to say bad things to yourself, you have to stop it.” He reached up with his right hand and gave a little whack to the right side of his head with the palm of his hand and said, “Like this...stop it!”
Amazingly, he was right. It worked. But the trick is to catch that “little clown” (as I call him) inside your head when he first starts with the negative talk. Like any toxic relationship, you can control and put a stop to it. If you don’t, it can wear you down and make you sick – physically, mentally and emotionally. It can dishearten you and promote a downward spiral.
3. It’s your train...and your derailment.
One definition of a derailment is “the obstruction of a process by diverting it from its intended course.” For our purposes, it is something that knocks us off of our routine, program or regimen. It upsets how we are living our life. It interrupts our intended course.
You need to work on your mental tactics so you can get things “back on track.” A key component of that could be those “go-to” people who will be there for you, whether you like it or not (because it’s hard sometimes to accept help).
Sometimes, your derailment is merely a change of your track and not total defeat or failure. You need to be able to adjust and adapt. It can be tiring, but you have to find reasons to maintain your determination, confidence and self-worth. That’s your competitive spirit.
To me, you get back on track by doing the little things that give you “light and life.” Coaching youth sports helped keep me connected to myself and others. For me, my kids and grandkids have also been great for that.
Everyone is different. For you it could be music (or a certain song), working out, driving in your car, reading, cooking or writing. It’s your mental relief. Sometimes it’s just being around certain people who make you feel positive.
4. Life happens in phases.
Your life happens in phases. Things such as your health, education, family dynamics, career, relationships and living situation all occur in phases.
In law enforcement, our assignments, partners, coworkers, supervisors, commanding officers, shifts and working conditions constantly change and evolve in phases.
You must remember the phases because bad things happen that can distress and demoralize you. You can become stuck in a mindset that promotes a feeling of hopelessness. That hopelessness can put you in a downward spiral, wear you down and defeat you. Hopelessness exists when you lose faith and forget that life happens in phases and that everything is temporary.
What has especially worked for me is to avoid piling negativity on top of more negativity. Too much negativity can make your world feel more imposing than it is. You don’t want that. It’s easier to deal with multiple issues separately because each issue has its lifespan, and everything is temporary.
Remember, nothing lasts forever – good or bad.
5. Create your own circle of trust.
What sometimes prevents those in a distressed mindset from seeking support is trust. The person seeking the support needs a go-to person who understands their situation and will help to make them stronger and better.
As servants of society, we don’t want to burden others with our problems. You can overcome that feeling of burdening others by having trust in a support person who knows you. Trust that whatever you may throw in their direction, they will be honest, understanding and upright with you. Most of all, they will also appreciate your trust in them.
A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. I am in regular contact with a few people who I imagine consider me a mentor. To me, the honor is in being trusted by each of them. Some of these close friends I’ve never met in person. But what is important is the bond and trust that exists between us. And the best part of that bond and trust relationship is that it works both ways and those are people I can turn to.
Build your circle of trust and be trustworthy with each other.
"On particularly rough days when I'm sure I can't possibly endure; I like to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days so far is 100% and that's pretty good." – Unknown
About the author
Tony Moreno was born in Los Angeles and joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1975 where he devoted 20 of his 32 years on the job focusing on the gang problem. He also worked patrol, school car, detectives, narcotics, homicide and organized crime and intelligence. His last 13 years he supervised a unit whose mission was to seek out and apprehend hardcore gang members and criminals wanted for committing violent crimes in the City of LA.
For five years from 1982 through 1986, while working the Gang Detail, Tony drove a yellow Plymouth Fury police vehicle and was nicknamed “Pac-Man” by the gang members in south/central Los Angeles. His nickname, “Pac-Man”, and an identical yellow Plymouth Fury were later used in the storyline of the classic gang movie, “Colors.” Tony maintains the www.gangcop.com website and has authored four books: “Lessons From A Gang Cop,” “Spinach For the Everyday Warrior,” “Cops in America … Dealing with the Ferguson Effect” and his fourth and latest book, “A Message From A Blue Heart”. His books are available at http://www.policeandfirepublishing.com.