Strengthening the whole: How police officers can navigate shame and rebuild public trust

The average patrol officer has the most potential to shape and influence how our profession is perceived by the public

In law enforcement, we know what it is like to be generalized as a group. We know that it is not just the tree that suffers from the actions and reputation of a bad apple. Indeed, when one officer acts poorly, the whole orchard suffers; that blemish is felt across not just their department or region, but throughout the policing profession.

We also know the dangers of generalization. Good cops doing good work know that painting with a broad brush is exactly what causes trust-eroding practices like profiling and bias-based decision-making.

Yet, as a profession, we are forced to wear the stains of our peers and predecessors. It can be damaging organizationally, and it can take an emotional toll personally.

A Dallas police officer says goodbye to residents while performing community patrol. On each and every call and with each new contact, officers are shaping the way the public views the profession as a whole.
A Dallas police officer says goodbye to residents while performing community patrol. On each and every call and with each new contact, officers are shaping the way the public views the profession as a whole. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Validate your feelings

Have you been feeling confused? Frustrated? Angry? Good. Be aware of your feelings so you can process them. Like all problem-solving, you can’t fix the issue until you appropriately diagnose it.

Mental health awareness is critical to the health and performance of all police officers. Thus, continue to do self-check-ins and work toward finding what helps you process your stress. Exercise and spend time with your family. Interact with nature and explore your faith. Journal and engage in your hobbies outside of work. Whatever it is that helps you lead a healthy life will help you process your feelings.

Connect with your peers

Fortunately, discussing mental and emotional health issues is becoming far less stigmatized in emergency response, but there is still much work to be done and awareness to be built. Be an advocate for your peers and team. While more departments are starting peer support programs, where confidential interaction is protected, peer support as a concept does not require an official program.

It is everyone’s responsibility to build a culture of peer support. You don’t have to be an official team member to check in and see how your coworkers or crew are doing. If you have concerns and stressors, chances are someone else has the exact same issues. Let others lean on you and allow yourself to lean on them as well.

Lead up

All too often, we play the “Us vs. Them” game with the public, and all too often we play it in our own house as well. “Administrators are out of touch.” “Line officers don’t see the big picture.” “Sergeants get free passes.” And on and on.   

The truth is that every position and rank has a different job, and when faced with working on the public image of our profession, it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. What we need to recognize is that we are on the same team, and infighting will only stall our goals. By playing games riddled with rumors and egos, we are prevented from doing our jobs most effectively. We suffer, and so do our communities.

We need to be collaborative and inviting to open, constructive conversations. Sure, administrators develop and drive policy, but as a wise leader once told me, “Those closest to the problem are usually the closest solution.” As a commander, he recognized that it was those boots on the ground with a critical view that he needed to receive, validate and factor into his decisions. Every perspective is valuable when it comes to building a holistic response to promote our effectiveness and legitimacy with the public. 

Be the example

Let’s review: We’ve discussed the need to reflect on yourself, to regroup and get centered. Support your peers and encourage your team. Lead up and have meaningful, collaborative conversations. Think big picture and connect the dots.

Now bring it back to yourself and your daily actions in the uniform. On each call, with each contact, be the best version of yourself. Display the standard of what policing should look like. Act like the officer you want showing up on your front porch when your family needs help and you’re miles away in another city where you work. Take good notes. Write good cases. Smile. Hand out stickers. Encourage the youth. Be caring toward those in crisis. 

It's also important to never get defensive. When people disparage the profession, it may feel like a personal attack, but it is not. Your critics don’t see a person; they see the uniform. Being closed off, cold or callous will only validate their prejudice. So, show them the person. Take the high road, even if it’s the hard road. Be patient. Be personal. Empathize with them so that they may better empathize with you. Even if you didn’t win that battle, others are always watching. You may be building advocates without even knowing it. 

Public opinion may be shaped by the media, but it is truly owned by community members. While administrators are meeting with local leaders, each line officer is making a much higher volume of new, varied contacts hourly. If you think about impact by numbers, it is the average patrol officer that has the most potential to shape and influence how police officers are perceived. 

The Stoics in Greek philosophy teach us to focus on what we can change and abandon what we cannot. In that vein, I challenge officers to recognize that what we can change personally is significant. We just need to take pause, recognize our different levels and spheres of impact, and get to work. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be done right.

While one officer’s poor actions can shame our profession and undo our progress, we cannot dwell on the setbacks and become victims of our circumstances. If we regroup and move forward with conviction, we can rebuild. Through passionately investing in ourselves, our team and the public, each of us can help elevate our communities more than ever before.

NEXT: How motivational conversation connects cops and communities

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