Avoiding crusadism in police work
Crusadism is a type of defense mechanism in which people deal with their pain by distracting themselves through productive and prosocial behavior
By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University
Police work is a profession that familiarizes its practitioners to the futility, fragility and senselessness of the human condition. This became apparent to me one recent afternoon when my kids came running inside from the backyard yelling, “Daddy, there’s a huge wasp nest in the deck!”
Having dealt with this situation numerous times, I went to the garage and retrieved the can of wasp killer. I crawled on my belly towards the nest and unleashed the foam deluge on their home. Bam! Instantly, several wasps fell from the nest and began writhing in what appeared to be pretty excruciating pain.
The shrieks of my kids had drawn my wife’s attention and she walked out on the deck just in time to hear me gloat about my victory over the wasps. My wife asked me if, in my job as a police officer, I ever felt like a helpless wasp waiting for someone to just come along and kill me. “I’m not any more significant than these dead wasps,” I said as I sprayed them off the deck with a hose. As she walked inside she said, “You are to me.”
Crusadism is a Defense Mechanism in Policing
Cops can face horrendous scenes of sexual assault, infanticide and many other unspeakable crimes. It is difficult for officers not to become cynical and depressed about the overall state of human affairs when they interact with it in such a unique, and often horrific, way.
To deal with the apparent senselessness of crime, officers may turn to a range of documented defense mechanisms including denial, rationalization, projection and crusadism.  I am not in any way trained in psychology, but I have worked in a lot of different capacities in police agencies since 2001. I believe crusadism is a major defense mechanism in police work and one that needs further attention and recognition.
According to psychologist David Landers, crusadism is a type of defense mechanism like sublimation in which people deal with their pain by distracting themselves through productive and prosocial behavior. Crusadism is “a powerful inclination to seek out and dedicate oneself to dramatic and important causes.” 
I have two main thoughts on Landers’ quote about crusadism:
- Cops like to be dramatic. They like to tell stories about dangerous and dramatic encounters and working in a high-crime area is often a point of pride.
- Cops dedicate themselves to important causes. Officers view themselves as keepers and enforcers of justice, and justice requires no real argument to prove its importance as a cause. Humanity has been searching for the definition of justice, along with the proper way to do justice, for a very long time.
Justice, if we define it as somehow related to fairness and getting what one deserves, is a basic human desire. People need to feel like they have some control over their lives and what happens to them; that’s why the question about why bad things happen to good people is so popular. The justice system plays an important role in society because it strives to be the mechanism to help people keep or regain their control.
Crusadism and Police Culture
In my view, the problem is that crusadism and police culture creates an environment that promotes an “us versus them” mentality. Officers see themselves as a unit, bound to uphold justice among the lawlessness that exists among “the rest of them,” that is, the public.
Making ourselves out to be crusaders for justice gives officers meaning and helps us cope with the senselessness of the world that we understand all too well. However, when we start to embrace the police culture to exclusion of all others, and view that culture as a crusade for something of ultimate importance, then we start to lose touch with our humanity. If our focus shifts from being a human in a job designed to help other humans, we begin to see our culture as higher than the one we serve. I have known cops who view themselves as some kind of savior of a weaker people who don’t know what’s best for them.
The crusade does not raise us above or separate us from others, it places us right in the middle of the culture of humanity. Embracing that humanity is exactly what we need to do.
Keeping Justice in Perspective
People in public service professions can take pride in their jobs and culture because their aim is ultimately to help others realize the safety, security, and control that we all crave. But that does not make us unique. It just so happens that public service workers find their purpose and control in helping to ensure others keep or regain theirs. Viewing our goal of justice in that perspective keeps us from robotically crusading for justice driven by rules of an exclusive culture. I have seen this manifest itself in police cultures that dismiss community concerns and social or academic research as nonsense because it conflicts with the folk psychology of the culture.
Officers who see themselves as distinctly separate and better than the people they serve are in danger of losing touch with those people. Losing that sense of community belonging can potentially lead to objectifying individual community members as a means to achieving justice. It is easy to dismiss the concerns of those whom one believes are inferior, an action I have witnessed. This mindset can result in the minimization of quality-of-life issues and many “non-serious” crimes by officers who believe they know what is best for the community. Justice can only be achieved through forming and valuing relationships in a meaningful way.
It has also been my overwhelming and undoubted experience that when, in our official capacity, officers treat others like humans and attempt to connect with them on a common level, we get rewarded exponentially. That is true for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. You get better victim statements, witness cooperation and suspect confessions when you treat relationships like they matter and people like an equal.
But I would be lying if I said this always works. Sometimes we have to be the guy with the can of wasp spray because, it goes without saying, some situations warrant it. But it’s not a scenario officers should strive for or something they should take lightly. Officers should always remember that they’re not above others and they’re only one deadly parasite, tornado, flashflood, or murderous lunatic away from being the wasp themselves.
- Landers, D. Optimistic nihilism. IM Print Publishing; Austin, TX, 2016.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office in Colorado. Scot was previously a police officer with the Aurora Police Department, Phoenix Police Department, and a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.