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Building resilience in law enforcement: Purpose, control & leadership

“Focus your attention and energy on your sphere of control – the more you’re able to do that, the more mentally tough and strong you’ll be during these difficult times.”

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For nearly two years, law enforcement agencies have faced unprecedented pressure. The visible street demonstrations that rocked communities in 2020 and 2021 have largely receded, but demands for reform have not, nor has deep-seated anti-law enforcement sentiment from some directions.

Police training is under scrutiny, as are equipment purchases for technologies as wide-ranging as gunshot detection, facial recognition and license plate recognition. Long-accepted police tactics at traffic stops – and in some cases, whether to even conduct traffic stops for minor violations – have come under question.

[RELATED: State your case: Do we need traffic cops?]

Many of these discussions will lead to more accountable policing and a public that better understands the role and of law enforcement in their communities. But the constant pressure, questioning and scrutiny can easily wear on law enforcement officers.

Add in the Great Resignation and a job market that offers enticing new opportunities, and recruitment and retention of officers become even more difficult in a profession that was already suffering from what public safety risk management Gordon Graham calls “an applicant puddle.” And that in turn creates more pressure on the officers who remain, in the form of mandatory overtime and the loss of institutional knowledge.

The key to dealing successfully with these rapidly changing circumstances is resilience. Rather than a coping mechanism that takes place after a traumatic event, resilience is a set of actions, mindsets and physical capabilities you build up before difficult situations. Resilience doesn’t stop bad events from happening, but it provides officers the ability to recover faster from setbacks, learn from negative incidents and separate the personal from the professional.

Cultivating resilience is a lifelong journey, but law enforcement officers can start with two aspects: Reconnect to your mission and focus on your sphere of control.

A shared sense of purpose

Law enforcement work is different from many jobs. In Police1’s recent “What Cops Want” survey, 72% of officers said they chose a law enforcement career “to help people” and 64% said “serving the community” was one of the top three most satisfying aspects of their job. This strong mission can create a cornerstone of resilience.

[DOWNLOAD: What cops want in 2022]

“Law enforcement has a shared sense of purpose, but each [officer] probably has their own way of defining it,” says Mike Taigman, a resiliency and stress management expert with FirstWatch who works with first responders. “Gaining an understanding of your own deep-seated mission can help you hold onto it when things become difficult.”

When the mission of law enforcement is eroded, it “undermines the resilience of the people on the front lines who rely on that sense of mission and purpose,” Dr. David Black, president of Cordico, says. When officers face anti-police sentiment, it can help to think about why you chose a career in law enforcement, what successes you and your agency have had in realizing your mission, and how your everyday actions can reflect your commitment to serve.

If you are questioning your mission and your values, says Brian Casey, a sergeant with the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department, it’s important to remember you’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with having such feelings. “Seek good counsel and express your distress to them,” Casey says. “Don’t go about any disillusionment you’re having passively.” Ignoring these feelings or trying to hide from them will only lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. Instead, actively seek out peers and supervisors who can reinforce your sense of purpose and help you build a healthy response to stress.

Sphere of control

Another powerful technique for building resilience in law enforcement is to understand your sphere of control. Many of the factors that affect our lives are out of our control – law enforcement is a people business, and although we can try to shape people’s behavior, we rarely control it. Black and Taigman stress the importance of focusing on things within our control to limit frustration and build resilience. While we may care deeply about the things we cannot control, expending our limited energy on those things will only further drain our capacity.

“Focus all of your effort, attention and energy on your sphere of control – the more you’re able to do that, the more mentally tough and strong you’ll be during these difficult times,” Black says. “Divest yourself from the things that you cannot personally influence in a positive way.” He also recommends developing a more well-rounded personal identity, cultivating hobbies and interests outside the job and creating time to focus on your health and your family. The shared purpose of a law enforcement mission is important, but having identity and purpose outside the job is equally important for building resilience.

The leader’s role

While building resilience in law enforcement is a personal endeavor, it also requires leadership support. Too many officers feel unsupported by their leadership – the same Police1 survey noted above found that 60% of officers feel their agencies have poor leadership. Only 24% said their agency prioritizes officer concerns over public perception; 43% rated their agency as ineffective in educating the public about what law enforcement officers do.

[RELATED: The 22 leadership traits cops are looking for in their supervisors in 2022]

Clearly, there is an opportunity for leaders to show clearer support for their officers and improve communication with the public. Importantly, supporting officers does not equate to pushing back against community expectations for accountability and professionalism in policing. Both are necessary components of the police reform conversation. When leadership sends a consistent message of support, individual and agency response to crises will improve, leading to an agency that thrives.

While the prevalent culture of strength in law enforcement is effective for the mission, it can hinder officers’ ability to ask for help when they need it. To learn more about how law enforcement officers can build and maintain resilience through peer support, counseling and more, view the on-demand webinar “Serving Amid Chaos: Taking Care of Your Community, Colleagues and Self.”

Lexipol’s Content Development staff consists of current and former public safety professionals including lawyers and others who have served as chief, deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, officer, deputy, jail manager, PREA auditor, prosecutor, agency counsel, civil litigator, writer, subject matter expert instructor within public safety agencies, as well as college and university adjunct professor. Learn more about Lexipol’s public safety solutions.