How leaders can help build police officers’ resiliency skills

The 7 Cs of resiliency offers a roadmap for developing the skills your officers need to cope with stress and prioritize their emotional well-being


This article originally appeared in the October 2022 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, see Building LEO resiliency skills | Why family support matters for your agency and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

By Sergeant Eric Thorton and Sergeant Steve Breakall

Research shows that the most effective way for police officers to prepare for exposure to traumatic incidents is through building resiliency. While resilient police officers still experience stress, instead of relying on unhealthy coping strategies, they overcome challenges and work through setbacks by maximizing their resources, strengths and skills.

So, what makes a resilient police officer? Here are seven key components that build resiliency in law enforcement officers.

COMPETENCE: The ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

When given the opportunity to do a new job and develop new skills, police officers begin to feel competent. As leaders, we begin to instill competence by sending new police officers to the police academy, followed by a 4-6 month period with a field training officer and 6-12 months of probation to continue learning. Police officers build competence as they perform jobs and tasks on their own. During this time, it is imperative they learn that making mistakes is part of the learning process. As long as police officers are not making the same mistake multiple times or making gravely serious errors that lead to unrecoverable outcomes, mistakes are to be expected and accepted.

Competence can help prevent stressful incidents from turning into long-term trauma. Knowing what to do and how to handle situations helps prevent many of the negative impacts of potentially traumatic incidents. Being at a traumatic incident brings enough stress as it is. Being faced with not knowing what to do, or feeling unprepared to deal with the situation, can create an even deeper feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, the opposite of healthy resilience-building feelings. 

CONFIDENCE: A feeling of self-assurance arising from one's appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities.

Competence is naturally followed by confidence. Junior police officers begin to feel confident in their ability to handle situations, having been through similar situations before. This confidence helps them be firmer in their decisions, instead of feeling unsure of what to do. It helps them make daily decisions without a phone call to a supervisor on every incident. Having made mistakes before and discovered that mistakes are part of the learning process, the confident police officer will make the best decision he or she has available, without fear of reprisal for trivial mistakes that can be easily corrected.

This feeling of confidence positively affects resilience as the police officer can make quicker, better decisions in the face of potentially traumatic incidents. Leaders can impact the confidence of junior police officers by encouraging, mentoring and motivating them to make decisions. This leads to higher levels of resiliency as the police officers learn that their decisions are correct and leads to resiliency as they learn that the consequence of mistakes is training and positive corrections; not scolding, berating, or other pointless corrections.

CONNECTION: A relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.

After completing the academy and field training, junior police officers look to make a connection with their new squads and new first-line leaders. They want to be a valued part of the team. They trust other police officers as they learn to be part of the team. They trust their leaders as they continue to be mentored and trained, despite making mistakes.

Connection helps to build resilience among police officers as they learn that they are not going through anything alone. They will always have their teammates and their leader, each of whom they trust. With each potentially traumatic incident they experience, their connection to the team grows, as does their resiliency. Conversely, feeling alone through a potentially traumatic incident can negatively impact resiliency. 

CHARACTER: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

Police officers who have competence, confidence and a connection with their team and the community start building character. Their character comes from making positive decisions on a daily basis after careful consideration of the benefits to the involved parties and the community. These police officers have a strong sense of right and wrong and are prepared to make wise decisions. They have a strong sense of self-worth, as they know that they can positively impact their communities.

Having character helps build resiliency when police officers know their decisions are right and just. This helps during potentially traumatic incidents because police officers will not question their decisions, worry if they should have done more or better, or question if they were legally justified. Having strong character is particularly helpful during incidents involving the death or injury of another person.

CONTRIBUTION: The part played by a person or thing in bringing about a result.

After developing a strong character built on the pillars of competency, confidence and connection to the team and community, police officers will begin to contribute to the betterment of the community. Often this manifests through proactivity. Depending on the law enforcement interests and passions of the individual police officer, this could manifest as proactive enforcement, attending community meetings, or volunteering to clean up a particular street on their beat. Contribution manifests by ensuring that all decisions positively impact the community as a whole, the law enforcement organization and community, and the involved people.

Contribution positively affects resilience as it is a reminder of one’s worth to society. Police officers feel greater self-worth as they make choices that improve their community or organization. The thank yous, attaboys, or department awards enhance their confidence, character and connection.

CONTROL: The power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events.

Having the competence and confidence to make appropriate decisions based on their character when responding to potentially traumatic incidents gives police officers a sense of control over their situation. The hopeless feeling of not having control over a situation exacerbates the trauma a police officer experiences after an incident.

Control helps police officers face adversity and disappointment. Not everything will always go right but having control over a majority of the circumstance in the incident will instill resilience even if the best possible outcome is not reached. Supervisors can positively impact subordinate resiliency by empowering employees and allowing them to use their training and experience to take control of their incidents and make their own decisions. Conversely, micro-managing and not allowing decisions to be made at the lowest appropriate level takes away that feeling of self-control, strips away confidence, and makes them doubt their competence.

COPING: Dealing effectively with something difficult.

A police officer who has mastered the previous 6 Cs is better prepared to cope with the negative aspects of the profession. When things go wrong, despite their competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, and control, they are better able to cope with the results of what happened. They can walk away with self-enhancing statements such as “I did everything I could,” “There’s nothing more I could’ve done,” or “Even if I did something different, the outcome would’ve been the same.” This is not to say that they will never experience trauma or be negatively affected by a potentially traumatic incident.  Instead, they are best suited for the constant exposure to the potentially traumatic incidents that we all know and expect from this job.

Law enforcement leaders have the ability and responsibility to help police officers grow their resilience. Understanding and practicing the 7 Cs of resilience will lead to police officers having longer, happier careers.

To learn more about the seven C’s of resilience and the 4 pathways to resilience, contact the authors at ethornton@elcajon.gov and sbreakall@elcajon.gov

NEXT: Listen to the authors discuss the 7Cs on this episode of the Policing Matters podcast.


About the authors

Eric Thornton is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer and sergeant, school resource officer, range safety officer, background coordinator, FTO, mobile field force officer and sergeant, and traffic sergeant.  He is also a youth soccer coach, referee and club director.  He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology and a Master of Science degree in Organizational Leadership.

Steve Breakall is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer, gang officer, homicide detective, patrol sergeant and gang sergeant. He is also a US Navy Reserves Officer, currently assigned as the Commanding Officer of Naval Security Forces Point Loma. He has a Bachelor of Science in Management and a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership. 

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