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The pivotal role of sergeants in building resilience and addressing moral injury among police officers

The first-line supervisor holds a unique position to guide and protect their team in ways unmatched by anyone else in the department


Sharing experiences plays a vital role in mitigating feelings of isolation.


This article does not aim to delve into the specifics of law reform discussions. These discussions form part of the broader context that law enforcement officers have navigated in recent years, contributing to considerable stress within the profession and on individuals. The goal here is to shed light on the stress experienced by officers and within police culture, irrespective of individual or collective opinions on such reforms.

Anecdotal events discussed have been presented with literary freedom and should not be interpreted or cited as evidence or testimony.

The past few years have been tumultuous for the law enforcement industry. Police professionals ae acutely aware of the upheavals brought about by 2020. Officers and agencies are currently deeply engaged in efforts to rebuild public trust, ensure public safety and reform criminal justice. On top of these challenges, most departments nationwide and internationally face ongoing struggles with recruitment and retention.

Among the hurdles to maintaining healthy morale and mindset among officers, moral injury emerges as one of the most daunting. This issue is not only subjective but also exacerbated by the influences of legislative, judicial and social systems. Its ever-changing nature renders it a difficult problem for professionals, agencies and individuals to tackle effectively.

In this context, the role of the first-line supervisor, affectionately known as “sarge,” is pivotal. They hold a unique position, perspective and potential to guide and protect their team in ways unmatched by anyone else in the department. A sergeant’s primary responsibility is the welfare of their officers, which sometimes involves shielding them from their own detrimental self-criticism.

What is moral injury?

Moral injury is the “damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct” [1]. Essentially, if someone does (or doesn’t do) something that challenges their values, this creates inner turmoil.

Classic examples include the use of deadly force [2]. Officers grow up with the belief that killing is inherently wrong. Yet, in the line of duty, they may face situations where no other option seems viable. Their training, the law and their obligation to protect lives, including their own, may necessitate the use of deadly force. Nonetheless, reconciling this action with their personal beliefs is often far from straightforward.

In recent times, law enforcement officers have been navigating an increasingly complex landscape marked by frequent changes in laws, varying interpretations by courts and evolving social expectations. This has created a fertile ground for confusion, self-doubt and internal conflict. Officers are not only dealing with the challenges of applying the law in alignment with their personal values but also facing heightened uncertainty and constrained capabilities due to social pressures and limited resources, contributing to their distress.

Challenges of moral injury

Addressing a problem effectively begins with recognizing the problem itself and understanding its complexities. The issue of moral injury presents particular challenges due to its inherently subjective nature. It can vary significantly based on the individual officer and the specifics of the situation. Dr. Brooke Bartlett, a psychologist specializing in support for military personnel and first responders, emphasizes that moral injury often hinges on an individual’s perceptions.

During a recent webinar, Dr. Bartlett explained that individuals raised with different understandings of core values might experience moral conflicts or questionings more intensely. Officers responding to the same incident may interpret their actions in various ways, influenced by their unique experiences, perspectives, and mental frameworks.

Many first responders report experiencing the chronic feelings of guilt and shame that are central to moral injury

This variability makes it particularly challenging to identify and address not just moral injury itself but also the behaviors and potential catalysts stemming from such incidents.

In the backdrop of recent social unrest, legal changes and staffing crises, there has been a notable increase in incidents leading to moral injury. This article will explore these themes further, providing examples that shed light on the complex dynamics of moral injury and the increasingly difficult environment law enforcement officers must navigate.

Social unrest

In 2020, amid a global pandemic, the world was further unsettled by the death of George Floyd. This event marked a period of heightened dissent and disapproval toward law enforcement, unprecedented even for veterans who had served since the 1980s through the Ferguson, Mo. riots.

Communities nationwide were impacted by destructive riots and tense protests, while anti-police sentiment infiltrated personal relationships, challenging friendships and family ties. The pervasive message from mainstream and social media that “all cops are bad” made it difficult for officers to shield their psyche from negativity.

Many officers felt alienated or ostracized by friends and acquaintances, facing stereotypes and rejection. For the first time, unpopular opinions about their profession led some to question their career choice, with even close friends and family members advising them to resign — a pressure previously unheard of.

The concept of purpose, extending beyond mere professional duties to encompass family and personal ethics, became more complex and fragmented. Officers grappled with self-doubt and guilt, whether they chose to stay in their role or leave, fearing abandonment of their team.

Serving on a regional riot-response team during this period posed unique psychological challenges. The universal shock at Floyd’s death, shared by officers as well, left us uncertain about how to respond empathetically to violent incidents amidst the chaos, let alone rebuild public trust.

The situation seemed like a lose-lose scenario: responding to protect lives and property meant risking injury (as my team experienced) and resorting to force, only to face further criticism. Following the initial riots in Seattle, the city’s ban on tear gas underscored the perilous conditions officers faced, leading our team to responsibly decline further assistance.

Watching the news in the aftermath felt helpless as colleagues endured physical harm and mental strain from prolonged shifts without rest. Although we understood why mutual aid agreements were reevaluated, it didn’t ease the frustration of being sidelined by Seattle’s restrictions.

This experience epitomized moral injury, confronting the painful dissonance between professional duty and personal ethics in an intensely polarized environment.

Law changes

Law changes in cities and regions across the country became common, with Washington State drawing national attention for what some argued were the nation’s most restrictive legislative amendments. The legislature significantly curtailed the police’s ability to pursue suspects, limiting it to a narrow list of “violent crimes” that initially excluded some felony domestic violence offenses. (These laws have since been updated and expanded to some extent).

Regardless of individual officers’ opinions about these laws, they create an environment of self-doubt concerning decision-making, purpose and morality. Officers are sworn to uphold and protect people and property through the enforcement of laws. Though they have discretion, there is an expectation for them to be responsibly mindful of these dynamics and conditions. When laws change abruptly, it can lead to negative outcomes in this respect.

Actions that were legal just a short time ago suddenly became prohibited. For instance, that summer, I was serving as a patrol sergeant with 13 years of experience. I felt competent and confident in my role and in handling the challenges my high-crime city posed to my team and me. We had experience in addressing routine violent crimes, including arresting violent offenders, sometimes through vehicle pursuits.

One day, my crew and I responded to a domestic incident: an ex-boyfriend of the caller had threatened to shoot up her apartment and was reportedly on his way there. He was known to be armed in the past and she was legitimately afraid. Officers promptly arrived at her apartment complex. During the initial investigation, an officer in the parking lot noticed a vehicle matching the suspect’s description arriving and quickly leaving upon spotting the police, indicating an intent to flee.

Based on the information available, officers determined there was probable cause for felony harassment (classified as domestic violence, with the suspect’s arrival indicating a serious intent). However, this particular offense was not on the list of crimes for which pursuit was permitted under the new laws. So, just weeks after these laws took effect, we had to end the pursuit after briefly following the suspect, knowing full well the implications of our decision.

The cycle of domestic violence is well understood, and emphasized in academy training and legislation aimed at protecting victims. The victim in this case lacked a support system and had nowhere else to go. By discontinuing the pursuit, we effectively disregarded her immediate need for protection. Filing a report and forwarding it to the prosecutors provided no immediate help to her, leaving her vulnerable while the suspect remained at large.

Just weeks earlier, we would have continued the pursuit, possibly employing a PIT maneuver or other intervention methods. But under the new law, continuing the pursuit would have been illegal, despite our intention to protect the victim.

The situation was deeply frustrating. We were left feeling powerless and distressed, questioning our inability to provide help.

This experience is another example of moral injury. Like any common injury, it is painful, requires time to heal, and can have lasting effects.

Staffing crises

Police departments cannot shoulder the entirety of society’s burdens. Often, societal problems are unfairly placed upon the police, extending beyond issues within the criminal justice system to encompass broader government responsibilities like human services, education and healthcare. The recent surge in drug epidemics, particularly involving fentanyl, and escalating mental health concerns serve as prime examples of this trend.

Faced with extreme staffing shortages, police agencies have been compelled to prioritize their responsibilities selectively. With their capacity stretched thin, efforts to maintain community relations and proactive measures have significantly declined. Issues affecting the quality of life have, regrettably, been relegated to the background. Situations that would typically demand immediate attention have had to wait, causing discomfort and a sense of shame among officers who are committed to serving the public. This feeling of inadequacy is widespread, crossing city and state lines.

Download this in-depth analysis of Police1’s State of the Industry survey on the police recruitment and retention crisis

A specific incident, which I must describe in general terms, illustrated this dilemma vividly to my team, reminiscent of the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario from Star Trek — a situation designed to be unwinnable. Unlike Captain Kirk, who famously found a way to beat this test, I was faced with a reality where no such solution existed.

I found myself analyzing multiple pending calls on my screen, weighing which to address first while considering the availability and skills of my officers and their geographical positions relative to the incidents. Despite the priority levels assigned by the dispatch center, I knew that a deeper understanding was essential for an effective response.

Two calls in particular demanded our attention, each with the potential to either resolve quickly with minimal officer involvement or escalate into a high-risk situation. I was also mindful of the recent emphasis on de-escalation techniques mandated by the state, requiring the use of more officers and resources than previously customary, failing which could expose my team to legal liabilities.

I wished for more information and more personnel. The departures from our department, state and the profession itself weighed heavily on me. Faced with no ideal options, I had to make a decision.

We responded to one call and then the other. In hindsight, I questioned the order of our response and whether a different choice might have offered a solution to our Kobayashi Maru. But in the end, I found no easy answers.

This experience was an instance of moral injury, confronting the painful limits of our capacity to serve in the face of overwhelming demands and insufficient resources.

Moral injury and what to do about it

Dr. Bartlett has extensively written and spoken about moral injury, emphasizing the importance of analyzing it through various perspectives. One crucial step in understanding moral injury is evaluating feelings of guilt and determining personal responsibility. For instance, a soldier might blame themselves for a colleague’s death caused by an improvised explosive device (IED), believing their action of driving over the IED led to the tragedy. However, a more accurate perspective would attribute the causality to the individual who planted the IED.

Another key approach involves identifying the core values that were threatened or compromised. For example, if an officer feels they have failed to protect those in danger due to restrictions on pursuing violent suspects, it reflects a deep-seated commitment to care and service. Recognizing that these values can be expressed in various ways beyond high-speed pursuits — such as thorough case investigation, diligent follow-ups, or competent handling of non-criminal incidents — can help reorient and reaffirm one’s commitment to these principles.

The recognition of moral injury could be a major advance in the understanding of stress-related challenges to officer wellness over the course of a career

In their work “Living Blue,” Rubel and Palamara [3] provide a framework for managing the negative impact of moral injury, highlighting the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and preparing optimistically for the best outcomes. This mindset fosters practical resilience. They also stress the significance of understanding and self-compassion, encouraging individuals to discern what they are truly responsible for, thereby mitigating undue guilt.

Rubel and Palamara advocate for meditation as a method of mindfulness, which has been proven to reduce anxiety, calm the nervous system and improve work-life balance by focusing on the present.

Sharing experiences plays a vital role in mitigating feelings of isolation. Through my writing, including this article, and conversations on my podcast, Blue Grit Radio, I aim to help officers acknowledge moral injury within themselves and understand that their feelings are common and that they are not alone. My work intersects police culture, wellness and leadership, reflecting these themes.

Likewise, many leaders within the police sector contribute to this dialogue. Mark Bouchard, an active RCMP officer, authored “Setting My Sights on Stigma” [4] based on his need as a younger officer. The book shares anecdotes of stressors, trauma and personal encounters with moral injury, offering lessons and examples to guide others through similar challenges. By engaging with the insights and experiences of others, we can navigate our own difficulties more effectively.

The power of a sergeant

A proficient sergeant prioritizes the well-being of their team on all fronts. Charged with the responsibility of caring for their personnel, a sergeant ensures their officers are equipped with both hard and soft skills, along with subject matter expertise. This holistic development keeps officers safe, effective and resilient.

Integrating these essential elements with a focus on the officers’ mindset is crucial. This blend of peer support and sharing wisdom is vital in mitigating the risk of moral injury. A sergeant’s awareness and proactive engagement in checking on their team, both individually and collectively, play a key role. Utilizing briefings or roll calls to foster open dialogue and setting a tone for transparency can significantly impact the team’s morale. Sharing personal experiences and vulnerabilities, like conflicts or frustrations with certain outcomes, helps break down stigmas and encourages open communication.

Leadership that can articulate what moral injury is and share personal experiences with it sets a high standard. Emulating the behaviors we wish to see in our officers, such as awareness of and open discussion about moral injury, is pivotal.

Candid feedback from officers in Police1’s State of the Industry survey highlights actionable steps supervisors can take to create a culture where officers feel valued and supported

Emotional intelligence and genuine concern for officers’ well-being enable a leader to detect issues early and approach them with empathy. The essence of peer support and “buddy checks” lies in simply being there for one another, showing up during times of hardship, whether it’s dealing with depression, family issues or suicidal thoughts. The presence and support of a fellow officer can be more impactful than words.

Following challenging incidents, adopting a culture of open discussion became a norm. Every briefing turned into a learning opportunity — not just about tactics or legal updates, but about supporting each other, fostering trust, and understanding the mission. This included recognizing the importance of each team member’s well-being as crucial to mission success.

Regular discussions often highlighted positive actions and intentions, focusing on what was within our control, despite the uncertainties and challenges faced. Drawing inspiration from Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, the team embraced a philosophy of taking ownership of their actions, outlooks, and narratives.

By allowing officers to express their frustrations and confusions, and then refocusing on how external challenges are not their fault, a culture of understanding and purpose is nurtured. Reminding ourselves that our role sometimes isn’t to solve every problem but to do our best with the resources available fosters acceptance and humility.

Focusing on what we can control — our efforts and teamwork — supports adaptability and resilience. These qualities are invaluable in law enforcement as we strive for a better future, against all odds.

This approach fosters moral healing, offering a path forward through understanding, support and collective resilience.

How leaders should move forward

The recent focus on first responder wellness has underscored the importance of resilience, transitioning from a viewpoint held by a few to a widely acknowledged truth among police leadership: the health of officers is paramount. An officer in good health is not only more effective but also more caring, compassionate, patient, diligent, professional, capable and reliable.

Leadership plays a crucial role in fostering a culture of wellness, ensuring officers have the necessary tools and resources for both physical and mental well-being. This goes beyond merely offering an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and involves providing tangible resources such as peer support and access to mental health professionals.

Some may feel they lack the influence to effect change, especially those in roles like first-line supervisors, corporals or officers. Yet, leadership can manifest at all levels. Even those not in formal positions of authority can inspire change within their agencies by initiating wellness programs and practices. Success in these endeavors often comes from proactive effort, including detailed planning, research and effective communication with higher-ups, making it easy for them to approve these initiatives. This proactive approach is what it means to lead from below.

Download this in-depth analysis of Police1’s State of the Industry survey on the support officers need from their supervisors and leaders to perform at their peak

In addition to formal wellness initiatives, informal activities such as potluck meals and group fitness challenges can strengthen bonds and promote relational health among team members. These connections are vital for openly discussing challenges and supporting each other through hardships, including moral injury.

Adversity reveals the importance of personal health and wellness in fostering self-assurance, adaptability and confidence in one’s decisions. Supporting officers in all aspects of their health promotes resilience, a sustained sense of purpose and a focus on controllable elements in the face of stress and change.

Police work, with its unpredictability and the external social and political pressures that influence it, highlights the need for an adaptable mindset. Investing in mental preparation and resilience training prepares officers for the inevitable shifts they will face in their careers.

By nurturing emotionally resilient officers with a strong mindset, leaders at all levels, especially sergeants, can equip their teams with the awareness, practices and support systems necessary to lessen the effects of moral injury. This holistic approach to officer wellness is essential for maintaining an effective, committed and healthy police force.


1. Syracuse University, Moral Injury Project.

2. Brooke Bartlett, Ph.D. “Moral injury: What is it and how does it impact first responders?”

3. Rubel, B., and Palamara, J. (2024). “Living Blue: Helping law enforcement officers and their families survive and thrive from recruitment to retirement.” Griefwork Center, Inc.

4. Bouchard, M. (2023). “Setting my sights on stigma: Thoughts from an injured mind.” Mark Bouchard.

Commander Eric Tung has been a police officer for 16 years in Washington State. He currently oversees patrol operations and his department’s wellness and peer support programs. He has led and innovated recruiting, hiring, training, community engagement, civil disturbance and field training programs. Eric was a 2022 “40 Under 40" honoree, recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He develops wellness and leadership content on @bluegritwellness on Instagram, and the Blue Grit Radio podcast.