Cynicism’s threat to officer safety
Why skepticism is a better tactical mindset for both your safety and your spirit
I have a confession. I used to travel this country pontificating to police officers on the sins of cynicism. I was in good company. Police cynicism has been studied and discussed for over 50 years. Arthur Neiderhoffer’s treatment of the subject in his book “Behind the Shield,” a classic in police literature, spawned much more analyses. Police cynicism, its origin and purported effects are standard topics for police administration.
Most of the literature addresses police cynicism as a precursor to corruption, a sense of isolation and alienation, low morale, bad mental and physical health, and failed relationships. Medical research similarly suggests cynicism has ill effects, including increased likelihoods of heart attack, stroke and suicide.
I joined this bandwagon. I’d ask officers, “Are you more cynical now than when you began policing?”
Laughter was the response. Then I’d ask, “Do you think you take your cynicism home?”
The room would get quiet. I said I understood. I’d spent decades with them – from the time they were recruits when I taught as an adjunct instructor at the DPS Academy, to long-time veterans I worked with as a state and federal prosecutor, and everything in-between as a national trainer. They were my colleagues and friends. I broke bread with them, attended their life’s celebrations and their funerals. I saw them change over the course of their careers.
Before they became cops, if somebody pulled into their driveway, they’d think, “Who’s that in my driveway?”
After a while on the job, they’d think, “Who the hell’s coming into my driveway?”
Even more time as a cop and they’d think, “Who’s that scumbag coming up my driveway?”
I’d preach cynicism was a death of the spirit. Worse than all the other ills, it meant the bad guys had won. I’d throw down the gauntlet and challenge them with, “It’s up to YOU. You can choose to be cynical – or not.”
Then in one leadership training I was doing for the North Slope Borough Police Department in Barrow, Alaska, the most northern point in the U.S., a wizened Captain in the back of the room challenged back, “Define cynicism.”
I readily replied, “Expecting the worst of people and situations.”
He responded just as readily, “That’s what keeps me alive on the streets.”
Hmm. I’d never been a patrol officer, but that made sense to me. I said as much, added that I clearly needed to spend some time adding some wisdom to my knowledge, promised I’d get back to them and then continued to engage and learn from them the rest of the training.
Cynicism vs. skepticism
I went home and researched – not just book stuff but also talking to cops I respected and trusted, from academy instructors to consummate veterans and retirees with some distance from the job. Here’s what I learned.
- Believe in and expect the worst of people.
- Bring a negative emotion and attitude to their judgments – usually because they started out idealistic and were disabused by reality.
- Only accept information that confirms their negative outlook, so their cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.
Cynicism was making less sense as a good tactical mindset. A cop friend suggested I investigate “skepticism.” When I did, I learned,
- Question the validity of people and situations.
- Question based on reason, not emotion.
- Don’t discriminate when questioning. They question bad news as well as good news.
This isn’t just semantics. It’s mindset. Mindset can drive behavior. I want officers to have the mindset that keeps them the safest tactically. That mindset is skepticism, not cynicism.
I also care about officers’ spirits. If that sounds weird you can substitute mental and emotional health for spirit. We all know cynics. They can suck all the air out of a room. They’re the ones who always have a reason for why something can’t work, without offering anything that might. It would be okay if they kept their negativity to themselves and just used it as an excuse for their own “copping out.” The rest of us can and do take up their slack. But too often they feel the need to share their negative attitude and emotion. I’ve figured out why. They want to bring the rest of us down so they’re not copping out alone.
TIP: If you find yourself stuck in a room, or patrol car or meeting with a cynic who’s feeling compelled to share, do what I do. Just tell them, “Excuse me, you’re blocking my sunlight.” That’s what Diogenes, uncowed by power, told Alexander the Great. BTW, Diogenes is considered the Father of the Ancient Cynics. I say, “Ancient Cynics” because they weren’t like “Modern Cynics.” Ancient Cynics simply told the truth. Leave it to the passage of centuries to turn ancient truth-tellers into modern whiners.
You can choose – cynicism or skepticism. Because I care, I recommend you focus on skepticism. It’s a better tactical mindset for both your safety and your spirit.