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Policing through tough times – remember your why

Remembering why you got into law enforcement in the first place can help you get through these troubled times


Sponsored by California Casualty

By Philip J. Swift, Ph.D. for Police1 BrandFocus

In the summer of 1998, I sat down for my first interview panel in what would become a successful attempt to become an officer. I vividly recall sitting before the panel when a panelist asked me why I wanted to be an officer. Even though I have been asked this question many times by people who could not understand my desire to enter this field, the question caught me off guard. To avoid looking unprepared, I blurted out “I have lived in this community for ten years and I want to give back to it. I have always wanted to be a cop, as long as anyone can remember, and I am looking forward to this opportunity.”

Getting back in touch with why you wanted to become an officer in the first place can help you weather today's storms.
Getting back in touch with why you wanted to become an officer in the first place can help you weather today's storms. (Getty Images)

Although a truthful answer on my behalf it was by no means a complete one. My “why” then and now is much more convoluted and includes what I will simply call the warrior or guardian factors.

I have since learned that this reserved answer is so common that when the “why” question is asked this answer comes across as “canned” even though service really is a common “why” of officers. If questioned further, few officers would deny that the warrior or guardian factors are part of the reason they love their work.  In a recent Police1 survey, 75% of officers stated that they wanted to be an officer to serve the community. Additionally, both the variability of the job (52%) and the challenging nature of the job (48%) were acknowledged as fundamental factors of their “why” when entering this profession. 

The importance of 'why'

The commonality of the “why” question and – in some sense the “canned” nature of the answer – highlights its importance. In law enforcement an officer’s “why” can have a lasting impact on the communities and agencies that they serve. An officer’s “why” can literally be the difference between life or death for officers and the people they interact with.

Beyond the greater impact to the community an officer’s “why” is the mechanism that allows an officer to cope with the inhumanities they face and to find meaning in their careers.  Every officer can point to at least one experience that made their career worth it.

Why 'why' may no longer be enough

In the current charged environment in which officers have been living in. respondents to a recent Police1 survey stated that “serving the community” and “fighting crime” are their main reasons for staying in this profession.

If an officer’s “why” has remained relatively unchanged during their careers, why does this “why” no longer sustain officers like it once did? The answer is that the importance of a “why” has been lost in the commonality of the question and response.

Many officers do not understand that their “why” is the public expression of the meaning of their careers. Officers are not being asked why they do the job, rather what meaning do they find in it? When officers cannot describe how they derive fulfillment from their career and fall back on the tried-and-true answers they no longer have a meaningful “why.”  A lack of fulfillment and meaning leads to burnout, indifference, and in some cases resentment of those agencies and communities that officers serve.

Resetting your 'why'

When an officer is asked the “why” question, they should have a unique answer that describes the meaning they find in their career. It is important that the officer’s “why” is simplified to a point where they can find fulfillment in each step of the journey rather than solely in the destination. If this is not the case, the officer needs to reset their “why.”

There is nothing wrong with an officer describing their “why” as “fighting crime” or “serving the community” – the danger lies in how that “why” is defined. If too broadly defined, the officer can be left questioning if the means justify the end. For instance, if “fighting crime” means lowering crime rates, the officer in unlikely to be able to achieve that goal on their own, resulting in a lack of fulfillment. 

However, if “fighting crime” means doing their personal best daily to fight crime, they are likely to regularly feel fulfilled enough to ward off burnout, indifference, and resentment.

If an officer’s “why” is to serve their community and they are not finding fulfillment and meaning in the current environment, they can ask themselves: “What greater service is there than serving a community that does not understand the necessity of your service?” This allows the officer to reset their “why” in a manner that allows them to find greater fulfillment in their work.

Nurturing your 'why'

As with all things, nurturing your “why” is easier said than done. The following is a list of strategies that officers can use to nurture their “why”:

  • Be introspective and honest with yourself about your “why.” Do not let others define your “why.” 
  • Understand that your “why” can change from situation to situation. Some days your “why” may be the paycheck – and that is ok.
  • Resist isolation or segregating yourself from diverse perspectives. Isolation and segregation create "group think" and limits critical thinking.
  • Practice critical thinking. The most important thing to understand about a subject is how others understand and perceive it.
  • Give yourself grace. No one is harder on you than you!

Remembering your 'why'

Your “why” should never cause you undue suffering. If your “why” is causing you misery, take a minute be introspective, give yourself grace and ask yourself “why?”  If your “why” is to be of service, then find ways to be of service every day and revel in them. If your “why” is to fight crime, enforce the law and arrest the lawless but realize your responsibility ends there.  If your “why” is to earn a paycheck, then go out every day and be the best employee you can be.

Your “why” is yours. It is personal. Never let anyone else define it – and always be honest about it.

Here’s one more reason to love being an officer

One thing that attracts many officers to law enforcement is the desire to protect others. To help police officers secure and protect their gear and their families, California Casualty is sponsoring the Safe and Secure Giveaway.  This year, three first responders will win a brand-new Liberty Safe filled with 5.11 gear. Enter here for your chance to win.

Visit California Casualty for more information.

About the author

Philip J. Swift is currently serving as a City Marshal in the DFW area of Texas and has been a law enforcement officer since 1998. He holds a Ph.D. in Forensic Psychology and his areas of research include behavioral learning theory, cognitive schemes, group psychology, and historical trauma theory. He has several published works and regularly speaks locally and nationally regarding his research and expertise in law enforcement and criminal culture.

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