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Harnessing emotional detachment: A key skill for police officers

By promoting unbiased decision-making, emotional detachment upholds the principles of fairness and justice that are the backbone of law enforcement

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By Sergeant Ryan Linderson

Emotional detachment is a critical skill for law enforcement serving as a powerful tool that aids decision-making processes, fosters a sense of professionalism and safeguards officers’ mental health.

While the term “emotional detachment” may conjure up notions of indifference or insensitivity, it’s essential to dispel such misunderstandings. In policing, emotional detachment does not imply an uncaring attitude or a robotic approach to human interactions. Instead, it promotes an objective perspective that allows officers to handle challenging and emotionally charged situations effectively.

As the landscape of law enforcement evolves in response to societal changes, the need to instill the skill of emotional detachment in the training regimen of new officers who will become tomorrow’s law enforcement leaders has become increasingly paramount. Police officers are often thrust into high-stress situations, and maintaining emotional equilibrium is essential. By promoting unbiased decision-making, emotional detachment upholds the principles of fairness and justice that are the backbone of law enforcement.

Emotional detachment’s role extends beyond its operational benefits. Given law enforcement’s demanding and high-stress environment, police officers are often at an elevated risk of mental health issues. The spectrum ranges from burnout and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to depression. Emotional detachment can act as a psychological buffer, mitigating the impact of traumatic exposure and protecting against compassion fatigue. Essentially, it’s a form of emotional armor that protects officers’ mental health and boosts resilience.

Emotional detachment training

It’s critical to understand that emotional detachment is not innate. Like other technical skills officers learn during training, emotional detachment requires deliberate cultivation and consistent practice. This requirement is especially true for younger officers new to the field and the intense emotional situations it often involves. Here are several strategies to help the development of emotional detachment:

  1. Mindfulness training: Mindfulness, which entails a heightened awareness of one’s emotions and surroundings, can significantly bolster an officer’s capacity for emotional detachment. Specific approaches like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have shown effectiveness in various contexts and can be seamlessly integrated into police training programs.
  2. Role-play exercises and scenario-based training: These methods simulate real-life situations within a controlled environment, allowing officers to practice maintaining a calm demeanor and a detached perspective in the face of emotional triggers. By repeatedly encountering simulated stressful situations, officers can habituate their responses, and the practice of emotional detachment can become second nature.
  3. Emotional intelligence training: This can play a significant role in complementing the above methods. Emotional intelligence, which involves understanding and managing one’s emotions, empathizing with others, and handling interpersonal relationships judiciously, provides a robust foundation for emotional detachment. As officers become more adept at managing their emotions, their capacity for emotional detachment in high-stress situations also improves.

Officer wellness support

To optimize these training methodologies’ effectiveness, their implementation must coincide with continuous support for officer wellness. Regular debriefing sessions, ensuring mental health resources are readily accessible, and fostering an open dialogue surrounding mental health’s crucial role can reinforce emotional detachment training. These measures also foster a culture that prioritizes mental health, which, in turn, contributes to more resilient officers and healthier work environments.

Emotional detachment should not be viewed as a dismissal of emotions. Rather, strategically managing emotions enhances professional performance while promoting officer wellness and resilience. By weaving emotional detachment training into our officer development programs, we equip officers with the skills to navigate the inherent stressors of police work effectively. This training ensures they can maintain their commitment to upholding justice and fairness, even under intense pressure, while caring for their mental health and overall well-being.

Furthermore, incorporating regular exercise and deep breathing techniques into an officer’s routine can bolster the benefits of emotional detachment training. Exercise has long been recognized for its stress-relieving benefits, which extend to law enforcement. Regular physical activity can increase officers’ resilience to stress, improve their mood, and reduce symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Particularly, aerobic exercises can stimulate the growth of new brain cells and improve cognitive functioning, complementing the emotional detachment skills that officers learn in their training.

Police1 resource: From burnout to resilience: How therapy can help law enforcement officers

Deep breathing exercises, often a part of mindfulness training, also offer significant benefits. These exercises involve slow, deep and controlled breathing, which can induce a relaxation response, reducing stress and promoting calmness. When officers face intense emotional triggers, deep breathing exercises can help them maintain emotional detachment. By lowering their physiological stress response, officers can think more clearly, make more rational decisions, and avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

Importantly, the beneficial effects of exercise and deep breathing exercises extend beyond the immediate stress relief they provide. Regularly engaging in these activities can lead to long-term improvements in brain health and emotional control. They can enhance brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt and increase emotional regulation.

Police1 resource: EMDR: ‘I signed up as a skeptic. I left as a convert.’

In a profession where exposure to high-stress situations is the norm rather than the exception, managing one’s emotions effectively is indispensable. Emotional detachment, combined with practices that promote brain health and emotional regulation, like regular exercise and deep breathing exercises, can offer a comprehensive approach to managing the high-stress nature of law enforcement work.

The comprehensive adoption of these practices in training new officers is a forward-thinking approach that prepares officers to perform their duties effectively and takes care of their mental health. Ensuring our officers are equipped with these skills and resources is an investment in their well-being and the overall effectiveness of our law enforcement agencies. Our responsibility is to ensure that our officers are not only physically prepared for their challenges but also mentally and emotionally equipped to handle their demanding roles while maintaining their health and well-being.

Police1 resource: 23 wellness tips for law enforcement officers in 2023

Topics for discussion

Use the following questions to guide a discussion about the role of emotional detachment in law enforcement during roll call or in-service training.

1. How do you understand the concept of emotional detachment in the context of your work, and why do you think it’s important for your role as a law enforcement officer?

2. Can you share any personal experiences where you think emotional detachment could have helped or did help you handle a high-stress situation more effectively?

3. Which of the training strategies mentioned in the article, such as mindfulness training, role-play exercises, or emotional intelligence training, do you think could be most beneficial for you personally, and why?

4. How do you think incorporating regular exercise and deep breathing exercises, as suggested in the article, could impact your ability to maintain emotional detachment and overall mental well-being?

5. How can law enforcement officers better support each other in practicing emotional detachment and maintaining their mental health, given the high-stress nature of their work?


About the author

Sergeant Ryan Linderson is a 15-year veteran of the New London (Connecticut) Police Department and is presently assigned to the Investigative Division as Detective Sergeant. Sergeant Linderson’s areas of professional interest include DWI enforcement, instructor development, arrest and control and the training of the next generation of police officers. He has served as an instructor, Field Training Officer and a member of the Crisis Intervention Team. He completed the FBI-LEEDA Trilogy in April 2022. Email him at rlinderson@newlondonct.org.

Police1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

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