A letter to the American public: Debunking 4 myths about police officers

To rebuild trust between police and the public, neither party can hold on to stereotypical views of the other


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By William Mazur and Michael Genovese, MD, JD

There are few characters as interesting to write in a movie script – or as inherently familiar to audiences – as police officers. Whether it’s a veteran cop who plays by a different set of rules, a cynical family man who’s contemplating retirement, or a virtuous detective who just happens to be seven months pregnant, some of Hollywood’s most memorable performances have been portrayals of those in uniform.

Almost all the John McClanes, Roger Murtaughs and Marge Gundersons to have graced the silver screen have something significant in common: They’re unflappable. They can thwart a band of terrorists in a skyscraper, escape torture and kidnapping, or witness a dismembered body being fed to a woodchipper without much of a second thought. In some cases, they’re even game for a sequel.

Citizen police academies have been effective in facilitating greater public understanding of police procedures. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Citizen police academies have been effective in facilitating greater public understanding of police procedures. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

As the audience, we see on-screen trauma through the eyes of our sworn protectors. And, in general, there isn’t a whole lot of self-reflection. Save the day and move on. These characters were the equivalents of Iron Man and Wonder Woman before every cinematic protagonist wore a cape or a mask. Our heroes with badges are invulnerable and unstoppable.

They’re fictional for a reason.

For most police officers, witnessing a single incident like any of the ones our on-screen heroes encounter could have serious short- and long-term effects.

The true scope of posttraumatic stress injury (PTSI), commonly referred to as posttraumatic stress disorder, among law enforcement officers in the United States is unclear. But our best estimates say that at any given moment, 15% of officers in the U.S. are experiencing symptoms of PTSI. [1] With more than 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers in our country [2], that’s approximately 135,000 individuals in uniform who are struggling with an injury that alters the neural pathways of the brain as the result of repeated exposure to trauma. Self-harm is such an ongoing problem within law enforcement that the number of police officers who died by suicide in 2018 was more than triple the total of those who were killed in the line of duty. [3]  

Those statistics offer a window into what’s going on beneath the surface in the law enforcement profession, but they don’t address what’s happening in plain sight.

Why the Public View of Police Officers Isn’t Always Equal

We all know about the highly publicized incidents of alleged police brutality that have occurred over the past decade, many of which strained relations between the public and law enforcement ­– particularly among racial minorities. There have been protests and demonstrations in Minneapolis, Louisville, Portland, Kenosha and so many other communities after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Statistics of deadly force used by law enforcement are not readily available or reliable. Though the FBI logs fatal shootings by police, not all departments report this information. Only in 2019 did the FBI introduce the National Use-of-Force Data Collection to offer more complete tracking of police-involved shootings. This followed The Washington Post’s logging of fatal encounters from 2015-2019 [4] (those numbers have been relatively static). [5] 

A 2017 Pew Research survey notes that 74% of white respondents reported viewing police officers warmly. Just 30% of African Americans felt the same. [6] But as with any study, there are contextual factors – socioeconomic, political, geographical and experiential – behind these responses.

Two 2016 Pew Social Trends surveys further illustrate the gap of police perception depending on race. But those studies also shine a light on an even starker divide – how the public views police versus how police view themselves. [7] Here's a summary of some of the findings:

1. What does an average American see as the role of police?

  • 29% of the public views police more as enforcers than protectors (8% of officers agree)
  • 31% of police officers view themselves more as protectors than enforcers (16% of public agrees)
  • 62% of police officers and 53% of the public see police as both

2. Does the size of the police force need to change?

  • 34% of the public says that they would prefer a larger police presence in their area
  • 86% of police officers say that they don’t have enough personnel

3. Do citizens understand the challenges police face?

  • 83% of the public says that they understand the risks and challenges police officers face on the job very well or somewhat well
  • Just 14% of police officers agree

Those last statistics, in particular, are telling. But why is there such a significant gap?

What the Public Should Know About Police Officers

Why do people sign up for a career in law enforcement? Much like with the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals we’re rightly hailing as heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most common reasons is to help people.

In a 2019 survey of nearly 1,700 active law enforcement officers from across the United States who sought to understand why they pursued their careers, two answers stood out from the rest: wanting a career with interesting or exciting work (77.9%), and wanting to help people or serve society (68%). [8]

No one signs up to hurt people. No one signs up to become emotionally detached from their family. And no one signs up to become a victim of the cumulative traumatic impact that can lead to PTSI.

There are a few other myths about police officers that could use some clarity.

Myth 1: Police officers can turn off the adrenaline at the end of a shift.

Law enforcement is a 24/7 career. Threat assessment and focusing on potential negative consequences aren’t something that’s easy to shut down. Officers need to develop emotional detachment to be effective at their jobs – seeing a dead body or gruesome injuries requires a certain amount of necessary mental distancing – but that doesn’t translate well to life outside of work.

Myth 2: Training prepares police for even the hardest parts of the job.

Knowing that there will be a psychological strain and first experiencing that stress is two very different things. Nothing but going through certain situations – a homicide, witnessing homelessness, or encountering malnourished children, for instance – can adequately prepare an officer for what their job can often entail.

One recent study tracked officer stress in response to service calls and found no correlation between experience and operational skills training and a reduced heart rate increase during strenuous dispatches. [9] Simply put, the body’s fight-or-flight response to dangerous situations doesn’t suddenly make an officer mellow as cumulative crisis response builds up.

Myth 3: Police are arrogant.

There are exceptions to any rule, but generally, that stoic, serious demeanor isn’t ego – it’s command presence. And it’s crucial to being an effective officer. The body language that conveys confidence and authority is what can deter potential criminals from targeting them.

Myth 4: Police don’t care how the public perceives them.

Police officers don’t want the citizens they protect to have a negative view of their work. For one, it will put everyone – law enforcement officials included – at greater risk of harm. In a world of social media and 24/7 coverage of any impactful story, it’s easy for highly publicized incidents involving police to snowball into institutional concerns. As police have been tasked with enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, along with keeping the peace during social justice protests, some citizens seem to have adopted an “us-versus-them” stance. That is not a position any good officer believes in.

One 2019 study looked at the connection between first responders’ worries that the public doesn’t understand their line of work and their productivity on the job. It found that law enforcement officers who would otherwise be motivated to do their job at a high level tend to become apathetic if they believe that they’re perceived negatively. [10]

How law enforcement can Help the Public to Better Understand Police Work

A return to community policing is one popular strategy employed by many areas, focusing police resources on subtle shifts to promote more regular interaction with those they’ve sworn to protect. [11] Additionally, many departments have developed programs to help bridge a perceived gap in understanding the role of police among predominantly Black communities or higher-risk areas.

Citizen police academies have been effective in facilitating greater public understanding of police procedures and statutory guidelines with respect to everything from traffic enforcement to deadly force using simulation training scenarios.

Providing education to the public is imperative as well. Much of the divide in the public versus police views in the Pew Research surveys referenced earlier speaks to the gap in perception of what the job truly entails. It’s important to understand that, in light of recent high-profile events, officers fear for their safety: 42% say that they’re almost always seriously concerned about their well-being, and another 42% say that they sometimes have those concerns. [12]

Law enforcement must also forge a better relationship with the media. One national survey found that 81% of police officers said that they felt they were mistreated by the media. That, in turn, leads to feelings of anger and frustration on the job. [13] By being more open with journalists when an appropriate, greater understanding of the rigors of law enforcement will trickle down to the public.

Perhaps most significantly, it’s important for the public to grasp that law enforcement officers are human beings first. Those statistics about the prevalence of PTSI among police, the astronomical rate of death by suicide compared with that of other professions and the fact that officers regularly fear for their safety shouldn’t be afterthoughts. This is a profession that already places significant emotional strain on its workers. Having to fight against a perception of danger or incompetence amid the pandemic and social justice movement is just an added weight on the shoulders of those who are attempting to serve our communities.

A two-way street

The practice of policing will never be perfect. Any single incident that reflects poorly on the profession – and many of those that have been covered ad nauseam were ultimately seen as justifiable – can serve as a blow to public opinion that lasts for decades.

Most people understand that Bruce Willis isn’t playing a real-life cop in “Die Hard” – and that his heroics are in self-defense. But we need to show the public that perceived incidents of police brutality do not serve as representational samples of what a typical police encounter looks like. Violence isn’t any real law enforcement officer’s first option. Use of force is a last resort. When a suspect in a violent encounter is described as “unarmed” in media accounts after the fact, that doesn’t mean the officer knew that at the time of the incident.

In any physical confrontation between police and a suspect, there’s always at least one gun present. It’s up to the officer to make sure that the officer’s weapon doesn’t change possession.

Understanding any profession or population is a two-way street. To rebuild trust between police and the public, neither party can hold on to stereotypical views of the other.

What is it like to be a police officer? What are the challenges they face in these complicated times of 2020? Why did they choose their career in the first place?

Hopefully, someday soon, we’ll feel comfortable enough to walk up and ask.

NEXT: A letter to the American public: Why you must decide what you want from cops

References

1. Violanti J. PTSD among Police Officers: Impact on Critical Decision Making. Community Policing Dispatch. Volume 11, Issue 5, 2018.

2. Law Enforcement Facts. (n.d.). National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

 

6. Fingerhut, H. Deep racial, partisan divisions in Americans’ view of police officers. Pew Research Center.

7. Morin R, Parker K, Stepler R, Mercer A. Behind the Badge: Police views, public views. Pew Research Center.


8. Dolan Consulting Group. Why Do People Become Cops? 


9. Baldwin S, Bennell C, Andersen J, Semple T, Jenkins B. Stress-Activity Mapping: Physiological Responses During General Duty Police Encounters. Frontiers in Psychology, 2019. 10:2216.

10. Patil S, Lebel RD. “I want to serve but the public does not understand:” Prosocial motivation, image discrepancies, and proactivity in public safety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2019, 154:34-48.

 

11. Peyton K, Sierra-Arevalo M, Rand D. A field experiment on community policing and policing legitimacy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

12. Morin R, Parker K, Stepler R, Mercer A. Behind the Badge. Pew Research Center.


13. Gramlich J, Parker K. Most officers say the media treat police unfairly. Pew Research Center.


About the authors

William “Bill” Mazur is a 25-year law enforcement veteran who retired in 2017 from the Atlantic City (New Jersey) Police Department as deputy chief. He is a graduate of the 256th session of the FBI National Academy and serves as a master instructor with the FBI National Academy Associates’ (FBINAA) Comprehensive Officer Resilience Train-the-Trainer Program. He previously served as a member of the FBINAA’s Officer Safety and Wellness Committee. As a strategic account manager and public safety liaison with Acadia Healthcare’s Treatment Placement Specialists team, he provides specialized treatment guidance for public safety personnel, first responders, and families who find themselves in personal crises.

Michael Genovese, M.D., J.D., is a clinical psychiatrist, addiction specialist, and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare. He previously served as the medical director of the Officer Safety and Wellness Committee of the FBI National Academy Associates, helping to equip first responders with the tools they need to withstand, recover, and grow following repeated trauma. He is a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and a member of the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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