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A message to new officers: Be careful about the company you keep

The people you associate yourself with will either become your downfall or your upkeep, both in this business and in life


The people you associate yourself with will either become your downfall or your upkeep, both in this business and in life.

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By Darrell Burton

Entering law enforcement can be an overwhelming and sometimes surreal undertaking. The shift work, the scarcity of personal and family time, the missed holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, and the emotional fatigue experienced from the nature of the calls received can all take a significant toll. There are many aspects to discuss in regard to the aforementioned, but this is not an article about those.

What I want to impress upon you is something that is often overlooked, and that is the importance of friendship. The people you associate yourself with will either become your downfall or your upkeep, both in this business and in life.

According to Harvard psychologist David McClelland, the people you associate with termed your “reference group” determine 95% of your success and failure in life. The decisions you make each day lay the groundwork for who you will become and the legacy you will leave. Your friendships and relationships are the heart of these decisions. Be selective about those you choose to allow inside your circle of influence.

Three questions to ask

Entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn spoke of three questions you should ask yourself on a regular basis:

  1. Who am I around? You have to evaluate the people in your inner circle because they have the most influence. People around you can keep nudging you off your intended course a little bit at a time where you barely notice it, until 10 years from now, you find yourself asking, ‘How did I get here?’
  2. What are they doing to me? Reflect on the actions you are committing, the music you are listening to, the movies you are watching, the books you are reading, the places you are going and the way you are talking. Are friends who you have known for years saying you’ve changed for the better, or worse? Quite possibly all of your colleagues and friends on the job or in the academy are good. However, it does not hurt to ask yourself, ‘What are they doing to me?’
  3. Is that OK? Maybe everyone within your circle is good for you and you are receiving all of the results that you want, need and asked for. But maybe not. So, you must ask yourself these questions because the power of influence is that strong.

What is emotional contagion?

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. This study illustrated how unchecked positional power and control can easily influence and foster human indecency. Within this study, individuals acting as correctional officers began to adopt an “us” versus “them” mentality toward inmates. This study had to be prematurely concluded due to safety and morality concerns, but it highlighted the powerful influence a few “bad apples” can have on many.

In a 2002 paper titled “The ripple effects: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior,” researcher Sigal Barsade discussed how high and low-level emotions displayed within teams can influence and foster cooperation and social integration among employees. Emotional contagion consistently occurs among group members, often without any awareness of those affected.

Invest your time with those on your team who want to grow and do more. Spend time on and off work with those who understand that they have something special to give to this profession and are committed to making the world a better place. Here’s what that looks like:

Yes! I’m volunteering to work this event because I know it increases my contact with the community and I’m building social capital. Are you coming with me?

Yes! I’m taking my personal time off to go to this conference that I’m paying for because I know that something or someone there will help me be a better me and intern a better officer. Are you coming with me?

Yes! I’m reading and listening to audiobooks daily because I’m feeding my mind, to better serve the people. Do you want to listen?

Many of you reading this article might say I have no idea who you are or the company you keep. And you’re right, I don’t. But your supervisors and leaders will know because you’re being assessed for your next position every day. I regularly speak with chiefs, captains, lieutenants and sergeants about leadership, and we notice who are the ducks and who are the eagles within the department. Eagles never flock and complain about the agency, but ducks do.

I hope this has assisted you in some way to understand the importance of carefully selecting the company you keep. And if you’ve been identifying yourself as a duck, it’s not too late to change. The great thing about life is over time, you can discover which of the two you really are, unless it’s duck hunting season, then you better decide quickly.

Choose your friends based on your destination, and maybe I’ll see you miles above in the sky.

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About the author

Darrell Burton is an Advanced Level Instructor under California POST, with several specialties including being a Subject Matter Expert with California POST. He is currently a Police Academy Coordinator in San Mateo, California. He has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work, is an American Police Hall of Fame Inductee, and has over 15 years of experience in law enforcement.