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How police leaders can set officers on a pathway to resilience

Download a resiliency checklist to measure the four most effective pathways to resilience: hardiness, self-enhancement, repressive coping and positive emotions

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By Sergeant Steven Breakall and Sergeant Eric Thornton

We all know that person who seems able to handle anything. No matter what life throws at them, they take it in stride and confidently move on. They are successful, happy and motivate others around them. Were they born genetically built to withstand stress? Are they mentally and psychologically stronger than the rest of us? And how can we develop such resiliency in ourselves and those we lead?

How police leaders can develop resiliency in officers

For the past decade or so, experts have started to recognize the importance of resiliency and its connection to mental well-being. The American Psychological Association defines resilience is “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.”

In 2008 George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote about how resilience is actually very common. Bonanno’s research has shown that resilience in officers can create tremendous positive wellness outcomes by preventing or minimizing negative effects from constant exposure to potentially traumatic incidents.

Bonanno identified four major pathways to becoming a resilient law enforcement officer:

  1. Hardiness,
  2. Self-enhancement,
  3. Repressive coping,
  4. Positive emotion and laughter.

Law enforcement leaders should strive to display these four characteristics as an example of resiliency in law enforcement. Further, leaders should observe their followers to identify the positive and negative signs attributed to each of these four pathways, while monitoring their ability to respond and grow from setbacks, stress and exposure to potentially traumatic incidents.
1. Hardiness: the ability to endure difficult conditions.

Also known as grit, hardiness is not a personality trait, it’s a worldview. Hardiness means that you are not just resilient to stressful situations, but courageous when it comes to new challenges and disappointments. In fact, in many situations that people would find stressful, hardy people are energized and excited to tackle the challenge. Hardy people are committed to finding meaningful purpose in life, the belief that one can influence one’s surroundings and the outcome of events, and the belief that one can learn and grow from both positive and negative life experiences.

There are three characteristics of a hardy person: control, commitment and challenge. As leaders, we can monitor and even influence these characteristics in our officers to help LEOs become hardy people.

Control refers to both the feeling of control and the actual control we have in certain situations. As leaders, we can remind our officers to focus on what we can control and let go of what we cannot. Additionally, proactive steps such as ongoing training, role-playing and scenario-based training will increase officers’ competence and confidence in their abilities and will increase both their actual control and their feeling of control in real-life situations.

Commitment leads to hardiness when law enforcement officers can construct meaningful goals and stay focused on those goals. As leaders, we can encourage this commitment by knowing our followers’ goals and providing opportunities for them to make strides toward those goals. As leaders, we can remind our followers of these commitments in our daily communication with them one-on-one, or during team meetings before and after work shifts

Being challenged leads to resilience when the challenge is appropriate in depth and scope. Officers who are routinely challenged with new tasks view problems as opportunities and view failures as opportunities to learn. These officers find every day motivating and exciting, especially due to the different policing scenarios they know they will face every day. Ultimately, when faced with inevitable trauma, they will rebound as trauma survivors and not as helpless victims. Law enforcement leaders can help this positive rebound by reframing the trauma that an officer witnesses as a challenge worth facing as they strive to meet their law enforcement goals. Without diminishing the potentially traumatic incident, leaders can empower their officers to take control of their circumstances, stay committed to their careers, and continue to seek out challenges that will make them better law enforcement officers.

2. Self-enhancement: An overly positive or unrealistic self-serving bias about ourselves.

At first glance, the description of self-enhancement can remind us of negative aspects of people that we do not like; it sounds a lot like narcissism. However, in moderation, this type of thinking is extremely helpful in building resilience and preventing trauma injuries.

Positive examples of self-enhancement include being able to honestly tell oneself “I did the best I could,” “There’s nothing more I could have done,” or “Even if I did something better or different, the outcome would be the same.” This is not to say that SOMEONE could not have done better, but that this law enforcement officer with their specific level of training and experience did their best based on their capabilities in the situation.

Self-enhancers are extremely confident and believe they will always find a way to succeed. When this confidence is rooted in training and experience, law enforcement officers will be very adaptive and have great coping skills. Often, self-enhancement is a type of self-protection when dealing with failures involving trauma, i.e., mistakes/accidents that led to injury or death of another, inexperience in a first aid or CPR situation, or inaction that leads to poor consequences. Self-enhancement can manifest in a public or private way; it may not always be obvious to an outside observer.

Law enforcement leaders have two responsibilities when it comes to self-enhancement. For one, leaders should encourage these types of statements from their followers and should make these statements about them, while still providing the instruction/correction needed to correct any deficiencies. Second, leaders need to ensure that these statements do not allow a law enforcement officer to believe they are better than they really are, to lose the ability to constructively criticize themselves after incidents, or to start attributing all positive outcomes to themselves and all negative outcomes to others; this is the beginning stages of narcissism in law enforcement.

3. Repressive coping: Avoiding unpleasant thoughts, emotions and memories.

For the past few decades, the military and law enforcement has been told to stop bottling up our emotions. However, in the immediate face of a potentially traumatic incident, it is absolutely necessary. When law enforcement officers witness potentially traumatic incidents, they do not have the ability to stop everything and seek counseling before continuing on with their day. Not only do they have to power through that incident, but it would also not be unheard of to go to several potentially traumatic incidents during the same shift or work week.

Repressive coping, or bottling up emotions, is an excellent in-the-moment resilience-building and survival technique. Studies on militaristic trauma, sexual assault and childhood abuse have shown that repressive copers experience less long-term trauma when followed up with clinical treatment. For many, repressive coping is automatic and self-deceptive; the repressive coper ends up believing they are coping better than they actually are. Without eventually unpacking those thoughts, emotions and memories, repressive coping can lead to serious long-term mental and psychological issues. These long-term mental and psychological issues can then lead to physical issues such as poor physical health, heart disease, or even cancer.

As law enforcement leaders, we can influence our followers’ ability to repressively cope in a positive manner when we lead from the front, responding to potentially traumatic incidents with them, and giving them examples of avoiding and ignoring those negative thoughts and emotions. But we must then follow it up by setting the example as we seek counseling ourselves. This will also slowly help to influence the cultures and negative stigmas associated with asking for help in this profession.

4. Positive emotion and laughter: Releasing stress through humor.

The final pathway to resilience is very common in law enforcement. Many law enforcement officers have shown the ability to laugh and make jokes in the face of incidents that non-law enforcement would find very traumatizing. In the era of cell phones, video surveillance and body-worn cameras, law enforcement officers have fewer opportunities to crack a smile, make a joke, or laugh without being recorded and branded as insensitive. However, in a 2017 article titled “Humor Use Moderates the Relation of Stressful Life Events With Psychological Distress,” the researchers summarize multiple studies that show that laughter and experiencing positive emotions are the best resilience-building skill.

Unfortunately, humor has its negatives as well. It is not appropriate to display positive emotions, laugh, or joke at a crime scene, particularly in the face of another’s trauma. It can look as if we are making light of another’s victimization, even if our humor is unrelated to the incident we are responding to.

Law enforcement leaders have a responsibility to provide appropriate outlets for positive emotion or laughter before and after exposure to stressful and potentially traumatic incidents. Further, leaders have a responsibility to monitor followers and ensure that their ability to have positive emotions and laugh during normal daily operations does not diminish; this is a major indicator of a law enforcement officer’s ability to cope with stress and exposure to potentially traumatic incidents.

Resiliency checklist

The following resiliency checklist is a tool leaders can use when having conversations with their followers. While it is not all-encompassing and does not cover everything to look for, it can be used as a stepping stone into deeper conversations and is a good way to gauge how someone is doing.

Followers can be guided through this checklist and can choose the answer that is the most appropriate response for them. As a leader, be cognizant of your connection with your follower and how comfortable they would be sharing this information with you. This checklist is intended to be used to start conversations and help the follower conduct a self-assessment of their resilience but if confidentiality issues are a concern, the follower can do the self-assessment by themselves without sharing specific information.

After the checklist is finished, use the scoring guide at the bottom to gauge the potential for resilience while also checking for warning signs that the follower may need additional help.

This checklist assesses Hardiness, Self-Enhancement, Repressive Coping, and Positive Emotions and Laughter – the four most effective pathways to resilience – as well as Mind, Body, Spirit, and Social, the four pillars of resilience. These areas can be viewed individually or as a whole and can be measured. Cynicism and burnout can also be measured along with healthy habits and work-life balance.

To download a copy of the checklist, complete the box titled “Access this Police1 Resource.”

Improving resilience will help law enforcement officers experience much longer, happier, and healthier careers. As leaders, we can positively influence resilience-building skills by knowing them ourselves, being a positive example of the use of those skills, and monitoring our follower’s receptiveness to those skills.

About the authors

Eric Thornton is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer and sergeant, school resource officer, range safety officer, background coordinator, FTO, mobile field force officer and sergeant, and traffic sergeant. He is also a youth soccer coach, referee and club director. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology and a Master of Science degree in Organizational Leadership.

Steve Breakall is a sergeant with the El Cajon (California) Police Department where he has worked as a patrol officer, gang officer, homicide detective, patrol sergeant and gang sergeant. He is also a US Navy Reserves Officer, currently assigned as the Commanding Officer of Naval Security Forces Point Loma. He has a Bachelor of Science in Management and a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership.

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