Police Interview Newsletter - Police Life: The Early Years

Police Life: The Early Years
Volume 4, Issue 1
January/February 2005

In Chapter 3 of I Love A Cop, Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. writes about “Growing Old in a Young Person's Profession.” She uses the metaphor of marriage to draw some parallels between the developmental stages of one's law enforcement career and the challenges inherent in any long-term marital commitment. Kirschman and other psychologists have observed that long-term police careers and marriages often follow a U-shaped course-with reported levels of satisfaction being highest early on, then much later on as well. It is those intervening middle years of policing and marital life that can prove most challenging and even disheartening to the participants.

Even prior to being sworn-in as peace officers, however, virtually all police recruits go through a “falling in love with the job” (p.31) phase during the application process and subsequent academy training period. You can see it in their faces, hear the passion in their voices. There is a single-minded focus. Everything they do seems to revolve around this dream of becoming a police officer (state trooper, deputy sheriff, FBI agent, etc.). They eat, sleep, and drink it! I've observed this for years at the Oral Board Interviews. The applicants are jumping out of their skin with enthusiasm-battling to win one of the prized police academy slots.

Kirschman gives us an excellent picture of the kind of person who generally applies for a police job:

“In general, people who consider policing as a career are community-minded and action-oriented. They are comfortable giving and taking orders and are willing to be decisive and visible. They often have high security needs and, at the same time, require variety and stimulation and dislike being confined to an office. They take pride in their work and are willing to conform to group norms. They value control, both in themselves and in their environment, which is important because they often arrive on the scene when control is lost. They are honest, well adjusted, extroverted, independent, assertive, and have an average or above-average IQ. They may be, or become, emotionally guarded and can suppress their feelings while under stress. They are often funny and can use wit and humor as a tool, a weapon, or as a way to camouflage feelings. They are resistant to change and rely on standard procedures to do their work. They have an eye for detail. They value predictability. They are protection-oriented and may have assumed the role of protector or rescuer in their families as they were growing up. They are perfectionistic and have high standards for themselves and others. They are great in a crisis and rate high on mental stability” (Kirschman, p.32).

In these next two issues of Police Interview I will be presenting Ellen Kirschman's four phases of a police officer's career: “The Honeymoon”, “Settling Down”, “Dealing With Disillusionment”, and “Coming To A Crossroad.” Each phase, as in a long-term marriage, is characterized by specific experiences, interpersonal dynamics, and developmental challenges that the police officer and his/her spouse and family will encounter. The new law enforcement officer is well-advised to acquaint himself with the challenges of each career phase, so as to best plan and prepare for the realities that unfold when the honeymoon is over.

If the applicant process and academy preparation can be viewed as the “falling in love” phase, perhaps the Academy Graduation can be viewed as a marriage ceremony of sorts-to the police agency. The sworn officer is making a commitment to serve and protect (“to love and cherish”) the community, as well as his fellow officers with all the powers and energy at his disposal.

So, keeping these things in mind, let's take a look at the first two phases of police life as defined by Dr. Ellen Kirschman: “The Honeymoon” and “Settling Down”. I quote liberally from Kirschman's chapter.The final two phases will be described and discussed in the next issue of Police Interview (March-April '05).

Phase One: The Honeymoon

“The early years following training are the most 'heady' and 'delicious' of an officer's career. Police Chief Karel Swanson of Walnut Creek, California, describes this time as almost utter intoxication, novelty in its purest form: 'Every encounter is a chance to encourage, manipulate, intimidate, confront, or impress others.' The learning curve is high, and each day brings a new opportunity to test oneself and perform in a way never thought possible. Your officer is carrying levels of responsibility and authority that probably exceed anything he or she has experienced before. Officers feel energized and truly alive. They are exposed to people and events they never before dreamed of. Some of these experiences may be frightening, revolting, or disturbing, but the novelty is what counts most. Officers now have license to enter worlds that were previously forbidden to them, and some are drawn to these shadowy sides of life in the way that circus goers are drawn to sideshows.” (p.35-36)

Kirschman makes the point that new officers tend to feel “invincible” in their new roles as protector, defender, and rescuer of citizens in their charge. They are consumed with police work and spend excessive amounts of time “talking shop” with other cops, and anyone else who will listen. So enthusiastic is the rookie, at this point in her career, that she cannot imagine there may be less sunny (or stormy) days ahead on the law enforcement career path. The author notes that “some psychologists think this early intoxication only sows the seeds for a hard fall into disillusionment” (p. 36) as one's career unfolds.

“Although the honeymoon phase may be the 'most delicious' of a cop's career, it is also stressful because it is filled with change, challenge, and a constant measuring up against the demands of the job. Rookies are learning to deal with intense emotions as they are exposed to things most of us will never see. Some develop a protective coating of aloofness and super rationality referred to as the John Wayne syndrome” (p36)

Kirschman goes on to say that, “This phase is tough on families. You [spouses, family members] may feel as if you are playing second fiddle to the job. You may sense that you and your concerns have been relegated to the background, and you're expected to keep your problems to yourself and not burden your spouse. You may feel as if things are backward, that you exist to support the job instead of the other way around. You may wonder what happened to the person you once knew.” (p. 36)

“It's important to start now to problem solve with your mate or your friend. This is preventive medicine to stop communication problems before they start. Try not to 'gunnysack' your resentments: Don't let them stack up until you blow up or until there is such a mountain of resentments that you can't dig yourself out. As things come up, communicate them to your mate in a timely fashion. Ann Coughlin, Sharon Hern, and Judy Ard, all police spouses, recommend starting in the first year to bargain hard for your relationship. It is wise-though not always possible-to do so in a calm, thoughtful manner rather than when you are upset or angry.” (p.37)

Dr. Kirschman stresses the importance of police family members needing to learn to talk in straightforward and considerate ways to one another. A good rule of thumb is that when the officer or his/her partner has a problem, both people must pitch in to help solve it. This becomes critically important when police officers are starting new families at the same time that they are entering this new career. While children are certainly a blessing, they add immensely to the workload and overall stress level at home.

Phase Two: Settling Down

“You've survived the rookie years. Your officer is competent and confident in his or her street skills. The job is still interesting, but the novelty has started to wear thin, and some of the thrill is gone. You may see some telltale signs of cynicism.”

“The rescue fantasies that he or she had in the academy have been tempered with a more realistic appraisal of the limits of police work and police officers. Your cop has learned to be satisfied with a few successes. Fantasies about the job itself have been replaced with a more realistic acceptance of the boring and frustrating parts: the mountains of paperwork, the influence of politics, the flaws in the judicial system, and the relentless hammering of the media. Most illusions about the basic goodness of human beings have been flattened into a persistent skepticism. Only the most innocent of victims-children or old people-merit much compassion” (Kirschman, p. 39)

Officers are often looking for promotional opportunities or special assignment ( canine, SWAT, or investigative work) after the first few years of street patrol. By this time, both the officer and spouse are ready for some regular work hours, and a more reasonable work-home balance of time. The competition is tough, however, and relatively few officers receive promotion; an officer can try to years and seemingly do all the right things without getting the nod to become a sergeant. This can be terribly discouraging.

“Officers and their families are not well prepared for the anxiety and disappointment that accompany getting ahead. We teach officers street survival skills, but we fail to teach them how to survive in their own organizations. Police organizations are shaped like pyramids, with very little room at the top. There is approximately one supervisory position for every eight patrol officers, and only five percent will promote to an executive rank. Promotional opportunities are especially scarce in small departments, and departments of fifty or fewer officers comprise nearly ninety percent of all police agencies.”

“In our culture, upward mobility, accumulation, prestige, and status are the ways in which we judge our success in life and measure our self-worth. Men, in particular, have been saddled with this judgment. Male officers may feel guilty for needing their wives to work, especially after requiring the family to put up with all the other pressures that go along with having a cop as a husband or father. Female officers may feel sad and regretful for postponing marriage or childbearing. Both may be devastated by the sacrifices they made to get ahead. A promotional failure brings all these decisions into question.” (Kirschman, p. 40)

Kirschman points out that many police administrators amplify the problem by strongly encouraging officers to apply for promotions without honestly discussing the realities of their future potential within the law enforcement agency. Some individuals are clearly not cut out to be supervisors or equipped for advanced positions, and need to be guided accordingly. Police psychologist Ira Grossman calls these promotional disappointments, 'injuries without violence', as many of these officers experience considerable hurt, rejection, and shame which they must often deal with very privately.

In the next issue of Police Interview, we will focus on the latter two phases of a police officer's career, as described in Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D.'s book ”I Love A Cop”. Specifically, we'll take a long at “Dealing With Disillusionment” and the “Coming To A Crossroad” Phases in a police officer's life. Please purchase you own copy of this excellent book for a more complete understanding of this topic.

Copies of “I Love A Cop” may be ordered by going to my homepage and clicking on the book link in the lower left hand corner of the page.

Phone: 804-353-6700
Fax: 804-358-7867
Email: MacHart@PoliceInterview.com

Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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