Avoiding the Us vs. Them Mentality
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
Most of us start the academy with a servant’s heart. Remember the old LAPD motto “To Serve and Protect?” That’s all of us, that’s supposed to be what cops are all about, but pretty quickly into your law enforcement career, it becomes less about “them” and more about “us.” We separate ourselves from the rest of society, even from our family and friends. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you learn why this common police pitfall occurs and how to avoid it.
Know why it happens
Remember, less than two out of every one hundred police applicants ever become cops, so as soon as you get hired, you start to feel like you’re a member of an elite group. And you are! There are few professions where we are expected to potentially lay down our lives as part of the employment agreement. However, that elitist feeling you have in the academy can be just the beginning of your “us v. them” mentality.
Your rookie years are crucial
Your first couple of years are consumed with learning the job. You spend a considerable amount of time around veteran officers, trainers, and supervisors trying to learn the profession and earn the trust of your peers. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, PhD. talks about in his book a new officer begins to rely on the friendship and support of other officers, usually to the detriment of their “non-cop” relationships. Because there is so much to do and learn, and so little time to devote to your personal life, new officers find themselves socializing only with their co-workers. Old friendships may begin to fade way, not intentionally, but after all, are any of your “old” friends willing to meet you for a beer at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning when you get off work? Not likely.
More time on the job means more social isolation
“The average cop will see more human tragedy in the first three years than most people will see in a lifetime” according to Dr. Ellen Kirschman, author of As we become a competent veteran officer, we develop a macabre sense of humor and are forced to control our emotions at all times. We view the world as a violent place full of idiots, con artists, and liars. We become skeptical, paranoid, and hypervigilant, and we look down on those who do not share our cynical and alarmist view of the society. Not only do we cease most of our “pre-cop” friendships, but our family relationships may begin to deteriorate as well. We become distant and dark-spirited, even when we’re at home. We complain that “my family doesn’t understand,” and we may become overly strict with our kids, not wanting them to be exposed to the outside world that we know is violent, dangerous and unpredictable. Eventually, your family may grow weary of your “us v. them” attitude and decide they’d rather be with “them” rather than being a part of “us.”
“If it’s predictable, it’s preventable”
It’s no secret that cops have a 75% divorce rate, a high rate of alcoholism, and we die twice as often by our own hand as we do by felonious assaults. After all, if you go from a fun-loving, idealistic, service-oriented rookie to a dark-hearted, cynical veteran, you’re not going to be much fun to be around, and eventually you won’t like yourself anymore than anyone else does. So don’t let it happen!
Take a hard look at the veteran officers you admire and emulate
Your FTO may know everything there is to know about impaired drivers, but why has he been married and divorced) three times? Your favorite sergeant is a wonderfully supportive mentor to you, but why does she end every shift sitting at the bar of the local gin joint? Sometimes the most qualified cops on your agency are also the least successful when it comes to their personal lives. As delicately as you can, try to find out why. Ask them if they could do anything different, what would it be? And then listen to what they have to say.
Keep some non-police friends
This can be tough to do. Your “normal” friends are either going to be “weirded out” by your new profession or they may become distant, intimidated, even hostile about you becoming a cop. However, don’t give up on all of them. Your true friends are going to accept you for who you are, just make sure to touch base with them and occasionally get together; and when you do socialize with them, don’t spend all your time together telling cop “war stories.” Ask about their job, their life, their problems, concerns, and successes, and then really listen. Don’t make it all about you, even if they try to. In other words, don’t get mired in your own self-importance.
Stay involved in physical fitness and other positive activities
Be proactive about your emotional well being. Make sure that physical activity is part of your regular routine. There are two kinds of stress, “distress” and “eustress.” Develop positive addictions, like running, basketball, hunting, photography, anything that makes you feel good and is good for you. Also make sure you spend time around good, positive people. Go to church, do volunteer work, coach a kids soccer team, do charity work. Get involved in activities that remind you that not everyone is a drug dealing, child molesting criminal, and that in general, life is pretty good. Remember, you took this job to help the community, not isolate yourself from them. One of the great things about policing in a free society is the tradition of being “of the people,” not “over the people.” Good luck!