No matter the industry, your job requires you to develop a particular mindset in order to perform well. Whether you fabricate metal, perform surgery, or control operations in a large company, your mind must be focused on the task at hand. For law enforcement professionals, the right mindset necessitates some cynicism.
Cynicism is an inherent part of police culture. Outside of the first responder and military network, law enforcement officers face situations unlike other professions. Officers constantly assess situations by determining the credibility and potential threat of people they encounter. In a 2012 publication, researchers Juha Kaarianen and Reino Siren noted how this practice can slip into other interactions: “The suspicious, cynical attitude of the police towards citizens is a natural consequence of their constant interactions with dangerous unreliable individuals.”
The cynical mind begins to diminish trust and drives constant assessment of others. Whether on- or off-duty, constant questions linger in an officer’s mind: Can you trust that the person approaching you is going to simply walk by without attempting to harm you? Can you trust that the figure walking down a residential sidewalk is not looking for an easy target to attack or the next home to burglarize? A cynical mind may seem like a negative facet of police life, but the ability to carefully assess situations and react accordingly is a sign of a seasoned and well-trained officer.
A cynical mindset is not entirely negative
As social psychologist Randall Osborne suggests, “The primary reason that the development of cynicism is ‘understandable’ is that it is an attitude, and attitudes involve affective, cognitive and behavioral components that can change as a result of experience.” Experience as a police officer means the exposure to a variety of situations that highlight the reality of how criminals think and reason. The gut instincts that come from time working the street allow officers to detect signs of danger or criminal activity. This type of cynicism, also referred to as tactical skepticism, may improve situational awareness, giving officers a perspective that may otherwise be lacking.
Law enforcement officers must consciously limit thinking about work once their shift has ended. It is unrealistic to believe that it can be turned off completely; however, it must not always be at the forefront of the officer’s life. Still, there is some value in maintaining tactical skepticism at all times. Unfortunately, officers have been the targets of attacks even when not in uniform. Because of this, police officers need to stay alert and aware at all times.
Although maintaining a level of cynicism as a law enforcement officer is positive, it must be controlled. An uncontrolled cynical attitude could result in isolation, depression, and even suicide. Kevin Gilmartin, a former Arizona police officer turned clinical psychologist, indicates that police officers are never truly off-duty; the same mindset and skills that keep officers safe on the job can wreak havoc on their personal lives.
An ex-officer* provides suggestions for achieving tactical skepticism rather than cynicism
How does a law enforcement officer keep their cynical attitude from negatively affecting their personal life? This can vary based on their experience on the street, their personality, and their experiences outside the influence of the police culture.
When I was working as an officer, I saw many fellow officers fight depression and exhaustion from the stress and anxiety of the profession. Over time, several officers asked how I remained so positive. Along with my personal faith, and the family I was blessed with, I invested specifically in my non-police friends. I had to work hard to maintain those relationships, due in part to my demanding schedule, but more importantly because as an officer, it was hard to relate to those who didn’t work in an industry where their lives were at stake. Nevertheless, it was worthwhile because surrounding myself with trusted people in a safe environment provided an opportunity to temporarily disengage from the restrictive and stressful life of a police officer.
The conscious decision to invest in life outside of the police force stemmed from an important suggestion that was given to me at a Street Survival School conference when I began my career in law enforcement. It is critical for officers to maintain friendships with those outside of the first responder network. Spending time with friends and family is a great way to prevent an overly cynical attitude. Attending church and community events will serve as reminders of the good and trustworthy people in the world. Those friendships serve as an important reminder that there is more to life than being an officer.
Another approach to curbing extreme cynicism that I valued and preached to other officers is to find a hobby unrelated to police work. Whether it is a part-time job, sports, fitness routines, a hobby will enhance your mental stability. Many of these activities used to control cynicism are free; time is all that is required. Hobbies pull focus from the stress of dealing with unreliable and unpredictable people every day.
Awareness is necessary and crucial to the survival of officers across the world, both on and off-duty. Therefore, use your tactical skepticism to stay aware and alert to your surroundings, and do not discount your feelings. However, also invest in relationships, find a hobby, get involved in networks outside of law enforcement, and enjoy the extraordinary life you have in front of you. Do not let cynicism lead you to believe that everyone is trying to deceive or hurt you, but do not discount your instincts. Seek to strike a balance in which cynicism is controlled, yet tactical skepticism remains intact. It very well may save your life.
*Kyle Abram served as a law enforcement officer in the city of Bloomington, Indiana for 9 years. He is currently an employee of Envisage Technologies.
Kaariainen, J., & Siren, R. (2012). Do the police trust in citizens? European comparisons. European Journal of Criminology. 9(3), 276-289.
Osborne, R. (2014). Observations on police cynicism. North American Journal of Psychology. 16(3), 607-628.