By guest author Dr. Stephanie M. Conn
Do you remember what you were like when you became a police officer? How does this person compare to who you are today? Chances are, if it was just last year that you joined, you are not a drastically different person but I would bet you are different. Police work changes people. It changes the people around you too- your family, friends, and sometimes it even changes your neighbors. I saw this when I joined and even noticed it when I was a kid because my family wasn’t like non-police families. For some reason, unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad needed to know my friends’ last names and their parents’ names. But I digress.
Research confirms that police work changes people and it doesn’t take long before the changes begin. Studies of new police officers show that personality changes begin at the recruitment phase, are more pronounced after two years on the job, and substantially more pronounced at the four-year mark. Researchers found that officers rated higher for depression and vulnerability to addictive behaviors. The results suggested that the officers were at heightened risk for stress-related physical complaints and substance abuse after a mere four years of service.
One of the most troubling changes is the tendency for police officers to begin narrowing how they define themselves. On entering policing, officers typically possess multiple identity roles – they are not just a police officer but they also identify as parents, partners, friends, community members, members of sporting teams, etc. As they spend more time in policing, these other roles tend to fade behind the ever-strengthening police role. Police work is not “what you do”, it is who you are. This trend is troubling for a number of reasons. First, when you narrow how you identify yourself, you also narrow your problem-solving skills. For instance, when an officer encounters a personal dispute with a spouse or partner, he or she will likely call upon the police role to resolve the conflict. Most spouses / partners would not be particularly receptive to this kind of interaction. In fact, a colleague of mine conducted a study of police partners who complained of feeling that the family was being “policed” at times.
Narrowing one’s identity to the singular police role can be even more troubling when police officers lose their status as police officers. This could happen through retirement, injury, or involuntary resignation. If all you are is a police officer and that’s taken away, what is left? Cops have relayed to me that they couldn’t bear to leave policing because they would go from “hero to zero”. No one wants to feel like a zero. This contributes to the heightened suicide risk and rapidly declining health for officers who have recently retired.
So, what do we do with this information? Are all officers doomed to feel like zeros? Absolutely not! Awareness precedes change. I encourage you to take stock of the roles you currently play in your daily life. Compare this to when you first became a police officer. Do you notice that you have stopped doing hobbies you enjoyed or have withdrawn from non-police activities or people? If so, make the commitment to return to these activities. It might be that you join a baseball league or running club. It might mean reconnecting with an old friend or returning to the relationship rituals you shared with your partner that have fallen to the wayside. Sometimes it helps to ask those close to you how you have changed since becoming a police officer. Ask them if there is anything they miss about the “old” you, or the way the relationship was when you first started as a police officer. Armed with this information, you can reconnect with all the other parts of who you are. I encourage you to be vigilant in maintaining all of your life roles by taking stock annually of how you spend your time. Having a well-rounded life, filled with multiple roles, will promote your resilience and overall quality of life.
Dr. Stephanie Conn is a licensed psychologist in private practice: First Responder Psychology. Check out her excellent book, Increasing Resilience in Police and Emergency Personnel.