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HOLDING THE LINE – EVOLVING IDENTITY


November 19, 2012
By Stephanie Conn

754 words – MR

HOLDING THE LINE

The evolving identity of the police officer

by Stephanie Conn

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Do you remember what you were like when you became a police officer? Maybe it was last year; maybe it was 30 years ago. How does this person compare to who you are today? If you joined last year, chances are you are not drastically different – but I would bet you are different.

Police work changes people. It doesn’t stop there. It changes the people around you too – your family, friends, sometimes even your neighbours. I noticed this when I joined but was aware of it even as a child. My family wasn’t like other non-police families. For some reason, unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad needed to know the last names of my friends and their parents and what street they lived on – but I digress.

Research confirms police work changes people and it doesn’t take long for the changes to begin. A study of new police officers shows personality changes begin at the recruitment phase, are more pronounced after two years on the job and substantially more so at the four-year mark <(1)>. Researchers found officers rated higher for depression and vulnerability to addictive behaviours. The results suggested 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 police but 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. It 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 come to identify yourself, you also narrow your problem-solving skills. For instance, when an officer encounters a personal dispute with someone, perhaps 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 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 an officer loses his or her status. This could very easily happen through retirement, injury, illness or involuntary resignation. If all you are is a police officer and that is 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 is one of the reasons behind the heightened suicide risk and rapidly declining health of recently retired officers.

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 various roles you currently play in your daily life. Compare this information to when you first became a police officer. Do you notice you have stopped doing certain hobbies you enjoyed or have withdrawn from other non-police activities or people? If so, make the commitment to return to them. Perhaps join a baseball league or running club, reconnect with an old friend or return to the relationship rituals you shared with your partner that have fallen to the wayside.

Sometimes it helps to ask those close to you, your non-police family and friends, how you have changed since becoming an officer. Ask them if there is anything they miss about the “old” you or the way the relationship used to be before you joined.

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 the roles you play by routinely taking stock of how you spend your time. Having a well-rounded life, filled with multiple roles, will promote your resilience and overall quality of life.

E-mail if you would like an annual personal inventory questionnaire.

<(1)> Beutler, L. E., Nussbaum, P. D., & Meredith, K. E. (1988). Changing personality patterns of police officers. .

BIO BOX

Stephanie Conn is a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Contact her at stephanie@blueline.ca or visit
www.conncounsellingandconsulting.com for more information.