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10 Things Officers Wish the Public Understood

Author: Jessica Terrizzi

Published: Jan 28 2022

Last Edit: Feb 7 2022

(9 min read)

It’s pretty obvious that police officers live very different lives than the general population. Police officers are exposed to unique situations throughout their careers, and even in their daily lives: many of which the public cannot even begin to fathom. It seems that, due to a lack of understanding, civilians are quick to blame police officers for incidents that law enforcement is involved in, without taking into consideration other factors at play. Because of this, I’ve had several conversations with officers about their jobs where they used the phrase “I just wish the public understood…”

As I thought about this, I realized that I have a much different perception of law enforcement officers than those who don’t know an officer personally. It dawned on me that I have a special understanding of what police officers go through due to my own personal experiences with those close to me. Because of this, I started to wonder how to share this information in a way that would help others to better understand police officers. I ultimately decided that the best way to go about doing this would be to talk to the source themselves: police officers. So, I fielded responses to this prompt:

“Police officers experience various unique situations throughout their careers. Many of which, the public could not even begin to understand. As a result, it seems that there are many misconceptions regarding what it means to work in law enforcement and about police officers in general. Because of this, it is important for the public to establish a deeper understanding related to the experiences of law enforcement officers- and who better to help with this than police officers themselves? If you are a police officer, please answer the following question: What is ONE thing that you wish the public knew/understood about working in law enforcement?”

The answers I received were fascinating and surprising!

1. “It’s a career that involves many roles- sometimes we have to be lawyers, doctors, firemen, mechanics, or negotiators.”

Officers have to take on many roles, many of which we would not associate with the traditional responsibilities of a police officer. When we think of the police, most of us picture what is portrayed in the media- officers making arrests or pulling someone over for a traffic violation. There are so many responsibilities that officers have to take on that go above and beyond this, though. For example, I have heard stories in which police officers had to administer life saving care, provide mental health support, and even help individuals with concerns such as car issues. As put by another officer, they have to be well-rounded and know “a little bit about everything”.

1. “It’s a career that involves many roles- sometimes we have to be lawyers, doctors, firemen, mechanics, or negotiators.”

Officers have to take on many roles, many of which we would not associate with the traditional responsibilities of a police officer. When we think of the police, most of us picture what is portrayed in the media- officers making arrests or pulling someone over for a traffic violation. There are so many responsibilities that officers have to take on that go above and beyond this, though. For example, I have heard stories in which police officers had to administer life saving care, provide mental health support, and even help individuals with concerns such as car issues. As put by another officer, they have to be well-rounded and know “a little bit about everything”.

2. “A lot of the situations that we are put in are extremely unique and complicated, which can be frustrating because we handle situations based off our training (or past scenarios), which the public often doesn’t understand.”

As explained by this officer, there is ultimately a reason for what they do and the decisions that they make. Officers receive training both during the police academy and throughout their careers, however, many of the situations that they experience on the job are unpredictable. It seems that the public assumes that they understand the logic behind police officer decision making, which can arguably be attributed to the media. Interestingly, Morin et al. (2017) report that 83% of Americans claim to understand the risks and difficulties associated with the job; however, 86% of officers disagree with this. Also, Morin et al. (2017) share that 70% of Americans are able to acknowledge that police work has become more difficult in recent years.

2. “A lot of the situations that we are put in are extremely unique and complicated, which can be frustrating because we handle situations based off our training (or past scenarios), which the public often doesn’t understand.”

As explained by this officer, there is ultimately a reason for what they do and the decisions that they make. Officers receive training both during the police academy and throughout their careers, however, many of the situations that they experience on the job are unpredictable. It seems that the public assumes that they understand the logic behind police officer decision making, which can arguably be attributed to the media. Interestingly, Morin et al. (2017) report that 83% of Americans claim to understand the risks and difficulties associated with the job; however, 86% of officers disagree with this. Also, Morin et al. (2017) share that 70% of Americans are able to acknowledge that police work has become more difficult in recent years.

3. “There are a lot of sacrifices that go into working as a police officer that many people don’t take into account- working holidays; working birthdays; working during special family events; communions, christenings, weddings.”

The day after Thanksgiving, I was speaking to a police officer who expressed to me that she had pulled someone over on Thanksgiving Day. This person was frustrated at the inconvenience that this caused on their holiday and was consequently rude to the officer. This officer commented to me that, while she was sure the 5 minute traffic stop was frustrating, she couldn’t help but think to herself that she wouldn’t be able to spend the day with her family because she had to work.

3. “There are a lot of sacrifices that go into working as a police officer that many people don’t take into account- working holidays; working birthdays; working during special family events; communions, christenings, weddings.”

The day after Thanksgiving, I was speaking to a police officer who expressed to me that she had pulled someone over on Thanksgiving Day. This person was frustrated at the inconvenience that this caused on their holiday and was consequently rude to the officer. This officer commented to me that, while she was sure the 5 minute traffic stop was frustrating, she couldn’t help but think to herself that she wouldn’t be able to spend the day with her family because she had to work.

4. “Every shift you work you risk your life, we do not get paid for what we do, we get paid for what we may have to do…”

Police officers do not know what to expect when they put on their uniforms. From the perspective of a family member, I can tell you that this is extremely anxiety provoking for both officers and their loved ones. Officers never know what, or who, they are going to be met with while on the job, which can lead to a high amount of stress (Cieslak et al., 2020). Not to mention the fact that their lives are frequently put at risk while they are at work. According to Officer Down Memorial Page (N.D.), 514 police officers were killed in the line of duty just in 2021 alone.

4. “Every shift you work you risk your life, we do not get paid for what we do, we get paid for what we may have to do…”

Police officers do not know what to expect when they put on their uniforms. From the perspective of a family member, I can tell you that this is extremely anxiety provoking for both officers and their loved ones. Officers never know what, or who, they are going to be met with while on the job, which can lead to a high amount of stress (Cieslak et al., 2020). Not to mention the fact that their lives are frequently put at risk while they are at work. According to Officer Down Memorial Page (N.D.), 514 police officers were killed in the line of duty just in 2021 alone.

5. “How officers have to be absolutely perfect in split second decisions, which are then reviewed and scrutinized by the public, politicians and lawyers who have an exponential amount of time to scrutinize and criticize our actions for months, sometimes even years afterwards.”

Police officers are often put in life or death situations, in which they have to make an immediate decision. In fact, officers are trained in decision making models, and how to make informed choices when dealing with a critical incident. Officers, however, have to think through these models within seconds and need to act instantly in situations that the UCLA Police Department (N.D.) describes as “tense”, “uncertain”, and “rapidly evolving” (Police Executive Research Forum, 2016).

5. “How officers have to be absolutely perfect in split second decisions, which are then reviewed and scrutinized by the public, politicians and lawyers who have an exponential amount of time to scrutinize and criticize our actions for months, sometimes even years afterwards.”

Police officers are often put in life or death situations, in which they have to make an immediate decision. In fact, officers are trained in decision making models, and how to make informed choices when dealing with a critical incident. Officers, however, have to think through these models within seconds and need to act instantly in situations that the UCLA Police Department (N.D.) describes as “tense”, “uncertain”, and “rapidly evolving” (Police Executive Research Forum, 2016).

6. “Being apprehensive to do good police work due to strict and unreasonable guidelines set forth by politicians who don’t understand the dynamics and rapid development of situations.”

The lack of perceived organizational and political support by police officers is a strong contributor to the stress that they feel related to work. According to Ortega et al. (2007) bureaucracy and politics leads to decreased job commitment among police officers. This also relates to the feeling among police officers that the public does not understand the unique demands of their job. This sentiment about the lack of organizational/political support was exemplified by another officer who wrote, “Why bother doing 9 hours of paperwork for arresting someone for burglarizing your home when they are released from jail the very next day, to do it all over again because there are no consequences for actions anymore?”

6. “Being apprehensive to do good police work due to strict and unreasonable guidelines set forth by politicians who don’t understand the dynamics and rapid development of situations.”

The lack of perceived organizational and political support by police officers is a strong contributor to the stress that they feel related to work. According to Ortega et al. (2007) bureaucracy and politics leads to decreased job commitment among police officers. This also relates to the feeling among police officers that the public does not understand the unique demands of their job. This sentiment about the lack of organizational/political support was exemplified by another officer who wrote, “Why bother doing 9 hours of paperwork for arresting someone for burglarizing your home when they are released from jail the very next day, to do it all over again because there are no consequences for actions anymore?”

7. “That we are human in every way. We go above and beyond and we make mistakes. We are not without feelings.”

As stated by another officer, “We really do care and we want to make a positive difference.” It is discouraging when the public does not realize that police officers truly do care about helping the community, or worse, when they villainize police officers. While police officers are understandably held to a higher standard, it’s important to recognize that they are also human beings who do sometimes make mistakes, and also feel emotions including fear and anxiety.

7. “That we are human in every way. We go above and beyond and we make mistakes. We are not without feelings.”

As stated by another officer, “We really do care and we want to make a positive difference.” It is discouraging when the public does not realize that police officers truly do care about helping the community, or worse, when they villainize police officers. While police officers are understandably held to a higher standard, it’s important to recognize that they are also human beings who do sometimes make mistakes, and also feel emotions including fear and anxiety. 

8. “How we are mistreated and disrespected, also how we deal with negativity all day which affects our lifestyle.”

Police officers have high levels of mental health concerns because of the negative experiences that they are faced with every day, such as public biases and exposure to traumatic events. There have been a number of stories in the media about police officers facing discrimination from the public due to their job. As a result of job related stressors, officers are at increased risk for depression and PTSD (Velazquez & Hernandez, 2019), and there is a notable amount of suicide among police officers (Di Nota et al., 2020). See our wellness post for a more detailed discussion of this.

8. “How we are mistreated and disrespected, also how we deal with negativity all day which affects our lifestyle.”

Police officers have high levels of mental health concerns because of the negative experiences that they are faced with every day, such as public biases and exposure to traumatic events. There have been a number of stories in the media about police officers facing discrimination from the public due to their job. As a result of job related stressors, officers are at increased risk for depression and PTSD (Velazquez & Hernandez, 2019), and there is a notable amount of suicide among police officers (Di Nota et al., 2020). See our wellness post for a more detailed discussion of this.

9. “Our extreme sleep schedule and multiple responsibilities we have besides enforcing the law.”

Working night shifts can have several negative consequences for police officers, including decreased well-being (Violanti et al., 2008). There is also a lot more involved in policing than most people seem to realize. I, for one, was shocked when I discovered the amount of paperwork involved in being a police officer. Officers are also expected to testify in court, establish a relationship with the community, and spend time continuing their training and education. One especially notable responsibility of police officers is having to conduct themselves professionally both on and off duty.

9. “Our extreme sleep schedule and multiple responsibilities we have besides enforcing the law.”

Working night shifts can have several negative consequences for police officers, including decreased well-being (Violanti et al., 2008). There is also a lot more involved in policing than most people seem to realize. I, for one, was shocked when I discovered the amount of paperwork involved in being a police officer. Officers are also expected to testify in court, establish a relationship with the community, and spend time continuing their training and education. One especially notable responsibility of police officers is having to conduct themselves professionally both on and off duty.

10. “The media only highlights the negative aspects. The good goes unseen.”

This seems to be especially true within recent years. It truly does seem that police officers are constantly being scrutinized for their actions and this certainly does not go unnoticed by those in this career. Gramlich and Parker (2017) report that most police officers (approximately 80%) believe that the media targets them, and has an unfair bias towards them. This is especially problematic because officers who carry these beliefs are more likely to feel frustration related to their job.

10. “The media only highlights the negative aspects. The good goes unseen.”

This seems to be especially true within recent years. It truly does seem that police officers are constantly being scrutinized for their actions and this certainly does not go unnoticed by those in this career. Gramlich and Parker (2017) report that most police officers (approximately 80%) believe that the media targets them, and has an unfair bias towards them. This is especially problematic because officers who carry these beliefs are more likely to feel frustration related to their job.

How do we overcome these misconceptions?

Through reading through these responses, I could not help but think about the often overlooked fact that officers are humans too. I think people forget this, which causes them to put unrealistic expectations on officers. In reality, they feel emotions, they experience pain, and they are affected by what the public thinks of them. After all, the public are the very people that officers are sworn to protect, and the very individuals that they risk their lives for every time they put on their badge. So the next time that you see an officer, or come to a conclusion about law enforcement in general, I encourage you to think of the above responses, and to remember that police officers are not much different than the rest of us.

If you are an officer reading this, I hope you can recognize that other officers have similar thoughts/feelings as you, and are able to take some positivity away from this article, in whatever form that may be.

Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.

Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology

Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.

References

  • Cieślak, I., Kielan, A., Olejniczak, D., Panczyk, M., Jaworski, M., Gałązkowski, R., … & Mikos, M. (2020). Stress at work: The case of municipal police officers. Work, 65(1), 145-152. https://doi.org/10.3233/WOR-193067
  • Di Nota, P. M., Anderson, G. S., Ricciardelli, R., Carleton, R. N., & Groll, D. (2020). Mental disorders, suicidal ideation, plans and attempts among Canadian police. Occupational Medicine, 70(3), 183–190. https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqaa026 
  • Gramlich, J., & Parker, K. (2017). Most officers say the media treat police unfairly. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/25/most-officers-say-the-media-treat-police-unfairly/
  • ICAT module #2: Critical decision-making model. Police Executive Research Forum . (2016, December). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.policeforum.org/assets/ICAT/Module%202_website.pdf
  • Morin, R., Parker, K., Stepler, R., & Mercer, A. (2017). Behind the badge. Pew Research Center, 11.
  • Ortega, A., Brenner, S. O., & Leather, P. (2007). Occupational stress, coping and personality in the police: An SEM study. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 9(1), 36-50.
  • Use of force. UCLA Police Department. (2017, February 3). Retrieved January 28, 2022, from https://www.police.ucla.edu/other/use-of-force
  • Velazquez, E., & Hernandez, M. (2019). Effects of police officer exposure to traumatic experiences and recognizing the stigma associated with police officer mental health: A state-of-the-art review. Policing: An International Journal. https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-09-2018-0147
  • Violanti, J. M., Charles, L. E., Hartley, T. A., Mnatsakanova, A., Andrew, M. E., Fekedulegn, D.,. & Burchfiel, C. M. (2008). Shift‐work and suicide ideation among police officers. American journal of industrial medicine, 51(10), 758-768. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.20629

This post does not provide medical or clinical advice and is no substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. Visitors who access the post and rely on its content do so at their own risk. This post represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. If you are feeling lost or hopeless, or someone you know is feeling lost or hopeless, call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255

 

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