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Hendon Publishing

Compassion in Command

A career in law enforcement changes us. On the positive side, the unique demands of the profession build character. Young recruits evolve from timid naïveté to impressive self-assurance. Initially possessed by first-day jitters and uncertainty, they are determined and decisive before long. Communication skills progress as officers master the art of persuasion, applying critical thinking, logic and reason to their roles as problem solvers.

However, officers also necessarily develop a certain mental toughness. The ability to steel oneself in the face of a procession of misery, suffering and human depravity is essential for emotional survival. When taken to the extreme, though, an officer often loses compassion. And when police officers lose their compassion, it has dire consequences for the department, the public and the officers themselves. American aphorist Mason Cooley has observed, “Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.”

It is well known that police officers generally spend 90% of their time dealing with 10% of the community. In other words, they interact primarily with criminals and trouble makers. Additionally, handling assignments involving abused children, the aftermath of a horrific driving-under-the-influence crash, and victims shot, stabbed and/or bludgeoned are but a small sampling of the traumatizing experiences in an officer’s daily routine.

Police humor is a common conditioned response in the face of all this inhumanity. The astute police leader recognizes this dark humor as a psychological defense mechanism. The macabre jokes may indicate the earliest stages of loss of compassion.

Captains are well aware that when an officer loses compassion, it leaves a void that is quickly occupied by cynicism and depression. These officers will often treat the public, offenders, victims and their routine citizen interactions with disdain or even contempt. For captains then, combating despair within the ranks is a vital and challenging task.

Captains must lead the way to ensure their officers retain their compassion. It is in the best interest of the department and the public that police officers are compassionate, understanding and empathetic. True police leaders know that helping officers retain their humanity is essential to their psychological well-being.

To this end, leaders must first and foremost model compassion. All interpersonal interactions between captains and the rank and file should be demonstrations of dignity, professionalism, care and concern. Such an example will be reflected in the attitudes and behavior of those under their command.

In addition to leading by example, captains need to personally address their officers about the destructive impact of lost compassion. The resulting cynicism is contagious, and those most disheartened can easily influence their fellow officers. The leader needs to step in. Talk to your people. Tell and show them how a calcified heart and mean-spirited attitude is unfair to the public.

Point out the simple observable fact that the officer with no compassion, and thus a disdainful interactive style, will more likely encounter physical resistance from offenders. An uncaring demeanor also frequently results in citizen complaints and disciplinary action.

Most importantly, though, caring police leaders ensure that their officers understand the damage done to the emotional health of those who lose their compassion. Sadly, the despair that results from a skewed view of humanity, lacking compassion and poisoned with scorn and cynicism, is partly reflected in police suicide statistics. This gloomy pessimism often impacts an officer’s personal life, sadly contributing to the high divorce rate within law enforcement families. Clearly, then, captains who care about their officers need to be vigilant and proactive.

For the compassionate police officer, the law enforcement profession provides ample opportunity to make a positive impact on a world of pain and suffering. Remind your officers how a kind word to the victim of a burglary, a ride to work for the auto-theft victim, some heartfelt empathy for domestic abuse victims and even treating offenders with dignity and respect can all alleviate pain and generate a positive difference. Captains need to constantly dispel the notion so prevalent in law enforcement that it is “us versus them.” We are them. We are part of the communities we serve. If they suffer, so do we. Empathy generates compassion.

So, remind your officers that compassion is its own reward. Applied generously, compassion imbues its practitioner with a sense of pride, accomplishment and good will. Such officers can genuinely feel good about themselves at the end of a tour of duty. In other words, compassionate officers will be emotionally healthy officers best poised to serve the community. American social writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer noted, “Where there is compassion, even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.” Is that not exactly what we want for our department, the public we serve and our officers?

Robert Roy Johnson is a 33-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, currently at the rank of Captain. He can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2009

Rating : 10.0

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Posted on : Nov 21 at 9:59 AM By Jack Colwell

This is simply the most well thought out, clear and concise article I have ever read on this critical issue of law enforcement leadership. Thank you to Capt. Johnson and to Law and Order Magazine. Let us strive to etch this into the social fabric of the law enforcement culture.

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