Retired Police Officer and current Clinical Psychologist Ive Eicken describes how old notions of masculinity may prevent police officers from being peace officers.
Most of us depend on law enforcement officers to keep us safe. We call the police when something has already gone very wrong. We want the officer who shows up to be able to take charge, handle dangerous situations without emotion, and use that “parade ground voice” to restore order and safety. In other words, we want him or her to be the sturdy oak, the big wheel, give the bad guys hell, and do it all with businesslike dispatch. But when we need those traits, we also want them proportionate to the situation. Unfortunately, this can occasionally be too great a challenge: in stressful situations, police may believe they have limited options and rely on the extreme end of stereotypical masculine behaviors.
In 1979, I became a police officer in a suburb of Oklahoma City; I retired in 1999. Recruits’ indoctrination to police culture starts very early. Police training academies are modeled after military boot camp. Field training officers continue this approach, so for at least a year the rookie police officer is yelled at, criticized, and micro-managed. The similarities to the socialization of boys into men are remarkable. It’s sort of a “Man Training on Steroids.” If this is how we train and treat our police officers, we should not be surprised when they treat the public the same way.*
Research has shown that all organisms regress to rock bottom survival skills when highly stressed. We teach officers to rely on very rigid, traditionally masculine traits when in danger. Having female officers helps, but they are under the same pressures to demonstrate to these stereotypically masculine traits.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, we could put several officers on the street to immediately respond to someone in danger. A group of officers could help each other measure a crisis, choose among various possible responses, and deal with it appropriately. Today, police departments are staffed at bare bones levels. One man alone is often responding to a dangerous call, and his options are very different from those available to four officers. A police officer acting alone must rely on the traditionally masculine traits he was taught: stoicism, authority, and/or restricted emotionality. Once an officer has engaged in a conflict situation, he then feels required to end a conflict in a way approved of by other officers, as though they were right there, evaluating his toughness.
Traditional masculinity prohibits help seeking because asking for help is not masculine. Over time, the very nature of police work is sure to injure officers in body and psyche. As an officer, I experienced many traumatic incidents. In the patrol division, I went to a traffic accident with injury or death once a week, and a suicide every month. When I became a homicide detective, I saw 10 to 12 murder scenes a year. Throw in a couple of train wrecks and a tornado that sucked the town off the map for good measure. My experience is fairly typical, and actually rather benign compared to some urban departments. In most police departments, there is no mechanism for men to receive care or even regular maintenance.
The 10 year veteran officer who responds to your call for help has experienced many, many traumatic events, and it’s likely that he or she has been used well beyond warranty. With limited staff and few mechanisms for promoting health, police departments have to keep worn out or injured officers working. There is no one to replace them.
The requirements of policing, like traditional masculinity, are contradictory and impossible to achieve. Better and more training along with body cams are important steps toward helping law enforcement be more accountable to the public, but will not address the restricted use of empathy or the limited behaviors required by the traditionally masculine codes of law enforcement culture. I am not suggesting that traditional masculinity is bad or should be discarded; when we need those values, we need them badly. In a very masculine form of nurturing, cops “have our back”. Likewise, in no way would I try to defend or excuse recent abuses of police power; it is clear that police culture needs something.
It may be time for traditional masculine police culture to expand back to an older concept. The police have not been called “Peace Officers” for many decades*. Our polarized culture is reflected in the traditional masculine skill set most commonly including confrontation, power, and absolute notions of right and wrong. Adding emotion regulation and emphasizing de-escalation would give officers an additional set of tools. It won’t be an easy shift. I can hear the lineup room voices now: “He swung at you and you backed up?” It will take a great deal of support from colleagues, departments, and the public to bring about a culture shift.
I believe that adding additional peace-building skills and relaxing the restrictions of traditional masculinity are a necessary step for the police culture to shift to a broader and more empathetic definition of “Serve and Protect”. We can redefine Law Enforcement culture by re-inserting “peace” skills to the masculinity we endorse. I wonder how many of the recent tragic events would have gone differently if the officers thought that they truly had their department’s permission to simply back off until help arrived.
*Thanks to Joel Fay, Ph.D., another cop turned psychologist for his ideas on the training of police officers, & Mark Stephens expert on masculinity for his thoughts on returning to being peace officers.
Iverson M. Eicken, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in northern California. He earned his Ph.D. in 2003 at Oklahoma State University, while researching men and masculinity issues. Prior to becoming a psychologist, Ive was a police officer in Moore, Oklahoma, for 20 years. He served as a patrolman, detective, shift supervisor, and shift commander, and in every division of the department.
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