The last few years of high-profile crises involving law enforcement have demonstrated the need for resilient police officers. Officers who lack resiliency are more prone to react to situations in an unhealthy manner, which could lead to officer discipline or departmental liability.
Innate or Learned?
Are individuals born with resiliency or is it learned? Researcher Emmy Werner conducted a 32-year study of 698 children from birth through age 30. The children were observed for stressors in their lives. Two-thirds came from stable backgrounds, and one-third came from an at-risk background. The study revealed that not all of the at-risk children reacted the same to stress in their lives. Werner found that a few factors enabled the children to be resilient. One factor that improved resiliency was a child having a bond with a supportive mentor-like individual, and another, even more significant, factor was the child’s psychological response to their environment. The most notable difference of the at-risk resilient children was that they believed that they had what is called a “locus of control.” These children believed that they controlled their own success and that their environment did not determine it. The study also revealed that even some of those children who did not possess these traits early on, and were initially less resilient, somehow developed them later on and became resilient adults. These results indicate not only that a person can be born with a higher degree of resiliency, but that people can also learn resiliency throughout their lives. Werner also found that, no matter how resilient a person was, at some point a person’s resiliency could be overwhelmed, and when that happens, the person will reach their breaking point. A clinical psychologist, George Bonanno has studied resiliency for over 25 years and found that it is the person’s perception of a situation that determines how some people are more resilient then others. Bonanno believed that people could either view an event as traumatic or as a learning experience. A person might find meaning in an event, learn from it, and move on—or they might not and, thus, experience trauma. According to Bonanno, it is not the event that traumatizes a person, but how that person perceives and responds to the event.1
Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, found that people can be trained to view events in a more positive light and with more perceived control.2 Once people changed how they perceived an event to a more positive view, they become less prone to depression. This is an indication that individuals can learn to be more resilient over time. But this also means that the inverse is also true: a person can become less resilient over time, and, as Werner found, the person can reach a breaking point.
What this means for police officers, who may routinely experience frightening or disturbing events, is that even though some are born with more innate resiliency than others, they can all learn to become more resilient. This also may indicate that no matter what the innate resiliency level that an officer has, if her or she experiences enough stress or trauma, the officer may reach his or her resiliency limit and have a breakdown. If police officers can be taught to view stressful situations as external events where they may learn and grow internally, then they may be better equipped to handle traumatic events. Those officers who are born with a greater degree of resiliency will strengthen what they already have, and those who have less innate resiliency will learn to emotionally and mentally armor themselves.
Characteristics of Resilient People
Recognizing that some people can have more innate resiliency than others gives rise to another question: Can law enforcement recruiters screen for applicants who might already possess a higher degree of resiliency? Researchers have been able to identify certain characteristics that resilient people tend to have. In one case, the individuals who were studied ranged from those who grew up in abusive households to those who had been diagnosed with AIDS. One of the key characteristics found in the more resilient of these individuals was a high self-esteem. People who have confidence in their own abilities may feel that they have more control over situations then those who do not have high self-esteem. Another characteristic that was found in resilient people was optimism. It was found that optimistic men who had survived a heart attack had better survival rates than pessimistic men. Dr. Mark Servis, a professor of psychiatry, states that optimists tend to consider problems as challenges or as growth opportunities and look to the future instead of dwelling on the past.3
Another key to resiliency that was found in this study was the ability to be flexible. Resilient people often plan for different outcomes, and, if an unexpected outcome does occur, they have the ability to readjust their priorities instead of having their lives come to a halt if their plans do not come to fruition.4 Those who blame others and view themselves as victims are less resilient. These individuals might feel that they have no control over their lives and environment or they might not take responsibility for their own lives. Resilient people accept what has happened, learn from it, and then move on.
This type of flexibility is crucial to policing. Due to the nature of policing, inflexible officers might experience higher rates of stress than those officers who are flexible. An example of this became evident in November 2014, when a Cleveland, Ohio, police officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot and killed a 12-year-old boy. This incident could and should have been avoidable, since Loehman had been rejected during the interview process from numerous other police departments. Not only had Loehmann been rejected from police departments, he had previously been forced to resign from the Independence Police Department in Ohio. In the recommendation of the Deputy Chief Jim Polak to release Loehman from training, Polak stated that Loehmann was “not mature enough in his accepting of responsibility.” The licensed psychologist who administered the psychological test and recommended Loehmann be hired, later stated that Loehmann seemed rigid and had strict attitudes and that these characteristics could prove to be a problem in policing. This inflexibility had disqualified Loehmann from other police departments and should disqualify others with similar traits who apply to enter the police force.5
Another characteristic of resilient people is that they have a strong social support network. Individuals with strong social support are more resilient than those who are loners. Those with close friends and family are more likely to have someone with whom to talk and vent their frustrations. Individuals without a strong social network may internalize and suppress their frustrations.
While these are some of the characteristics of resilient people that police departments could look for in their applicants, most departments use psychological screening only to eliminate psychologically undesirable applicants. However, screening for character traits that indicate resiliency could even be instituted into the initial interview process. During the interview process, applicants can be queried on how they handle stressful situations and what coping methods they have found effective in their lives (e.g., “Give an example of a difficult or stressful situation that you went through. What enabled or assisted you in getting through that situation?”) Answers to such queries can indicate innate resiliency and applicants’ access to external resources like a social support system, religion, or other coping mechanisms. Resilient and optimistic applicants will be able to articulate what they learned and give examples of how they made it through the situation. They can also be asked about the strength of their social support systems. If the answers are too generic, the interviewer can ask questions like “Who do you have close relationships with? Who do you trust? Who trusts you?” If an applicant cannot provide concrete answers, this may indicate a lack of social support, social strengths. or interpersonal skills.
These are only a few examples of questions that can be asked during an initial interview. With the increased public scrutiny of police departments and their personnel, it is more important than ever that resilient candidates are recruited. ♦
1 Maria Konnikova, “How People Learn to Become Resilient,” New Yorker, February 11, 2016.
2 Konnikova, “How People Learn to Become Resilient.”
3 Mark Servis, “Learn Resilience to Cope with Life’s Obstacles,” Health Tips, UC Davis Medical Center, 2010.
4 Servis, “Learn Resilience to Cope with Life’s Obstacle.”
5 Candice Bernd, “Evaluating Police Psychology: Who Passes the Test?” Truthout, February 20, 2015.