Compassion in policing would help cops, communities

Compassion is emerging as a solution that promises to bring healing to officers, departments and communities.

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Dozens of new Chicago Police Department officers take an oath during the graduation of Recruit Class 21-3 and 21-4 and promotion ceremony at the Aon Grand Ballroom in Navy Pier, Tuesday morning, March 29, 2022.

New Chicago Police Department officers take an oath during the graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier on March 29.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Police officers are hurting today.

They are suffering high rates of mental health problems, substance abuse and suicide. In the past three years, 472 U.S. law enforcement professionals have committed suicidenearly three times the number of officers killed by gunfire in the line of duty during the same period.

At the same time, police departments are struggling with poor morale, retention problems and low crime resolution rates.

Meanwhile, America’s vulnerable communities are suffering. A rise in crime during the COVID-19 pandemic hit America’s poor neighborhoods of color hardest. These communities often are torn between distrust toward police and a desire for law enforcement to deter and arrest criminals.

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These are complex, interrelated problems. Traditional fixes — such as impersonal, check-the-box trainings — haven’t moved the needle much.

But a solution is surfacing that promises to bring healing to officers, departments and communities. It’s a solution at once ancient, research-backed and deeply human: compassion. Compassion is emerging as a key to greater well-being, performance and resilience.

The benefits of compassion

Compassion means recognizing suffering in oneself and others, and taking steps to alleviate the discomfort. It may seem an odd prescription for law enforcement. Empathy and warmth run counter to our notion that cops have to armor-up, put feelings aside and maintain a steely demeanor to stay safe and catch the bad guys.

But a growing body of research indicates the opposite is true. To embrace compassion is to come into one’s full humanity, opening officers up to a new set of emotional skills and strengths and enabling them to recover faster from challenges.

The challenges are many at the moment. They include heightened public scrutiny of law enforcement, a rise in violent crime and increased line-of-duty deaths. These difficulties come on top of a tough-it-out mindset held by many officers, preventing them from seeking help.

Bringing more compassion to policing begins with officers practicing self-compassion — acknowledging the physical, mental and emotional injuries they experience and then engaging in self-care and seeking support. Self-compassion can lead a cop to call a suicide prevention line, enroll in a trauma-recovery program or attend an AA meeting.

Entire police departments also benefit from an infusion of compassion. The men and women in blue are famous for circling the wagons to protect their own. But many departments have workplace cultures defined by cynicism, callousness and ridicule — all of which undermine team trust, cooperation and effectiveness.

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Compassion among peers and within departments, on the other hand, contributes to high-trust, high-performing cultures. A climate of “psychological safety” — where employees can be vulnerable without fear of appearing weak or being marginalized — has proven vital to effective teams in general and police departments in particular.

Greater compassion has a wider impact still. Compassion encourages healthy relationships between police and the public. It fosters the collaboration and cooperation at the center of effective community policing.

Calls for compassion

There is growing interest in exploring an “inside-out” approach to compassion in policing — cultivating compassion in officers first, then departments and eventually entire communities.

We authors heard about this hunger for more compassion in public safety during a series of public conversations late last year. An organization we helped co-found, Project Compassion, gathered about 50 people from law enforcement, the mental health profession and community advocacy groups to share stories and discuss how compassion can play a stronger role in policing.

We heard about the pain of police officers. “It’s bad. It’s very bad right now and our officers are hurting,” a Chicago Police Department captain said. “They’re confused and they don’t know what’s expected of them and where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to do. And there’s a lot of fear.”

We heard about the need to move away from the militarized image of police. “In the modern police force, your people are going to look more like social workers than soldiers,” said Burrell Poe, director of the Chicago Peace Fellows at social change organization the Goldin Institute.

We also learned about a growing number of initiatives around the country to help officers develop greater mindfulness and compassion. These include trainings by the Stanford University-affiliated Compassion Institute and the heart-centered workshops offered by Blue Courage.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to putting compassion at the center of policing is the old, hyper-masculine narrative that practicing empathy and kindness for oneself and others is “soft” or “weak.”

Already, growing numbers of law enforcement and community leaders are re-writing the story around compassion. They are recognizing the power of this fundamental human capability to heal officers, police departments and neighborhoods. They are seeing that compassion is vital today to strengthen the heart of communities.

Phil Andrew is a former FBI agent and a business consultant focused on crisis management. Ed Frauenheim is co-author of four books on workplace culture. They are among the co-founders of Project Compassion, a group that helps police leaders foster greater compassion for increased well-being, performance and resilience.

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