What Is Cynicism?

It's pervasive in this profession, and it's deadly

By Jeff Shannon  |   Jun 4, 2015

Developing and maintaining a cynical attitude toward life, but particularly about other people, might just be the signature hallmark of police culture. Cynical cops are usually given a certain amount of “cred” within the department. It’s supported. But outside the walls of the police department, most people look down on cynical people as somehow damaged. They’re certainly not fun to hang out with.

Our culture has a deep fascination with cop movies and television. Specifically, we love the jaded, burnt out, addicted, ethically suspect and divorced type of cops. Although it may be entertaining to watch the train wreck that these characters lives become, few of us would want to be such a person in real life.

These movie and television producers do their homework all right. We don’t have to look very far in our own departments to find a fellow officer who isn’t aging well at all. A 25-year police career is uniquely capable of destroying our health and happiness.

Cynicism Kills
After a 23-year career with the New York State Police, John Violanti retired and went back to school. After graduating with his doctoral degree, Violanti has become the foremost expert in police stress. Primarily a researcher, Dr. Violanti recently published a book containing most of he’s learned after studying the stress of police officers. The book is aptly titled Dying for the Job.

Indeed, we sacrifice a lot for “the job.” We lose important things meandering through the decades of police work: our passion, health, joy for life, friendships, ability to feel calm and relaxed without the use of a substance of some kind. The good news in all this is that these are mostly self-inflicted injuries. We do it to ourselves.

Here’s a typical exchange between two officers:

Tim: Hey, Keith, how you doin’?

Keith: Another day in paradise, right? Jesus.

Tim: You still up in robbery?

Keith: Yeah, still working for that douche bag. Can’t wait to go back to patrol.

Tim: I’m workin’ patrol, trust me there’s problems here too.

Keith: You know what, brother, I got three more years left ‘till I can get out of this shit hole, so I guess it doesn’t matter where I work. I just come in, put my 10 in get out.

Remind you of anyone you know?

The self-inflicting injury Keith is giving himself come from his (false) belief that he is a victim. When we try and support the Keiths of the world, perhaps by giving advise, we usually hear something to the effect of, “You don’t understand what it’s like working for that …,” or: “They keep messing with me …” If you took Keiths’ word at face value, you’d believe that he really is helpless to change anything as long as the “bad” supervisor is around.

Keith is dying for the job. He’s probably got high blood pressure. He’s probably in a bad mood when he get’s home from work, which he deals with by isolating himself from the rest of the family. You get the point.

Now, let’s talk about emotional fitness. When walking away from a 20-plus year law enforcement career you’re probably going to have quite a few battle scars. What about your mind? How do you think that fares? The answer to this question is, “It depends.”

First, it depends on if you believe mental fitness has any value to you. Thirty years ago few cops would express any interest at all in their emotional fitness. When my father worked as a California Highway Patrol Officer in the 1960s and ’70s the boys went to the bar after work. That was their version of mental fitness. The walked in the bar all feeling tense. They left feeling much better.

It’s practical, it works, so what’s the problem? Well, when dad is either incapacitated with a hangover or at the golf course drinking and telling war stories with the fellas, he’s not much of a father. Dying for the job kills relationships that matter.

Today, things are different. Most law enforcement officers acknowledge on some level that it’s important to keep your “mind right.” So, what are the necessary ingredients for our guardians to have fit minds?

Unlearn your Cynicism
You probably weren’t cynical when you got the job. It came from your experience of talking to people at their maddest, baddest and saddest on a daily basis. It came from working in a soul-killing bureaucracy, where the equipment doesn’t work half the time, no good deed goes unpunished, and we have little control over our workspace. The reason you should start working toward unlearning your cynicism is that it’s bad for our health, it’s bad for our relationships, and makes you the kind of people others don’t want to spend time with.

To unlearn a strongly cynical attitude we need to remind ourselves as often as possible that not everyone is a criminal because of the way they choose to dress or where they happen to live. The guy who rings your doorbell may not be trying to case your house for a burglary. A good way to temper your cynicism is to make a point of spending time with … normal people. You know, the ones with normal jobs, good people who don’t assault others and steal.

There are lots of good people in the world. Find them and make friends with them. When you can treat each subject you have contact with during a shift as an individual, without making assumptions about they’re “all about,” you’ve graduated from Cynicism Reform School.

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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