Law enforcement officers: Are you isolated? And before you answer that question, consider that it’s possible to be isolated even when you’re surrounded by other people, especially when those people are similar to you. “Homogenous groups create a myopic sense of ourselves,” says Jose Navarro, EdD, a psychologist with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office. “That doesn’t allow us to see ourselves as a whole, because all the investment is in that one role.” And isolation carries considerable risk. “The number one risk factor for suicide is isolation,” Navarro says.
In his work with law enforcement officers, Navarro links isolation to criticism. “Policing is very vulnerable to being criticized, and then we shut down,” he says. “We have to be very intentional on overriding the natural reaction to criticism.” At the 2023 International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, Navarro – along with another LACSO psychologist Piero D’Ingillo, PsyD, and Sgt. Bryant Thomas – presented an evidence-based tool they have developed to combat the tendency of law enforcement officers to isolate themselves.
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Understanding Isolation in Law Enforcement
Sgt. Thomas experienced firsthand how criticism and isolation go hand in hand. Shortly after two of his colleagues were shot in the line of duty, five Dallas law enforcement officers were killed in an ambush. Thomas was deeply affected by these events and recognized he was withdrawing. “I knew I needed to spend time outside law enforcement, so I went to a party,” he says.
Sadly, the attempt backfired. Several partygoers brought up the Dallas incident and then confronted Thomas about gun control. “I felt baited into a debate; I was very angry,” Thomas says. He left the party immediately, and in the next few weeks found himself withdrawing even more.
Curbing law enforcement isolation requires officers to have courage and willpower to intentionally connect.
While isolation can feel protective, it can also lead to traumatic stress, substance abuse and other health problems. Navarro notes that a lack of diverse relationships, or “social capital,” can have health repercussions equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes a day. “About 40% of your overall health can be attributed to your level of isolation, 30% to your nutrition and 20% to exercise,” he says. Thomas adds that when law enforcement officers isolate with other officers, the amount of negativity rises. “It’s easier to sit around with fellow officers and complain about the job, the community, etc.,” he says.
CODE 4: Helping Law Enforcement Officers Process Criticism
Navarro, D’Ingillo and Thomas developed the CODE 4 approach to help officers process criticism and ward off the tendency to isolate.
- Compassion: Before law enforcement officers can successfully deal with criticism from others, they must confront their inner critics. Navarro jokes that this should be called “tactical compassion” because “compassion” often doesn’t fit well into law enforcement culture. It involves two dimensions. One is calming your inner critic, learning to treat yourself with the same kindness you would extend to a loved one. The other is deliberately practicing compassion: taking deep breaths while visualizing someone and directing compassion to them. “By mastering a calm nervous system, officers can respond more compassionately to themselves and others,” Navarro says.
- Orient: Mindfulness and self-awareness are key. Officers should be aware of their internal and external environment. “What can we pay attention to that lets us know what we’re experiencing? Environment, thoughts, emotions, behavior – how are those getting in the way of connectedness?” Navarro asks.
- Disarm: D’Ingillo discussed the role cognitive distortions play in negative thinking. They include reactions such as jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst, labeling and the tendency to see things as good or bad, right or wrong. “These are prevalent in law enforcement officers because you need these tools to survive,” D’Ingillo says. “But you take this stuff home and you’re wielding a weapon on your loved ones.” Officers should learn to recognize these distortions and try to minimize them outside the job.
- Empower: Curbing law enforcement isolation requires officers to have courage and willpower to intentionally connect. Join a sports league. Volunteer. Forge friendships outside law enforcement. Get involved in activities and groups that speak to other aspects of your identity. “Connectedness is very important and something we have to make an effort to do,” Navarro says.
Criticism against law enforcement comes from many directions – community members, friends and family, administrators and other stakeholders. The key to fighting law enforcement isolation lies in officers learning to recognize how they react to criticism and when they are withdrawing rather than engaging. And that, in turn, is key to making the profession better. “We’ve got to get away from sitting around in a bar complaining about stuff we can’t change,” Thomas says.