The Police and their “Image Armor”

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my conversations with peers, especially those involved with the Occupy movement: Many of them have an overtly negative perception of law enforcement officers. I’ve heard officers labeled as heartless, cynical pigs and fascists.

I grew up in a law enforcement family; both of my parents have worked for over ten years in the courthouse 5 minutes away from my house. I’ve known law enforcement officers who have come in all different shapes, sizes, and temperaments. I never saw an overarching negative persona.

But maybe I’m naïve, maybe I’m biased. So I plunged into the  police psychology literature. Does a police personality even exists and if so, what is it? It’s a question that stretches as far back as the late 60s and early 70s.

But much of the research remained inconclusive, unable or unwilling to say if a police personality exists.

Some are willing to say yes, a police personality does exist, theorize what it is, and try to explain its origins. Dr. Aviva Twersky-Glasner did just that in a paper published in 2005.

Law enforcement institutions use stringent psychological assessments to screen potential recruits.  These assessments provide valuable indicators of future success in law enforcement (recruits who had numerous public complaints or who were terminated were considered unsuccessful). Twersky-Glasner used the rich literature to first tease out what the police personality is not:

the personality of the successful police officer does not contain traits of: impulsivity, hostility, undue aggression, lack of autonomy, immaturity, anti-social tendencies, potentials for alcohol and/or drug abuse, emotional liability, social introversion, paranoia and psychoses.

She then used the literature to form a theoretical construct of what the police personality actually is. Twersky-Glasner found that officers possessed these attributes: “pragmatism, action oriented, valuing common sense rather than theory and success more than ideas.”

She also presented cynicism or “contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives,” as a probable characteristic of the police personality.

Twersky-Glasner believes these traits were cultivated by the police culture. Police face a specific set of occupational stressors, both physical and emotional, that they often can’t share with the public or their emotional support networks because of confidentiality issues. This disconnect can lead to feelings of isolation from the rest of society. The officers then look to each other and the law enforcement intuition for coping mechanisms.

Twersky-Glasner postulates that they will craft a “working personality” or “image armor” of “authority and efficiency” in order to cope with the dangers, stressors, and isolation inherent to their work. It is often the hostility that officers face from the public that shapes this “cultural shield.”

“How people treat you is going to affect you. How people view you is going to affect you,” said Twersky-Glasner, “You [police] see people at their worst. You see disturbing things.”

Twersky-Glasner also reported that personal and professional interactions with law enforcement officials have been “very positive” with a majority agreeing with her theories.

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