The person behind the badge? Depersonalization and its harms in police culture

The person behind the badge? Depersonalization and its harms in police culture

Traditional police culture has promoted emotional detachment and depersonalization, particularly in officer-public interactions. The effects of this impacts officer mental health and the relationship of the police within the communities they serve. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice | 2020, Vol. 61

Robocop – The depersonalization of police officers and their emotions: A diary study of emotional labor and burnout in front line British police officers


Sarah-Janie Lennie, Manchester Metropolitan University
E. Crozier Sarah, Manchester Metropolitan University
Anna Sutton, University of Waikata


Policing has long been recognized as an emotionally distressing and stressful occupation, and recent years have seen a marked increase in psychological illness within the police service of Britain. Research into the emotional labor of police officers and its psychological consequences is limited and has predominately engaged quantitative methodologies. This paper takes a mixed methods approach, exploring emotional labor and the relationship with burnout within a large police force in the north of England. The use of audio diary provides in-depth exploration of feeling and display rules operating within the police service. Narrative analysis of thirty-eight audio diary entries and a focus group is integrated with results from the Maslach and Jackson Burnout Inventory. Findings indicated depersonalisation as a requirement of feeling and display rules, a strategy also used as a form of coping, as well as experienced as an aspect of burnout. Emotional suppression went beyond interactions with members of the public, continuing into peer and family relationships, with many officers never expressing their true emotions. This presents an important opportunity for the police service of England and Wales to better understand and respond to the emotional pressures and coping mechanisms that officer’s experience within their lives.


Emotional labor, Police, Diary, Depersonalization, Burnout

Summary of the Research

“Studying UK police officers, Rees and Smith (2007) identified a traumatic circle of silence within policing. The expression of emotion is severely restricted within police culture: on a daily basis police officers engage with emotionally demanding work and are required to display the appropriate emotions in response. Moreover, organizational culture restricts the processing of trauma through the demand for the continual suppression of emotions beyond the organization and into the family home. This is despite research identifying that early treatment of the psychological response to trauma reduces the complexity and debilitating nature of post trauma symptoms. Social support, particularly from supervisors and peers, has been found to moderate Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) following traumatic and stressful incidents: the more positive the attitude towards expressing emotion, the weaker the relationship between trauma and PTSD. Research into policing has consistently identified the detrimental consequences on psychological health, particularly burnout.”

“Policing [in the UK] has experienced a changing landscape over the last 20 years, moving away from law and order and police forces to the commodification of policing and an emphasis on consumerism and police service provision. Whilst still required to uphold the law, there is an expectation for the police to be customer-orientated and to meet public expectations, resulting in a rise in managerialism, and a focus on targets and professionalization. This tension has led to officers alternating between the need to be ‘nicer than nice’ and ‘tougher than tough’: simultaneously being expected to show compassion to the victims of crime that they are seeking to protect, and suppress authentic emotions whilst dealing with conflict and aggression. This position has become exacerbated in the recent years of austerity with officers under increasing pressure to meet targets whilst delivering a compassionate customer service with limited resources and time. Indeed, officers themselves are feeling increasingly compromised and vulnerable as they are held accountable for a service they have little control over delivering. This tension in the organizational culture and the impact on officers can be seen through the emotion labor they perform as they attempt to meet the many demands made of them, whilst maintaining their own personal and professional integrity.”

“…the typical machismo police culture born out of a working role that is traditionally grounded in violence, danger and authority. This would seem an enduring culture that has resisted organizational change, maintaining a masculine ethos, steeped in a sense of mission, action and thrill seeking. A position which has been recently reinforced by the British Coalition Government who sort to strip back policing to a crime-fighting agenda, in the name of reform and austerity. However, this image of the officer who is action orientated and in control of their emotions leads to officers repressing emotions which are viewed as weaknesses and threats to their careers….psychological consequences to emotional labor, such as emotional dissonance and burnout, leading workers to become ‘robotic, detached, and un-empathetic’. So potentially devastating is emotional labor that this ‘dark side of emotional labor’ has been claimed to ‘violate basic human rights’.”

“All participants articulated high levels of distress at some point. However, they also reported a perception of rules around emotional expression as an unofficial performance measure, with emotional display seen as an indicator of poor performance and an inability to ‘do the job’, reflecting the enduring masculine policing culture. Therefore, participants suppressed authentic emotions, particularly fear and sadness, out of concern that they would be viewed as incompetent. This emotional suppression continued into the family home, although this was framed as a desire to protect loved ones from the experiences that participants were exposed to within their work.”

“Depersonalisation was perceived as a way of coping, a behaviour learnt through senior colleagues and organizational culture. This extended to a form of ‘self-depersonalisation’ where participants sought to distance themselves from their own emotions. Overall, participants felt that they were viewed by the public and the organization as robots, and that they themselves became robots in order to cope with the situations that they faced at work.”

“…participants often spoke of how displaying emotion was considered a sign of weakness, of not being able to cope, and not being suitable as a police officer.”

“Illustrative of this assertion, P1 declined to join the focus group, not wishing to discuss her feelings in front of other officers. This came as a result of colleague’s reactions towards her when she expressed her distress in speaking to a mother who had recently lost a child. Consequently, P1 no longer feels she can express her true emotions with her colleagues: ‘I think that it is fairly obvious that there is certain rules that you have to follow by as a police officer, when it comes to emotions … is that you can’t’.”

“…it would seem that laughter does not always serve to create a community of coping, but actually seeks to alienate those officers whom may be feeling distressed by events. This increases the need for emotional suppression, and reduces help seeking behaviour. This highlights how the data collection method exposed the cognitive processes behind emotional display, identifying compliance with feeling rules and inner authentic emotions that would otherwise not be captured by traditional observation methods. This demonstrates how the machismo police culture prevents the expression of authentic emotions, even when engaging what would be presumed to be ‘canteenculture’.”

“Often participants distanced themselves from their own personal experiences, narrating in the third person. Several participants regularly slipped into the second person, indicating a notion of distance, whether temporally or personally. What is somewhat unclear is whether the use of “you” is an affectation for “I, the narrator” (homodiegetic) and a defensive tool for appearance’s sake, or in creating a sense of inclusivity i.e. really meaning “we, the police” (a heterodiegetic shared experience). ‘I think that leads to stress because you build that up and you become cynical of people. (P5)’.This use of language could be a response to the perceived performance requirements; compliance with the feeling rules or an outcome of cultural conditioning. However…linguistic distancing can be a form of emotional processing and coping – if the opportunity to construct a narrative is provided…This point is further contextualized where numerous participants refer to themselves as robots.”

Translating Research into Practice

“Surface acting anger presents as a challenge not only for the individual but also for the organization. The action consequence for anger is aggression. It is already identified that employees suffering with stress are more likely to engage in aggressive workplace behaviour. Having anger as an acceptable emotion within an organization is likely to increase conflict in an already stressful environment, yet this approach appears deeply woven within accepted practice and the traditional masculine culture.”

“This study found that those officers who deep acted compassion were relating the situations of others to their own personal circumstances and suffered high levels of depersonalizing burnout. This is potentially a sign of ‘too much compassion’ which leads to distress. It is clear from the findings that engaging with negative emotions at a deep level is detrimental to officers’ wellbeing, but it is difficult to separate this level of deep acting from the accompanying suppression of fear and sadness. Further work is required to understand how deep acting, particularly when officers relate traumatic circumstances to that of themselves and families, impacts on burnout and emotional distress.”

“Previously, depersonalisation has been thought to be an outcome of the distressing work police officers engage, but it appears that officers actively and consciously depersonalise the people and situations they deal with to avoid negative and distressing levels of emotion, especially by employing emotional distancing. However, it is possible that this usage as an intended adaptive coping strategy may also manifest as a maladaptive coping mechanism and lead to burnout if not accompanied by the opportunity to express and process emotional experiences.”

“These complexities highlight the need for change in police culture towards an environment fostering emotional support. Currently, much of the emotion work undertaken is considered as a function of deeply embedded organizational culture norms. We position this robotic idealized image as damaging to both the individual and the organization, where the socialization of this as a function of performance is wholly unsustainable. Indeed, in seeking to suppress emotion, in the longer term, psychological health impacts will threaten performance in a way that being able to display one’s authentic emotions in the first place would protect.”

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The method enlisted [in this study] has captured inner cognitive processing that the extant literature has struggled to identify through more traditional ethnographic or quantitative study. Indeed, this study takes the police culture literature someway down the road of understanding what lies in the ‘gap between talk and action’, which has remained elusive to researchers and considered ‘in need of reform’.”

“The single participant who did not suppress her emotions with colleagues displayed no signs of burnout. This ability to express authentic feelings allowed her to process emotions, preventing burnout despite initial emotional suppression with members of the public. This therapeutic effect of emotional disclosure reflects the psychological literature that argues for the use of emotional narrative as a way for individuals to process traumatic events. Also, the apparent coping of the female participant raises the question of what role gender plays in emotional expression and processing within the police culture. A point that is worthy of further exploration, particularly in light of the predicted increase of female police officers, which may support a way in improving police emotional resilience.”

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Authored by Leila N. Wallach

Leila N. Wallach is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Palo Alto University. Her research and clinical interests focus on alternatives to incarceration, culture and trauma-informed care, policy in the juvenile justice system, and risk assessment for community offender management.

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