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Police cynicism: causes and cures.

What makes a junkyard dog
''The nicknames "Junkyard Dog" & "JYD" may also refer to former pro-basketball player Jerome Williams, or Australian Football coach Dean Laidley.

Sylvester Ritter
 so mean and a cop so cynical? In the case of the dog, it is a matter of conditioning. The police officer undergoes a similar, but much more complex, process. Unfortunately, the public sometimes perceives the results to be the same.

Cynicism often adversely affects officers' productivity, impacts the morale of their colleagues, and chills community relations 1. The relationship between military and civilian communities.
2. Those public affairs programs that address issues of interest to the general public, business, academia, veterans, Service organizations, military-related associations, and other non-news media entities.
. It also tends to breed a poor quality of life for officers and their families. In some cases, cynicism can be a precursor to emotional problems, misconduct, brutality, and even corruption.

Cynical, distrustful dis·trust·ful  
Feeling or showing doubt.

dis·trustful·ly adv.

 officers hinder a department's efforts to forge collaborative relationships with members of the community. Therefore, police leaders must build a culture of policing that prevents cynicism and promotes a healthy, positive environment. This article examines police cynicism - what it is, what causes it, and how to prevent it.


Cynicism is an attitude of "contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives."(1) A cynic cyn·ic  
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.

2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.

 expects nothing but the worst in human behavior
For the Björk song, see ''Human Behaviour
Human behavior is the collection of behaviors exhibited by human beings and influenced by culture, attitudes, emotions, values, ethics, authority, rapport, hypnosis, persuasion, coercion and/or genetics.
. In short, cynicism is the antithesis of idealism, truth, and justice - the very virtues that law enforcement officers swear to uphold.

Most research on police cynicism took place in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Using test groups, researchers conducted studies that revealed cynicism to be more prevalent in large urban police departments and in the lower ranks, especially among college-educated officers. The degree of cynicism among officers studied generally increased during their first 10 years of service, then declined slightly, and finally leveled off. Notably, officers in the studies who received meritorious awards experienced lower levels of cynicism.(2)

Recent research has focused on burnout Burnout

Depletion of a tax shelter's benefits. In the context of mortgage backed securities it refers to the percentage of the pool that has prepaid their mortgage.
 and stress, two emotional conditions related to cynicism and caused largely by the excessive demands of the police profession. As with cynicism, burnout and stress can result in reduced performance, alienation, and the use of defense mechanisms. Burnout, stress, and cynicism produce two main unhealthy responses from police officers: Withdrawal from society and antipathy to idealism.

Withdrawal from Society

The sordid reality of the streets, particularly in large cities that have higher crime rates and more anonymity, often shocks officers fresh from the academy. As a result, many of the situations they experience cause them to lose faith in others and develop an us-versus-them view in the process. They soon begin to trust only other police officers, the only people who they believe understand how the world really is. Unfortunately, senior partners oftentimes reinforce such views.

As a consequence, officers socialize so·cial·ize  
v. so·cial·ized, so·cial·iz·ing, so·cial·iz·es
1. To place under government or group ownership or control.

2. To make fit for companionship with others; make sociable.
 with fewer and fewer people outside of the law enforcement circle and might even gradually withdraw from their families and friends. If carried too far, this phenomenon courts domestic disaster. It can even lead to suicide.

As officers withdraw further and further from society, they lose their social safety net - the norms and values that help them make sense of the world - and fall deeper into a state of confusion, alienation, apathy, and frustration. This social estrangement is compounded as officers eventually lose respect for the law. Almost simultaneously, they learn to manipulate the law in their everyday dealings with what they believe to be a dysfunctional judicial system.(3)

Antipathy to Idealism

One of the main reasons young people go into law enforcement is to serve society.(4) When confronted with an unexpectedly hostile or indifferent public, or with a justice system that allows criminals to go free, idealistic officers feel betrayed and victimized by such injustice. They soon learn that the idealism of the academy and of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics Code of Ethics can refer to:
  • Ethical code, a code of professional responsibility, noting what behaviors are "ethical".
  • Code of Ethics (band), a 90's Christian New Wave/Pop band
 does not reflect reality.

As they lose respect for law and society, these officers might lose their self-respect as well. Embittered em·bit·ter  
tr.v. em·bit·tered, em·bit·ter·ing, em·bit·ters
1. To make bitter in flavor.

2. To arouse bitter feelings in: was embittered by years of unrewarded labor.
, they cannot attack the public they have sworn to protect; so, they nurse their hatreds and become victims of cynicism.

Cynical officers no longer show concern for the values that led them to police service in the first place. Instead, they often view those values with contempt. Unlike employees in other occupations, police officers usually will not leave for another job because they are disillusioned dis·il·lu·sion  
tr.v. dis·il·lu·sioned, dis·il·lu·sion·ing, dis·il·lu·sions
To free or deprive of illusion.

1. The act of disenchanting.

2. The condition or fact of being disenchanted.
 with more than just the job. Like many combat veterans returning from war, they believe that their world has changed forever, no matter what job they hold.


In addition to the conditions on the streets and the officers' ensuing loss of respect for the law, occupational stagnation Stagnation

A period of little or no growth in the economy. Economic growth of less than 2-3% is considered stagnation. Sometimes used to describe low trading volume or inactive trading in securities.

A good example of stagnation was the U.S. economy in the 1970s.
 also contributes to police cynicism.(5) This specialization often restricts patrol officers' opportunities for new and enriching experiences. For those officers who cannot be promoted, which happens to be the majority, the job provides few incentives and little built-in satisfaction. Instead, it may become tedious, especially for officers with a college education and high expectations. In a society that defines success in materialistic terms, the lack of promotability causes further frustration, disappointment, and a decrease in self-esteem.

Two concepts introduced here merit further exploration - the need for work to be rewarding and the effects of an excessively materialistic society on police officers. Some researchers postulate postulate: see axiom.  that work itself must yield feelings of achievement, responsibility, personal growth, and recognition to satisfy the worker's ego and self-actualization needs.(6) According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 police cynicism studies, present methods of policing necessarily do not meet this need for the patrol officer.(7)

The second issue involves the effects of the high value placed on material success in American society. Many researchers over the years have identified the American dream American dream also American Dream
An American ideal of a happy and successful life to which all may aspire:
 of material success as a significant factor contributing to the soaring crime rate.(8) Such ambition promotes deviant behavior For the scholarly journal, see .

“Deviant” redirects here. For other uses, see Deviant (disambiguation).
Deviant behavior is behavior that is a recognized violation of social norms. Formal and informal social controls attempt to prevent or minimize deviance.
 as individuals trade ethical values for personal gain, thus creating a culture of crime. Police officers not only see this phenomenon in the streets, where everyone is out for themselves, but they also might see it demonstrated by their own political and law enforcement leaders.

Some believe that cynicism has become an ingrained part of everyday life in this country. People adopt a cynical attitude as a reaction to and a defense against dashed hopes - hopes that have been culturally induced and socially reinforced.(9) As members of society, police officers fall victim to the same types of social forces that befall be·fall  
v. be·fell , be·fall·en , be·fall·ing, be·falls

To come to pass; happen.
To happen to. See Synonyms at happen.
 everyone else.


Just as some of the causes of police cynicism correspond to the causes of burnout and stress among other types of employees, some methods of prevention and cure that help them also work for law enforcement. Leadership plays a significant part.

Competent, principle-centered, people-oriented leadership, as espoused by some current writers(10) on the topic, is required if the law enforcement profession is to develop an ethos based on universally acknowledged ethics, principles, and values. This ethos must accommodate and encourage personal ambition, but not exclude other values and goals.


Police leaders must demonstrate their commitment to the ideals of honesty, fairness, justice, courage, integrity, loyalty, and compassion. Leaders who fail to prove themselves trustworthy help spread the seeds of cynicism.

Police leaders must exhibit appropriate conduct by example, not just by words. They also must nurture their employees by working to expose officers to the many good people and good deeds in their communities so they see more than just the bad.

By explaining the intent of rules of evidence and providing comprehensive and continuous training on the subject, leaders can help officers feel confident and empowered in the legal arena. Such confidence can help officers respect the judicial system rather than feel manipulated by it. Most important, leaders need to build a culture of integrity within their agencies, so that officers have something to believe in when all else seems to fail.

Research on cynicism suggests that principle-centered, compassionate leadership inspires employees and therefore decreases cynicism. To be effective, however, such leadership must be consistent over a long period of time. Role models and mentors also have a positive effect. Employee-oriented leadership and team building provide essential elements of a positive, "upbeat company."(11)

The research further recommends other ways to help prevent employees from becoming cynical, including job enrichment Job enrichment in organizational development, human resources management, and organizational behavior, is the process of giving the employee a wider and higher level scope of responsibilitiy with increased decision making authority.  programs, participatory management Participatory management is the practice of empowering employees to participate in organizational decision making. This practice grew out of the human relations movement in the 1920s, and is based on some of the principles discovered by scholars doing research in management and  styles where employees share responsibility and have a say in workplace policies and practices, and reward systems in which employees have a voice.(12) In policing, as in society in general, an increased emphasis must be placed on sharing power and rewards with employees at all levels.

Every element of effective leadership, from setting an example to listening actively to employees, affects cynicism. As leaders promote esprit de corps esprit de corps Graduate education The degree of happiness of the 'campers' in a place , they directly help build esteem and self-worth among employees. Establishing standards, providing the training to reach those standards, and continuously offering refresher training Refresher training is a form of updating military knowledge of the reservist troops. After one has completed the conscription service, he or she can be called for refresher training for some amount of days.  builds officers' competence, which in turn builds their confidence. Following up with positive recognition or guidance when necessary creates and maintains good morale.

Those who write about motivation nearly always discuss the power of positive recognition. In A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peters recommends using any excuse to celebrate employee success.(13) Police managers have an obligation to their employees and their agencies to use this and all leadership tools to combat the debilitating de·bil·i·tat·ing
Causing a loss of strength or energy.

Weakening, or reducing the strength of.

Mentioned in: Stress Reduction
 disease of cynicism.


Experts routinely recommend that employees become involved in something larger than themselves to combat burnout and cynicism. An organizational culture This article or section is written like an .
Please help [ rewrite this article] from a neutral point of view.
Mark blatant advertising for , using .
 committed to a quality product, the community, and/or the environment can accomplish this. Caution must be exercised here, however, because thwarted idealism might have made the public servant cynical in the first place. Their idealistic visions of public service did not match the realities, which caused them to lose faith and become cynical.

To prevent a repeat of this scenario, some researchers recommend providing a realistic job preview Realistic Job Previews (RJPs) are devices used in early stages of personnel selection to provide potential applicants with information on both positive and negative aspects of the job.  to potential applicants.(14) Recruits should know the exact realities of policing from the outset. At present, some departments offer limited orientation for the families of officers, but few, if any, offer a realistic preview to officers. College police science courses also could address such issues.


In addition to a realistic job preview, recruit and ongoing roll call training should be provided on the subjects of cynicism, burnout, and stress management. While many departments offer psychological services to employees once symptoms develop, few offer preventative training.

Police officers must be taught the early warning signs of stress and burnout, as well as the difference between healthy suspicion and insidious cynicism. Once they know how to identify these problems, officers should be taught productive coping techniques and stress management methods. Left to their own devices, too many officers choose counterproductive methods, such as alcohol abuse and withdrawal. In addition, officers' families should receive similar training so that they can provide first-line detection and long-term support to their loved ones loved ones nplseres mpl queridos

loved ones nplproches mpl et amis chers

loved ones love npl

Mentors and Peer Counselors

Because distraught officers often feel most comfortable talking to Noun 1. talking to - a lengthy rebuke; "a good lecture was my father's idea of discipline"; "the teacher gave him a talking to"
lecture, speech

rebuke, reprehension, reprimand, reproof, reproval - an act or expression of criticism and censure; "he had to
 their colleagues, peer counseling provides another method for treating cynicism once symptoms appear. A more proactive measure, however, would be to recruit peer counselors as mentors for new officers.

Mentors provide instruction and help officers manage their expectations early in their assimilation into the police culture. By establishing realistic expectations, officers are less likely to become disillusioned by actual police work.

Community Policing

Community policing offers police departments a unique opportunity to combat cynicism. Involving the police and the public in collaborative problem solving Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) is a behavior management approach developed for children with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. The CPS approach views behavioral challenges as a form of learning disability and seeks to correct behavior through cognitive intervention.  has the positive side effect of reducing officers' alienation and withdrawal.

In community policing, management empowers employees, and trust is given and ultimately received. When officers feel that they can trust management and that management trusts them, cynicism declines. In such a relationship, two-way accountability ensures that tasks get completed.

The empowerment aspect of community policing enables leaders to help employees develop their potential through creative and innovative problem solving problem solving

Process involved in finding a solution to a problem. Many animals routinely solve problems of locomotion, food finding, and shelter through trial and error.
. This leads to a better quality of service to the community achieved with greater efficiency and effectiveness. Particularly at the patrol level where studies have shown the levels of cynicism to be the highest, community policing can provide an outlet for accomplishment that builds employees' self-esteem and fulfills their needs for growth.


Police leaders must take a moment to reflect on cynicism, acknowledge its harmful effects, and use the tools available to prevent it. These tools - employee- and principle-centered leadership, realistic job previews, training, positive recognition, and empowerment - will serve to develop an organizational culture where personal ambition becomes second to the good of the organization and the good of the community.

Police cynicism is insidious and costly. It can attack officers of all ranks in departments of all sizes. Its cumulative effects sneak up Verb 1. sneak up - advance stealthily or unnoticed; "Age creeps up on you"
creep up

advance, march on, move on, progress, pass on, go on - move forward, also in the metaphorical sense; "Time marches on"
 on its victims, crushing their idealism and enthusiasm before they even realize what has happened.

Cynicism robs the profession of the very values needed to accomplish its goals. Each time it creates a negative contact with a citizen or impinges on professionalism and productivity among the ranks, cynicism impacts on police officers everywhere.

The demands of policing in the next century require that police leaders examine this disease and take action against it. Cynicism does not have to be a natural part of policing. With realistic expectations, strong and compassionate leadership, and continuous training, officers can avoid the conditions that lead to the pitfalls of cynicism and maintain their ideals and values.


1 Kenneth R. Behrend, "Police Cynicism: A Cancer in Law Enforcement?" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin is published monthly by the FBI Law Enforcement Communication Unit[1], with articles of interest to state and local law enforcement personnel. , August 1980, 1.

2 Arthur Neiderhoffer, Behind the Shield: The Police in Urban Society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1969); and Robert Regoli, Police in America (Washington, DC: R.F. Publishing, Inc., 1977).

3 Ibid.

4 John Stratton
This article is about the British actor. For the congressman and lawyer from Virginia, see John Stratton (congressman).
John Stratton (born 7 November 1925-died 25 October 1991) was a British actor, born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, where he kept his
, Police Passages (Manhattan Beach Manhattan Beach, city (1990 pop. 32,063), Los Angeles co., S Calif., on Santa Monica Bay; inc. 1912. It is a residential and beach community with an oil refinery and nearby factories that produce transportation and electrical equipment, computers, and pottery. , CA: Glennon, 1984), 32.

5 Supra A relational DBMS from Cincom Systems, Inc., Cincinnati, OH ( that runs on IBM mainframes and VAXs. It includes a query language and a program that automates the database design process.  note 2.

6 Bert Scanlon and J. Bernard Keys, Management and Organizational Behavior (New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: John Wiley John Wiley may refer to:
  • John Wiley & Sons, publishing company
  • John C. Wiley, American ambassador
  • John D. Wiley, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • John M. Wiley (1846–1912), U.S.
 & Sons, 1979), 223 and 229. Herzberg discussed the need for achievement, which complements Maslow's work on the fulfillment of needs. Maslow theorized that all motivation was based on satisfying a hierarchy of needs, progressing from basic physiological and safety needs to social and ego needs, and ultimately to self-actualization, a sense of reaching one's fullest potential.

7 Supra note 2.

8 See, for example, Steven Messnet and Richard Rosenfeld, Crime and the American Dream (Belmont, CA: International Thompson, 1993).

9 Donald L. Kanter and Philip H. Mirvis, The Cynical Americans (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989).

10 See, for example, Stephen Covey, Principle Centered Leadership (NY: Simon & Schuster Simon & Schuster

U.S. publishing company. It was founded in 1924 by Richard L. Simon (1899–1960) and M. Lincoln Schuster (1897–1970), whose initial project, the original crossword-puzzle book, was a best-seller.
, 1991).

11 Supra note 9.

12 Ibid.

13 Tom Peters and N. Austin, A Passion for Excellence (New York: Time Warner, 1986).

14 Supra note 9.

15 James T. Reese, Behavioral Science in Law Enforcement (Quantico, VA: FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime In November 1982, following a meeting between members of the Criminal Personality Research Project advisory board and other specialists, the concept of a single National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) was put forward. , 1987).

Lieutenant Graves serves in the Los Angeles, California, Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Graves, Wallace
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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