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Police cynicism: causes and cures.

What makes a junkyard dog 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. 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 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 expects nothing but the worst in human behavior. 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 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 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 does not reflect reality.

As they lose respect for law and society, these officers might lose their self-respect as well. Embittered, 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 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 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 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 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 of material success as a significant factor contributing to the soaring crime rate.(8) Such ambition promotes deviant behavior 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 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 programs, participatory management 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, they directly help build esteem and self-worth among employees. Establishing standards, providing the training to reach those standards, and continuously offering refresher training 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 disease of cynicism.


Experts routinely recommend that employees become involved in something larger than themselves to combat burnout and cynicism. An organizational culture 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 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.(15)

Mentors and Peer Counselors

Because distraught officers often feel most comfortable talking 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 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. 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 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, 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, Police Passages (Manhattan Beach, CA: Glennon, 1984), 32.

5 Supra note 2.

6 Bert Scanlon and J. Bernard Keys, Management and Organizational Behavior (New York: John Wiley & 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, 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, 1987).

Lieutenant Graves serves in the Los Angeles, California, Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Author:Graves, Wallace
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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