We work in a tough, rough and hard-driven profession, where weakness jeopardizes safety, and jeopardized safety can mean death. It’s true, there are no two ways around it. However, despite common belief, empathy in law enforcement is NOT a weakness.
Empathy is made fun of, empathy is looked down upon, empathy is a rare overt trait in our profession. Please pay attention to the word overt. In saying this, I mean that many, many, scores of officers have empathy driving through their blood every minute of every day; not every officer allows it to become overt empathy. Overt empathy is when someone allows their empathy to manifest into action. Yes, you can have all the empathy in the world, but until you act upon that empathy, act upon that feeling of sorrow for someone else, then you have performed no better than an officer who is jaded and curse.
I do not condone a change in policing to the point that we are looked upon as soft and forgiving. We need to maintain our appearance of toughness, willing to go to no known ends to pursue justice. This is what also runs through our blood. However, we find ourselves in situations every single day where empathy, manifested into a tangible action, can do just as much good as a successful drug take-down. Changing one person’s outlook on the police, or making one person walk away from the proverbial and literal ledge of life, just because we allowed our wall to break down for a simple minute, is accomplishing our professional goal. We are in this job to change lives. Some aren’t, I know I am, and I know if you’ve read this far into this article, you are too.
Learn the delicate balance of breaking down your wall and building it right back up. We are able to be empathetic while remaining tactically sound. There are situations where empathy is not appropriate. there are situations where empathy has no place. I will never disagree with this point. If you never allow yourself to break down your barriers and become somewhat personal with a complete stranger, you will tire yourself from this profession faster than you got into it.
I believe one of my strongest traits is empathy. I also believe and know that one of the traits I have tried to hide from others is my empathy. Why? Because at one point it was embarrassing for me to have other people see me emotionally effected by something they may be laughing at, or passing off as “nothing”. That, in and of itself, is a wall I had to break down and permanently discard. That wall will never be built back up. For I have experienced the personal gratification of allowing my own empathy to guide my interaction with an individual, when appropriate.
There is a time and a place for empathy. It takes time to learn. It takes even more time to get through the stigma of being a “softy” because you feel as though you need to care. While I haven’t been in this profession for long, I do know that breaking down the wall that held back my empathy (once again, when appropriate) was, and will remain, one of my biggest professional accomplishments and lessons. If anything, it has taught me truly to feel it in my gut when something is wrong, making me more able and adept to rely on my tactics and prepare to use whatever force is necessary to make it home to my family.