The issue regarding the phrase “police personality” has acquired great debate. Arguably this has been primarily over the problem of definition and development. What is a police personality? How does it form? Is it a pre-existing condition, thus predisposing certain individuals to police work, or whether it is just a product of occupational socialization (on the job experiences). Perhaps the issue is not as simply dichotomous as that; conceivably it is an amalgam of both predispositions and experiences that shapes this intangible personality.
Does this personality make them any different from the general population which they vowed to “serve and protect”? How do these attitudes and affect not only himself and the department he belongs to but also the police-community relation in general? These are some questions relating to the issue of police personality that will be answered along the way.
To start with, how do we define “police personality”? There are a few who made several models or theories about this idea.
According to G.A. Kelly (1955), personality is our abstraction of the activity of a person and our ensuing simplification of this abstraction to all matters of his relationship to other persons, known and unknown, as well as to anything else that may seem particularly valuable. His theory is based on the vantage point of personality as a personal construct model. G. Alport (1937), another theorist describes this as a three-pronged task for a certain individual: (1) self-objectification, (2) extension of self, (3) unifying philosophies of life.
According to him, it can be further understood as a mixture of major and minor “traits” by which a single life is known and that a personality “trait” is a biological, psychological and social mixture that disposes a person toward specific kinds of action under specific circumstances. (Monte, 1999). With respect to the development of the police personality, Allport can be said to be adhering to the predisposition model-that a certain type of person becomes a police officer as opposed to the notion that job experiences shape the personality construct.
A third psychologist, H. Kohut (1977) describes that normal development was a process of interaction between the growing infant and his mirroring and idealizing self-objects. This assumption tends to support the view that police personality is a mixture of the predisposition model and the experience model. But regardless of the process by which this certain personality has developed from, what are these traits that make up a police personality?
The characteristics usually associated with police personalities in present times are machismo, bravery, authoritarianism, cynicism and aggression. Additional characteristics have been associated with police personalities as well: suspicious, solidaristic, conservative, alienated and thoroughly bigoted (Balch, Skolnick 1977). In movies like “Lethal Weapon” which stars Mel Gibson, we see an image of a cop that is not only brave and proficient—but a super cop, who can handle almost anything that goes in his way.
The movie “Training Day” by acclaimed actor Denzel Washington also depicts a vicious, sadistic cop. Gone are the days when people picture cops as men in uniform, walking around the neighborhood helping children to get their pet cat down from a tree (a Boy Scout persona). Modern pop culture and the media have greatly helped the public’s perception of today’s policemen.
Little is known about how these men undergo series of screenings in order to be accepted though. Before being hired, aspiring policemen go through several personality tests that determine whether they are capable enough to handle the job.
Only men who display particular personality profiles (e.g. bravery, honesty, punctuality) are accepted to the force. But these screening, even with the help of psychologists, does not give us a clear picture of what police personality is all about. In contrast, it tells us what the police persona is NOT. There certain traits that make entry-level policemen unfit for the job. Examples are tardiness, excessive absences, alcoholism, and lack of assertiveness among many others.
From the successful ones however we can gather some commonalities in their traits that may help us define police personality. People who enter the force turn out to be psychologically healthy and competent young men who display common personality features. They are generally assertive and restless, with a high degree of physical energy. One trait that stands out from this however, is cynicism. Some professionals view cynicism as counterproductive and in due course, harmful not only to the individual but to the department as well. It said to that for the most part, it is a precursor to corruption, brutality, and misconduct for men in uniform. However, some also believe that, in recent years, findings show that cynicism is to be considered a police survival tool (Caplan, 2003).
The police personality based on Skolnick’s (1977) idea of the “working personality” is composed of three main elements: danger, authority, and efficiency. The dangerous nature of being a police officer not only draws officers closer together but also makes them alienated from the general population. The sense of authority by police officers, experienced by interacting with the public, further makes them feel isolated. So is the notion of efficiency in which the use deception as a means of getting the job done. Some experts believe though, that the idea of alienation is not intrinsic to police officers, it rather lies in the community’s perceptions of the policemen.
It is important that the community and the force work hand in hand in trying to rid the locale of criminality. In countries that are just developing, criminal cases are usually very high. Thus, the police force must be able to transform their image as a widely feared and despised organization to a friendly and service-driven institution that works in close partnership with the community. This is especially hard when the image of a certain department for example is a corrupt and brutal one. People tend to generalize that idea, and view the force being corrupt and all as a whole.
Examining the psychological and sociological paradigms on police personality we get a clearer view of what makes the police men different from the rest of the population. The psychological paradigm posits that people with certain personalities are drawn to join the force (predisposition model). On the other hand, the sociological model suggests that these traits are developed along the way (based from the day to day experiences of police officers). Police personality, as a distinct entity, does exist. It exists as a result of the convergence of a specific baseline set of desirable personalities and work-related socialization. It is also a utility of, and is strongly characterized by, a police culture, shaped by the needs of officers to uphold personal safety and augment their professional potentials. (Twersky-Glasner, 2005).
Allport, G. (1937). Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. New York: Henry Holt.
Balch, R., (1977). The police personality: Fact or fiction. In D.B. Kennedy (Ed.). The
Dysfunctional Alliance: Emotion and reason in justice administration.
(pp. 10-25). Cincinnati, OH. Anderson Publishing Company.
Caplan, Joel. (2003). Police Cynicism: Police Survival Tool?. The Police Journal Vol. 76.
Skolnick, J., (1966). Justice without trial. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Twersky-Glasner, A. (2005). Police Personality: What Is It and Why Are They Like
That? Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 2005, Volume 20, Number 1.