The Police Personality

Police Personality and Domestic Violence

Written by Victoria Marion

Domestic Violence a Historical View

Police personality has been an interest to psychologists for decades; however, police psychology was not recognized as a formal discipline until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s; with police brutality at the forefront of interest to psychologists. Psychologists were interested in why some police officers abused citizens whereas other officers did not. Another interest to psychologists was how police work affected the police officer’s overall well-being, including physical and mental health and family conflict. There was very little interest in domestic violence within the police family during that era since domestic violence was considered “a private family matter.”

The old adage “The rule of thumb” was a rule followed centuries previous that a man could use a switch on his wife no bigger than his thumb; and was a way to protect the wife. It wasn’t until the feminine movement began to emerge during the 1970s that caught the attention of the criminal justice system, medical and mental health fields. In fact, “Until 1976, rape laws in all 50 states contained a Marital Rape Exemption specifically to prevent husbands who raped their wives from being charged with a crime” (RAINN, 2009). In addition, it wasn’t until 1996 that marital rape was abolished as even being a crime. This meant that a man could legally rape his wife and it was considered a wife’s marital responsibility to have sex with him when and if he wanted to engage in sexual activity. This is disturbing and reveals how very little domestic violence; including marital rape has evolved over the years.

Police Personality Traits 

Police family violence is considered a subpopulation of abuse where culture changes the outcome for the victim. Domestic violence perpetrated by law enforcement is a foreign area of study for the scholarly arena. The limited research available on this topic has revealed that police officers possess many of the same personality traits that domestic abusers possess such as authoritarianism, coercion, manipulation, deception, psychological tactics, isolation, high rates of substance abuse, relationship issues, and a sense of entitlement are examples.

Police training adds to the complexity, power imbalance and overall dynamics within the individual officer’s relationship. Additionally, police officers are trained to control and subdue crowds and individuals. It is suggested that police training, tactics, techniques, in addition to police personality traits further enhance domestic violence within the police family. Police officers learn to control situations during training and it takes a firm, assertive, authoritative demeanor to gain control over a person or situation. Police training skills used on the streets are often carried over into the home causing conflict and arguments, potentially resulting in domestic violence. “The competitive and controlling nature of many police officers leads them to want to win arguments rather than resolve problems” (Nicoletti & Spencer-Thomas, 2000).

Personality Theory and Development Research has shown that personality development is a result of multiple factors and one theory is neither right or wrong in identifying how and why people develop certain personality traits. Foundational theorists such as Piaget, known for cognitive development; Freud’s psychosocial development theory, in addition to Freud’s Structural Model of Personality; Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development and Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development; and Nature versus Nurture debate all provide well-formulated theories of personality development; however, it is an integrated theory that possesses a better explanation for one’s personality and behavioral traits.

Integrated theoretical causes include a person’s biopsychosocial makeup and development to be responsible for personality development. This includes individual life circumstances, experiences, genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, educational status, physical health, mental health, disability, cultural influence, race, gender, creed, religion, and occupational influence that are responsible for the way people think, decisions they make, how they feel and perceive the world and choice of lifestyle. “Occupational environments can influence and shape perceptions and interpretations of events and situations” (Skolnick). It is suggested that individual personality traits along with police training constitute the “Police Personality.” “Insight into the occupational environment of police officers can help to provide a more complete understanding of officer behavior and decisionmaking” (Skolnick).

Personality structure among police officers is better understood when applying an integrated theoretical approach to personality. Personality has been described to varying degrees in the literature. I have provided definitions of personality defined: "Personality is the entire mental organization of a human being at any stage of his development. It embraces every phase of human character: intellect, temperament, skill, morality, and every attitude that has been built up in the course of one's life" (Warren & Carmichael, 1930, p. 333).

The second definition of personality is described as: "An individual's pattern of psychological processes arising from motives, feelings, thoughts, and other major areas of psychological function. Personality is expressed through its influences on the body, in conscious mental life, and through the individual's social behavior." (Mayer, 2005). Personality includes a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to which make an individual unique.

There are components of personality that pertain to all populations which include consistency, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings stimulated by psychological and physiological processes. For example, individuals possess consistent behaviors and traits across most situations. Additionally, it is suggested that our personality is a psychological phenomenon that occurs psychologically; and this phenomenon is influenced by a physiological response that effects how we respond to environmental stimuli. Furthermore, personality is not only seen in behavior, but it is also evident in how we think, what we feel and how we engage in our personal and professional relationships and socialization.

Understanding basic concepts relating to personality will help to identify police personality and whether certain personality traits are responsible for the high rate of domestic violence within law enforcement. Typical personality traits possessed by police officers include authoritative, suspiciousness, aggressive, assertive, dominance, conservative, isolation, entitlement, manipulative, deception, risk-taking, thrill-seeking, controlling, solidarity and cohesion among the profession to be among the most common. Skolnick has labeled the police personality as a “working personality” of police that is influenced by police culture and environment. “The working personality of police is shaped by the need to establish one’s authority, the ever-present threat of danger, and the need for efficiency. The working personality influences the behavioral responses of police officers, providing a unique way to study and understand police behavior. The isolation police experience from the public serves to strengthen police solidarity and the working personality of officers” (Skolnick).

Skolnick describes the working personality as comprising of two principal variables, danger, and authority resulting in a third personality variable trait suspiciousness (Skolnick). Police officers are trained to recognize “normal” in order to be able to discern situations or suspects who may be suspicious or dangerous. For example, police officers are trained to take notice of their neighborhoods where they patrol to identify and spot things that are out of the ordinary for that particular neighborhood. In addition, constantly scanning surroundings for danger and suspicious activity helps the officer to identify the potential for danger; however constant hyper-vigilance can affect the police officer’s overall mental well-being. Hypervigilance becomes a habit on duty and off duty.

Another personality trait of police officers is conservative traits. Police officers feel safe and secure with consistent behaviors and acts because unpredictable behavior or acts can cost them their life. Without consistency and what the officer perceives as “normal” puts the officer on edge and heightens their threat of safety and security. Moreover, Skolnick describes the fine line between friendships and isolation that often develops between police officers and ordinary citizens “A policeman’s work makes him less desirable as a friend, since norms of friendship implicate others in his work. Accordingly, the element of danger isolates the policeman socially from that segment of the population which he regards as symbolically dangerous and from the conventional population with whom he identifies” (Skolnick). This belief and identification build solidarity among law enforcement. Additionally, authority reinforces the isolation between an officer and ordinary citizens.

The paradoxical personality traits of police officers may be responsible for being accused of hypocrisy due to their own risky thrill-seeking behaviors. It is suggested that the kind of person who responds well to danger is also a person who does not always uphold a high moral code. Responding to danger requires risk, aggressiveness, assertiveness, deception, and creativity. Living by a high moral code does not always allow for these behaviors. Additionally, police officers are skilled at manipulation and utilizing coercion to elicit information. This may require the officer to lie to a suspect to elicit a confession for example; and lying is not a trait of someone who holds a high moral standard resulting in further isolation and encourages solidarity among law enforcement.