The American Psychological Association defines resiliency as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.
As the number and variety of challenges facing law enforcement continue to increase, it has become clear that the law enforcement profession needs to improve resiliency among personnel, but are individuals born with resiliency or is it learned?
Emmy Werner conducted a 32-year study of stressors in the lives of 698 children from birth through 30 years old.  Two-thirds came from stable backgrounds and the other third from at-risk backgrounds. The study revealed that not all of the at-risk children reacted in the same way to stress in their lives. Werner found that there were a few factors that enabled the children to be resilient:
- Having a bond with a supportive mentor
- The child’s psychological response to their environment
The most notable difference of the at-risk resilient children was that they had what is called a “locus of control.” These children believed they controlled their own success, not their environment.
The study also revealed that even some of those children who did not possess these traits early on and were initially less resilient, somehow developed them later on and became resilient adults.
These results indicate a person cannot only be born with a higher degree of resiliency, but can also learn resiliency throughout their lifetime. Werner also found that no matter how resilient a person was, at some point, a person’s resiliency could be overwhelmed and, when that happens, the person reaches breaking point.
Perceptions Determine Resiliency
Clinical psychologist George Bonanno has studied resiliency for over 25 years and found it is the person’s perception of a situation that determines how some people are more resilient then others. Bonanno believes people can either view an event as traumatic or as a learning experience. He uses the term “potential traumatic event” to indicate how a person could respond to a frightening event. A person might find meaning in an event, learn from it and move on, or they would not, thus experiencing trauma. According to Bonanno, it is not the event that traumatizes a person, but how that person perceives the event that determines their response to it.
Training Can Improve Resiliency
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman found that people can be trained to view events in a more positive light and with more perceived control. Once they changed how they perceived an event, the less prone to depression they became. This is a positive indication that individuals can learn to be more resilient over time. But this also means that the inverse is true: a person can become less resilient over time and, as Werner found, the person can reach a breaking point.
What this means for police officers – who may routinely experience frightening or disturbing events – is that even though some are born with more innate resiliency than others, they can all learn to become more resilient. This also may indicate that no matter what the innate resiliency level an officer has, if they experience enough stress or trauma, they may reach their resiliency limit and have a breakdown.
If police officers can be taught to view stressful situations as external events where they may learn and grow internally, they may be better equipped to handle traumatic events. Those officers who are born with a greater degree of resiliency will strengthen what they already have and those who have less innate resiliency will learn to emotionally and mentally armor themselves.
The 4 Steps of Resiliency Screening
Can police recruiters screen for applicants who may already possess a higher degree of resiliency? Researchers have identified the characteristics of resilient people:
1. High self-esteem
People who have confidence in their own abilities may feel they have more control over situations than those who do not.
Optimists tend to consider problems as challenges or as growth opportunities and look to the future instead of dwelling on the past.
Resilient people often plan for different outcomes and, if an unexpected outcome does occur, they have the ability to readjust their priorities instead of having their lives come to a halt if their plans do not come to fruition. Flexibility is crucial to policing. Due to the nature of policing, if an officer is inflexible, they may experience higher than normal stress compared to those officers who are flexible.
An example of this became evident in November 2014, when Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed a 12-year-old boy. This incident could and should have been avoided since Loehman had been rejected during the interview process from numerous police departments. He had also previously been forced to resign from the Independence Police Department in Ohio. In the recommendation of the Deputy Chief Jim Polak to release Loehman from training, Polak stated that Loehmann was “not mature enough in his accepting of responsibility…”[3.] The licensed psychologist who administered the psychological test and recommended Loehmann be hired, later stated that Loehmann seemed rigid, had strict attitudes and that these characteristics could prove to be a problem in policing. This inflexibility had disqualified Loehmann from other police departments.
4. Ability to move on
Resilient individuals learn from hard times and move on instead of dwelling on the past. Those people who blame others and view themselves as victims are less resilient. These individuals may feel that they have no control over their lives and environment, or they may not take responsibility for their own lives. Resilient people accept what has happened, learn from it, and then move on.
Resilient people also tend to have a strong social support network where they can discuss critical incidents that happen in their lives with close friends and family. Individuals without a strong social network tend to internalize and suppress their frustrations.
While these are some of the characteristics of resilient people that police departments could look for in their applicants, most departments only use psychological screening to eliminate mentally undesirable applicants. Screening for resilient character traits could be instituted into the initial interview process. Applicants could be asked how they handle stressful situations and what coping methods they have found effective in their lives. Questions could include:
- Give an example of a difficult or stressful situation that you went through.
- What enabled or assisted you in getting through that situation? (Enabled indicates innate resiliency and assisted points to external resources like a social support system, religion, or other mechanisms.)
Resilient and optimistic applicants will be able to articulate what they learned and give examples of how they made it through the situation. They can also be asked about the strength of their family and social support systems. If the answers are too generic, the interviewer can ask questions like:
- Who do you have close relationships with?
- Who do you trust?
- Who trusts you?
If an applicant cannot provide concrete answers, this may indicate a lack of social support and interpersonal skills.
These are only a few examples of questions that can be asked during an initial interview. With the increased public scrutiny of police departments and their personnel, it is more important than ever that agencies recruit resilient candidates.
About the Author
Christopher Todd has worked in military, state and federal law enforcement for 21 years. He currently serves in a protective detail in Washington, D.C. He has a Master’s of Science from Johns Hopkins.
1. Konnikova M. How people learn to become resilient. The New Yorker.
2. Servis M. Learn resilience to cope with life’s obstacle. UC Davis Medical Center.
3. Bernd C. Evaluating Police Psychology: Who Passes the Test? Truthout.