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4. The police, emotional intelligence & mindfulness

Written by Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute.

Do members of the police force need emotional intelligence? Of course they do, they have feelings like everyone else. They are also involved in highly charged emotional situations and with people whose emotions may be out of control. They need to be able to manage these skillfully.

At the same time they need super-high levels of emotional resilience and emotional self-control.

The police have a tough job requiring emotional resilienceThey also require skills in the emotional awareness of others and need to be able to read people very accurately and monitor for subtle changes in the feelings of others. All these are sophisticated levels of emotional intelligence.

Of course, they also need to be really good at detecting whether people are lying or not, which is an emotional intelligence competency clearly identified on the Mayer and Salovey hierarchy of emotional intelligence skills.

The police also need to be able to handle their own emotions in a healthy way.

The police witness traumatic accidents, face violent attacks against themselves and deal with tragic, gruesome and horrific incidents. They need to be able to manage their own emotional reactions in a healthy way.

In addition to all of this, all police work is set in a context of community, media and government expectations, pressure and surveillance.

Policing is one of the most stressful occupations there is. Being a police officer demands a level of emotional intelligence and emotional resilience that the average member of the community does not need to draw on.

So how do the police handle the enormous stress involved in their role?

In December 2010, Australian Psychologist published an article called "On being mindful, emotionally aware, and more resilient: Longitudinal pilot study of police recruits", by Virginia Williams, Joseph Ciarrochi, and Frank Neave, from the University of Woolongong.

It explored a series of possible coping mechanisms that police recruits may use to combat the high levels of stress associated with being police officers. Here is a summary for you.

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Emotional intelligence research background

The study involved 60 trainee police officers, in NSW, Australia. They were studied from the trainee phase into the workplace as probationary constables. 

The emotional intelligence hypotheses were that:

  1. Typically the police engage in avoidant coping strategies (or sealing over or escape coping strategies) to handle stress. Avoidant coping strategies typically involve the avoidance of the feelings and thoughts surrounding a traumatic event, and include "any action attempting to escape from, suppress, change, forget about or in any other way avoid parts of their private experience with which they are uncomfortable. Private experiences include thoughts, emotions, memories, images and bodily experiences".
  2. People who chronically avoid their internal experiences, and who are less aware of them, tend to adjust more poorly to stress.
  3. The use of other coping strategies such as acceptance, mindfulness and emotional awareness will more effectively help the police maintain a positive mental health status and personal effectiveness.

Emotional intelligence and other assessments

All the police recruits were assessed on the following tests:

  • Acceptance and action questionnaire (A&Q).
  • White bear suppression inventory (WBSI).
  • Toronto alexithymia scale (TAS-20).
  • Mindful attention awareness scale (MAAS).
  • General health questionnaire (GHQ-12).
  • Depression, anxiety and stress scale (DASS).

Emotional intelligence: Results

1. A lower mindfulness score was related to higher mental ill health. In other words, the higher the subject's mindfulness score the less likely they were to suffer from depression. The lower the mindfulness score the more likely they were to experience high scores on the depression measurement.

2. Those subjects who experienced difficulty in identifying their feelings:

  • had low scores on the acceptance measure,
  • had higher levels of thought suppression, and
  • were most likely to experience mental health problems and depression.

3. Skills in emotional identification and self-awareness got better mental health outcomes. Those who are able to process emotional information and recognise and differentiate between different emotional reactions coped better with stress.

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Emotional intelligence: Research comments

  • Initially 592 subjects were involved in completing the baseline questionnaire. Only 60 of those subjects completed the follow up questionnaire 10-12 months later. The fact that these 60 subjects selected themselves indicates the possibility of a sample bias.
  • When comparing the initial assessment results with those 10-12 months later there was "a significant difference in the GHQ and DASS indicating that depression and general mental health worsened." This is of concern, as it means that as some of our probationary officers enter the police workforce they may already be suffering from a drop in mental health.
  • "Difficulty identifying feelings, low acceptance and thought suppression were all associated with poorer mental health." This suggests that encouraging the police to use other strategies in managing their emotions may be more effective.
  • Mindfulness could be one of several emotional coping strategies to develop in our police officers, as it is linked to better mental health outcomes. The study found that those officers who tended to be mindful had higher levels of well-being and less depression.
  • Difficulty identifying feelings predicted increases in mental health problems, showing the importance of the first competency on the Genos emotional intelligence model: Emotional self-awareness.
  • Subject were recruits. I'd also be interested in a study that examined the successful coping strategies of experienced police officers who have remained emotionally healthy. 

Emotional intelligence: Conclusions

The authors say, "Difficulty identifying feelings, and mindfulness, are key variables in predicting the well-being and mental health of police in their first year of service".

However, they also add that, "Avoidance of feelings and experience are not expected to be unhelpful to people in all contexts. There are likely to be occasions in which avoidance and suppression of emotions may serve useful purposes in the short term. Rather we expect problems to arise when police rigidly attempt to avoid all unpleasant feelings and experiences."

Would police recruits benefit from mindfulness training as part of their programme for developing emotional resilience?

Emotional self-awareness skills training may also be usefully included in the training of police recruits.

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