Every Cop Needs Self-Reflection


Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

The ratio of positive contacts to negative contacts in policing varies from shift to shift and agency to agency, but the negativity can win the day. It can cling to you, follow you home, and worse, get inside your head. We all know not to bring the job home and that is sometimes a hard discipline to follow. But what happens if your whole character has slowly changed?

That is a question everyone in the law enforcement profession must stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves because the job tends to draw us toward the negative.

The motivational speakers call it a checkup from the neck up. Here are some relationship warning signs for the checkup.


I get it. Believe me. But there are patient, caring people in uniform and big jerks who sell stocks and bonds. No doubt the job changes behavior. It changes perspective. It hurts your heart. It hurts your brain. But if it is destroying your character and you don’t even like yourself anymore, that’s on you. If you find yourself blaming every character flaw on the job something needs to change.


I get that, too. If you’ve had stress and trauma-induced changes in your brain chemistry and neurology that can certainly make self-control a challenge. Get a diagnosis. Get treatment. Educate yourself. Put your family in the loop about the injury so they won’t feel like they are the blame for your withdrawal, outbursts and other symptoms.


One cause of simmering anger is the inability to control situations. We are problem solvers and we do it elegantly on the job every day. But we can’t always control what our bosses do, or what the courts do, or what happens in our own household. Controllers rage when they can’t control, but they seldom, as the saying goes “accept the things I cannot change” and, therefore, must find a source of their anger.

Bernard Golden, Ph.D., says in an article in Psychology Today that, “Like many of our habits, the tendency to blame others can be traced to our early development. Some of us may have learned this strategy by observing parents who modeled it. Others may have been intensely shamed or punished when admitting responsibility for something that went wrong or for making mistakes. Perhaps we’ve never developed the capacity for self-soothing to deal with our feelings, especially the powerful impact of shame – regarding our feelings or our behavior.” It’s not as easy as blaming Dad and Mom, but it’s worth a reflection.


If you are brave enough in your self-reflection, ask your non-police friends if you’ve changed recently.

During a two-year sabbatical from anything related to law enforcement (I got pulled back in for another 30+ years), my wife was asked by a friend if I had changed. As I was shaking my head to answer no for her, she was nodding her head with an emphatic yes.

If we rely on our own self-assessment of whether we have changed for the worst, we are bound for self-deception. If you have an angry response when your loved one asks why you seem angry or distressed, you’ve answered their question regardless of what words come out of your head.

If the ultimate insult to your ego is a suggestion from someone you love that you see a counselor, please listen to their suggestion. People will spend good money on a trainer to improve their golf swing but not to fine-tune their relationships with the most important people in the world to them.


Maybe not a clinical diagnosis, but a self-focused existence.

You can’t allow your children to be children because you don’t have the energy to deal with them. Or maybe you’re afraid they’ll become the miscreants you deal with on the streets. Or you are a day sleeper.

You don’t have the time or attention to listen to your spouse’s day or their problems because your day is always worse and they have no right to complain. When your family becomes your enemy because they can never please you, it will take intentional effort to redeem your status as someone who really loves them.


Anger, depression and stress-induced brain changes are often intertwined. One of the greatest friends of law enforcement is Dr. Alexis Artwohl. In a Police1 archive article, Dr. Artwohl notes a number of symptoms of depression caused by physical or psychological sources. They include lack of motivation, fatigue, sleep disturbances, loss of joy in hobbies and previous interests and relationships, changes in exercise along with less control over your eating and drinking, weight gain or loss, lack of concentration, taking more sick days, hearing others accuse you of being grouchy, and even an increase in citizen complaints on your behavior.

This isn’t just a run of bad luck or a rough season. It’s a possible relationship-ending, career-ending, life-ending problem you need help to resolve.


I can’t imagine a more challenging time to be a police officer than at the time of this writing. Those who survive this era must be intentional to emerge physically whole, and that may take everything you have right now. But to survive and lose your heart and soul and those who love you would be tragedy unworthy of the fight.

This article was originally published in Police1.com.

About Chief Joel Shults

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.