Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement   
"Nourishing the spirit of everyday heroes"

By: Chaplain Cary A. Friedman
"Nourishing the spirit of everyday heroes"

Reprinted from: Royal Canadian Mounted Police Gazette

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Gendarmerie royal du Canada) Gazette

Spiritual well-being for police officers

Vol. 68, Issue 3 2006

Tips for renewal

By Chaplain Cary Friedman

Everyone recognizes the physical demands and dangers that police officers face, but few understand that the job is no less demanding and dangerous spiritually.

It has taken some time for the police community to recognize that there are dangers, traumas and scars that are not physical. In the last few decades, much research has been conducted on the emotional and psychological stressors of policing. As a result, a number of protective measures have been put into place to pre-empt their effects.

But a career in law enforcement can also take a very heavy toll on an officer’s spiritual well-being. This dimension of police stress has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way by the law enforcement community. In fact, the effects of spiritual stress are just beginning to be recognized.

This new understanding is tempered by the challenge of addressing spirituality without pushing any particular religious system, a difficult balancing act for many chaplains in the field.

This article explores the topic of spiritual stress in policing, describes how it develops and provides some tools for spiritual renewal in a non-threatening atmosphere.

The problem

In the United States, about 150 law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty every year. However, officers are eight times more likely to take their own lives than to be killed from any accidental or line-of-duty action. In addition, police officers suffer from depression, addictions, divorce and other spiritual/psychological ailments at a rate that is much higher than the general population.

These statistics are deeply disturbing, to say the least. What is even more disturbing is the lack of resources available to combat the spiritual ailments that afflict officers. Very little time or money has been devoted to developing protocols to ensure their spiritual well-being. This lack of attention creates severe repercussions. Clearly, any effort that can be expended in this direction can only bolster and strengthen the community as a whole.

But where do we begin? Most people who pursue a career in policing have very lofty motivations. There can be no more spiritual aspiration, professional or personal, than "to protect and serve." When asked, many officers acknowledge the religious or almost-religious motivation in their decision to become a cop. Some officers confide that they were torn between a career in law enforcement or the clergy. As such, many officers are not insensitive to the spiritual dimension of the job.

At the beginning of a career, an officer may possess an abundance of confidence - or faith - in God, humanity and self. An officer enters the field with naive idealism, but the tragedies, crises and wicked acts can quickly undermine and challenge that idealism. After about five years in the field, many report "hitting a wall." Officers may even question their decision to enter the field.

Every time an officer encounters evil and suffering, he or she makes big withdrawals from his spiritual bank account, which is filled with faith and hope. Daily exposure to the stressors of the job drains an officer’s faith, and deposits - as Joseph Wambaugh said - a "daily drop of corrosion on your soul."

If that account isn’t replenished by making frequent spiritual deposits, the officer can go into "spiritual bankruptcy" and the reservoir of energy, inspiration, idealism and passion dries up. Police officers need to make that daily deposit of healing and cleansing that can counteract corrosion on the officer’s soul.

Spiritual bankruptcy may be characterized by such feelings as anger, cynicism, disillusionment and despair, and by such acts as abuse of power, professional misbehaviour, infidelity, substance abuse and suicide.

But there is another way. Attention paid to an officer’s spiritual side can prevent spiritual bankruptcy and ensure his or her health and vitality throughout a long, productive career.

Attention paid to an officer’s spiritual side can prevent spiritual bankruptcy and ensure his or her health and vitality throughout a long, productive career.

The purpose of providing spiritual reinforcement is not to maintain or regain an officer’s naive idealism. Instead, the officer uses the spirituality infusions to maintain a sense of reality and balance.

Although many officers enter the field driven by spiritual motivations, most of them are not really aware of it. This lack of awareness makes them vulnerable to spiritual bankruptcy. Spiritual fortification begins when an officer becomes aware of his original spiritual aspiration and reconnects to it.

Tools for renewal

Both rookies and veterans can benefit from spiritual nourishment. The following exercises are designed to fortify and strengthen an officer’s spiritual health and replenish the "spirituality account."

Seek inspiration

Identify your own source of inspiration. Idealism is like a fingerprint: each one is unique. Where does yours come from? Is it religious or does it come from some other philosophy?

Try to remember what or who first inspired you to become a police officer and how you first became aware of this inspiration. Allow yourself to be inspired again. Return to your youth, if only for a moment. Who inspired you? Was it Batman or your Uncle Frank? The Lone Ranger or Mother Theresa? Or maybe it was your Aunt Theresa who worked vice for years at LAPD. Each in their own way fights for justice and decency. Think about the differences and the similarities between you and that individual.


Construct a prayer or meditation in your own words. Alternatively, use one that already exists and means something to you. It should be something that can inspire and help focus you. It might be your agency’s mission statement. Whatever words you choose, study them carefully. Use them as a text for quiet, sustained meditation.

The purpose of revisiting a prayer or meditation over and over again is to remind yourself of fundamental truths and values that can get lost in the course of a hectic life. What does your prayer or meditation say to you? If you like, use a picture or an object to meditate on and allow it to inspire and calm you.

See the goodness in others

Recognize the value and inherent "danger" of practicing officer safety - the danger being the assumption that every person may pose a threat. Recognize that officer safety is a strategy for survival; it is not a philosophy or a worldview.

What works well in the field and has great operational value may rob you of one of the best resources you have: your faith in human beings. Recognize the decency of non-police people. See their desire to do good and improve. Visit a soup kitchen, a hospice or an old age home where volunteers help people every day. Your goal as a spiritual human being is to learn to bounce between these two states-one a necessity on the job, one a necessity off the job.

Don’t confuse who you are with what you do

You help people not because you are a cop - you help them AND you are a cop. Your commitment to the noblest human values does not end when your shift ends. It is not about your job; it is about who and what you are. You champion those same values in all the roles you play in your life, albeit in different ways. There is always the danger of over-identifying as a police officer to the exclusion of all other roles. You’re not "just a cop"; you are a model of responsible kindness everywhere you go.

Help someone in your role as a human being and private citizen. Carry an old man’s groceries. Volunteer occasionally at a soup kitchen. Do it to remind yourself that even before you pledged to serve and protect as a cop, you yearned to help as a human being.

Confront the pain

Don’t disown the pain. Recognize and embrace it - it is the clearest proof of your humanity, compassion and nobility of spirit. If you can witness evil or tragedy without being affected or sickened, you shouldn’t be doing this job.

Confronting and fighting evil or taking a human life is painful. But the goal is not to be desensitized. That pain should communicate to you that the police department chose well when it gave you a badge, a gun and the authority to enforce laws and protect your fellow citizens.

Be proud of your scars

Those who work for the well-being of others are sometimes brought down. No police officer exposed to the sadnesses of the job ever totally escapes the hardening, contamination or jading of the profession. Don’t revel in the process, but don’t beat yourself up over it either. Recognize it for what it is: a sacrifice offered freely by each officer on behalf of others. That is the way that God understands and considers it.

Chaplain Cary A. Friedman is a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and the law enforcement community in general. He has been a chaplain at Duke University and at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. Chaplain Friedman is the author of five books, including Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement, and numerous articles.