Compassion on the front line

Our world has been through some things in the past few years. Some things that have rocked us, challenged us, scared us, divided, and united us. States of emergency at a global level and our own crises at a micro level often bring us into contact with an emergency services worker: a police officer, paramedic, fire officer, or coastguard. Our calls to help are responded to by these folks. This is their job and their commitment: to serve, to help.

When we help one another in our day-to-day lives, gratitude for the active compassion of a friend or the ‘random act of kindness’ from a stranger arises naturally. It makes us feel good to notice these good vibes. But how often and to what degree do we fully and readily bring to mind the compassion that drives those who serve? The very same compassion that they need to receive in turn to avoid the experience of burnout and heartbreak? It wasn’t until my work with the police started 20 years ago that my eyes were opened to a whole subculture of compassion that has yet to be fully understood and appreciated: the compassion of policing.

Subculture is perhaps an odd phrase to use here but I use it to describe a hidden world of care that is kept ‘off radar’ of the public gaze – for a diversity of reasons. There is a hesitancy to accept the humanity of a law enforcer, more so than for those in the healthcare system (for whom thousands of people took to the streets in the UK to clap in support during the pandemic). Fire officers and life boat rescuers too are generally more universally recognised as being “compassionate” and therefore are less fair game for ridicule and abuse. UK media, for example, delight in “outing” police officers for merely eating on the job.

That said, there is good reason to cast a critical eye over the police. Stories of racial and gender violence and abuses of power rightly lead to concern over the internal culture of policing and to calls for reform. But we ought to remember as well: a divisive, them and us rhetoric will not help deliver the fairness and justice we desire and most police officers seek to deliver. One big question mark is around compassion: theirs and ours. Do we –can we- apply our own compassion to those in whom we prefer not to see it?

The time I have spent with the police for my research has revealed the incredible friendships and personal relationships the job forges and, significantly, the motivators for those who sign-up. When asked why they joined the force, nearly officer will respond with a variation on the same answer: “because I want to help”.  Look at the daily activities of a police officer: in pretty much each and every job there is a call for help, a wrongdoing, an accident, often a victim. There is a moment of suffering. Often these are moments of suffering that will change the trajectories of someone else’s life, leaving them with loss, grief, physical pain or mental anguish. These daily activities must be absorbed and understood to be acted on to the best of an officers’ ability. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. For many, decade in, decade out.

And yet, the societal support is generally absent.

The socio-psychological impact of this is now clear from recent research that shows that over one in five UK police officers have clinical levels of trauma impact, the majority of which is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anxiety and depression runs high. Suicide is a major concern.

One in five UK police officers have clinical levels of trauma impact

Managing compassion is integral to both resilience and vulnerability in front-line officers and staff. A Force Incident Commander in a control room once expressed to me his shame at feeling numb to the relentless exposure to human suffering, scared he was losing who he thought he was. Young women working in Child Sexual Exploitation expressed the trepidation they have for the intimate care of their own new-born babies. Failed CPR is one of the most frequently reported worst experiences in response officers, affecting many for life. The common theme here is that the drive of compassion is taking individuals to the edge (and beyond) our limits of tolerance and yet it feels like it is still not enough. The commander doesn’t feel he looks human, the CSE workers question their motherhood, the response officer couldn’t save a life.  The real tragedy is that these people are so focussed on spending their compassion on their service they have left none for themselves and it’s starting to hurt. There is confusion, loss of meaning, a sense of ‘otherness’ and isolation. And yet the world keeps its distance.

But there is hope. Because there is compassion. It’s not going anywhere. In fact, it’s increasing- we just need to open up, celebrate it and work with it more skilfully. Research into police identity has shown that new recruits’ motivations rooted in compassion grow over their first three years in service, whereas motivations based on power and agency fade. These trajectories are particularly promising for cohorts from incoming generations where respect for difference, inclusion and open-mindedness are confidently expressed, even if greeted with a little scepticism by those longer in service.

What is more, new initiatives, often informed by Buddhist neuropsychology, train officers in cultivating their awareness of their experiences and encourage trauma and compassion management to become part of a common language. Officers across the world can be gently directed to appreciate the blatant compassion inherent in every challenging human experience or traumatic incident in their daily work: be it empathic understanding of someone’s need, a clear window of gently tolerating another’s distress, the open-mindedness and sharing of common ground in adverse and potentially divisive circumstances, the kind and candid acknowledgement of unfixable pain, the heart-felt recognition that someone did their best, or the sympathetic joy of a successful outcome. Compassion runs through every emergency response, every investigation into something that went wrong. Compassion is the thoughtfulness underneath the action and is often the bit we get most right.

And outside of policing, we too can undertake practices in our own lives to bare witness to compassion, to cultivate and honour it. We can do this for society, we can do this for those who serve and protect us, and we can do it for ourselves.

What is the most beautiful thing, is that we can now do this in coalition.

Jess Miller is a neuropsychologist specialising in trauma processing, author of the book, The Policing Mind: Trauma Resilience for a New Era, a keen meditation practitioner and budding wildlife rescuer. She is writing in her own capacity.

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