FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!

Dynamic Plaques - FVT Plaques
FVT Plaques is introducing new dynamic plaques to recognize police and sheriff's...

Security Policy and the Cloud

Ask The Expert

Mark Rivera

FBI-CJIS Security Policy Compliance Officer

Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

Columns : In My Sights

Guilt, Shame, and the Crimefighter

Don't let past mistakes haunt your present and affect your future.

November 25, 2013  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

I am not Catholic, but as a young cop I coached wrestling at a Catholic school so I guess my keen sense of guilt is understandable. I feel bad about myriad issues, like not calling Mom enough. Guilt is a powerful thing and even though it may cause us a great deal of grief I hate to imagine our country without it.

There are lots of places in the world folks aren’t raised with guilt. These societies use something we know as "shame" to help maintain social order and control people's impulses. The two are distinct, yet often we confuse one for the other.

"Guilt" is a self-generated sense of judgment about ourselves and our actions or thoughts, while "shame" is a reflection of judgment about us from others. Things like honor killings and ritual suicides come from societies that set right a social order by giving those "shamed" a way to restore others' opinions about them, their families, their company, or their country, however extreme it may seem.

In our culture such practices are tough to understand, just as guilt may be an odd concept elsewhere. In shame/honor cultures one actually gains social standing by getting away with an otherwise bad act. Young Spartans successfully completed their initiation into manhood by murdering a slave; the rub was they had to get away with it. Shame didn't come from committing such a cruel act but only from the "mistake" of getting caught.

I am certainly happy we live in a "guilt" culture, since the residue of this guilt is something we hold very dear: trust. In fact, the United States has the highest level of trust in the world. The thing is, guilt just sitting in your heart or your gut isn’t good for you. From time to time we need to remember we have social norms for eliminating this simultaneously healthy and corrosive trait.

I don’t think you can ever rid yourself of all guilty feelings but it's good to eliminate the ones that really eat at you. Years ago I led a class mental rehearsal in which I took cadets through an armed confrontation where they end up shooting and killing an armed assailant. I had more than a few recruits quit the academy after that, but one in particular came to me with a very disturbing revelation.

In this cadet's head, when he pictured the paramedics working on his imaginary assailant he walked up and saw that the dying man was his brother, and he hadn’t been able to sleep since. I promptly sent this military veteran to a superb police psychologist. He returned shaking his head that he had never met a shrink like that but he felt 100% better and hadn’t had any problems sleeping since his "treatment."

It seems the treatment required him to call his brother in the presence of the good doctor and ask for his brother’s forgiveness. Apparently, as young children the soon-to-be deputy had seriously injured his younger brother by accident and the haunting guilt had lived just below the surface ever since. He called his sibling, who didn’t even remember the event, and asked forgiveness. He got, in fact, an affirmation of brotherly love as well and he hung up the phone, got his chit signed, and headed back to enjoy a full career in law enforcement.

What’s that you say? It wasn’t really his brother’s forgiveness he needed? He needed to forgive himself? Exactly, my friends. And maybe you need to start with that to begin clearing your mind of some of the guilt that may haunt you.

Confession, contrition, forgiveness, and redemption are commonly listed as keys to healing a guilty conscience or heart, but it always begins with you forgiving yourself first. I can’t have you hesitating in an armed confrontation because of some deep-seated guilt that makes you believe you deserve to lose or should be punished.

If you also need the forgiveness of someone else then seek that as well. But your mind needs to focus on positive outcomes in critical situations, and freeing yourself from guilt is a good first step. Now if we could just get our politicians to feel either guilt or shame…

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

Get Your FREE Trial Issue and Win a Gift! Subscribe Today!
Yes! Please rush me my FREE TRIAL ISSUE of POLICE magazine and FREE Officer Survival Guide with tips and tactics to help me safely get out of 10 different situations.

Just fill in the form to the right and click the button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.

If POLICE does not satisfy you, just write "cancel" on the invoice and send it back. You'll pay nothing, and the FREE issue is yours to keep. If you enjoy POLICE, pay only $25 for a full one-year subscription (12 issues in all). Enjoy a savings of nearly 60% off the cover price!

Offer valid in US only. Outside U.S., click here.
It's easy! Just fill in the form below and click the red button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.
First Name:
Last Name:
Zip Code:
We respect your privacy. Please let us know if the address provided is your home, as your RANK / AGENCY will not be included on the mailing label.
E-mail Address:

Police Magazine