Empathy in law enforcement is now a thing. Empathy started being a thing after the publication of the "Final Report of the 2015 Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing" (despite the fact that the word 'empathy' appears only once in the entire 116-page document). A renewed focus on empathy in police training started after the in-custody death of George Floyd in May 2020. Two years hence, a small cottage industry has popped up in the field of empathy training for police.
Interestingly, the word "empathy" is sometimes used in the law enforcement context somewhat incorrectly—or at least incompletely—as far as the dictionary definition is concerned.
There are numerous examples in which a training course or police journal describes empathy as "seeing the world through another person's eyes" or "see things from another person's point of view" or "understanding someone else's position and feeling what they're feeling."
But Merriam-Webster says that sympathy is "when you share the feelings of another" while empathy is "when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them."
Regardless of the nomenclature, it's important to recognize that for police officers, a misapplied or misunderstood emphasis on "empathy" can become harmful—even deadly.
The Trouble with Empathy
"Empathy is really the act of experiencing the world as you think someone else does, not really as that other person actually does because we all have our own biases. I don't mean biases in a negative way—it's just that our own experiences shape our perception," says Nicole Florisi, a semi-retired police sergeant and instructor for the Force Science Institute.
Florisi adds, "You're looking at somebody else's perspective through your own lens, your own filter."
While empathy can be instrumental in helping officers deal with people who are experiencing some of the most emotionally charged moments of their life. If empathy in such an instance is unchecked, this can lead to a rush to judgement.
Consequently, Florisi says it's important to not let empathy lay ruin to objectivity. She says this can happen to any officer at any scene, and that if an officer becomes too emotionally involved in what they're doing, they risk contaminating their own thinking process and their own decision-making—potentially resulting in an unwanted outcome.
"Think about the officer who goes on a call and just becomes so invested, so absorbed, so engrossed in what they're doing," she explains. "They have the mindset, 'I'm gonna get justice for you [the victim]' and 'I'm gonna go arrest that person.' They're on the forefront of justice. But they're so enmeshed that they lose their objectivity. Then they continue on in their investigation and come to realize, 'Uh-oh... that emotionally charged story that person told me—well, that's not really the case.' They've allowed their perspective to be clouded."
Another hidden danger in empathy is the phenomenon of emotional contagion—actually shouldering another person's burden in a way that negates a responder's ability to provide meaningful assistance.
"If you were having an anxiety attack, would you want me to have the anxiety attack with you or would you want me to have a skillset to support through it?" she asks.
Also, empathy is not always particularly easy to achieve. "It's hard for us to feel empathy toward a person who disgusts us or frightens us, for example," she says.
Finally—and most importantly—empathy can have very serious negative consequences for police officer mental health. It can lead to vicarious trauma, dissociation, deregulation, and depersonalization. It can lead to depression, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide.
Florisi says that empathy has its place in law enforcement training and tactics, but she believes that it must be taught in conjunction with coping skills and officer wellness.
"I think we're growing and evolving empathy [in police training], but we need to have a simultaneous focus on resiliency and 'grit' to build those skills. We have to have trauma mitigation skills. We have to have mindfulness and grounding skills.
"I think as a whole in law enforcement, we're growing. We're attempting to address suicide and we're building officer wellness programs. But we still need to teach people how to communicate with people and not shoulder their burden," she says.
For this, Florisi suggests an increased focus on compassion—not empathy.
Moving Toward Compassion
"One of the things that we need to do is understand the differences between empathy and compassion," Florisi says. "Compassion has more objectivity. Compassion is more goal-oriented and action-oriented. Compassion is more altruistic in nature—there's no ego attached to it."
Florisi says that compassion enables officers to have the goal of finding justice for the victim without becoming as emotionally involved.
Compassion, too, has its perils—particularly compassion fatigue (sometimes called secondary traumatic stress), which is common among people who are regularly exposed to traumatized individuals.
Notably, Florisi has worked as both a trauma therapist and as an executive director in the domestic and sexual violence realm. She is currently a subject matter expert for VirTra Inc. with a focus on cognitive behavioral performance and communication. She says that the law enforcement profession can utilize some of the excellent research done into compassion fatigue in the medical, mental, and behavioral health fields.
"There's a lot of research on this in palliative care hospice care because they're dealing with people who are suffering from serious illness over time," she says. "How do you not burn out if your entire job is to deal with people who pass away? How do you build that relationship?"
She continues, "So healthcare actually has the training, but there's a lot to it—it's not simple. It's about teaching about emotional intelligence. It's about introspection and self-reflection."
Florisi concludes that over time—albeit slowly—law enforcement will move away from an emphasis on empathy and toward a focus more rooted in compassion.
"We're never going to get away from the push for empathy, but I think we need to be mindful of its weaknesses," Florisi says. "If we don't recognize there are weaknesses, we can't combat them."