Should Cops Be Compassionate?

This week, James E. Causey, a columnist with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote about an interview he had with a retired Milwaukee detective entitled, “When Cops Become Jaded.” It was refreshing to read that Causey had brought to the public’s attention a problem that I think besets most of our nation’s police and needs some action.

The problem is this: Someone dies in the custody of, or being apprehended by, police. The public questions the police. The police claim (and that claim is often supported by the district attorney and eventually the court) that police acted legally and properly.

During this time, police often resist releasing reports of the incident and refuse to talk to media representatives. Rumors abound. And the affected community and others become outraged as to what they believe to be the uncaring response of the police. After all, a person has died! Doesn’t anyone care? And when one part of the community is mistrusting and suspicious of the police, angry rhetoric is often followed by protests and acts of violence in which the police have to step in and use force again. The cycle repeats.

What is missing from this scenario is what both Causey and I know — compassion is the real issue. So, why can’t our public agencies, especially the police, show compassion and sorrow when someone dies as a result of their actions – whether proper or not? I think it would go a long way if they could.

Perhaps you are thinking that cops need to be firm, not compassionate. But can they be both? I think they can. And every one of us who has raised children knows this to be true. Both are achievable.

A number of years ago, I wrote a chapter in the book, Exploring Forgiveness, edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North. In it, I made the argument that institutions can both be forgiven and seek forgiveness – that is, they can demonstrate compassion. The story I told in the book was personal. It was about an officer of mine who made an insensitive remark about a fire at a housing project. The media found out about it. The housing project was the location of many police calls and confrontations there. This remark was made even more volatile when it turned out that a number of children had died in the fire.

As the chief of police, what was I to do? Many elected officials in the community, including the mayor, called for her dismissal. People were outraged. I knew the officer, had hired her, and knew that although she had made a terrible mistake, she was worth trying to save. And she was deeply sorry for what she had said.

The plan which I worked out with the officer and her union representatives, was for the two of us to make a public apology. Leaders from the affected community agreed to meet with us and later a number of them publicly assembled to hear our apology. They listened to us and had questioneds. We worked out an offer for her to make restitution through service to the community and, in turn, the community representatives accepted our apology. They believed we were genuinely sorrowful (showed compassion) and we all moved forward without that violence that usually follows such an incident in many of our cities.

Now could that have happened without my department having deep and lasting roots within the community? A policing style that involved a strong affirmative action and hands-on neighborhood foot beats? Could this have happened without there being a large bank account in the community called “trust?” Probably not. But I maintain that compassion is worth exercising for all involved. It is worth doing and a police department will not get there unless they start right now overcoming their obstacles and working to listen to their communities and continuously improving that which they do.

Police leaders and their officers need to be integrated strongly with the community. Police cannot be seen as an outside para-military force to keep community members in line. Police officers need to police with consent of those affected if we are to ever have peace and safety in our cities. This begins when police are seen as compassionate and thoughtful actors in our urban landscape. When police overcome the four obstacles I identify in my book (see below): anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption, and discourtesy, they will then be able to move forward.

Today’s police officers must be educated, well-trained, restrained in their use of force, honest, and respectful to everyone they encounter. Their leaders must listen to and respectfully collaborate with them. That’s the bottom line. And citizens should not accept anything less. Building trust means to know what it is to walk in the shoes of another, to be thoughtful and compassionate to other human beings that we encounter in our daily work.

If we cannot achieve this, we are doomed to repeat our past mistakes again and again to the detriment of all of us.

[For more about what I am talking about read my new book Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police.]


  1. I think cops as individuals are compassionate, at least with vics and their families. As an institution, I’m not sure agencies can be anything, they’re inanimate.

    Child Protective Services does the same thing, refusing to comment, etc. citing confidentiality, ongoing investigations, etc. Don’t like it with them, not real sure I like it with police agencies.

    That said, isn’t the failure to comment (and thus appearing not compassionate) a protection mechanism against the slings and arrows and lawsuits that will necessarily follow with most all police actions? Anything said in the immediate aftermath could come back to haunt them and don’t most attorney’s (who in many cases are driving the train) tell us not to say anything?

    I like the support you gave your officer, though I don’t think officers should be made to engage in community service for their misstatements or their missteps. Not a good precedent in my view.

    In the end, cops can, should, and usually are compassionate. Their jadedness is usually directed toward the agency and/or the villains with which they come into contact daily.


  2. If you at the history of policing in this country, cops never ever have shown compassion to people of different ethnic, racial, political, social, and economic background. Few examples:

    Cops never should compassion to the students who protest the Vietnam War and those students on Wall Street and UC Davis.

    Cops not showing compassion to people who are mentally iill.

    Cops who were members of the KKK or KKK supporters who displaying continuous bigotry against Afro-Americans (no compassion at all).

    Cops having no compassion for unions, union activists, and striking workers despite the fact that these groups were trying to have a better life for everyone (including cops).,

    Cops having no compassion for homeless people. How many cops are homeless due to being layoff thanks to the economic mess on Wall Street?

    It is amazing cops want people show compassion for them, but none for the general population.

    It is also next to impossible for cops to show compassion due to the fact they become harden to what they see everyday in their jobs; however, you would think that seeing such misery, they would become involved in the community organizations that were dedicated wanted to reducing or eliminating such misery.

    It is sickening that cops make jokes about dead people even though it is a survival mechanism; otherwise, they would go crazy. A long time,ago, I read about a detective and his squad would make jokes about dead people. One day, this detective had a family member killed (can’t recall if it was murder or not)., and after that event, the cop realized that dead people’ s jokes were no longer funny. He instructed his squad that they were no longer make jokes about dead people.because of what happen to his family.


    1. Though there are many examples throughout history of what you speak, you cannot say that all cops are racist and sadistic. I’m not buying it. There is an unhealthy culture of protecting their own, like any profession but in police work the results can be deadly, but there are decent cops and we should celebrate them and build in incentives to encourage more of them. Since we need cops, we should insist on a humane professional police force.


      1. I certainly do not say nor do I believe “all cops are racist and sadistic.” If you read my book you will see that is not my theme. What is my theme is developing a belief in continuous improvement of what police do, a commitment to education, collaborative leadership, honesty, and respect to all people they encounter. Most police do this and do it well. They are to be celebrated and reinforced in their efforts. And as you said, “we should insist on a humane professional police force.” Amen, so be it.


      2. I didn’t say all cops are racists and sadistics; however, when you look at law enforcement in the Deep South, don’t be surprise if the almost all the officers were racrists and sadistics when dealing with different groups of the populations; otherwise, the police would not be having problems for the last 60 years. Many of those cops fought against having women and minorities joining their departments and they certain would not recruit anyone of a prorgessive, liberal viewpoint.

        When it comes to decent people in or out of the police force, we don’t celebrate them and/or encourage them in this society. We still think that meekness is weakness and only the strong survive in this world.


      3. True enough. A lot of the South is despicable and the police reflect that. I could never live there. “Better Off Without ‘Em” is on my reading list!


  3. The story about the female cop was excellent; however, she would not have gotten into hot if she kept her mouth shut or at the very least, she should thought first about what she was going to say. Cops should think first before opening their mouths.

    You can’t get a compassionate cop if he came from the military and seen a lot of heavy combat where death and violence make him/her immune to human suffering. Even if he/she have never seen combat, the power trip that comes with his/her officer or NCO rank carries over into the police world, because they know they have the power to screw people’s lives and they love it.

    Finally, you have am American culture where people (particularly) who show compassion are look upon as weak and who deserve to be spat upon where in other cultures it is perfectly normal for men to have feelings like compassion and the ability to cry. Until that cultural norm changes, don’t expect cops to be compassionate.


  4. I meant to say that if you look at the history of policing In America….

    I also meant to say that the female cop would not have gotten into hot water……

    Finally, I meant to say you have an American culture where people (particularly men) …….


  5. It happens David more often than you think. We talk about compassionate within the walls of our buidlings but rarely talk about the emotions of our job with the public we serve. Here is one of the most incredible stories of compassion you will ever hear. On 09/09/2012 at approximately 0220 A Boise Officer responded to a major traffic accident scene near Tablerock. Being one of the first on scene, he located a 17 year old boy who had been ejected from the vehicle. The officer saw his lifeless body and without hesitation started CPR hoping that he could save the injured youth’s life. He performed CPR for nearly 20 minutes (according to a supervisor on scene) until he was relieved by paramedics. It was described to me by the on scene Watch Commander that the officer was nearly exhausted and was sweating profusely from his life-saving attempt. When he was relieved from this duty, he asked another officer if the female driver had been located. He was told that she had been located and was near the vehicle. The officer made his way down the steep embankment and found the female’s lifeless body. He told me that he was genuinely saddened by the unbelievable loss of young life. He then realized that no one was near the body. The officer sat down next to the young girl and stayed with her so she would not be alone during her final journey. Hearing this situation described by the officer in the back lot of the police station brought tears to my eyes. I do not know him well and have not worked with him much over our years. What I was hearing from him showed me that he is not only a great police officer, but also an incredible man. He showed great compassion and respect for this beautiful girl who lost her life in a tragic event. I am honored to be able to work with this officer and call myself a fellow officer. People are defined at some point in their lives and I think this was his. He acted far beyond what is expected from any officer and is the finest example of what I feel is one of the greatest officers on any department. The Boise Police Department should be proud of him and grateful for his services.


  6. Compassion is not only an emotion but a mindset. I will share with you a personal example of how we need to change our mindset that police leaders have developed and accompanying culture of being adversaries with the people we serve; much different that Sir Robert Peele’s principle that police are the people and people are the police.

    My department was involved in an officer involved shooting five months ago where the circumstances were evident it was suicide by cop. The suspect watched us approach, texted his estranged wife that the police were here now, this is it, goodbye. Idaho is a one party consent state for recording conversations with us, so Officers were running audio recorders. Immediately after he was down they rushed to him to administer first aid and to comfort him. He died at the hospital.

    The night of the shooting we reached out to the estranged wife who knew her husbands intent and was aware he had followed through with his plans to die. What we didn’t do well was reach out to other family members in making the death notification consequently they learned of their brothers death by surprise. That should never happen because of our mindset.

    We are changing our protocols in officer involved shootings to assign a victim witness coordinator to the surviving family members to provide not only death notification but to liasiion with the family in the first two weeks in proving them with the information we can release to them.

    Finally, the police chief, captain and sgt met with three family members to answer their questions; no question was denied and the conversation included training, budgets, weapons, police response etc. We allowed family members to listen to the tape of their loved ones last word and it is an exceptional example of how our officers comforted him in his last minutes. Yet how easy would it have been for me to deny the release citing “police tactics”. The “moms” wanted their sons to hear the interaction so they didn’t carry hatred of the police for the death of their dad.

    I learned a lot last week about risk, compassion, doing the right thing. We don’t share these examples enough.


    1. Spot on! That is what I am talking about. This was proactive work. What I am concerned about is the way in which react when there is a slip-up in the system. The most recent incident is in Milwaukee when a young black man, handcuffed and under arrest died in the back seat of a police car after an asthma attack. I believe the video shows officers standing outside the vehicle and unresponsive to this cries that he could not breathe. When and how a chief reacts to the community and media folks in situations such as these is the challenge. I agree that officers show compassion each and every day in many aspects of their work, but when mistakes/misjudgments are made, what does the chief do? That’s what i am getting at. Thanks for sharing the many ways police can be proactive in diverting these tragedies, such as a “suicide=by-cop” situation into one of understanding and mutual sorrow. Good work, Chief!


      1. The DEA is looking at its policies and procedures when dealing with persons they have arrested because Daniel Chong, a 23-year-old UC San Diego student, was left unattended for five days in a Drug Enforcement Administration detention cell. Mr. Chong kick his cell door many times to get the agents’ attention. Don’t the agents keep a log of people who are in their jail and when they have been release or who are still in their cells? it gives new meaning to the phrase “Lock them up, and throw away the key.”


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