How Leading With Compassion Helped Me in Law EnforcementBy Robert Cote
Retired Sergeant, Cypress PD
There are many important traits in leadership, such as integrity, accountability, and humility to name a few. However, throughout my 26 years of experience in Law Enforcement, there’s one trait that I believe is crucial in leadership. And that is compassion. I was shown compassion very young in my life. And that experience influenced how I came to lead throughout my career.
I grew up in a family who was already immersed in the world of Law Enforcement. My dad had been a police officer for a year before I was born. However, when I was seven months old, he was shot and killed in the line of duty during a robbery. Losing a father so young in my life was tough. The police agency that my father worked for reached out to my family and they helped us cope with our loss in any way that was possible. The agency had a program where they would reach out to families of current and past officers and take them to certain events like Disneyland, essentially filling in the hole of a lost parent. These efforts went beyond sympathy, the agency was motivated to do anything that they could to alleviate any pain I had. And it certainly helped my childhood. I felt understood and that I wasn’t alone in this situation. When I was 23 years old, I decided that I wanted to go to the police academy. Once again, the police agency that my father worked for supported me financially while I attended the academy full time.
The kindness and compassion that the police agency showed to my family, carried through in my law enforcement career. There are many moments where I extended compassion, but there was one event that influenced my career path.
While working a graveyard shift in patrol, I heard another officer advise over the radio that she observed a vehicle traveling the wrong way on one of the major streets in the city. She was transporting a prisoner and was unable to pursue the vehicle. I responded to the area and attempted to intercept the vehicle, but before I could intervene, I witnessed the suspect vehicle collide with another vehicle. The collision turned out to be a drunk-driving related incident which consequently resulted in the death of a 16-year old girl. There are many traumatic events that I experienced working in law enforcement, but this one affected me greatly. As someone who’s lost a family member, I knew how difficult it can be. As I worked with the family through their tragedy, we formed a bond that not only directed my career path but also provided a way for the family to deal with their loss constructively.
Compassion motivates people to “go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves.” Having compassion in law enforcement can be tough. Police officers face countless difficult situations that can negatively affect their ability to have a sense of compassion. This can lead to “compassion fatigue”, which may cause a person to shut down mentally, physically, and emotionally, leading to apathy, cynicism, and social dysfunction.
However, it’s crucial that we as officers don’t lose this ability to demonstrate compassion. At times we can come into contact with overwhelming trauma, but we also have the ability to help ease their burden. Compassion can help us improve trust by showing an understanding of their emotions through our actions to help them. Ultimately, building a closer connection with the community we serve. Creating a culture of compassion in an agency starts with leadership. It’s important that we lead by example and also have a robust agency wellness plan to help with compassion fatigue. In fact, compassion satisfaction, the “feeling of emotional accomplishment and reward for helping others” can lead to higher job commitment, performance, and better quality of life. So, it not only benefits others, but also your officers and the agency as a whole.
Having someone step up to take care of my family certainly made me want to do the same for others. I have experienced various tragic situations during my career, and I never viewed it as a singular event. I always tried to understand how it would affect everyone involved and find ways to help in any way that I could. Whether that’s getting justice for the family or providing resources to help. In the case of the 16-year old girl, I knew that her mother needed an outlet to cope with the situation. It led me to reach out where I eventually connected her to the non-profit Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) where she would volunteer at DUI checkpoints and other public service events for many years.
As Law Enforcement professionals, we aim to serve our communities with respect and understanding. Especially for those in leadership, we have the ability to ease people’s hardship as we witness their hardest moments. Through compassion, we can positively impact the people around us, including our fellow officers. This in turn, strengthens our relationship with the community, to help us better serve and protect.
About the Author
Retired Sergeant, Cypress PD
Robert is one of our Implementation Specialists and has over 26 years of Law Enforcement experience. He also served as the InTime Coordinator for Orange County’s integrated law & justice agency.
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