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Emotional Intelligence and Law Enforcement: An Overdue Conversation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Matt Selker
December 9, 2014

My article this month is motivated by the recent shooting deaths of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, 12 year-old Tamir Rice by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio and Eric Gardner by a police officer in New York City. In no manner is this article designed to pass judgment on any involved or take a particular side to the arguments, rather to shine light on the urgent, imperative  need for educating law enforcement, and those in public safety or public service and more, on the use of emotional intelligence (Ei) competencies.


The past few weeks have been very emotional for many Americans. As a nation, we have been dealing with the loss resulting from the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio. In both cases, two young men lost their lives at the hands of poor choice and law enforcement. Both situations were stress-filled, chaotic events filled with stress, anxiety and riddled with poor choices.

Neurologically, we know that when a situation or environment is filled with what is called negative emotional attractors (NEA); our human brain is unable to innovate, process information efficiently, often resulting in lackluster outputs and/or performance. As Anita Howard, Ph.D. explains it in her ground breaking research on the NEA, these emotions influence adaptive change in a negative way; catalyzing a defensive response.

NEA’s activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which helps us deal with stress and threats; it helps us protect ourselves. It pulls us toward defensive posturing that result in the adaptive response to situations, behaviors or otherwise that threaten our safety and require us to protect ourselves.

When this occurs, cortisol, a glucocorticoid or steroid hormone, is abundantly released in our system as it cooperates with its partner epinephrine. Among other degenerative outcomes related to excessive cortisol release, we tend to experience:

  • Decrease in our peripheral vision.
  • Difficulty in cognitive processing.
  • Inability to handle complex tasks.
  • Difficulty to think about new or possible alternatives to a situation.
  • Inability to think ‘outside the box.’

It goes without saying, all these characteristics are extremely important to anyone, perhaps none more important than law enforcement as they handle stressful situation daily.

Selker decEmotional intelligence (Ei) is the ability to understand, appreciate and manage your emotions and to do the same with those around you. Dan Goleman, a leading subject matter authority, suggests emotional intelligence refers to the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships. In summary, Ei calls on our ability to harness our emotions for use in ways that add value, as opposed to detracting value, from relationships and situations.

Ei includes the ability to be self-aware (to identify your emotions and how those emotions influence yourself, situational outcomes and others around you), self-management (the ability to use the emotions you’re experiencing, or call on other emotions, to problem solve or think of alternative outcomes for the situation), social-awareness (using skills like empathy, mindfulness and more to understand the emotions of those you’re interacting with or those around you) and relationship-management (the ability to manage the emotions of others to resolve conflict, build bonds, collaborate, influence and develop others). One of the nice things about Ei is that unlike intelligence quotient (IQ), humans are able to develop their Ei through education, practice and intentional change.

In my humble, professional opinion, had law enforcement involved in both scenarios identified above been more attuned or developed in their Ei competencies, they would have been positioned to interpret the high-stress situations they found themselves in and chanced identifying additional alternatives. While I will not go as far as to say ‘better alternatives’ since I was not a party to either event, I will say that had their Ei competencies been better developed, they would have mitigated the stress associated with their responses and interventions and have a greater repository of situational opportunities to select from. These opportunities are endless but only identifiable when NEA‘s are balanced by Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA’s) in a ratio of 3:1. This is called the ‘Losoda Ratio’ and it arose from research pioneered by Dr. Marcil Lasoda, et al.

There are multiple benefits to training law enforcement personnel in Ei; none more important than preventing situations that lead to tragic deaths. Training would aid law enforcement in conflict resolution. Training would also help law enforcement mitigate the impact of stress resulting from their career choice. Ei training would complement recruitment and retention strategies. Lastly, it would improve interpersonal communication within their personal and professional networks allowing improved information exchange to occur. It would aid them in becoming resonant officers or resonant leaders, attracting others to their service by becoming more ‘touchable’ which eventually improves recruitment efforts.

I would like to suggest a national conversation at the municipal, state and federal level pertaining to law enforcement and their mandating Ei testing and/or training of prospective law enforcement candidates before hire or assignment. This practice would identify candidates lacking desirable Ei competencies and either supplement strategic training interventions or eliminate the candidacy. This practice would minimize miss-hires, thus saving their respective administrative jurisdictions scarce resources. In addition, this practice provides opportunity for candidates with higher Ei aptitude. Lastly, this practice would help rookie officers avoid early career pitfalls.

Law enforcement is responsible for delivering service to the community. The community’s responsibility, through their elected or appointed officials, is to make certain law enforcement has the capacity to handle any type of situation they may encounter in a way that yields the best possible outcome. It is our responsibility as a nation to advance the conversation about Ei and law enforcement at multiple levels to ensure these learn-able competencies becomes default behaviors and weapon discharge a distant alternative. This conversation is long overdue.

Author: Matt Selker is a performance-management consultant. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Edinboro University of PA and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Cleveland State University-Levin College of Public Affairs. Selker gained his education in organizational development and change from Case Western Reserve University-Weatherhead School of Management. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Emotional Intelligence and Law Enforcement: An Overdue Conversation

  1. Gail Macmillan Reply

    December 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    The most reasoned article I have read on this topic with a proposed way of making improvements for the long run.

    • Matt Selker Reply

      December 11, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful remarks, Gail. I do believe this is an overdue conversation.

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