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Keeping the 'God Complex' at bay


Sometimes when I read headlines from the world of corrections in a local newspaper, I’ll think to myself, What drives an officer to use force excessively or unnecessarily?

I remember when I was young talking to my grandfather about life during the Great Depression. These discussions were fascinating, but one particular story stuck with me. Back then, whenever a man came and knocked on the door and asked for something to eat, his mother always fried him two eggs and made him toast and coffee but, no matter how cold it was, she made him eat it outside. Her infinite quality of mercy was tempered with caution.

As I ponder what to write in this training article, I must temper my words with realism as some officers may disagree or say to themselves, This is not me he’s talking about.

Detachment from our subjects

When I was a police officer, I would often make arrests of individuals who, for lack of a more polite description, turned my stomach. To stand and look at them and try to understand why they did what they just did would baffle me endlessly.

At points, I had grown so detached from the individuals that I policed that I felt compelled to look down at them as unworthy, liars, cheats — individuals just waiting for me to arrest them. This, as it turned out, made it easier for me to punish those who disrespected or defied my authority. I was only written up one time during my career for excessive force, but as I look back at my career, there could have been other times that I could have been accused of being heavy handed.

I attribute this discipline or punishment-oriented behavior to the "God Complex."

In uniform as well as out, I felt I was above reproach: I was the one you called if you had a problem; I easily solved it for you. I stood at fire scenes holding back hundreds of onlookers. I responded first at medical calls for assistance and I started CPR, or stopped the bleeding or comforted the children after a death. It seemed as if I were a god.

Socially I had placed myself into a bubble that prevented most people from entering into my world. I am sure that I am not the only correctional officer who finds him/herself encased in the same tightly woven social bubble. I stopped seeing the civilians as equals.

As I read the news articles, I wonder if these officers were thinking as I did?

Now these officers will be dragged through the mud, their careers ended and they will face the possibility of a long prison sentences. Did they have the God Complex that night? Was the individual who died during the brief incident less of a human being than the officer? Was the officer dispensing punishment because the subject was not compliant or respectful?
We wait in apprehension for the gavel to drop to find out.

What is the God Complex?

When I refer to the "God Complex," I’m referring to that feeling of superiority over others, biased rationale that, to you, feels absolutely justified — sometimes defiantly so.

According to Wikipedia, a God Complex is a psychological state of mind in which a person believes that they have supernatural powers or god-like abilities. The person generally believes they are above the rules of society and should be given special dispensation.

Doctors, as others, are often accused of having a God Complex because they see themselves as gods who save, and end, lives. Here is a fictional, but apt, example: 

I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you; when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn't miscarry or that their daughter doesn't bleed to death or that their mother doesn't suffer acute neural trauma from postoperative shock, who do you think they're praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle, but if you're looking for God, he was in operating room number two on November 17, and he doesn't like to be second guessed. You ask me if I have a God Complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.

— Alec Baldwin, Malice (1993)

The vast majority of the law enforcement and corrections officers in this country perform their very difficult duties with respect for their communities, citizens, and in compliance with the law. Even so, there are incidents where this is not the case.

Behavior stemming from the God Complex is, for good reason, difficult to defend in a court of law. We should know, and the law recognizes that "contempt of cop" is not an excuse to initiate punishment.

Dif'rent strokes...

Throughout your career, you will come into contact with individuals who have a different outlook on life than you do. It takes all kinds of people to move the world. But that doesn’t make it your job or your right to dispense punishment for violations. It's not your job to punish people even though you see a visible need for the corrective change. It is our job to report violations of the law and write the offender up for discipline.

Individuals above our pay grade are responsible for the issuance of punishment to our citizens. It is when we cross this delicate line of reporting and punishment that we go too far and get caught up in misconduct and corruption.

Do you need to have compassion for everyone that you encounter? The correct answer is yes, that is ethically sound, but not always realistic. I maintain that you do not necessarily need to have compassion for everyone but you do need to respect them as individuals. Understanding the concept of respect is the key to keeping the God Complex at bay.

Dr. George Thompson talks about the difference between REspect and respect. Respect is personal and earned. The truth is that many of the people that we come in contact – on both sides of the badge - will never be "respected" by us. But, everyone has to be REspected by us. The term "REspect" is defined as a trait that is professional and given to others as a condition of our employment as a correctional officer.

It's not always easy. Being mindful of the REspect you give to individuals, regardless of whether or not you think they're the "dregs of society," is indeed the road less traveled by most officers (and most people) today. We are tested often, and it can be hard to maintain faith in humanity.

I’ve heard that most patrol officers have to deal with 10% of individuals 90% of the time. This 10% comprises the criminal element of society, not the other 90% of the population that make up the good, hard working citizens who we are sworn to protect.

Dr. Thompson refers to this as the 90/10 Principle. He explains that it is hard for police officers to remember that most of the people that they represent are not the criminals that they constantly deal with. It is hard not to get jaded in this type of environment. In corrections, it's even worse because we are dealing with solely the criminal elements of society – many of whom will never change.

It is easy to get a poor opinion of humanity until you remember that you are only dealing with a small percent of the population. In order to keep the God Complex in check, we need to make sure we’re thinking about the bigger picture. In the scope of life and your career, what we’re dealing with isn’t as important as our families, friends or our health.

Realizing that there are other important things in life will help modify the bleak picture that we often see during the performance of our daily duties.

But while “having an open mind” is the simplest sounding solution, it’s also the hardest. Putting ourselves outside the situation and looking at it from another individual’s perspective objectively can feel like an impossible task.

Instead, try thinking about how your solution could benefit from the another person's ideas. That way you're not giving up on your ideas, rather, you are seeing the other person’s ideas in perspective.

By incorporating someone else's perspective into your own, both parties can walk away from the interaction feeling REspected and heard.

I am speaking honestly and from personal experience when I say that in the past I have found myself looking down on others. It’s not necessarily conscious, but sometimes my thoughts tended to creep into my head about how much better I was at something than average person.

There is no hard and fast rule on how to fix it, other than starting to become aware of the problem. Once we're aware, then we can start thinking of ways to change how we think about other people — and ourselves.

Remember that we need to keep our God Complex in check for our professional, as well as our personal, emotional, and psychological survival.

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