COPS ARE FUNNY – AND THEY HAVE TO BE
by Robert L. Bryan
My latest book, Dark Knights, weaves together twenty years of funny cop stories to chronicle my career from patrol officer to captain. Writing this book was fairly easy because of the dearth of available material to pick from. After all, there is nothing quite like a cop’s sense of humor – or is there?
When I was almost finished with the book I let a non-cop friend read a chapter to get his feedback. I know I am a bit biased, but I thought the chapter I gave him was hysterical. I was somewhat stunned when he told me that he found the story disturbing and sadistic, but not the least bit funny So how does this dark, non-mainstream, gallows sense of humor develop? Do police officers bring this anything goes propensity towards perverse humor with them to the job, or is it a byproduct of the job? The answer lies in the emotional and psychological challenges of being a cop.
Being a police officer is akin to constantly riding an emotional roller coaster, involving moments of intense action followed by emotional crashes marked by exhaustion and isolation. Cops see people at their worst, operating in the chaotic and depressing underbelly of society. Domestic violence, drug overdoses, fatal car crashes, child abuse, and an assortment of other criminal activities are on a cop’s daily menu for consumption. The dangers cops perceive is not limited to public interactions.
It is very common in police culture to develop negative feelings and attitudes towards the government and department hierarchy due to a perceived lack of support. Furthermore, there can also be a perceived lack of support from the law abiding public, as well as a perceived media bias against police officers. Even family cannot fully comprehend the daily grind, social isolation and stress involved with police work. This atmosphere cultivates the “us vs. them” attitude present in much of the police culture.
To cope, cops put on emotional armor through the development of a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edged sense of humor that is an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain and suffering being witnessed on a daily basis. This attitude and sense of humor is not callous. To the contrary – it is necessary. Police officers have to resist their natural revulsion to what they see and must do. Empathy must be held back too, since it can divert too much energy from apprehending suspects and restoring order. Developing gallows humor helps in this process. Through exaggeration and irreverence, they break the connection between a terrifying stimulus and an unwanted emotional response.
These tactics work very well on the job. There is ample empirical data that supports the physiological aspects of laughter as being an excellent stress reliever. The delicate balancing act cops perform, however, is separating the job and personal life, and keeping the dark humor exclusively for the job. This is no easy task, as the usage of dark humor becomes automatic and unconscious, causing problems in private life.
Soon, nothing is sacred. No working street cop, detective, crime scene investigator or emergency worker can function effectively without denial, suppression and black humor. Unfortunately, what works so well on the job can adversely affect communications with loved ones. Emotional issues are commonplace in relationships. Hiding normal feelings means not recognizing them when they arise and not talking about them. Avoiding, dismissing or laughing them off on a consistent basis means that many important issues may go unresolved.
Robert L. Bryan is a law enforcement and security professional with over thirty-five years of experience. Robert spent twenty years with the NYC Transit Police and NYPD, retiring at the rank of captain. He worked a wide variety of patrol, administrative, and investigative assignments, including police academy instructor, narcotics division squad commander, and internal affairs bureau squad commander. Prior to the NYPD, Robert began his career as a member of both the United States Coast Guard and the United States Border Patrol. He is currently the chief security officer for NYC Transit’s division of revenue. Dark Knights is Robert’s third non-fiction book. C-Case, chronicles his two year assignment as a squad commander in the internal affairs bureau, and Conductor, traces the history of one of America’s most storied professions – the railroad conductor.