Emotional Intelligence and Law Enforcement: A Case for Change


Emotional Intelligence and Law Enforcement: A Case for Change

Growing evidence suggests emotional intelligence (EQ) is a factor in predicting work performance that involves regular interpersonal contact with people—the cornerstone of the law enforcement profession. Emotions are central in every relationship aspect our lives, including family, friendships, and the workplace. Managed proactively and effectively, emotions can improve our relationships. They can guide and direct our thinking to include actions that are realistic and appropriate—even saving our lives. Unmanaged, emotions can “hijack” reasoning and logic, contributing to responses we may subsequently regret. To more effectively protect and serve the public, law enforcement officers have an obligation to learn to appropriately monitor their own and other’s emotions and use this knowledge to guide their thinking, action, and decision making. When progressive law enforcement agency leaders explore all available tools at their disposal to combat the current social disdain toward the police profession, a clearer understanding of emotional intelligence becomes essential.

Law enforcement has tools at its disposal when it comes to mitigating what appears to be explosive growth in the social condemnation and scorn issues that are impacting public safety agencies of all sizes throughout the country. Selker (2014) believes the long overdue conversation related to these challenges is about policing and emotional/social intelligence (ESI). The compelling case for change behind this discussion includes 1) opportunities to improve both officer and citizen safety, 2) improved and increased solution options for resolution of high-conflict encounters, and 3) mitigation of judgment and behavior issues exacerbated by poor physical or psychological health. An improved understanding of emotional intelligence also can act as a counter measure to the ever present volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) demands of the 21st Century police officer (Javidi & Ellis, 2016).

Effectiveness in a Profession of Emotions

Policing makes great emotional demands on officers (Martin, 1999), who are required to deal with myriad crisis situations while maintaining order, delivering service, and controlling the criminal element. Even more than bravery and physical strength, the work demands savvy communication and human relations skills that may be unrecognized and undervalued by officers themselves. Since publication of the first edition of The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, Stein & Book (2011) report fielding inquiries related to the impact and potential effects of EQ in the law enforcement profession. Inquiries related to EQ have taken the form of what may have previously been viewed as inconceivable—can the development of emotionally intelligent police agencies become a reality?

The daily work of law enforcement involves control of emotional labor. Simply explained, emotional labor includes how individuals manage their own emotions while at the same time providing service to others in the execution and performance of job duties. This includes self-control (intrapersonal) as well as control of almost every citizen (interpersonal) encountered. The significant challenges related to emotional labor control increase with an understanding that the overwhelming majority of citizens contacted by law enforcement, routinely present at their emotional worst—often irate, upset, or injured. Emotional norms are perceived by officers to be required for their job and emotional skills are critical to successful job performance.


Generally since the mid-1990s, businesses and many private organizations have come to see the value gained by developing EQ in employees. Emotional intelligence speaks to more than using cognitive skills such as intellect and problem solving. In part, because of generational differences, Fernandez (2007) suggested EQ skills in any workplace are required for survival due to workplace complexity and social diversity. Additionally, Fernandez offered career derailment can be minimized with emotional intelligence skills that influence coping mechanisms related to workplace demands. Research also supports emotional intelligence competencies can be improved through training and are tied to leadership (Boyatzis, 2001; Dulewicz & Higgs, 2004).

Dr. Reuven Bar-On is one of the leading pioneers and researchers in the field of emotional and social intelligence. His model views EQ as an array of non-cognitive capabilities, competencies and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures. This model (Bar-On, 1997) is operationalized around 15 conceptual components found within five dimensions of emotional and social intelligence. These include:

  1. Self-perception- an understanding of one’s inner-self in terms of how, when, and why various emotions impact thinking and behavior.
  2. Self-expression- one’s focus on self-direction and openness to expressive communication of feelings and thoughts that are both constructive and socially appropriate.
  3. Interpersonal- using compassion and trust to build and maintain relationships at the same time recognizing and having concern for others’ viewpoints.
  4. Decision Making- understanding how emotions influence and affect decisions; including impulse control and objectivity so as to leverage problem solving, absent rash behavior.
  5. Stress Management- coping with emotions that readily come with change or vague and unclear situations. The ability to remain confident, optimistic, and resilient among VUCA chaos challenges.

Importantly, Bar-On proposed the components of this model a) develop over time, b) change throughout life, c) can be improved through training and development, and d) the model relates to the potential for performance.

Law Enforcement Applicability

As an emerging and developing construct, emotional intelligence can be viewed along a spectrum. In the narrowest of contexts, EQ is a mental ability involved in the management, understanding, and regulation of an individual’s emotions (Mayer, Caruso & Salovey, 2000). Examined in a broader context, the term refers to a set of specific social and emotional competencies including many inherent in the desired skill set of today’s law enforcement officer. Among others, these competencies include self-control, conflict management, social responsibility, empathy, stress tolerance, self-confidence, initiative, and optimism. Among the salient research work on emotional intelligence in law enforcement was the research of FBI SSA (ret.) Timothy Turner at the FBI National Academy. Albeit focusing primarily on identifying the EQ competencies differentiating FBI National Academy graduates from other law enforcement leaders, Turner’s work opened the door to discussion of emotional and social intelligence in the profession. His research started the process of using a systematic and focused approach to identifying the specific emotional intelligence competencies distinctive of exemplary officers and empirically compared their emotional intelligence norms to those of the general public.

Turner’s findings also provided new information related to how EQ benchmarking can be used in the identification of star performers in law enforcement. His work from a law enforcement viewpoint, supported the research findings of those in other professions. Essentially, exemplary performers in specific job roles in an organization can be determined by identifying specific emotional intelligence clusters in employees. In Turner’s research, the statistically significant EQ competency clusters in law enforcement officers included 1) social responsibility, 2) problem solving, 3) self-actualization, and 4) interpersonal relationships. Clear understandings of both interpersonal and intrapersonal aspects of emotional intelligence can serve as a proactive strategy to manage both officer and citizen well-being.


Emotional intelligence is not an abstract, touchy feely, be nice to everyone and get walked all over by the people you are serving concept. What it is though, according to leading subject matter experts, is the demonstration of competencies that constitute self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and social skills at appropriate times and in ways of sufficient frequency to be effective in the situation (Goleman, 1995, 1998). The key to making change in law enforcement is to understand that social and emotional intelligence skills can be operationalized. These skills can be taught, improved upon, and put into everyday law enforcement practice and operations.

FBI SSA (ret.) Turner outlined among other encouraging research findings—that emotional intelligence changes with age and can be improved upon. This suggestion that the ability to augment, nurture, and develop emotional and social intelligence skills should resonate as good news for law enforcement. This is supported by training programs designed for officers to improve emotional and social intelligence skills by learning and practicing the specific capabilities undergirding the competencies. Individuals are likely to improve EQ competency scores if they are taught to leverage strengths and find ways to compensate in areas where they are either average or underperforming. The same is already being done in the profession related to tactical skills such as defensive driving, defensive tactics, and use of firearms. Law enforcement leaders can be proactive change agents utilizing emotional intelligence to enhance the organizational culture of their agency. Well known leadership author Warren Bennis went further—suggesting that emotional intelligence, more than any other asset—more than IQ or technical expertise— is the most important overall success factor in careers.


Bar-On, R. (1997). Bar-On EQ Inventory: User’s Manual, Multi-Health Systems: New York, NY.

Bennis, W. (2001). In The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace, D. Goleman & C. Cherniss, (Eds.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Boyatzis, R. (2001). How and Why Individuals Are Able To Develop Emotional Intelligence. In C. Cherniss & D. Goleman (Eds.), The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 234-253.

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Javidi, M. & Ellis, B. (2016). Capturing the Moment: Counter-VUCA leadership for 21st Century Policing. Law Enforcement Today. 15 September. Retrieved from https://www.lawenforcementtoday.com/capturing-the-moment-counter-vuca-leadership-for-21st-century-policing/

Martin, S. (1999). Police Force or Police Service? Gender and Emotional Labor. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, (561), 124.

Mayer, J., Caruso, D. & Salovey, P. (2000). Emotional Intelligence Meets Traditional Standards for an Intelligence. Intelligence 27(4), 267-298.

Selker, M. (2014). Emotional Intelligence and Law Enforcement: A Conversation That’s Long Overdue. The Good Men Project. Retrieved from http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/emotional-intelligence-police-mkdn/

Stein, S. & Book. H. (2011). The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, Ontario: Jossey-Bass.

Sung, H. (2002). The Fragmentation of Policing in American Cities: Toward a Theory of Police-Citizen Relations. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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National Academy Graduates From Other Law Enforcement Leaders (Doctoral dissertation).

Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database (UMI No. 3198429).


Richard Conroy, PhD has served as a Director of Police at the university level, an Assistant Chief of Police at the municipal level, and a Special Agent in Charge at the state level. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and a life-member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).  Dr. Conroy is a member of the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and holds a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Dallas Baptist University. His doctoral research is in the area of emotional intelligence and performance measurement and included using the Multifactor Measure of Performance™ instrument to predict leadership styles in sheriffs’ and chief deputies throughout the United States. He is a certified practitioner/consultant in emotional intelligence using the EQ-i 2.0 and the EQ360 assessments. Dr. Conroy is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Dallas Baptist University and a faculty member at the National Command & Staff College and the Caruth Police Institute.

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