Cops, Cop-Out on Empathy?

Written by Kathi Stringer

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“Your research article titled "Cops, Cop-Out on Empathy?" was extremely informative and educational. Sgt. Rodriguez has already shared some of the material used in your article to provide additional training to the officers in the field. The feedback he received from the officers was well received.”

- Richard E. Madory
Captain Field Services Division Commander
Corona Police Department – Corona CA

“Thank you for your excellent article and for the good use you've made of my work. It's very gratifying to have made a contribution that helps others make contributions.”

- Susan Schwartz Senstad
Family Therapist provided psychotherapy for over 20 years. She has trained many consultants, teachers and therapists as facilitators.

“Stupendous piece of work! Spreading it all over the place now!”

- Sam Vaknin Ph. D.
The author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited and other mailing lists (c. 4000 members).

From City of Corona, California

Cops, Cop-Out on Empathy?

by Kathi Stringer
April 16, 2003

A look at protective agencies that are becoming more and more devoid of empathy. Could it be their underlying weakness?

One Complaint Investigation Field Officer for the Corona Police Department asked the question, “What is empathy? Do you mean, “Can I picture myself handcuffed to a hospital bed and the pain of a needle entering into a gash? No, I can’t. I’ve never been in that position, so how could I possibly imagine that?”

His response can boggle the mind of even those that have never been there before. It would seem reasonable to construct pieces of life’s experiences to appreciate a close approximately of what it must be like to be trapped and in pain.


This work is written in three parts:

1. Overview of Empathy

2. Empathy in Depth

3. Empathy, First Responders, Policemen and

I. Overview of Empathy

What is Empathy?

The complex definition: Infopedia describes empathy this way:

The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it…To say it another way, in the example above, “The subjective feeling of pain from the victim, into the police officer, so that the police officer appears to have a understanding of the victims pain.” To simplify it again, “Understand the feelings of others, as you would have them understand your feelings.” To say it again in Basic English: “I’m hurting! Please help me!”

The straightforward definition: Lauren Wispe (1991, p.80) describes empathy this way:

Most of us have never been confronted with “Sophie’s Choice”, a Mother and a German Jew that was faced with a heart-wrenching predicament. A German S.S. war criminal “Ordered her to select one of her children, who would then be sent to the ovens; the other would be spared. This sequence is especially heartbreaking, as the screaming little girl is carried away to die.” Even though this has not happened to most of us, we can appreciate the torment and agony of such a situation. We call this empathy.

Basically, empathy is the taking on the trial mind-set of another individual, to put one in the other person’s shoes, without losing a sense of self. For example: One asks, “Why is defending a rag, a piece of material so important?” The answer is symbolic, “because this material is the American Flag, and represents to many, the sacrifices made for freedom.” This is particularly useful because one can predict with a measure of accuracy the consequences of burning the American Flag in a hostile environment of mothers and fathers that have lost their sons and daughters to a war. One must be empathetic to appreciate their losses and avoid the consequences.

What is Evil?

During the Nuremberg trials (from the holocaust), a U.S. Army Psychiatrist, Capt. Gilbert, (a Jew), routinely interviewed and built relationships with the Nazi war criminals. At the conclusion of the trail he discovered they all had a single common dominator. He stated, “Evil is a lack of empathy, a total incapacity to feel with their fellow man.” And Hart added, “I would suggest that evil acts stem from a lack of empathy.”

History Lesson and the Significant of Empathy

In the aftermath, decades later Governor Wilson budget included $2 million for the California Commission of Peace Offices Standards and Training to send 7,000 peace officers through a Law Enforcement Tools for Tolerance program at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The idea was to display the holocaust and the horror of hate crimes.

A Showcase of Empathy

The hit T.V. series, The Pretender, showed us a child prodigy, Jared, that was kidnap by a austere, foreboding and powerful agency known as The Centre. The Centre exploited Jared’s genius through the development of SIMS, short for Simulations. Jared was given a set of parameters for targeted environments to enable him to process the probable outcome. Unknown to Jared, the Centre used his genius, his outcome of SIMS, to assassinate or massacre people. Strangely enough, the writer of the series did not appear to suggest that the crucial element of Jared’s genius was his ability to empathize with others in order to determine their likely actions through SIMS. Without insight to empathy Jared could not have built complex analogies and assessed the percentages of likely outcomes.

Empathy as a Simulation

Nichols remarked that “Goldman’s simulation alternative claimed that we understand others by simulating them in a way that produces empathy. Empathy always involves simulation, but may simultaneously include theory application.” By properly specifying the processes of empathy, we are able to show the amount of theory needed to generate an accurate simulation.

On Sympathy:

Sympathy is feeling sorry for the individual. Nguyen states, “The big difference between the word “empathy” and its synonym “awareness” is that the sympathy is incorporated into the meaning of the word “empathy. Empathic people are those who express their feelings toward your problems with sympathy and understanding.” A world devoid of insensitivity, indifference, and empathy to others’ agony and suffering will, Nguyen says “end up being in a robot world where people live without any feeling.” Sympathy lends to pitying and feeling sorry for a person. Empathy takes a solution-based stance to understand and solve the problem. Empathy is taking on the trail mindset of another individual, (through awareness or training) while maintaining ones personal sense-of-self, and the product is a jointly built communication that, (1) May develop into a warm personal regard, and / or (2) De-escalate a dangerous environment.

Scientific Measurement of Empathy

Empathy is always a simulation but it is possible to include theory-application to identify the sensation of empathy. At this time it is scientifically impossible to measure the accuracy of one’s ability to successfully take on the trial mindset of another. What may appear humorous to one person may appear as horror to another in the extreme. However, awareness of cultural norms, awareness of typical reactions to trauma, awareness of a range of appropriate emotions, can help improve the percentages of the measurement of empathy. For example, not every American will feel an allegiance to the American Flag, but though life’s lessons one may avoid severe consequences of destroying this symbolic piece of material in precarious situations.

Acquiring Empathy, the Construct

Barnes & Thagard surmise that Empathy can be constructed though the use of analogy. “Empathy can be difficult to achieve for some individuals but not impossible.” To acquire empathy one must be able to navigate though the mapping on one’s personal experience (and willing) and relate it to the empathee. If one’s personal experience is incomplete, then one must be able to actually draw a conjecture to understand and appreciate the empathee’s situation through imagination.

For example: The empathee appeared crestfallen, depressed, hopeless and isolative. To acquire empathy one would have to take on the trial mindset of the empathee. One would have to; (1) recall vividly the emotion of depression, i.e. – the loss of a loved one, and (2) recall the emotion of hopelessness, i.e. – the inability to solve a problem at one time, and (3) feeling or notion to run away from life’s problems, i.e. – the desire to isolate. The willingness and desire to understand, to become aware, are the parameters and properties of empathy.

Empathy Can Be a Tool

For those individuals in sales. If a sales person is able to identify with the buyer with empathy toward their problems (home, work, relationships), the sales agent is more likely to overcome the buyer’s objections and offer applicable solutions based on the buyer’s frame of mind. This works in three ways.

1. The Sales individual was able to put himself in the buyer’s shoes to understand his problems, and

2. The sales individual was able to keep his own identity for problem solving and not get swallowed up into the buyer’s misery so he could maintain an objective to solve the problem, and,

3. The final product that was attractive to the buyer was the joint collaboration, the joint communication that resonated though empathy. The use of empathy was the vehicle that initially developed trust to build the sales-to-buyer relationship.

An experienced sales agent will look for verbal and non-verbal clues to measure the strength and development of empathy as the conversation progresses. Hopefully the end result will be a win-win between the sales agent and the buyer. We call this insight to empathy.

On the flip side of ‘insight to empathy,’ the Nazi’s were able to take on the trial mind-set of their enemies to terrorize them. They configured bombs with sirens, and as the bombs approached the target, the whistle of the sirens created panic. Empathy in this case was psychological warfare to terrify their victims.

II. Empathy In Depth

The Argument of “Empathy vs. Truth” – “Subjective vs. Objective”

Truth and Reality co-exist and are equivalent. Reality is Truth. Life experience taught us to arrive at the truth more quickly, and to separate the objective of reality from the subjective of fantasy. Dr. Vaknin quotes Morris, “Closely related to the ability to read other people’s emotions is empathy – the arousal of emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person’s situation… Empathy depends not only on one’s ability to identify someone else’s emotions but also on one’s capacity to put oneself in the other person’s place and to experience an appropriate emotional response.” Vaknin continued, “Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions. In the absence of such an agreement, we are faced with inappropriate affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).” In essence, those individuals that have experienced life more completely will be able to relate to the truth more quickly, and thus be more empathetic.

Experiencing Empathy

Vaknin states, “Empathy has little to do with the other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone – we don’t experience his or her pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody hurts US. The reaction to pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions.” Whether we choose to feel our pain or to block it out is a matter of choice. Vaknin raises some interesting questions. If we choose not to experience our pain, if we choose not to be vulnerable, then are we selfish and evil as the U.S. Army Psychiatrist Capt. Gilbert stated, “Evil is a lack of empathy, a total incapacity to feel with their fellow man?”

It certainly makes one wonder if it is possible to be civilized and also be devoid of empathy. Without empathy perhaps the world would be reduced to prey slaughtering prey. Eat or be eaten.

We have learned a lot about empathy since the Nuremberg trials. We have learned that empathy can manifest as good or evil. Good would be the genuine and authentic concern for the empthee. Evil would take on the trail mind set of the victim to identify, examine manipulate and annihilate the target.

A look at the Ego, Empathy and Training

The ego is the executive agency of the mind and makes the decision based on three sources (pressures) of information. To simplify, they are (1) pleasure seeking (impulsive) and the aspects needed to survive, (2) morals and perfection, formed out of punishment and rewards, and (3) the external world (reality). It is the Ego’s function to reach a compromise between these three opposing forces, and to make a decision that is reality based.

Vaknin states: “Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cues….” Since empathy is an internal reaction (based on external in internal stimuli) then the perception of reality (truth) of the empathor is equally governed by the same rules and systems of the Ego (internal process based on external and internal stimuli). Now we can conjecture that empathy is directly hardwired to the Ego.

There are massive volumes of scholarly material that attempt to explain the development and structures of the Ego, an individual’s ability to relate to reality (truth) accurately, successfully and timely. To measure the ego would equate to measurement of empathy.

Vaknin suggests that empathy, or lack of it, is directly related to the individual’s morals, cultural anthropology, especially with respect to social structure, and self-awareness. Since the Empathy is hardwired into the Ego, we can say that the function of the ego operates through thinking and reasoning which must negotiate between the psychosocial demands of reality and the demands of the self, and then comprise. The ego is also formed out of punishments and rewards that shape ‘morals’. I draw this parallel to demonstrate that the Executive of the Ego, and Empathy are carried out in much the same way.

In other words, an individual is as assessable to his Ego and he is to his Empathy. Both are carried out as a ‘reaction’ or a ‘response.’ Both are shaped by life’s experience. Both are shaped by genetics, temperament, and the synthesis of the mind meeting reality (truth). However, empathy operates out of the executive agency of the Ego. This gives us the choice as humans to develop (train) our empathy to be more in line with reality. In easy speak; an evil person is less likely to have positive empathy then most of us. We could say that person’s personality (ego) is directly related to his or her understanding of relating to others with positive empathy.


Vaknin reminds us that our personal inter-subjective (what we think) world may be completely different and out-of-sync with the inter-subjective (what they think) world empthee, and in such cases would render empathy meaningless. However, though clues, ego development, the desire to understand, and the desire to development a warm personal regard, we can immensely improve the percentages of the success of empathy.

III. Empathy, First Responders, Policemen and Firefighters

Positive Empathy, Attunement and Defense.

It could be argued that the restriction of empathy acts as a defense. For example: A police officer that has intervened in domestic abuse, that has responded to a rape call, that has interceded at a violent gang party, is hardly going to go home and select “Sophie’s Choice” for the evening movie. It is likely at this point there would be an avoidance of empathy. Ochberg sums it up this way, “We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren't sick, but we aren't ourselves.”

Protective agencies that have been spit on, beat on, and screamed at, may find it difficult to flip the empathy switch from one dispatch call to the next. Some agency employees that are burned out flip the empathy switch to ‘off’ as a protective maneuver, because to feel for others is draining and, quite frankly, the are spent. Other agency employees adjust their positive attunement to empathy lower then what would be normally expected to filter out the bulk of their stress. However, the question begs to be asked, “When does a professional create more harm then good because their positive attunement to empathy has failed the victim?”

Empathy as a Gage

Here, we go back to Wispe’s description of empathy, “In empathy the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its identity.” This is important. Empathy is a tool, a gage, and a barometer to assist the professional to help the victim. It does NOT mean the professional should own the feelings of the victim. If the professional were to cross-the-line, sort of speak, and OWN the feelings of the victim, then it is likely that the professional would feel miserable, depressed, and ineffective. Using empathy appropriately, the professional can respond to ease grief, sadness, invalidation and trauma. Empathy conveys awareness, an attunement to the victim. For example, to withhold empathy can stir feelings of “Rage at injustice and stupidity and people who treat him as less than he is.” One father of a victim said, “It is not every day that we see protective agencies that care enough to look at us as human beings, not just a situation. That would take empathy.”

Empathy and Vulnerability

Police, Firefighters, First Responders and other protective agencies are usually guarded with a wall of invulnerability that seems to be inherent of their position. Invulnerability is viewed as strength while vulnerability is viewed as flawed and weak. This wall-off stance against vulnerability is problematic toward empathy as Susan Senstad states, “When we are able to feel our vulnerability, we are able to experience the full range of our emotions to the world around us” and “Vulnerability is the unique capacity for receptivity and empathy which allows human beings to acknowledge and care for their ethical responsibility for each other, for the community and their environment.” In other words, the wall of invulnerability can prevent empathy and re-traumatize the individual with the trauma of treatment.

Senstad recalls her unreachable father in her words: “Daddy is a lot like God”, my sister and I used to say, “Except that God is easier to make contact with.” Daddy presented himself as strong, self-assured, decisive – and totally invulnerable.

The difficulty with our society and culture is that it appears to present a no-win for protective agencies. Many individuals as Senstad expressed “seemed to be far more attached to the myth of agencies omnipotence, and far more active in imprisoning them in that myth, then anyone would dare realize.” Senstad continued, “The fact that vulnerability may be a positive thing which requires openness does not mean, however, that people would do well go around without any armor.” This armor impedes empathy, and the feelings of “wounds from losses, fears, shocks, humiliations, failures abandonments – the emotional baggage we carry from childhood.” However, it is an axiom that “Without access to vulnerability we lack the capacity for empathy, and to develop our own sense of ethics. If we don’t have access to our vulnerability, every encounter becomes a power-play, a struggle over control and status.”

Example: An attempted suicide victim was brought to Corona Regional Medical Center to be treated for a large gash on her wrist. When she flinched from the needle entering into her wound, a Corona Police Officer slammed down on a handcuff to subdue the victim with pain in order to contain the situation. The victim however, began trashing about from the apparent severe lack of empathy from this Police Officer. When the victim screamed at the police officer for his evident lack of empathy, and requested the office to readjust the handcuff, he refused. What happened? The Police Officer could have acted out of reaction to contain the situation, but then after he composed himself it would have been nice if he apologized. That did not happen. As Senstad implies, this Officer’s complete lack of empathy invited a power play.

Senstad discovered a survivor in her research:

Helen Bamberg, who started The Medical Center for the Care of Victims of Torture in London and how, herself, survived the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, tells how the helpers who cared for liberated camp prisoners did just fine, Until, that is, the freed prisoners got stronger, started having opinions of their own, and what’s more, started challenging the staff’s authority. That made the helper anxious ergo furious; they’d lost their monopoly on strength.

It is a myth that in order for these protective agencies to be strong, the public must be vulnerable. This notion invites a one-up (agency), one-down (public), environment at first contact. Perhaps this police officer fed off the victim’s vulnerabilities.

The lack of vulnerability and empathy in protective agencies may be due to deficient in-service training, staff turnover and burnout. Basically, those that are employed to ‘serve and protect’ have seen everything that can be seen, and their walls are firmly erected, and the public has become objects to be manipulated, contained, and dealt with.

Empathy as a Tool for De-escalation

The Houston Crisis Intervention Team reports:

Upon arriving at the scene, Officer Chillis found the individual depressed, very paranoid, and intent on taking his life. Initially, it was difficult to communicate with him. Officer Chillis gave the man plenty of space, allowed him to ventilate, actively listened, was patient, showed empathy and concern, and took a non-threatening stance. What appeared to be especially effective, Chillis said, was the use of body language to demonstrate a true concern and empathy for the confrontational demeanor helped convince the individual that Officer Chillis care about him and was there to help. The techniques worked. The individual opened up to Officer Chillis and talked to her about his personal problems that led to his depression. Officer Chillis credits the CIT training with providing skills that her de-escalate this situation.

Officer Chillis was able to save a life because she used empathy as a tool, a gage, to become aware.

Trauma of Treatment (First Contact)

“Secondary wounding experience can be as painful and powerful as the original traumatic event,” said Dr. Matsakis from her book titled, “I can’t get over it,” a hand-book for trauma survivors. She insightfully validated her readers that, “You need to learn that, generally, the rejection, the humiliation, or attack says more about the ignorance, insensitivity, fears, or prejudices of the other person than anything about you, and that it reflects larger societal problems.”

There are times when the actual treatment (first contact) is as traumatic as the actual trauma itself. For example: In the case of the Police Officer, hammering down on the handcuff when the victim flinched in pain validated the original trauma in the victim’s mind and that she deserved the childhood beatings from the past (PTSD). The victim felt as though an alien on the wrong planet and that her own kind would not have treated her this way. However, empathy, and a warm positive regard could have prevented the trauma -of –treatment. Since the Police Officer appeared devoid of empathy, his contact was harmful.


Most Police, First Responders, and Firefighters hope their position would help the victims and improve lives. Perhaps their heart is in the right place, but many are unaware. It would be tragic to respond with the intention of saving a life, and then have all that energy wasted because it did more harm then good, but it happens frequently from lack of empathy.


1. Empathy is taking on the trail mindset of the victim without losing a sense of self.

2. Empathy can be a valuable tool, a gage to de-escalate the situation

3. History has taught a lesson on the importance of empathy

4. Empathy can prevent the ‘trauma of treatment”

5. The percentages of the attunement of empathy is directly related to the individual’s willingness to become AWARE

6. Empathy is strength based, not a weakness

7. Empathy can save lives.


(1) Perhaps this document may be helpful to protective agencies. Complimentary use is encouraged. (2) Create an environment, and a climate, to promote awareness (empathy). This may be accomplished through education and a desire to understand. It would be especially helpful if victims were invited to speak before First Responders, Police and Firefighters to put a face behind the trauma. As one person said, “I want to break down the barrier that creates an “us-versus-them” attitude into a “we-are-going-to-get-through-this-crisis-together” team approach.”


On Empathy
Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Essay on Empathy
Nguyen Minh Hien,

Houston Crisis Intervention Team

The Wisdom of Vulnerability
Susan Schwartz Senstad

Empathy and Analogy
Allison Barnes and Paul Thagard

Mindreading and the Cognitive Architecture
underlying Altruistic Motivation
Shaun Nichols

Judicial Racism?
Roger Ivan Hart
Sophie's Choice.
James Stolee

Frank Ochberg MD
I Can’t Get Over It
Aphrodite Matsakis, Ph.D.