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Annika Smit: ‘Resilience among police officers is strained when identity and meaning are at stake'

23 juni 2022

A lot is asked of police officers, they have to switch gears constantly and often work under great pressure. How do they become and remain resilient? And how can we research this? On Thursday, June 23, professor by special appointment Prof. Dr. Annika Smit will deliver her inaugural address at the University of Humanistic Studies in the Netherlands. "Resilience is strained when identity and meaning are at stake. Scientific research on this requires careful precision."

Resilience is about performing successfully in critical circumstances. Those circumstances can be extreme for police officers and thus put a strain on their mental health. Annika Smit: "Police officers have to switch gears constantly. They must be able to act decisively and protect themselves from the impact of far-reaching confrontations with citizens. At the same time, they must open themselves up to those same citizens to determine how they can be of significance. Moreover, police officers face both the task of acting meaningfully and the task of continuing to function healthily as human beings themselves." All in all, a complex issue that is not easy to investigate. Because what exactly causes stress and with what consequences, depends on someone's condition and context. You cannot simply make a black and white distinction between resilient and vulnerable police officers. What can you say, though?

Personal values

Annika Smit: "Here at my work in Holland, when I observe and question police officers more closely, what strikes me is their personal sense of purpose. Police officers judge their performance from the values they strive for in the police. The profession or the organization may demand a certain performance such as adequate navigation or decisive action, but the police officers themselves are in touch with the environment in which they act in a very specific way. This valuable engagement shows that resilience includes moral aspects." Police officers are sensitive to work situations in which their values, identity or sense of purpose are at stake, Smit said. "For example, when a policeman lets an aggressive citizen rage out a bit so as not to disrupt a difficult relationship in a deprived neighborhood and then hears allegations being made behind his back that he doesn't dare to take action. In addition to physical and psychological health problems, this form of stress can also lead to moral injuries."

A striking result from psychological research is that internal organizational stress has more impact on police officers than operational stress. Smit: "From my experience as an action researcher within the Dutch police force, I don't find it surprising that people experience stress precisely within the organization and sometimes less so on the street. Resilience comes under pressure when identity and meaning are at stake. You can expect an angry citizen to have no sympathy for your actions, but if it concerns a colleague, it can have a big impact. That's why assisting in a major accident on the street can be less stressful than an apparently smaller incident with colleagues."

Careful research

Conducting targeted research into this also demands something of the researcher, says Annika Smit. "To better understand what is at stake, as a researcher you not only use your ratio but also your feeling and intuition. The art is to combine the logic of reason and logic of feeling in constructive ways. From my chair I would also like to contribute to the more systematic use of these logical combinations." 

Researching Police Resilience. A scientific expedition, inaugural lecture Annika Smit.

PDF fileDownload lecture (Dutch/English)

Annika Smit (1975) is professor by special appointment of "Police Resilience" at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, The Netherlands. The chair was established by the police. She is also a Chair at the Police Academy. She holds a PhD in biological psychology from the Radboud University in Nijmegen. In her research Smit focuses on human performance in the police profession, in various job areas and levels (operational, tactical and strategic). She combines different scientific disciplines and works together in multidisciplinary research teams, involving education, practice, policy and science.

Van politiemensen wordt veel gevraagd, ze moeten voortdurend schakelen en werken vaak onder grote druk. Hoe worden en blijven zij weerbaar? En hoe kunnen we dit onderzoeken? Donderdag 23 juni spreekt bijzonder hoogleraar prof.dr. Annika Smit haar inaugurale rede uit aan de Universiteit voor Humanistiek. “Weerbaarheid komt onder druk als identiteit en zingeving in het geding zijn. Wetenschappelijk onderzoek hiernaar vraagt om zorgvuldige precisie.”