Constructing Officer Perspectives on Service: The Mutual Influence of Role Orientation and Role Strain on Police Officers' Orientations to Their Work

Author: ORCID icon
Hofer, Meret, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Melvin, AS-Psychology, University of Virginia

Police officers engage in a broad range of activities, and conceptualize their role in relation to the public (i.e. role orientation) in a variety of ways. However, police officers’ subjective constructions of role orientation have received limited attention, and the extent to which officers face competing role demands and how ensuing role strain is navigated has not been examined. In this dissertation, I investigate the intersections between police officers’ role orientations, role demands and role strain to understand their influence on officers’ approaches to their work. The research uses a qualitative design to answer the following questions:

1) How do police officers understand their role in relation to the citizens they serve?

2) To what extent and in what ways do police officers experience role strain?

3) How do police officers navigate role strain and prioritize competing demands?

I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with a broadly recruited, maximum variation sample of law enforcement officers (N=48) in order to gain a holistic understanding of officers’ professional experiences. Interviews were transcribed and the data corpus was analyzed in three separate coding passes, assessing attributes of officers’ narratives as well as conceptual and emergent themes. Findings suggest that police officers’ role orientations and experiences of role strain are meaningfully interrelated, with officers’ approaches to policing best understood as a dynamic process. Officers’ role orientations are founded on overarching assumptions about the world, people and their own capacities, which may shift with professional experiences over time. Moreover, role orientation should be distinguished from the role behaviors in which officers engage, which are influenced by role strain resulting from organizational and situational pressures. Implications for research and organizational practice are discussed.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
police, law enforcement, role orientation, role strain, police-community relations, qualitative methods

This work was supported by several internal University of Virginia research grants.

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: