“The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Been Permanently Shut Off”: Work-Role Overload Among U.S. Police

Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 2022, 1070 –1089.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211024706
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Work-Role Overload Among U.S. Police
Duke University School of Medicine/Wilson Center for Science and Justice, Duke University School of Law
The functional breadth of the police role is a primary issue facing law enforcement. However, few empirical data examine
how officers are experiencing an occupational environment characterized by an increasingly wider range of new (but routine)
duties. I take a qualitative approach to explore experiences of work-role overload via in-depth, semi-structured interviews
with a sample of U.S. police officers (N = 48). By applying the framework for thematic analysis, I find that work-role over-
load is a robust feature of police officers’ occupational experiences and presents in two ways: (a) through quantitative over-
load related to the excessive volume of work demands and (b) qualitative overload related to strained or diminished
psychological resources. The findings provide valuable insights for improving the theoretical understanding of work-role
overload among police in light of international trends toward broadening law enforcement’s social functions and add to
contemporary discussions to “defund the police.”
Keywords: police; law enforcement; qualitative methods; policing; criminal justice system
The controversial death of George Floyd at the hand of police (Hill et al., 2020) and the
ensuing movement to “defund the police” (Searcey, 2020) have put the expansive
nature of the police function at the forefront of U.S. sociopolitical discussion. The mounting
calls by activists and policy makers to reallocate police funding to other areas of need, such
as social and mental health services, must be juxtaposed with a long-standing trend toward
the expansion of the police role. Today’s police are not only performing traditional crime
control and order maintenance duties. They are also explicitly tasked with engaging in pro-
active nonenforcement activities as part of community policing reforms (Jiao, 1998),
addressing extensive administrative duties and incorporating significant technological
changes related to their work (e.g., body cameras; Koper et al., 2014; Manning, 1992).
AUTHORS’ NOTE: My deepest appreciation goes to the research participants of this study. Support for this
research was provided by internal grants from the University of Virginia. Correspondence concerning this
article should be addressed to Meret S. Hofer, Duke University School of Medicine, Box 3071, Durham, NC
27710; e-mail: meret.hofer@duke.edu.
1024706CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211024706Criminal Justice and BehaviorHofer / WORK-ROLE OVERLOAD AMONG U.S. POLICE
Moreover, the deinstitutionalization movement and contemporaneous drops in funding for
social and mental health services have put officers on the frontline of crisis response that
previously would not have come under their purview (Engel & Silver, 2001; Teplin &
Pruett, 1992). In fact, the continued functional expansion of the police role has been identi-
fied as a primary issue facing U.S. law enforcement (Crank et al., 2010), with officers rou-
tinely responsible for a wide range of duties that have increased their overall workload and,
critically, also fundamentally shifted the nature of their responsibilities (Hickman & Reaves,
2006). Similar trends, particularly the expansion of the social function of law enforcement,
have also been observed internationally, for example, in the United Kingdom and Canada
(Institute for Canadian Urban Research Studies, 2014; Millie, 2013).
Despite an acknowledgment that the police function is expansive, questions about how
officers perceive their work demands have been underexamined. However, understanding
officers’ experiences of managing competing role demands is critical to determining
whether officers’ organizational environments reflect the functional expansion of the police
role and adequately support officers in performing new (but routine) professional demands
safely, effectively, and confidently.
The purpose of this study is to understand how police officers’ occupational environ-
ments, particularly the expansive nature of their duties, may elicit experiences of work-role
overload, a type of strain related to the constraints preempting an individual’s role fulfill-
ment. To examine this issue, I leverage qualitative interview methods to identify officer-
perceived antecedents of work-role overload among U.S. police officers (N = 48),
representing a range of organizational settings and backgrounds.
One way to conceptualize challenges related to navigating competing work demands is
through role strain.1 Role strain is “the felt difficulty in fulfilling role obligations” (Goode,
1960, p. 483). Due to its emphasis on understanding the interplay between various roles
individuals may hold, role strain intuitively lends itself as a framework for examining offi-
cers’ experiences as they navigate multiple aspects of their occupation. Overall, role strain
has been associated with a host of negative outcomes, including poorer physical and psy-
chological well-being and worse professional outcomes (Bowling et al., 2015; Elloy &
Smith, 2003; Griffin & McMahon, 2013; Jayaratne, 1993; Kahn et al., 1964; Kath et al.,
2013; Örtqvist & Wincent, 2006). In studies of the professional experiences of police offi-
cers, different types of role strain (i.e., role conflict and role ambiguity) have been used as
a framework to examine the challenge of balancing work and home roles (e.g., Duxbury &
Halinski, 2018; Griffin & Sun, 2018; Joseph & Nagarajamurthy, 2014; Karaffa et al., 2015;
Youngcourt & Huffman, 2005) and the impact of organizational demands on officers
(Brough & Williams, 2007; Brown & Campbell, 1990; Brown et al., 1999). However,
scholars agree (Duxbury et al., 2015; Ricciardelli, 2018) that little research has investigated
police officers’ experiences of work-role demands and the ensuing domain-specific role
overload that they may navigate as part of their professional function.
Role overload occurs when an individual lacks the resources or capacities necessary to
successfully and confidently fulfill a role (Creary & Gordon, 2016). Many adverse out-
comes are associated with work-role overload, including worse physical and mental health,
decreased satisfaction with family and work lives, and poorer professional outcomes

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