Sunday, November 05, 2006
"the cuffs are tight because they're new"
I'm not sure what it was. Boredom? A slip of the mind? Curiosity? At any rate, I picked up the local paper today and read a little of the front page. I'm not a fan of this paper, but sometimes a line might catch my eye. Today's line mentioned a triple homicide in a neighboring city where I used to patrol as a police officer. The picture that accompanied the article flooded my senses with memories and emotions. The scene was of a uniformed patrolman and an investigator standing by the scene of the incident; a place where I had been many times. My entire law enforcement career, so far, ran through my mind. I thought of the first time I stared down the barrel of a gun when a dumb teenager was just trying to 'turn it over to me'. I thought of the simple shoplifting call that started with a conversation and ended with a test of my reflexes as the suspect pulled a home-made knife from his sock and did his best to get it into my ribs (he failed miserably). I even thought about how silly I felt walking through a drug and gang infested neighborhood shouting for "squeeks" while looking for an old lady's lost dog. The strongest memory was of that brief eternity I spent thinking of my wife and six month old son a few years ago in the seconds before I had to put a bullet into another human being. Technically, I left all of these things behind when I left my old department to work for a smaller, safer and higher paying municipality. The truth is, as an officer (or soldier) can tell you, you never leave those things behind. They just stay in a compartment in your mind until something triggers it to open and you thumb through them like old pictures and keepsakes.
That's the story of a cop's life. A lot of experiences, some bad, some good. From my current situation, I look at my fellow officers working the same crime infested streets I once patrolled and say to others, "I'm better off. I get paid more to deal with less." That's what I say to others. Sure, it's true. My wife is more at ease with me working in a town with a drastically lower crime rate, and I love the bigger paycheck. There's just something inside of me somewhere that feels guilty for not being at the scene of the crime that I saw in the paper. I even felt envious of my former co-workers. This can be one of the hardest things to explain to one who is not a cop, but most cops will understand right off what I mean. When I started in this field, I felt personally responsible for the area I patrol. I also wanted to be where the action was. As I've matured in my career, I still feel personally responsible for my area and somewhere inside I still want to be where the action is. I don't have a job as tough as a soldier's and even though I don't work in LA or NY, I've had a full plate from the action buffet, and gone back for seconds. I'm not hungry anymore, but it still smells good and I might pick at it a little. I hope that made sense 'cause that's really how it is. I've had my fill of action packed situations, but I still have a taste for it.
That's one reason why I envied the officers I saw in the paper. The guilt comes from this inner desire I have to fix everything. I'm practical enough to know that's impossible, but my feelings of responsibility for the area in my charge make me feel guilt when something happens or when something is out of my reach of solvability. It's been a while since I left my old department, but I still maintain these feelings since I worked there for plenty of years. It's an issue of pride, really. Both situations are. I feel like when I let the citizens under my protection become victims that bothers me and affects my reputation, which stings my pride. When I'm patrolling in the safe neighborhoods of my new department if affects my pride to see my old buddies in the thick of it everyday in an action packed area. It's like I feel like less of a cop because I'm not scrambling for cover after hearing bullets hit the brick wall next to me like I used to. Cops are a proud bunch. We seem to feel obliged to maintain this persona of toughness and control. When we don't have a reason to be tough or something happens that 's beyond our control, we feel that we are slipping somehow. I guess it's not that way for all cops, but I feel the majority think the way I do. Why should I want to be on the scene of that triple homicide? Why should I feel this tiny bit of failure when something happens in the area I patrol? Maybe this stress is why so many cops have heart attacks.
Pride is a common denominator here. When I left my old department to work for my current employer, I had mixed feelings. I was happy, yet even though I'm still young and have several years to go before retirement, I felt like a grandpa moving into a retirement home or an old lion sleeping my days away in a pasture. I'm in a great situation right now and a lot of cops would be envious, but I think that they would kind of feel the way I do. I'm happy, grateful and a little sad all at the same time. I've had to come to understand that even without mayhem all around me, I'm still serving my community and myself. I've had to work on overcoming my pride. I'll always have a place in my heart for the action and excitement of a large department, but it needs to stay in its place. This is something I've been working on and will continue to work on for the rest of my career. We can liken this to most jobs, really. We all have a professional pride and it can get in our way. It can prevent us from relaxing and just enjoying our job. When I first hit the streets as a rookie, a much older veteran cop asked me the inevitable question: "Why did you become a cop?" Along with a desire to serve, I told him that I enjoyed the camaraderie and fraternal aspect of being a cop. His response to this has always stuck with me. He said: "Law enforcement is a loyal brotherhood, but having a badge won't make you a part of it. You have to prove to your fellow cops that you can earn it." Cop haters and conspiracy theorists will tell you that meant I had to abuse the public or lie for my co-workers to get respect. What it meant to me, and what it means to other cops reading this, is that I have to carry my weight. I have to prove to them that they can rely on me when the chips are down and the ammo is low. I have to show them that I'm not just a guy who wanted a uniform and a badge to show off.
I've always believed that and I'm grateful for that advice, but now I have something that I've added to it. You need to prove those things to yourself as well. If you've proven to yourself that you can get the job done, then you can have self-respect and you can let go of the damaging pride. You can have the right kind of pride. You can take pride in yourself 'cause you know that when it counts, you get the job done. Maybe someday we can all prevent pride from harming us. I have to tell myself all the time that awards are given for honor, integrity and bravery. I've never heard of someone being awarded for pride. This is a life lesson that I've learned and I think it can apply to anyone and not just cops. If we are confident of who we are, we don't have to feel a need to defend our ego, or even feel inadequate if we aren't always in the war zone, or strut and crow when we do something right. All we need to do is be good at what we do, do it honorably, and come home safe. May God bless the families of those who never came home.
Please feel free to comment if the need strikes you.
The duties which a police officer owes to the state are of a most exacting nature. No one is compelled to choose the profession of a police officer, but having chosen it, everyone is obliged to live up to the standard of its requirements. To join in that high enterprise means the surrender of much individual freedom. ----------Calvin Coolidge