An arrest from 30 years ago is a reminder that there are many positive impacts of policing
Many of us in law enforcement never get feedback from those we serve or arrest – which makes it more impactful when we do
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Self-care for leaders | An unexpected 'thanks' | Wellness consultations, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
The other day, I received a surprise email that arrived nearly 30 years late:
Subject Line: Thank you Lt. McHenry,
Good afternoon, Lieutenant McHenry,
I have thought many times over the years about trying to get in touch with you but figured I would not be able to find you. Today, I finally pulled out my booking form from 3/10/1990 and found your name…
Thirty years ago! Things were a little different back then because the community largely supported and trusted what we did. Civility and respect translated to compliance in most cases. If I turned on my red light and stopped a car, I was not peppered with questions about what I was doing. I still believed in the nobility and higher purpose of my profession, and was not held responsible for the “victimization” of the community some would say is now a recurring story in policing. My philosophy was one of protecting those I served.
Handcuffs are a temporary fix
Over the years, I gravitated away from the field and my impacts were less direct than putting handcuffs on someone. As a supervisor and manager, I gradually learned handcuffs were a temporary fix, and other services and resources were invaluable. Handcuffs were effective in the middle of the night, but didn’t always make the community better; they didn’t change the behavior of those who regularly returned to cross our path.
As time has passed though, negative headlines and polarizing events have caused many to question whether policing actually makes the community better. Today, we see politicians looking to score a point or two by badmouthing law enforcement, reinforcing the negative rather than the positive impacts of policing. And yet this surprise email reinforced the positive message in spite of the current climate. It read:
I wanted to thank you for arresting me for DUI on 3/10/1990 at 0100 in San Clemente. It was probably one of the worst days of my life, that turned out to be one of the best. I have been sober for over 30+ years now. Based on my behavior back then, I don’t think I would be here if you had not stopped me that night when I got on the freeway. I still remember how kind you were to me during booking. In fact, the next morning you gave me a ride back to my car, which you and another officer had parked at a bank so it was not towed from the freeway. If you had not given me a ride, I would have had no idea where my car was parked. Your kindness is something I have never forgotten!
I took sobriety seriously. I got my MBA and I have been a senior accountant/certified fraud examiner for the last 17 years.
In the times were are living through now, I felt it was time for me to reach out to thank you because we all could use more kindness.
Thank you for your service throughout the years.
How our actions change lives
Many of us in law enforcement never get feedback from those we serve. Appreciation from a civic group or a “thank you” from a first-grade class assigned to write letters by their teacher is great, but rare is a thank you from someone who had what many would classify as a negative encounter. Still more unusual is a heartfelt explanation of how my actions and demeanor changed a person’s life.
During our email conversation, Sarah admitted our encounter was not her first time under the influence and behind the wheel. She humorously said, “When people ask me why I don’t drink, I say because I was almost killed by a drunk driver and when they ask who, I say ‘me.’”
Sarah’s message was simply that more than 30 years ago I had an impact on her life in a way that I might have hoped for, but could not predict. She highlighted my kindness, something not normally associated with making an arrest. Her story was very compelling, and I am humbled by the positive impact I had on her life.
I responded by writing:
While I think many people get into public safety to “make a difference” in people’s lives, I’m confident most in policing never hear the words and understand the sentiment you’ve expressed so eloquently here. I congratulate you for taking the positive out of something that is often viewed negatively. To properly place the credit, the positive outcomes following that night are really because of the choices you made after our encounter, but I am humbled by my small part in your success. Thank you for taking the time to do a little digging in an effort to make a difference yourself.
The message I received from Sarah (not her real name, but she agreed to allow me to share her story) came more than 30 years after our meeting. Her open and candid acceptance of her responsibilities and the life-changing encounter we shared were underscored with her message of thanks. I know how cops and deputies rarely hear such a life-changing message from those we encounter in the street. I have to think there are a lot more “Sarahs” out there, and that the message many of them might send would reinforce the difference we all make. It would read something like this:
Dear Peace Officer,
You may not remember me, but I remember you. You saw me at my worst and handled my crisis professionally, and with kindness and empathy. Thank you for doing your job for all of us. You may not hear from me again, but the difference you made in my life will affect me forever.
We should be mindful that the lag from our contact to the long-term results can be measured in months and years; people rarely look forward to seeing a cop, even when that is exactly what they need. Treating them respectfully is the first of many steps to regain public trust, a step that is ours to take. That should not dilute the difference we make.