5 ways to stop surviving and start thriving in law enforcement
Challenging times require officers to be resilient in our thinking, intentional in our communication and disciplined in our personal time
I am part of a law enforcement family. My grandfather was a reserve police officer in Brea, California, in the 1960s. My father retired after over three decades of service in eastern Washington. I am 15 years into a career that I love and hate. It is the dichotomy of police work. I feel pride in the years my family has given to our communities. However, these years have come at a cost to my family ‒ sacrificed holidays and kids events, periods of stress and anxiety, and days where I was simply trying to survive until quitting time.
Being at the halfway point of my career has me reflecting. How do I make the most out of the next 15 years? How do I live and work in such a way to thrive and not just survive? Based on my reflections and conversations with my father, here are five tips to thrive in law enforcement.
1. Default positive
Our attitude is the single greatest predictor of our experiences. When I expect my day to suck, it usually does. When I approach my life and work with a positive attitude, there is a much greater chance that I will enjoy the experience. Because of this, I start each day with a default positive attitude. I get my head right with who I am, with my faith and with my responsibilities. I do not always like the tasks that are in front of me, but I lean into them trusting that I will grow as a person and as a leader.
2. Tell your story
The recent national narrative has me wondering if I live and work on an island. The officers, deputies and federal agents I work with are remarkable. They are men and women of character who work tirelessly to enhance our community’s safety. I know this to be true, but do my non-LEO friends and neighbors?
Protests across the nation have caused me to ask people what type of police reform they are looking for. In most instances, they cite ideas that our police department has embraced and had in policy for years or even decades. This got me thinking, “Am I doing my part of telling the story of law enforcement?” If my friends do not know the true narrative, I am partly at fault for that. I need to do a better job of asking questions, listening to understand and telling the truth of the great work being done by officers every day.
3. Talk about the dark stuff
“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” – Rachel Naomi Remen
LEOs experience more vicarious trauma in one week than most people experience in a lifetime. This constant barrage of death, heartache, hatred and evil eventually takes a toll on us. If you are like me, most of these experiences are not disturbing. However, occasionally a crime or victim resonates with us on a different level, causing disturbances in our life.
Science has proven that talking about these experiences is therapeutic. We need to surround ourselves with friends, family and medical professionals who we can share these distressing experiences with. This will help our brains process these experiences and heal. This will help us continue as fathers and mothers, as little league coaches and Girl Scout leaders, as community members and neighbors.
4. Get away
Take a vacation. As a young airman, my commander told our squadron something that has stuck with me for over 20 years. “You are not that important,” said Lt. Col. Irwin. I was a little in disbelief when he first uttered these words. As he continued, he explained that the mission would go on, with or without us. He encouraged all airmen to take a vacation with family.
Over the past 20 years, my family has maintained the discipline of taking trips, big and small, to disconnect from the stress of the job and reconnect with each other. Every time we do this, we come back rejuvenated.
5. Try something new
Change is the salt and pepper of life. I lateralled to my current department after only two years at a Seattle area agency. I worked patrol for 10 months before being offered a position in the criminal investigation division. At the time, I had no desire to be a detective. I loved working the street. I was young, aggressive and eager to arrest criminals. I liked the fast pace patrol work afforded me, filling my time with proactive policing. As I considered this opportunity, I spoke with senior officers, including my father. Almost everyone told me to accept the position. Mentors told me that I would learn so much about being a great police officer. Boy were they right. Four years later, I returned to patrol work, more capable than ever to effectively investigate crime and hold criminals accountable.
Law enforcement officers have chosen a noble calling. Unfortunately, we are living in challenging times full of political and social unrest. Now more than ever, it is important that we take care of ourselves. This time requires us to be resilient in our thinking, intentional in our communication and disciplined in our personal time. Self-care and caring for our families will enable us to not just merely survive but to thrive.