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Remember your ‘why’

For most officers, our ‘why’ is to live a life of service to others


New York City Police Academy graduates listen during their graduation ceremony, adding 457 new members of the NYPD, Thursday April 18, 2019, in New York.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

By Matt Walsh

The last few weeks have placed law enforcement in the crosshairs of legal and political pundits. When most enter our noble profession and sit in front of their first oral board, they hear a familiar question: “Why do you want to become a police officer?” Stereotypical answers I have heard include “To drive fast” and “To get in high-speed chases.” But I suggest that if we were able to see the thousands of answers given during these interviews the majority would be: “To serve,” “To make a difference,” “To help others.”

For most LEOs, our “why” is to live a life of service to others at the cost of our own well-being. Although it is reported through evidence-based research that our lifespan is shorter than that of the average citizen, we continue to choose this life.

Renowned police psychologist Dr. Ellen Scrivener testified in front of Congress that the average LEO sees and experiences more human tragedy and despair in the first three years of their career than the average citizen experiences in a lifetime. The emotional weight we carry during our careers can seem insurmountable.

We can experience three types of injuries during our career: physical, emotional and moral/spiritual:

  • Physical injuries are often the easiest to describe and observe.
  • Emotional injuries can be harder to detect and can be described as PTSD or some other psychological illness.
  • Moral/spiritual injuries are the most difficult to identify because they often present as helplessness and hopelessness.

Questioning your “why” often manifests into negative thoughts and beliefs. An example of such thoughts may be, “I can’t do my job right now because I will be charged for serving my community with integrity.” It is important to note that questioning your why is a normal reaction to events. However, ruminating on negative thoughts can damage your psychological and physical health.

How do we counteract questioning our why with associated feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? Maintaining healthy habits such as exercising, reading, writing and other hobbies provide a needed distraction from those thoughts and beliefs.

To help remember my why, I often turn to a passage about integrity in “Beyond the Badge, A Spiritual Survival Guide for Cops and Their Families” authored by retired NYPD Lt. Charles Ferrara:

Integrity encompasses a wide range of behaviors. It is not merely rejecting a bribe or resisting taking something that doesn’t belong to you. It is being obedient to your supervisors. It is honoring and respecting others and their property. It is telling the honest truth and not distorting or embellishing the facts. It is having the reputation of being dependable. It is being punctual and prepared. It is being loyal to those you have promised to be loyal to. It is being moral in all situations. It is practicing fairness in dealing with others. It is being humble and not thinking of yourself more highly than you ought. It is being decisive and making those decisions based on what is right, rather than what is popular and easy. It is maintaining self-control by keeping your thoughts, words, deeds, and attitude under a moral code. It is being courageous in the face of difficult or unpopular circumstances.”

I would guess that your why doesn’t include receiving praise and flattery from the community, the attorneys, your supervisors or the media. Your why is why YOU serve and protect. We are experiencing times that we may not have thought were possible, but I assure you that our great profession has been the target of hostility in the past and will be in the future.

For now, remember your why and continue to serve with honor and integrity.

About the author

Matt Walsh is a 23-year law enforcement professional and the Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Jacksonville Regional Operations Center. His career includes assignments in patrol, homicide, SWAT, organized crime and public integrity before promoting into leadership positions. Matt currently supervises 40 special agents and supervisors and trains law enforcement members in best practices for conducting death and homicide investigations.

Matt is beginning his last semester pursuing his Master of Social Work degree from Florida State University. Matt and his wife, Michelle, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, travel Florida to train law enforcement in stress management, suicidality and resiliency. Matt is the FDLE Statewide Coordinator for the Critical Incident Stress Management and Peer Support Team. Matt has led interventions following the Pulse nightclub attack, the Broward Airport shooting, the Parkland school shooting, the Sebring mass shooting and other critical incidents.