What’s love got to do with it?

It’s not just “a second-hand emotion” when it comes to policing


In 1984, Tina Turner, Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, released her Grammy and Hall of Fame award-winning single “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” I and millions of others cracked our voices singing along to it. The chorus asked,

What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love, but a second-hand emotion?
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?

While those in the throes of romantic tumult might question their hearts, great leaders throughout the ages have known that love has everything to do with protecting and serving.

A member of the Mississippi Highway Patrol Honor Guard salutes before the mural of portraits honoring lawmen with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety who were killed in the line of duty. The memorial service is one of many held across the country during the National Police Week.
A member of the Mississippi Highway Patrol Honor Guard salutes before the mural of portraits honoring lawmen with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety who were killed in the line of duty. The memorial service is one of many held across the country during the National Police Week. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Plato wrote of such love in his philosophical dialog The Symposium, dated 385-370 B.C. In it, notable men – including the philosopher Socrates, the playwright Aristophanes, and the general and statesman Alcibiades – give speeches about different kinds of love. One of the speeches urged Athens to man its army with lovers because soldiers fighting for someone they loved could defeat a much larger army with a lesser motivation.

The Greeks posited different kinds of love, including:

  • Eros – romantic love, spiritual as well as physical
  • Phileo – the deep and abiding love of friends
  • Storge – familial love
  • Agape – a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love.

I’ve spent over 35 years as a colleague and friend to men and women of the badge who have generously allowed me to walk in their shadows. My eye witnessing has convinced me that Agape, which the Greeks heralded as the highest love, is at the heart of policing.

Coretta Scott King spoke of such love when she said,

Love is such a powerful force. It's there for everyone to embrace – that kind of unconditional love for all of humankind. That is the kind of love that impels people to go into the community and try to change conditions for others, to take risks for what they believe in.”

The Bible speaks of the greatest love. John 15:13:

Greater love hath no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends.”

Not to disagree with John, but cops go to work every day willing to lay down their lives for strangers – citizens who look to them for protection. I know of nothing nobler.

The Buddha described death as “the greatest of all teachers.” If that’s true, cops are some of the greatest students. Because of their daily closeness to death, cops – like doctors, nurses, hospital chaplains, hospice workers, morticians, and soldiers – understand death isn’t just something that occurs at the end of life; it’s linked to each of our moments.

In Buddhism, thinking about death is considered the “supreme contemplation.” It includes not just thinking about physical mortality, but impermanence in all its forms. A heightened awareness of death can bring with it a heightened awareness of life.

Buddhist wisdom contends that,

Maintaining an awareness of death makes life more vivid. In the light of death, petty concerns fall away and our usual preoccupations become meaningless. It is as though clouds of dust that have covered over something shiny and vivid have been blown away, and we are left with something raw, immediate, and beautiful. We have insight into what matters and what does not."

The cops who have allowed me to call them colleagues and friends have taught me that life, and how we chose to live it, matters greatly. The best I have witnessed in the noble profession of policing embrace love – of family, of friends, of community, of service. An acute awareness of impermanence helps fuel such love.

Lest you think your love and service are not recognized or appreciated, permit me to share a story about a police recruit. I was teaching the Criminal Code as an adjunct instructor at the Alaska DPS Training Academy. When we got to the Alaska statute that mandated a 99-year-sentence for the homicide of a police officer (Alaska doesn’t have the death penalty), a young man near the front of the class raised his hand.

I called on him and he asked why the law placed a higher penalty on the loss of an officer’s life than, say, his wife’s life. He didn’t think his life was worth any more than his wife’s. I replied, “You may not think so, but we, the people, do.”

And so, we enshrine that higher value in public policy and law. We line the streets with flags and candles for the funeral processions of officers we did not personally know. We honor May 15 as Peace Officer Memorial Day, enacted by President Kennedy in 1962, and that week as National Police Week. It is the least we can do for those who stand prepared to show, and do show, the greatest love of all.

NEXT: Police Week poem: Between the Monsters and the Weak

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