A letter to my fellow cops: To be or not to be a police officer
Throughout an officer’s career, they are asked: “Why do you want to be a cop?”
When I was testing to become a cop, I began to be asked a question that would pop up routinely throughout my career: “Why do you want to be a cop?”
There are oral board answers, honest answers and everything in between. Reasons vary – some people know, while others I wager truly have little idea what it was at the core that drove them to policing. But it is something significant. It has to be.
There was nearly always a follow-up question that was usually delivered with a raised eyebrow, or sometimes with a smirk, whether asked by a seasoned officer or a stranger alike: “You know people don’t like cops, right?” In many ways, this was a challenge. A method to weigh how serious you were. For you to look within and ask yourself if you were ready. For you to provide a response that was self-assured and unwavering.
Bad guys don't like cops. Good guys don't like them, either. On a good day, you're the annoying reason why they were late to work after getting stopped for speeding. On a bad day, you're a lazy, corrupt cog in a broken governmental machine. A bigot. Part of the problem. Or just THE problem.
The third thing they say is sometimes phrased as a question, but always meant as a statement: “Why don’t you be a firefighter, instead?” Even with a question mark, you know it’s a statement. Be a firefighter.
It was asked a lot when I started 14 years ago. In the station, in public. I asked it of all new applicants and recruits I came across – as a peer, as a field trainer, as a supervisor. I still do.
The question is very much alive, but the way it is asked now is different. Instead of the raised eyebrow and smirk, the brows are relaxed. They've fallen. The smirk isn't there. The gaze is concerned, curious for the response. Usually, there is a pause, sometimes a sigh: “Why do you want to be a cop?”
The other questions still follow. But again, they are asked differently. Not in a dismissive way, but in the way an elder would counsel the youth. “You know…people don’t like cops…right?” It is said as a warning. It is said with sorrow. It is said as an invitation. To back away. To back down.
Times are hard for police. Hard for the community. Harder than ever. Many colleagues who have been through the 1970s and 1980s would agree. But hard times are where you develop your mettle. Hard times make strong individuals. And we find ourselves in a time where we need strong individuals more than ever.
I read articles from across the nation. I look at emails from my own department. People are leaving in record numbers. I don’t blame them. I don’t judge them. I tell my team they need to think of a backup plan, as every cop should. I tell my people they need to trust their gut to keep them alive. I tell them they need to do right by themselves and their families.
When laws, courts and public opinion swung in the direction they did, I knew this would happen. I’m not claiming any type of profound insight. Everyone saw it coming. Cops will be charged. Cops will be sued. Cops will be scared. Cops will be sensible. Responsible. And they will leave. People – both cops and civilians – will get hurt. Killed. Due to slow response, lack of response and hesitation. Bad guys will get away. They’ll get emboldened. They'll take. They'll hurt.
It might take police departments to crumble and communities to suffer for the outcry to grow enough for the pendulum to swing back. I hope the negative effects are minimal, but being a cop has made me devastatingly pragmatic about predicting worst-case scenarios. Ask any cop and you will be told they hope for the best, prepare for the worst. But hoping too high still stings, so you learn over time that it's best not to.
Staffing is bad. Support is weak. My optimism is frequently challenged and battered. But I show up. I make do. We still have a job to do, which is more apparent than ever. And it needs to be done with MORE conviction, MORE patience, MORE diligence, MORE tenacity. We can't sulk, take our ball and go home. But just because we are bound and constrained, does not mean we do not have any value or ability. More than ever, we need to step up and commit. The public deserves it. We deserve it.
I support those who make the decision to leave. Some of those I know are dear friends. I have not lost an ounce of respect. I can’t foresee the future. I can only work with the here and now. And for now, I’m here. For whatever time that is, I’ll BE here, invested and focused. I won’t stew, focused on the impossible dream of things just getting better. Wishing upon a star. Whining about what could/should/would be. That is a fool's errand, and it is a nightmare.
I will do what I can. And the others who stay with me will do the same. As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. Shall be my brother.”
Take care, brothers and sisters. Take care of yourselves and each other. We have each other. The world isn't against us. We have purpose.