Preparing to react to 10 difficult experiences in law enforcement
Thinking about these experiences will better prepare you to choose a physical and emotional response when you inevitably face them
Police officers share many difficult experiences in their career, unique to their profession, but not each other. Each officer can choose to respond positively or negatively to each difficult experience. As someone who has experienced a full career and managed to enjoy it immensely, I would like to share my reaction to some of these shared experiences.
You may not choose to react the way I did, but that is not the point of this article. Thinking about these experiences will better prepare you to choose a physical and emotional response when you inevitably face them.
Here are a few shared experiences and my chosen reactions:
Experience 1: After you save someone from an overdose, the person is angry with you because either their high was ruined, or they were cheated out of death.
Reaction: I decided that nothing a person did or said could ever diminish the personal thrill and appreciation of the fact that I just saved another human life. I didn’t go home thinking, “I saved a life and the person treated me badly.” Instead, I went home thinking, “I saved a life. Cool!”
Experience 2: A victim is rescued from an act of domestic violence and as their partner is being handcuffed the rescued person jumps on your back.
Reaction: When this attack happened to me, I instantly shoulder-shucked the victim, sending her toppling. This disoriented her long enough so I could finish handcuffing her partner. I followed up by arresting her as well for the attack on my person.
In subsequent domestics, I learned to position the suspect for arrest away from the rest of the family when possible. If not possible, during the arrest I positioned myself so as to be able to maintain a visual of the victim throughout the arrest.
I came to understand and eventually was taught the complicated dynamics of domestic violence, and this made me better at dealing with these incidents criminally, tactically and emotionally.
Experience 3: While in a police line at riots the chants become vile and directed at you.
Reaction: It helped greatly that our team trained extensively for our riots before they occurred. That training included having a mock crowd yell everything imaginable. We learned to act as if we were the palace guard, seeming to ignore the chants that may or may not have risen to the level of probable cause.
Meanwhile assigned officers taped people and the things they did. When that beautifully magic moment arrived where the existence of probable cause converged with the opportunity to arrest one or more of these agitators, we did so quickly and efficiently as a team, stunning them and the crowd.
In conjunction with the recordings, describing the words said and dirty deeds done led to convictions. This resulted in great satisfaction in a job well done. You see, frozen water bottles and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Experience 4: A missing juvenile is taken into custody from a terrible environment and transported back to what appears to be a nice home. At the next night’s line-up, the same runaway is reported missing again.
Reaction: I learned to use multiple contacts to show compassion and caring toward these kids while establishing rapport.
While doing so I was able to work these questions into the conversations asking: “What is happening at home?” and “How do you get by on the run?” The responses triggered by these questions often resulted in arrests of other parties for everything from auto theft to burglary and from abuse to drug and sex trafficking.
Experience 5: You take a suicidal person into protective custody, and they are almost immediately released by the doctor. That person then dies by suicide.
Reaction: The way I processed this was to tell myself, “You saved him/her when it was your turn to save them. The later suicide was out of my control.”
Experience 6: You arrest a person with a serious criminal record over and over again, but they are released over and over again seemingly with no repercussions.
Reaction: This is easy. We only had one DA like this who was a governor-appointed party animal. He was in no way as complicit in crime as some of the DAs today. Still, our union discussed this matter and we decided to openly get behind a well-respected assistant in the office. The man we supported for district attorney won and went on to serve honorably. He also went on to retire after a long career as a well-respected circuit court judge.
Additionally, while the sub-standard DA was failing to perform his job, we never as officers let that stop us from doing our jobs as police officers.
Experience 7: You take a homicidal person into custody and shortly thereafter they are released, after which they kill someone.
Reaction: This result proved that when my partners and I made the apprehension, it probably saved lives. The deaths could not be my emotional burden to bear, but as in the case of the suicide, it was for someone else to contemplate.
Experience 8: You become a police officer to protect all people and you are called a racist.
Reaction: This terrible insult has always been thrown at officers and when thrown at me I felt comfort in realizing that for someone to make that judgment about me without knowing me revealed them to be the true bigot. Normally I would ignore the insult and just put it in my report.
However, on occasion, after making an arrest, a suspect would say, “You arrested me just because I am ___________.”
I would respond politely, “No sir. I would have arrested you even if you were green because it is against the law to run out of a restaurant without paying for your supper and you know that.” (One actual example.)
After a pause, I would continue, “So save that line for someone who it may work on. How about we get along from here on out. I’m Dan. You can call me Dan if you like.”
This approach worked often for me but not always since some people will neither change their perspective nor accept responsibility for their actions.
Experience 9: You testify to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and know it, and the defense’s entire case is built on accusing you of being a liar.
Reaction: I learned to stay in the courtroom for only my testimony unless the district attorney insisted. This cut down on the number of times I had to listen to liars calling me a liar.
In time, by always telling the truth, even when it might hurt my case, people learned to trust my word. I came to realize that defense attorneys were just doing their jobs when occasionally one would approach me afterward and shake my hand stating, “Sorry, Dan. I was just doing my job.”
Experience 10: You have a shift where you answer a call, and someone has been killed accidentally, deliberately, or has died of natural causes.
Reaction: After scene stabilization, I would do everything in my power to prevent the death or more deaths. When the situation was calm, or shortly thereafter, I would say a silent prayer for the soul of the departed. I am convinced this simple, secret, spiritual act kept me from ever experiencing any emotional after-effects from these tragic and at times horrific incidents. Once in a while I drive past the scene of an event and remember, and when I do, I repeat the prayer. It has always brought me peace.
Some last bits of sharing
These few experiences are just the tip of the iceberg, for there will be some shifts where you witness scenes of treachery, violence, dysfunction, death and even carnage. Each one of those events will require you to first respond effectively as a police officer, and later process them in a healthy way as you decompress from work.
After each difficult shift, I aggressively reminded myself to appreciate what I have and hold onto my positive attitude at home, which is the real me, like an emotional life raft. Staying positive about a life facing such negativity is a discipline, just like brushing your teeth or exercising. It is difficult, but it will pay off in the long run; believe me.
Police work is a unique profession where you are immersed in negativity. That immersion can turn you into a truly negative person, or it can make you recognize, as amazing, the incredible contrasts in your own life, when you beat the negativity at home. You can even gain the perspective that allows you to appreciate the difficult experiences you are privileged to have as a result of this extremely interesting career.
You can’t always choose what you experience in your career. However, whether you react to those experiences positively or negatively is your choice.
Now, as always, say safe, stay strong and stay positive, and be careful out there.