When I was testing to become a cop, I quickly learned a common question. One that would pop up routinely through my career. Through any officer’s 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 here. But it is something significant. It has to be.
There’s a nearly automatic follow-up question. One that usually was delivered with a raised eyebrow. Sometimes with a smirk, whether it was 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 really were. For you to look within and ask yourself sternly 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 jerk, impatient. A lazy, corrupt cog in a broken governmental machine. A bigot. Part of the problem. Or just THE problem.
The third thing that they say is sometimes phrased as a question, but it’s always meant as a statement. “Why don’t you be a firefighter instead?” Even with a question mark, you know it’s a statement. Why- don’t- you. Be a Firefighter.
It was asked a lot back 14 years ago when I started. That continued on, asked of me and others within earshot. 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 it is different. Instead of the raised eyebrow, instead of the smirk- the brows are relaxed. They've fallen. The smirk isn't there at all. 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. They are told, 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 70s and 80s would agree. But hard times are where you develop your mettle. Hard times make strong individuals. And here we are. In a time when we've needed, more than ever, strong individuals.
I look at 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 back up- as every cop should in general. 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 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 get. They'll take. They'll hurt.
It might take police departments to crumble, for communities to suffer for the outcry to grow enough to swing back. I hope this is minimal, but being a cop has made me devastatingly pragmatic and consummately predicting worst case scenarios. Ask any cop- 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. I show up with my team. No matter how small it is. And I carry on. My confidence is not without dips. My optimism is frequently challenged and battered. But I show up. I make do. And we do.
We still have a job to do, more apparently than ever. And it needs to be done with MORE conviction, MORE patience, MORE diligence, MORE tenacity. We can't sulk, we can't take our ball and go home. Just because we are bound and constrained, does not mean we do not have any value, any ability. More than ever before we who are still here 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. It was hard to say if I had a 30 year career ahead of me when I started. That's a long time; there are many unknowns. But if asked if I have it in me, my answer was the same as it is now. "I like to think so."
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. We’ll be here.