DO I CHOOSE TO BE BITTER OR BETTER?
Dennis Sullivan received the Officer of the Month award from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund for excellence in service. In the recorded interview which followed, Dennis said, “I really believe that if being a cop is not in your heart, you will not be a good one.” Amen.
If being a cop is not in your heart, this article is not for you. Find something else to read.
In the course of our work as cops, we get hurt. The injuries can either be to our physical bodies or to our emotional well-being. We can see a cut, a bullet wound, a broken bone or a black eye. Often, the scars are visible for years to come – maybe even for a lifetime.
Emotional wounds, on the other hand, can linger unhealed forever. Though we think they are resolved, the scars remain. Even though no one else can see them with their eyes, we feel them every day with our entire being. We do all sorts of things to hide them. We drink to excess. We change/end relationships. We try every trick in the book to drown them out. We try so very hard to pretend that they are not there. Rarely, do these tactics succeed.
We try to continue on our journey as a “good cop.” We do it maybe because we cannot imagine doing anything else with our lives. Maybe coppery is the default because it is all we know. Whatever the reason, we trudge on.
Sometimes, without even realizing that it is happening, we begin to erect barriers around our emotional selves. We hide our feelings, our personal side, we hide who we really are and allow very few people inside – or maybe no one is allowed inside, at all.
We prejudge people and situations so that we can anticipate and deflect anything that might cause pain.
Cops are often heard to refer to a non-cop as an “asshole.” It is a bunker mentality: us versus them. It is our form of self-protection.
But how do we react when we are hurt from someone who is on the “inside?”
At the time when I was a freshly-minted cop straight out of the academy, I remember the horror I felt when I learned that I had been betrayed by a fellow officer – a brother, or so I thought. The pain of the injury was nearly overwhelming. I could not come to grips with the notion that someone who professed that he would give his life in my protection would intentionally harm me with his words or deeds. Can you pronounce the word “naïve?”
Some cops choose to follow a path of self-protectionist wall-building. They become hardened to everyone and everything around them. They become a solo act. In return for what they believe will be emotional safety, they cause their own emotional death.
They hate, or complain about, everything in their lives. Nothing and no one seems to bring this person pleasure or real happiness. It has probably cost him his marriage and/or family relationships. I bet that you know or work with someone like this.
This path fails to recognize that hate is a burden to the person who carries it, rather than the target at whom it is directed.
Hate changes and diminishes the good qualities in a person. It pushes out the good thoughts and deeds that made being friends with this person desirable. It steals the qualities that drew others to this cop like steel shavings to a magnet.
As a result of the emotional scars and hatred, this cop is now always working the angles. Whatever drove him to the humanitarian career of coppery has been replaced with the constant consideration of WIIFM? (What’s In It For Me?)
These are the people who will sacrifice you – or any brother officer – to make themselves: look good, advance more quickly, find favor with the administration, etc., etc. They have no concern with you or how you are affected by their behavior. They could care less if they throw you under a bus – so long as somehow they benefit from it.
BITTER OR BETTER
I recently ran across this quote: “We all have a choice in every difficult situation in our life. We can become either bitter or better.” Corina Zalace of Niceville, FL.
Being bitter is easy. Being bitter is tempting. Being bitter allows me to lash out at the perceived source of my trouble. Being bitter allows me to hide behind a wall where no one can really reach or hurt me anymore.
Bitter causes attitudes to develop. We have attitudes about suspected criminals. We develop expectations about people because of their skin color, their ethnicity, the neighborhood where they live and/or what they do to earn a living. Over time, these poisonous attitudes will eat us alive and will weaken us at our core.
In recent days, I have personally once again faced the choice of bitter or better. I have been put in a most difficult situation by two people from my previous home state. One is a lieutenant in my former department. The other is the chief in the town where I was a resident. Though they carry a badge, they both have denied their responsibilities to the Brotherhood at every conceivable turn.
I am not a religious zealot by any stretch. I try to make it to church every week. I nearly stayed home last week, offering the excuse of being up late on Saturday as my rationale. I got my lazy butt up and went anyway.
The preacher’s message was simple: if you are where you are in life because it is in your heart, know that you will not take even one step alone. It was another way of phrasing the old quote, “God will not take you where God will not keep you.” Once again: amen.
I choose to be better – not bitter.
LIFE OR DEATH TO YOUR CALLING
AT THE BORDER: I recall working at the Ambassador Bridge supporting U.S. Customs following the 9/11/01 attacks. The bridge spans a link between the U.S. and Canada. The first point of contact on the American side was called “primary” and looked much like a 12-station toll plaza on a freeway.
One weeknight, around 10:00PM, I saw a single car come zooming around the line to a booth that was not attended. I had seen this before. Such a car usually would contain someone self-absorbed with their own importance. They would demand to be given special treatment so that they did not have to wait in line with the “common folks.”
I was all ready to give my speech, taking the driver off their pedestal, when a young mother threw open the driver’s door and held out an infant. In a screaming plea, she yelled, “My baby has stopped breathing. Please help!!” I did what I had been trained to do. The child started breathing and was just fine.
A CHILD IN THE PROJECTS: I had been assigned to a detail working at the fifth grade “graduation” of a couple of hundred young school children. Most came from the projects and their opinions about cops were formed during ugly enforcement experiences involving moms, dads and/or older siblings. We cops were not considered the ‘good guys’ in this crowd.
One youngster caught my eye. He acted defeated, downtrodden and resentful that he had to be there. I later learned that rather than sharing the moment with him (as other parents had done), his parents were sharing a joint in the family van outside in the parking lot. They were angry with him because the ceremony had taken so long.
I learned his name was Michael and found out where he lived. That night, I took him a graduation card and a couple of small toys from the Dollar Store. We played catch often throughout the summer. That fall, upon returning to school, he had changed. He was no longer a laggard. He performed so well that he was moved to the Talented & Gifted program.
A 20 YEAR OLD IN THE TRASH: I had just finished booking a prisoner in my suburban Detroit agency. Another officer arrived with a known miscreant who had a long ‘frequent-flyer’ record with us. My compatriot asked if I would do the booking while he wrote the report. I was happy to lend my brother a hand. The guy in the cell was just 20 years old. I remember thinking it was such a shame to see a life lost like this.
As I removed him from the holding cell, I told him firmly and in no uncertain terms that the experience could be nice or difficult. The call was his. But, in either case there was a job to be done and it was going to happen. My charge chose to be cooperative – for which I was thankful.
Once completed, I walked him to a cell. While on the way, I told him that we did not really want him there. His parents and family certainly did not want him there. Society, on a greater scale, did not want him there. He could not make any kind of meaningful contribution from a jail cell.
It was then that he threw me a curve ball: would I bring him a Bible to read? I locked the cell and found that the Gideon Bibles were all gone. Later, I went to the Dollar Store and bought a Bible, which I took to him.
My co-workers teased me for being a soft touch. Oh well, I let it go.
I learned about six months later that the young man had turned his life around. He enrolled in the local community college and volunteered his time at a local church to help with youth programs. “Did I do that?” I wondered. No. He did. Maybe I just gave him the nudge he needed when the timing was right.
YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE
As Dennis Sullivan said: if being a cop is not in your heart, you will probably not be a good one. Alternately, if you are following a calling, if you know with all of your being that you are where you are supposed to be – then you are making a difference.
You might not recognize it when it happens. You might not ever know the real impact that you have had on the life of another.
Know this: your impact can be both for the good as well as for the bad. That determination comes from whether you choose to be bitter or better.
Have your actions resulted in your emotional death?
The lieutenant and chief that I referenced earlier are known throughout their home state. They are recognized as career poison. They nearly got the better of me.
But it is not going to happen. I know in my heart that I am on a path set by a higher power, i.e. my God.
The academy where I instruct distributes a book to each recruit. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin Gilmartin. It is an outstanding read and I cannot recommend it strongly enough for every new cop. It’s not bad for us dinosaurs, either (wink).
Gilmartin says very plainly that in every cop career, he is going to get screwed-over by his own agency. He is going to suffer devastating emotional harm at hands of his brothers – whom he trusts the most. It will happen.
The author charges the reader to be prepared for the injury. But, rather than building a wall, make a plan for recovery. The recovery will make you a stronger person and a better cop. The recovery will enable you to better reach the people who most need your help and support.
Isolation will most certainly lead to an untimely emotional death. It will tear you from the support of your family, friends and co-workers. It will leave you nearly paralyzed so that you cannot understand, reach out or help and support people who so desperately need you.
While isolation may gird me from the attacks of others, it stops me from growing. The cost to me will be the greatest cost of all.
This story is not yet complete for me. Each day, I rely on my faith. I listen with both my ears and my heart. I believe that so long as I remain open I will be led to the place(s) where I am meant to be.
No, I am not going to sit around and do nothing.
I have decided that there is no room for hate.
The rewards of reaching out to others are great. I receive many email messages with each new article on the CopBlue blog. Most warm my heart.
There is the new cop in the Great Canadian North. He read something I had written about getting in shape and decided it was time to lose the 50 pounds that had kept him from the academy. He did. He has just finished the academy and been posted to his first assignment. He wrote me with a note of thanks.
Then, there is the sergeant from Minnesota who wrote to say that what I had written about computer mounts changed how their agency viewed the whole setup. They have changed out all of their gear and the cops are much more safe now.
I was humbled by a note from a deputy chief who said that every time I write about the Brotherhood, he makes sure that every one of his coppers receive it.
You can make a difference. In fact, unless you have committed emotional suicide, you ARE making a difference.
Yup, there are the bad guys in our midst. We know that we walk among snakes. But, we should not recoil in fear.
Hold your head high. Know that no matter where you go, you will never walk alone.
Stay safe. Ultimately, it is all about saving just one life.
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