Friends, like you, I swore an oath when I pinned on my badge. I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, to fight for the weak and vulnerable, and to serve my community. Most of us took the job to do good things in our community. We don’t usually think of love as part of the job, but I think it’s the most important part. Remember, we were originally Peace Officers.
Somewhere along the way, I became hardened. Maybe you can relate. Dealing with the worst atrocities that humans can inflict on one another has a way of taking its toll on even the kindest soul. Those who are truly evil prey upon the weak in ways so insidious and violent that it can turn your heart to stone. Those who have simply given up hope and instead turned to crime, violence, or treachery, as a misguided equalizer can also erode faith in our fellow man.
When poverty, despair, crime, and decay are concentrated in our most neglected, minority neighborhoods, that is where policing is focused. We see the carnage. We bear the brunt of verbal abuses. We fight for our lives during physical assaults and too often become victims of the most violent. Many times we are vilified in the very communities we spend most of our time. Inundated in the toxic mix of crime and suffering and survival, too often our compassion is the first casualty.
We call it emotional survival, this phenomenon that causes those wearing a badge to trade their empathy for judgment. A distancing which we tell ourselves is necessary to objectively solve crime. A condemnation rationale to help us stay sane when it feels as if the world is going mad. I get it. I was one of you. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity.
It took me a long time to see how I could have made even the worst interactions a little better.
Policing is really the toughest job you’ll ever love. That brings me to my point.
Love is required to do this job righteously. Giving up your humanity is the easy way out. Feeling and showing compassion in the face of depravity is what’s hard. In fact, it seems damn near impossible when you’re cradling a dying child in your arms or you’ve lost your partner in a shooting or you broke a bone fighting with a suspect. It’s heartbreaking, devastating, infuriating, and too often, emotion-numbing. But you must not lose your humanity.
Your humanity is essential to policing. Don’t let anyone tell you that compassion is weakness. They are wrong.
Who is stronger—the officer who gives in to his anger in the moment or the one who checks himself and ends the situation peacefully? Does it take more strength to talk to agitators in a crowd and prevent a riot or to react the way the want and launch a response, which results in injuries on both sides?
Do not see this as a naïve repudiation of necessary force. Quite the contrary. There are those who want to hurt you. I know. I also believe that most acts of resistance are motivated by an attempt to escape by any means necessary. Which is why I have always believed in what I call aggressive prevention. Controlling situations before they get out of hand. Sometimes that means force to pre-empt resistance, because complacency can put us in situations that escalate and then require force.
Be vigilant. Be alert. Sometimes a situation will require violence, but aggression alone cannot become our default response. Practice aggressive prevention to keep yourself and your partners safe, but never forget the power of aggressive compassion. There are many times when empathy is better than punitive reaction. A mistaken burglary call brings you into contact with the homeowner, who reacts angrily to your presence with verbal insults. Some may react in kind and charge this man with a disorderly citation. It may be lawful, but is it necessary or really the right way to handle this? Yeah, I know, POP can feel good in the moment, but does it help in the long run? The ripple effects of bad blood in that already toxic community really aren’t worth it.
The job is not easy. If it was, anyone could do it. I know what I’m talking about goes against the grain of what most of the loudest mouths are shouting at you right now. That there is a war on police and you must harden your heart and be on the attack.
Statistics do not bear this out. Yes, officer deaths rose last year in comparison to the year before. That’s an important thing to keep in perspective. We pray to lose none of our brothers and sisters in blue, but we know danger is always there. Block out the noise of those who want you to lash out in anger or fear. They cloud your heart and mind when safety and reason are essential for survival, both physical and emotional. Help your partner find her center, rather than feed each others cynicism.
Be careful, be alert, but don’t believe everyone is your enemy, even in those neighborhoods that challenge your humanity. Don’t give in to those who say it’s hopeless. Don’t let the hate take over your heart. Hate only breeds hate and violence escalates violence. If you truly believe (as I do) that policing is God’s work. Don’t lose heart. Be brave enough to care. Be brave enough to love, even when it feels impossible.
It is the single most radically courageous thing you can do.