Every Interaction as an Opportunity for Change

Last night I made a traffic stop for a fairly minor moving violation. As soon as I walked up to the passenger side of the vehicle, I saw that the driver’s cell phone was lying on the passenger seat, facing up towards the window, with the front-facing camera activated and recording. I was looking at myself through the screen of his phone, as it was recording our traffic stop. I quickly had to remind myself that this was not the objective of my stop and returned my focus to the driver.

The stop was completed with the issuance of a citation and a very cooperative subject. Nothing was out of the ordinary for this traffic stop; this is what truly sparked my curiosity and introspection.

This young man, who clearly respected my position as a police officer, and clearly understood why he was being issued a citation, even to the point of admitting he was wrong, still felt the need to record our interaction. Now, my employ has equipped us with body worn cameras that are, of course, recording any and every interaction that we have with the public. It is very possible that he was not aware of this; I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone to be.

My concern and my curiosity are what incident, what interaction, or what skewed media representation made this individual feel as though he could not trust an interaction with the police to the point that he must film it? I certainly would never ask someone to turn their camera off, just as I would not expect them to ask me to turn mine off. On the same note, never have I felt the need to film an interaction with the police myself. This is to include any and every interaction I had with the police, prior to becoming a police officer myself.

Perhaps this gentleman had a negative interaction with a police officer before. Perhaps this young man decided that what he has seen on the news regarding police officers, sometimes locally, is absolute truth. It may even be the case that his mother or father has told him to always film interactions with the police as a precaution or a way to back his own defense. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, I believe that we, as police officers, have an opportunity to take something away from these situations, despite how minor they may seem.

First, I always assume I am being recorded by a camera other than my department issued body worn camera. I have always operated this way and it tends to keep emotions in check, which always ends up better for everyone on both sides of the coin. This is especially important for officers who belong to departments who do not have body worn cameras in operation. I can guarantee, someone or something is recording you, no matter where you are.

Second, we need to realize that every interaction we have with the public is an opportunity to impress upon that person the importance of police in society and the trust that they can have in each and every one of us. There are, of course, some who have had contact with the less-than-desirable officer. It is then our responsibility to give that person a reason to trust the police again. Every interaction we have with someone from the public is a blessed opportunity to make a difference, regardless if that person is a victim or a suspect. I cannot tell you how many times I have had an arrestee thank me. They certainly aren’t thanking me for taking them to jail. Most often they are thanking me for treating them with respect, not talking down to them and accommodating their emotions in the moment. This is not inferring that I ever allow complacency into my interactions. I attempt to maintain my tactical advantage while treating the individual with respect. These two things can be done together. Where one is absent, the other becomes weaker.

It can be easy to let a long-tenured career or burnout affect our interactions with the public. I cannot say I have hit that point yet, as I am still well within my first decade of experience. It is our responsibility to each other to keep ourselves in check. Where someone’s emotions may be taking them towards a negative interaction with a subject, it is our responsibility to attempt, in the best way you see fit, to reel that person back in. By making every contact with the public a positive one we are doing ourselves and others in our profession a favor. We are setting the base for a positive interaction with another officer later. We are making our job safer. We are making each other safer.

Just remember that every interaction is the opportunity to make a difference, if not for you, if not for the subject, perhaps for your fellow officer.

The Mental Weight of Law Enforcement – 2019

It has been quite a while since I’ve submitted an entry to this page. In fact, it has been approximately two years since I’ve written. Yet, even after two years have passed in this profession, two years more experience gained and two years closer to my retirement, I am drawn back to writing. I am drawn to writing on OUR profession, on OUR lifestyle, because it is an outlet I, personally, have found and it also serves the general good in our tight knit community.

I apologize if this is long-drawn, but, simply put, it has been a while.

Two years later in the job….while my position as a patrol officer for a local Sheriff’s Office has not changed, much of my experience has. I still hold true to this job, I still go out and “get it” every shift; however, the things I have seen and have experienced have grown in the thousands. Not one shift is ever the same as the next or the one previous to it.

I’ve seen stabbings and shootings. I’ve seen car crashes and I’ve been involved in car crashes. One step to the right, one step to the left, 5 miles per hour faster or slower can mean the difference between safety and severe injury or, God forbid, death. This is the simple reality we live with in our jobs. This is a reality everyone, regardless of profession, must deal with in their lives; however, this is also the extreme reality law enforcement officers deal with in their daily jobs, apart from their personal lives. This is also the reality that our families deal with as well. We’ve all heard about the relief our spouses receive when they hear that tearing of Velcro after a shift.

The mind of a law enforcement officer is the proverbial flash drive to the horrors of life. If we could download it and place it onto a projector screen, it would serve as an hours’ long montage that would rate with the most horrific films. Yet, we cannot download what we see, we cannot delete it, we cannot forget it. It is in this fact that we see the increasing number of officers succumbing to their own demons, to the horrors they have seen, experienced and endured.

2019 has seen too many law enforcement deaths already, and it is only March 8. These deaths have taken the form of vehicle crashes, felonious assaults on peace officers and fatal self-inflicted injuries.

We all know what we can do to help prevent crashes and felonious assaults on ourselves and our co-workers. What isn’t as clear, is what we need to do to prevent, assist and curb the amount of suicides among police officers.

There is a stigma associated with mental health in the first responder community. Simply put, it needs to stop. The stigma is erased or minimized from all levels of each individual’s department. It can also be enhanced by the same.

First, we all, from chiefs to probationary officers, need to acknowledge that every member of law enforcement is vulnerable to succumbing to some degree of mental health “illness”. Once we acknowledge this, we will not deny its existence and we can recognize it when it appears.

Each of us, then, has a responsibility, individually, to recognize when we ourselves may be experiencing a symptom of mental illness. Mental illness is not permanent, it is not untreatable and it is PERFECTLY NORMAL. Would any of us expect our fellow officers not to feel anxiety, a degree of depression, great fatigue (which can exacerbate or lead into mental illness), burnout, pessimism or rumination on past events? Well, would you expect yourself to not feel that? No you wouldn’t.

If you can sit there and say that you have never, would never and will never experience any of these issues to some degree, no matter how small or large, then you are a liar and you don’t belong here with us.

What we need in this profession and in this lifestyle is each other. Without each other, we are often left feeling completely alone. We already experience a sense of isolation when we take this profession. Why isolate each other even more?

I love my partners, I love every single one of them. There have been multiple from my department who have succumbed to this prevalent evil in our lives.

We spend so much of ourselves in dedication to taking care of perfect strangers; why not start taking care of ourselves?

Perhaps it starts here. We take care of our equipment, our cruisers, our precision tools on a daily basis. Why not take care of the biggest and most important tool we have, our brains and ourselves?

I see a professional on a monthly basis, more so for preventative maintenance than anything else. Why not fine-tune our mental health like we do our physical equipment? I am currently, thank God, not experiencing any known symptoms of mental illness, depression or anxiety; however, that doesn’t mean that next week I won’t. I have set myself up with a support system and I have added tools to my belt, knowing that I am more susceptible to the evils of this world, both physical and mental, than others. I recognize the existence of this unnecessary evil and I address it head on, just as I would to someone squaring up with me on the side of the road, or pulling a gun from their waist.

In my mind, this is just as important.

Be the change in your department and let’s approach this issue with the pride and professionalism, the care, integrity and the passion that we do everything else in our jobs and lives.

God bless every single one of you.