Why be a Cop?

By Dan Frei, President
Madison Professional Police Officers Association
These days it isn’t hard to feel like we are under attack. We have experienced the demonization of public employees in general by those that have bought into the myth that our benefits have somehow been at the expense of private employees who experienced losses, ignoring facts such as when the private sector was doing great they willingly traded high wages for the lack of benefits while public employees often did the opposite.

Our reputations are being attacked. In the aftermath of an officer involved-shooting in Ferguson Missouri, a day doesn’t go by without a story in the media that seems to start with the premise that the police can’t be trusted. There are thinly veiled accusations that we are out to violate people’s rights, use unwarranted, excessive force, aren’t representative of the communities we police, and are out to become an occupying military force using military weapons and tactics exclusively. We all know the many factors and examples nationally and especially locally, that are ignored and don’t get mentioned in these stories. Little or no coverage is given the hundreds and thousands of positive interactions we have, the times when a lower amount of force than would have been legally justified was used, etc. Although, we know what is being left out of these discussions, it is still very frustrating to have to read them, and it’s hard not feel on the defensive more often.

Finally, we see almost daily reminders that we are quite literally being attacked. Attacks on police are on the rise nationally, deaths of officers by gunfire continue to rise, as do ambush style attacks on officers responding to calls, during meal breaks, and even at police stations. What we don’t see is much attention outside of law enforcement circles being paid to this. We don’t see people marching, politicians commenting, White House staff being sent to funerals, or much response from the public in general other than the occasional internet troll response of “that’s what you get paid for.”

So given all of the above, why do it? Why be a cop? As part of my local union board, I’ve spoken to quite a few incoming classes of recruits and have told them that if this is just a job for them they might want to re-think their choice. We tend to hire pretty highly qualified people and odds are that they can make the same or better money at some other job. Unlike some people and politicians, we know that our pay and benefits aren’t so good that we couldn’t make similar money in a different job. In those other jobs, the odds of being spit on, shot at, standing in the rain or sweltering sun in clothes not specifically designed for those activities are not nearly as high.

The public will call the police when they are afraid, and we will speed to their location to help. When there is a person actively engaged in killing or trying to kill other people we will run towards the danger, past those that are fleeing from it, knowing full well that active killers often have planned for a police response and have prepared for our response with IEDs or other ambush options. Some of the same public will criticize our response for not being fast enough, or for being too militarized. People will question why we need rifles and armored vehicles while at the same time criticize us if we don’t go in to stop the threat even if the suspects are better-armed. People will question what is wrong with us if we use deadly force because we feared for our life or that of another. They will suggest that we are trained in self defense and have less than lethal weapons that should have been used or we should shoot someone in the leg or arm. These same people will criticize and view it as unnecessary force when we use those same techniques in other situations all the while forgetting things such as we are not the only people who receive training in various forms of self defense. In fact, many people receive quite a bit more training than we do because they aren’t also being trained to make split second decisions using the legal training we receive, they aren’t being trained to render first aid, they aren’t being trained in community relations, report writing, defensive driving, professional communications, etc. Few, if any, of the critics have training in any of the above areas, much less all of them, but that won’t stop them. To be clear, no one, especially me, is suggesting that the public shouldn’t ask questions and find out what their police departments are doing. There is a difference, however, between asking questions and blindly placing people in a can’t-win situation.

The public will call us when they “are about to snap” but will have no tolerance if we are having a bad day. We are humans first and foremost and the public should want that. Being human is the reason why we will take the extra moment with an elderly person suffering from dementia to check all their closets for the men they are sure they saw come through their closed and locked window, or change the sheets on the bed of that same person who thinks that someone might have poured water on them while they were sleeping. Being human is what allows us to use discretion and demonstrate compassion instead of just punishing everyone who might have violated a law or an ordinance. Being human also means we will make mistakes occasionally. We know it, we don’t like it when it happens, and we try to learn from them and avoid repeating them. Oftentimes the tactics the public sees and might not understand have come about as a result of an officer losing their life. Future generations of police learn from such incidents and modify how we approach the same or similar situations, knowing what could happen. The public will often not know or care why we will approach a situation in a certain way. They will only rely on facts learned after an incident is resolved, ignoring the fact that officers had no way to know these facts as the incident was happening. We all entered this profession because we want to serve and make a difference, but there are other ways to do that, that don’t come with the danger, the physical discomfort, the sense that sometimes we can’t win.

So back to the question, why do it? For me the answer has always been because it IS uncomfortable at times, it IS dangerous, it IS the hard thing.

There is a sense of pride that we should all take in knowing that we willingly do a job that few are willing or able to do, and we do it very well. We took an oath to protect others, to risk not coming home to our families at the end of a shift. How many of those who are quick to criticize take such an oath or are willing to risk what we do? How many could do it even if they were willing? It takes a special person, who views this not as a job, but as a calling, to take and live up to that oath, to make the sacrifices that we do and if necessary, be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. I recently saw a video of a FDNY instructor who addressed a group of new recruits about to go for physical training. The message that he had for them is very applicable to anyone who commits their life to something bigger than themselves, and I will paraphrase it as it applies to us. He told them, “One day, you will be old, you will be frail, and you will be slow. Someone will ask you, what did you do in your day, what did you do in your prime, when you were young, and strong, and fast, and you will tell them you were a police officer. And when the day is done and the page is turned that will be enough.”

I know, and so should you, that when my day is done and the page is turned, that my casket will be covered with an American flag, because it was enough. I will have lived up to my oath, I will have earned it. So when you feel attacked, remember a quote by Theodore Roosevelt “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

There is no more worthy cause than the one we have pledged to undertake, and because you are in the arena the credit truly does belong to you. Don’t ever forget it.

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