As an impressionable, shy, non-rambunctious kid growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, NY, I consumed each episode of NYPD cops doing “The Job”. As a youngster in a rough-and-tough, unforgiving, often callous environment, hoping the good guy was nearby was not a foreign concept to me.
I knew that I wanted to be a policeman since I were a five-year-old. That is exactly what I would grow to do –become a policeman– until cancer reared its ugly fangs and bit in to me life plan. Cancer merely sharpened my focus on becoming a street cop. Once I were able to re-emerge and stand, swearing-in my policeman’s oath, I could never even remotely know the lessons I would learn. Five of those lessons stand out and guide me through the remainder of my life.
An Evolutionary Lesson in Empathy
The first lesson was that life surely is quite precious and empathy could never be overestimated. My very first call on my very first duty shift entailed an “emergency run” (lights and sirens, full bore) regarding a “non-breather”. My anxiety shot up like a NASA rocket. I concentrated on myriad details and exuded my police academy training principles. Safety first, pre-planning before arrival (scenario-based possibilities and reactions), taking judicious control of the scene (respectfully) and, in this incident, mentally reviewing life-saving methods.
Upon my arrival, with my Field Training Officer (FTO) in-tow, I overheard sobbing from a second-level apartment, its front door wide open. I entered a diminutive-sized apartment, saw two people I recognized from our community, young parents of two children, a boy and a girl. They were standing, huddled together, onlooking a pure white sheet covering a small mass on the family room couch.
On the couch and protruding from under the snow-white sheet was a child’s outstretched arm, dangling on an angle downward, fingers almost touching the carpeted floor.
At that moment I recalled rushing in past a phalanx of Fire/Rescue paramedics who were stowing their gear away. The solemn faces I had observed added up rather quickly. Not readied to transport anyone only meant one thing. Someone succumbed.
The young parents no longer had a son and a daughter. They just lost their young son, only one child remained. The young boy died from respiratory complications brought about by a volatile mixture of drugs taken concurrently. (Post-autopsy results reflected a contraindication in prescription medications given by two separate doctors; chemical ingredients did not jibe).
I recall being nudged by my FTO, jarred back from a warp of seeming numbness and silence, so as to perform as I had been trained.
My first call. My first “dead person” incident investigation/report.
I became even closer friends to the deceased boy’s mom and dad, and realized it will never be about the hyperbole so often glorified and sensationalized by Hollywood portrayals. Life. In all its precious elements, can easily be relieved. In the blink of an eye, life circumstances alter courses unimaginable. The interesting caveat to this reality-based experience is that the deceased boy’s dad and I met at the local cancer hospital months prior: He as patient transport employee, and me as a cancer patient at that very same cancer treatment institution.
The deceased boy’s mom was a local deli-counter employee where I would shop for lunch meats for my young children.
I befriended their little girl (a five-year-old at the time) who was autistic. So was my own daughter. Whether fate or karma, no matter the concepts, I learned to delve even more deeply into the concept of caring authentically and considering what is below the surface of human experiences, whether on “The Job” as a policeman or in chance encounters in general.
Listening Skills Must Precede Talking
The second very essential lesson I learned while a law enforcement practitioner was to talk far less and to listen much more. Communication values go both ways, of course. Yet without listening, it stands to reason your verbal communications need a valid basis for which to speak on any topic.
Within reason, I often gauged a person’s state of mind, validity and veracity of their complaint, and exercised measures accordingly. My mind often revisited an old-school police academy instructor who listened so intently and remained ultra-calm, even when prodded into action, so that outcomes from potential of hostility were precluded.
He instilled the dynamic of reducing verbal intonations (decibel levels) lower than the person we were confronting on crime scenes, traffic crash investigations, etc. The theory always applied well, essentially de-escalating any perceived or blatant hostility. Human traits abound.
As a cop, the public calls expecting you to take charge. The aforementioned technique was the quietest way to achieve such a goal, mostly without fail. There existed a minority who seemingly refused to “get it”, loved to hear themselves bark aloud, and demanded attention. To some extent, they achieved their mark; they were given attention, just not exactly the brand for which they hoped.
It is amazing how handcuffs, when applied lawfully, can simmer barking to a near-whisper. Then again!
Police Academy 101 always harped on how it will always be a police officer’s job to “de-escalate, never escalate!”
Perishable Skills Need Chronic Exercise and Practice
Thirdly, I learned how “perishable skills” such as firearms acuity, physical fitness, self-defense, equipment maintenance, and legal knowledge application updates often fade if not harnessed with utter discipline. The police officers who often nagged about having to attend mandatory firearms qualification events, who exhibited unkempt weapons, and who shot poorly were often those who cared far less than they should have in this imperative skill, especially as it pertains to cops’ expected performance.
Take care of your perishable skills and your skills will take care of you and the public to whom we swore an oath of service.
Positive Interactions Provide Dividends
Next in terms of importance in my police career are the interactions among the general public. On myriad occasions I was ripe with elation when investigations came together, often with the help of the citizenry who knew my altruism, authenticity, objectivity in solving equations, and fortitude in realizing results. A win-win proposition ensued when positive relations are galvanized.
Reputation is paramount, especially in law enforcement. The public can easily observe the uniform, it is the one who wears it responsibly the citizens seek out confidently, graciously, and astutely. Reputation always precedes, and blemishes remain. Thus due diligence is paramount.
Camaraderie is Pervasive and to be Cherished
Lastly, my vast exposure to camaraderie among my police family lifted me up and cast me far beyond many obstacles in life. Deeply-entrusted interactions among police officers remains largely a true requisite; after all, we ensure each others’ survival rate so that each of us goes home to respective spouses, children, neighbors, and pets.
My police colleagues literally and figuratively carried me through years of cancer affliction, through cancer treatments, and thereafter each surgery maintained my family and property through inexplicably arduous times.
Although cancer effectively concluded my career as a street cop, I regret nothing throughout my tenure wearing police blue, adorned with shiny hardware, and the weight of a duty belt equipped with the tools endemic to law enforcement.
Bestowed as the “Police Officer of the Year” is a lasting, true pinnacle for me, stemming from the many lessons to which I ascribe, delineated above. My nomination was largely based on myriad deeds of humanitarianism, when I thought none of my police partners (or others) were observing.
Perhaps not learned via experiences as a street cop, but certainly honed by the opportunity to serve the public as a policeman, I gleaned and attributed much from these aforementioned lessons.
Deeply-rooted reliance among members of paramilitary organizations, such as law enforcement agencies, is a key ingredient to safety, efficacy, remedy, and survivability. Personally, each of these five categorical lessons, among many others, transcend professional boundaries and extend into the personal arena.
For the many years in service as a policeman, I am grateful for all of the experiences I was afforded, and indelibly I practice these special traits today. Repletely, I teach my children these same lessons so that they have many more successful tomorrows.