ethical cops

What we do "to" people is necessary - What we do "for" people is what makes this job worthwhile.


This is a rewrite of an old column. After the original was published I received an email from an officer who said he was ready to quit over the politics in his department when he read my column and it reminded him of why he took the job to begin with. He went back to work with renewed purpose.

Yesterday I spoke to a wonderful group of students at Southwest State University in Marshall Minnesota. Their teacher, B.C. Franson, uses my book in her class and she is kind enough to allow me to speak to her students. One student asked me if I ever missed the job. "Of course", I replied. I went on to say that I did not miss the drunks, domestics, fatals, homicides, assaults, or the politics. What I missed, I told him, was the rare opportunity to do something really good for someone; something only a cop could do.

A recent survey conducted by Calibre Press showed that the vast majority of cops would not want their child to go into police work. I find that very sad. Out of 3,400 hundred officers, 81% said no to their child becoming a cop. As a second generation cop I don't believe I would have been as happy in any other career and if I had youth and energy on my side I would go back and do it all over again; mistakes and all if I had to.

I remember that as a young cop I was filled with bravado and a sense of invulnerability. I felt “dangerous.” Taking down the next bad guy, winning a physical confrontation, going to that next man with a gun call, and getting into a major pursuit were nightly goals. Nowadays, when my friends think I am being too critical of police officers and some of the bad choices they make, they are quick to remind me of just how wild, crazy, and fearless I was in my younger years; and they are right. The key word here is “fearless,” in the sense of being synonymous with “brainless.” You did not, and you will not, see me use the word brave. In my early years I often I created more danger by my actions, not less. That has nothing to do with bravery.

By way of example: As a young officer I watched as senior officers took more time to approach people and calls, evaluating and planning, while I responded by jumping into the middle of the fray. I went through a lot of good, experienced partners because I was quick to criticize their hesitancy. I saw it as a reluctance to act. When they criticized me for not waiting for them I thought of them as “retired on the job” because they did not want to run down that dark alley to chase everyone who fled from them. I would complain about their reluctance to get into vehicle pursuits and call them “old lady drivers.” I found a million and one reasons to complain about their work and their work ethic. I was one of the “New Centurions,” the professional police officer, and things were going to be different when all these old guys retired.

Then they retired, and things were different, because now I was the old guy. Now I was taking time to evaluate and plan a little before I responded. I began to question the justification for doing 10 or 11 no-knock warrants in a single night that seldom recovered anything of significance. All my hard charging, risk taking, and putting other officers at risk hadn’t change a thing in terms of the crime rate. Strangely enough, there were still drive-by shootings, husbands still beating their wives, rapists still victimizing women, drunk drivers still killing people on a daily basis, and there were still senseless acts of cruelty being acted out every day. And I began to question why I was doing this job.

When I started in law enforcement I was told two things; 1) That at about seven years I would become a seasoned officer and 2) That somewhere between 7 and 11 years on the job, I would question my choice of careers and most likely be divorced? I was also told that at that point I would probably drop the idea of making any real difference and start viewing police work as a job; eight for eight, or eight for whatever I could get away with. I believed those trainers and when I started wondering about my choice of careers, I examined mine within those parameters and found that there was no resolution. That’s because I was asking the wrong questions.

For a long time I tried to do the job better each day. I was witness to crime scenes that would make me cry when I got home at night. I recovered the broken bodies of babies killed by those who were supposed to protect them. I stood by the blood splattered walls over the bodies of innocents caught in crossfires and I listened to the voice of a crying mother on the phone who was half a world away after I told her that her daughter was dead by her own hand. I couldn’t stop any of those acts. At best, I was a witness to the depths of despair and depravity of which mankind is capable, and I had to make a decision to either go on with this job or quit. I stayed, but before I made that decision I had to ask myself, “Why?”

As I saw it I had at least three choices: 1) I could choose to stay on the street and be as vicious and hard and cruel as the bad guys; throw ethics out the window and make cases any way I could. 2) I could choose to retire on the job and find a nice cozy place where I shuffled papers, away from the street and any contact with victims or suspects. Or, 3) I could make a decision to stay on the job and rededicate myself to being ethical but relentless in the pursuit of the bad guys and give up the idea of trying to change the world by locking up every bad guy.

I chose door number 3. I came to realize that I could work hard with the idea that if I do this job well there will be one less victim and one less nightmare for the survivors. That may not seem like a lot but it was enough. That made it worth staying. In this job we do “to” some people and we do “for” some people.

What we do “to” people is necessary. What we do “for” people is what makes it worthwhile. Looking forward to doing “for” people was why I took the job and it was good to feel that way again.