Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Note: This was a little opinion piece I wrote for CopBlue, a website dedicated to trying to stem the tide of officer fatalities (both in the line of duty and self-inflicted). I feel it's probably common to every profession, but I've noticed that in police culture it's popular to play a little game I call "Who's Life Sucks Worse?" I believe the practice is one of the reasons law enforcement officers have such a high suicide and divorce rate. This article is my plan for stopping that. You can read the original here: https://copblue.com/cop-stories/
This is an article about one way to get to the end of the day. It’s not the only way, but this particular philosophy has allowed me to come home from work with a smile on my face about 90% of the time and come back for my next shift with that same smile still intact. If those numbers sound good to you, read on.
Who is this article for? It’s not for retires. They’ve already made it. It’s not even for those 10+ year guys. They’ve already figured out how to get through the tough days. It’s for recruits who don’t really know yet what they will have to see and do in this job. It’s for the new guys who are still flying high on the very thought of getting to be THE POLICE. It’s for my brothers and sisters on patrol who still have 15-20 years ahead of them doing this job and don’t really see a way to get there other than grinding it out. It’s for cops who find themselves thinking about quitting or drinking a six-pack (or more) every night just to unwind.
The job of law enforcement is stressful. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night shift, if you work traffic or kick in doors, if you’re a city cop or a county deputy. There are a lot of ways to cope with that stress. Most of us have heard about mindfulness by now. If not, there is a great book by Crawford Coats you should check out. Some cops I know just exercise the hell out of themselves. Others have a deep and abiding faith in God. Me, I use a little bit of all of that. But mostly I tell stories.
Think about the last time you and your buddies sat around and told stories. That time where everyone laughed so hard your sides hurt? It could have been around at a restaurant or cruiser spooning or anywhere, really. What I know for certain is that those stories were not about the time everything worked out as planned.
Mostly, the best stories are about those times when things were tough. That means that the worse a shift is going, the stranger the individual call, the better story it will make later. Treasure those tough calls. Collect them. Mine them like gold. One day it will be the story that makes your buddies laugh so hard their sides hurt. As David Sedaris once said, “Everything is funny… eventually.”
This doesn’t just happen, though. It’s an active choice we make every day, every shift, every call.
Several years ago on a very busy night, my partner and I answered a call at an apartment that came out “Nature Unknown,” which is a way our dispatchers have of saying, “this hot mess is so confusing, I can’t even figure out what to call it.” When we arrived, we met with two college kids who turned out to be the callers. They were concerned because their roommate had done a bunch of drugs and was acting unusual.
Being good officers, we went inside to meet the subject. He was calmly sitting on the edge of his bed mumbling. My partner and I stepped outside of the room to talk about our options. We couldn’t arrest the guy; he wasn’t committing any crime at that moment. He wasn’t a threat to himself or other people. We were stumped… right until he ran out of the apartment, naked and screaming.
After a quick chase, we wrangled the kid, wrestled him to the ground, got him cuffed with his hands behind his back, and tucked into the back of the patrol car. The only thing easy about that part of the call was the search… because, remember, he was completely naked. We were standing outside the car, catching our breaths and straightening our uniforms, when the ambulance arrived.
EMS deployed and the decision was made to transfer the kid into their care. We pulled the guy from the back of the car and discovered that in addition to being high and naked, he was also as flexible as a spider monkey. In the time it took for the EMTs to get set up, he’d stepped one leg through his cuffs. My partner was an excellent officer, which meant he cuffed with the key holes facing up, which meant that now that it was time to take the cuffs off…
“They’re your handcuffs,” I told him, laughing. By that time, every resident in the building had come out to see what was going on. The EMT’s offered us gloves, which we accepted gratefully.
Sometime later, I heard a few officers talking about that night over dinner. They complained about the supervisor. They complained about the amount of calls. They complained about the court system. They complained about the other people on the squad not working as hard as them. It was almost like they had no other way of communicating except for complaining. They fed off each other, no one smiling, no one happy, just digging a deeper and deeper pit of self-pity. They were talking about the exact same night that was probably one of the funniest nights of my life.
So I told them the story of my partner and I having to take the cuffs off that guy. Everyone laughed. Someone else told another story about a funny interaction with a suspect. The laughter built. The general mood of the squad improved so much over the course of the meal that when the next call went out, we all cut our break short to respond; no one wanted to be left out in case something funny happened.
What am I suggesting? That we, as a profession, need to stop complaining by default. Catch yourself complaining about your workout or your spouse or your kids or your squad, and stop. Just stop. Don’t fall into the trap of equating saltiness and bitterness with experience. If the option presents itself, laugh about the tough days with your buddies instead of playing a game of who’s life sucks worse.
We can’t control what a shift might bring, but we can control how we react to it. Why do this? Not for your boss or to be a better employee or to check a box on anyone else’s list… but so you can leave this job, at the end of a shift or the end of a career, smiling.