As I sat down to write my monthly article I was sitting in the living room listening to the construction noise going on in my home office, which is in my basement. Hammering, sawing, banging and the occasional muffled curse word were driving me crazy as my contractor and his partner were installing new cabinets, shelving and wood trim. I was sure I was going to have to grab my laptop and sneak out to the nearest doughnut shop to get my writing done but pretty soon I found myself tuning out all the commotion and getting on with my task at hand. That led me to start wondering how much “noise” we may tune out in various situations while we’re on duty. Very often, we stop listening to our citizens, our instincts, our bosses and even ourselves because it all just seems like ancillary “noise.”
Trust me: it doesn’t take very long into your law enforcement career before you become relatively numb to the day to day complaints, grievances, and even the tragedies that affect our citizens. “Your bike got stolen? Maybe you shouldn’t have left it unattended.” “Your car got burglarized? Don’t leave it unlocked in your driveway overnight.” “You got rear-ended at a traffic light? Nobody is hurt, get over it.” Does this sound like what you’re thinking (or God forbid, saying) when dealing with your “customers?”
Don’t let your citizens become nothing more than “noise” for you to tune out. Yes, this is the tenth crash report you’ve filled out today, but chances are it’s the first accident that these drivers have ever been in. To you it’s a low priority report; to them it may be a frightening, confusing and certainly novel event. The kid who leaves his bike unlocked at the park and comes back to find it stolen loses a little piece of his innocence along with his treasured ten speed. Take the time to really listen to people and truly empathize; it will make you a little less cynical and it may make your citizens a little more pro-police.
At the beginning of our careers, most cops have a pretty inherent sense of right and wrong. We know that with our badge comes great responsibility, but it also comes with a few perks. I’ll admit that I still keep my drivers license right next to my retiree badge and law enforcement identification card in case I get pulled over, and while on duty I’ve enjoyed more free cups of coffee at all night convenience stores than I can remember.
Some people might consider my behavior a bit unethical, and they may be right. The word “ethical” also means “moral philosophy,” and different people have differing ideas of morality, and times have changed in our profession. These days, if I get stopped and issued a speeding ticket, there will be no doubt that I deserve it, and I’ll take it and pay it without argument. In fact, I’ve made a very conscious effort to slow down not only because it’s safer, but also because if I’m training other cops to drive more cautiously, I’d better be doing so myself.
Don’t stop listening to the “noise” in your head (and your heart) about what is right and what is wrong, what is professional and what isn’t. If posting that drunken bachelorette party self-portrait on Instagram feels wrong, that’s because it’s likely to have consequences. If you’re tempted to get behind the wheel after only “two beers” when you’ve actually had six, listen to your gut and call a cab or a sober friend. Remember that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. That “noise” you’re hearing is your conscience trying to keep you out of trouble, don’t ignore it.
Every cop knows what the word “hinky” means. That car on a traffic stop that just feels different; that guy you’re talking to on the street that just smells wrong. It’s not some sort of police magic, although to outsiders and rookies it may seem pretty mystical. “Hinky” is the feeling you get when you trust your intuition. Unfortunately, as security expert Gavin de Becker points out in his classic book “The Gift of Fear,” we often ignore our own instincts even when they are trying to keep us out of trouble. Don’t allow the routine nature of our job derail you; listen to the “noise” that is telling you to watch your six; don’t rush in, call for back up; get this suspect under control right now. You’re probably a damn good cop, trust yourself.
What about the “noise” of your own arrogance, hubris, or just plain bully behavior that you’re trying desperately to either justify or simply ignore? As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin explains when he talks about “victim-based thinkers,” cops who’ve become cynical and feel they have no control in their lives often exaggerate their own self worth and their own accomplishments. These are the people who constantly talk themselves up while running other people down. They claim to be experts or trainers or mentors and yet they exaggerate their own resumes and refer to some of their less-gifted co-workers as “LCD” or “lowest common denominator.” When the “noise” becomes self-centered, cynical or just plain mean, take a big step back and look in the mirror.
Lastly, have you considered how you will respond to the “noise” if you are shot? Not the rounds going off or the shrapnel flying or the shouts and screams and sirens. I’m talking about that voice in your head. In Chuck Remsburg’s “The Tactical Edge,” law enforcement survival experts talk about conditioning yourself to never give up, and that starts with your own self-talk and mental conditioning. Don’t lay down and die, and don’t let your brain tell you that’s what’s happening. As Dave ‘JD Buck Savage’ Smith says “If you can say ‘Oh my God, I’ve been shot’ then you’re probably going live.” Listen to that voice, the “noise” that says “I will WIN!” Practice the positive, listen to your internal optimist, and don’t just focus on “survival” but count on winning!
Dr. Kevin Gilmartin: http://www.emotionalsurvival.com/
Gavin de Becker: http://gavindebecker.com/
The Tactical Edge: http://www.amazon.com/Tactical-Edge-Surviving-High-Risk-Patrol/dp/093587805X
Dave ‘JD Buck Savage’ Smith: http://www.officer.com/contact/10945735/dave-smith