Every time we teach “The Winning Mind” in the U.S. we begin the class with The Pledge of Allegiance. We ask attendees to remember who we’re serving and why as we all recite it together. It’s one of the rituals we engage in during training to help nurture our own sense of mission, and that of our students.
In the 1990’s Dr. William Zieverink was interviewed by my husband Dave Smith on the Law Enforcement Television Network for a video training series on “survival.” Dr. Zieverink, now a neuropsychiatrist in Portland, Ore., talked about his research as a young army psychiatrist. He recalled survivors tend to have three common traits: faith in a loving God, a strong family identity, and a deep sense of mission. In talking with Vietnam War POW camp survivors, Dr. Zieverink found that the ones who had the strongest sense of mission tended to be the most mentally healthy, as well. These men not only survived, they eventually thrived. This unwavering sense of mission is essential to our ability to survive and overcome adversity.
Remember when you first became a cop? You were going to help people, keep the community safe, put your own life in peril to keep the peace. You wanted to put burglars and drug dealers and child molesters in jail. You were on a mission! How about when you became an FTO, or a detective or a sergeant? Training rookies, solving complex cases, or being a great team leader became your new mission. A sense of mission simply means that your life and what you do matters; that sure sounds like law enforcement, doesn’t it?
So do we ever lose sight of our mission? Of course! There are plenty of cops who have lost their sense of mission and just see police work as a means to an end; the “end” being a paycheck and maybe a pension. We get burned out, beat up and worn out, and sometimes we wonder why we ever put on a gun and badge in the first place. Never let fatigue and cynicism and administrative stress negatively impact your ability to win on the street and WIN at life!
Don’t forget how essential you are. Take a minute to reflect on the role of law enforcement in a free society. People who do not feel safe aren’t really free; we protect their property, their communities, and often their lives. Most folks inherently need to trust their law enforcement officers in order to feel secure. In our society we have earned that trust, and the vast majority of us are angered when a bad cop tarnishes all of our badges by violating that. Whether they act like it or not, your community needs you.
Think about all the things you’ve done, or will do, in your law enforcement career. If you hadn’t been there, who would have helped that battered wife finally leave her husband? Who would have written that teenager a speeding ticket so that he changed his behavior and became a safer driver? Who would have solved that burglary, taken that accident report, or spoke to the eight grade civics class on “Public Safety Day?” Never lose sight of the fact that the minute you come to a scene your presence alone changes lives for the better. The elderly widow who has been burglarized starts to feel safe when you come to investigate. The rape victim who has been trembling in terror until you arrive begins to heal the moment you do. You affect the lives of individuals each and every time you come to work.
Now don’t confuse any of this with that “Mission Statement” that may hang on the wall of your police department’s lobby. That’s probably just for show. The organization may have certain goals, but it’s the people who accomplish the mission. And everyone, not just the sworn personnel, should have that sense of mission: the dispatcher who keeps the victim on the phone until officers arrive, the records clerk who gets the report ready for court, even the janitor who cleans the locker rooms. In fact, of all the teams I supervised as a sergeant, my animal control officers were the ones who never seemed to lose that sense of mission. I’m not saying they didn’t get frustrated or a little cynical at times, but they always seemed to be strong in their convictions. I know that dogs don’t generally commit armed robberies and cats don’t generally abuse their kittens, but there’s a lesson to be learned from those ACO’s. The majority of the animals they served were someone else’s victim, and they never lost sight of that.
Police work isn’t the most dangerous job out there. In fact, it’s not even in the top ten. Commercial fishing is usually considered the most risky profession, but keep in mind that the fish aren’t actively trying to kill the guys trying to catch them. There are always going to be criminals who want to kill cops, so do everything you can to keep that winning mindset. Never lose the sense that you’re on a mission, and that your mission matters!
Finally, remember that someday this mission will end and you will retire. The healthiest and happiest retirees are the one who see whatever they do after retirement as their new mission; so for those of you who are preparing to retire decide what your next mission will be and begin the your next adventure.
Sgt. Betsy Brantner-Smith retired in 2009 as a 29-year veteran of the Naperville, Illinois Police Department. She began her career as a police dispatcher at age 17, and became an officer four years later . She has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, hostage negotiation, crime prevention and field training. She can be reached through her website at www.femaleforces.com.