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Changing People's Worlds

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

I used to love being a cop.

There was a time when I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. When I’d go to social events and listen to new acquaintances describe what they did for a living, I’d catch myself waiting for them to ask how they could get out of their six-figure careers and get into my profession. I couldn’t imagine that anyone could possibly want to do anything else with their life besides law enforcement. When I embarked on my career, I did so with optimism, convinced that I’d change the world.

That feels like ages ago. Recently, I was startled by the realization that I’d be hard pressed to recommend this career to a young person who asked my opinion. I’m sure some of that change has to do with me: I’m older now. I’ve traded much of my blissful ignorance for the realistic world-view that comes with middle age. But much of my shifting opinion is, no doubt, due to the changing world around me. America is at a crossroads, a battleground between competing ideologies. The law enforcement profession is caught smack-dab in the middle of that fight. There are certainly things that we could do differently, but the reality is that a cop is likely to be criticized no matter how they act. Much of the time, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

These things most certainly play a role in the doubts I’d have about recommending the field to a potential practitioner. But there’s more to it than that. It’s also something more basic, more ancient. Long before self-proclaimed experts were arm-chair quarterbacking on social media, cops still got disillusioned. Criminologists have long known that the men and women who wear a badge go through changes throughout their career. They start to question just how worthwhile their hours in the cruiser are. You don’t need a PhD to understand why. Law enforcement consists of addressing the same evils… over and over and over. After a few years, an idealistic young cop starts to realize that maybe (just maybe) they aren’t making a difference after all. No matter how many bad guys they catch, there’s always more. No matter how many victims they try to help, there’s always another ruined life to be dealt with. The calls never stop, the bad guys rarely stay in jail and the drugs never really go away. All too often, justice simply goes unserved.

At some point all cops learn that (no matter how great they are at their job) they can’t change The World. The myriad problems facing our society can’t be remedied by arresting all the bad guys. After seeing enough offenders who were themselves victims of various sins, they begin to even question just what constitutes a “bad guy”. They learn that the numerous social, political and economic issues that play into the crime rate are far beyond the control of a lone police officer.

As an administrator, I feel the same sense of helplessness as a law enforcement leader every time a racially charged incident rocks the nation. To turn on the news during these times is to recognize an unfathomable divide between the law enforcement community and some segments of the population we’re sworn to serve and protect. To see the fear and distrust toward our profession, while knowing how strongly my desire to serve and protect extend to them… such a sense of helplessness is hard to define.

The World is a big place and the challenges therein are great. There’s no doubt then that one person can’t change it. But perhaps our disillusion is misplaced. Perhaps it’s wrong to think that way.

We can’t change The World, but we can change people’s worlds.

When an officer goes to their tenth burglary call of the week, it’s easy to feel like they aren’t making a difference. The burglaries are, after all, still occurring. People are still getting hurt. What’s easy to lose sight of is the fact that what is their tenth call may be the victim’s first. We walk in the world of crime and pain till we grow numb to it, but it’s a traumatic experience for those who don’t. They’re likely scared, worried. They’ve not only lost their property, but likely their sense of security too. The way that an officer handles that call can have a tremendous effect (for good or ill) on that person’s life. It can change their world.

The World can be a cruel place and cops often see the worse it has to offer. It is easy to become discouraged and disillusioned when confronted with those difficult truths. But we meet people in their darkest hour. Every time someone calls for our help, we have the opportunity to alter the course of their life, to have a tremendous impact on the way they view their lives and our profession.

The same might be said for our own collective problems; those that face our profession as a whole. The issues between the law enforcement community and minority communities across America are messy and complicated. They’re rooted in generations of political, economic and social issues that are largely beyond our control. I can’t change that. I can’t stop the protests, shootings, or fear and distrust that are sweeping across our nation. But I can make sure that my town is the exception. I can make sure the members of my community know that I have a love for them as my fellow man, that they can trust me and my fellow officers. I can make sure they know I have a deep and honest desire to bridge the divide, even if I don’t have all the answers. I may not be able to change the nation, but I can change my community one call at a time.

It is this knowledge; the fact that we can and should make an impact in our own little corner of The World, that should drive us as we get up and come back to work every day. It’s this reality that should compel us to continue performing our duties with zeal long after the shallow naïve motives that first drew us to the job have faded in the harsh light of reality. It’s this possibility that should give us hope even when we’re faced with unrealistic expectations and undeserved criticism. ​

We can’t change The World, but we can change people’s worlds.

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