Updated: Mar 17, 2020
As I write this, I’ve been a law enforcement officer for over 15 years. It would be an understatement to say that I’ve been disillusioned at times. The realities of this profession are harsh. Young officers typically embark upon the journey of their career with excitement and optimism, convinced that they will change the world they live in for the better.
Somewhere along the way, they realize that things aren’t that simple. Most of the time, the bad guy gets away and justice goes unserved. Even on the occasion that we manage to arrest a perpetrator, another one, without fail, steps in to take their place. I eventually learned that no matter how great I was at my job, I could not in fact, change the world. The myriad problems facing our society can’t be remedied by arresting all of the bad guys. I learned that the numerous social, political, and economic issues that played into the crime rate were typically beyond my control.
This can be a very disillusioning realization for anybody. Like most men and women who wear the badge, I never gave up. I still showed up. I still did my best to catch the bad guy, even if I was only doing it out of defiance toward a sad, dangerous world.
Research shows that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Study after study has shown that officers typically begin to feel this way a few years into their career. But any veteran cop can tell you that this is the case without having to consult a textbook. This disillusionment is understandable. Over the course of a few years, an officer may arrest dozens of drug dealers. Yet drugs still flow into the streets. They may take dozens of burglary reports, but there are always more victims. They respond to the pleas for help from numerous victims of domestic batteries or sexual assaults. They may even put some of the perpetrators in jail, but there are always more calls.
I felt the same sense of helplessness as a law enforcement leader during the wake of the Ferguson Riots and all the various incidents and protests that followed across the nation. To turn on the television was 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 my profession, while knowing how strongly my desire to serve and protect extended to them… such a sense of helplessness is hard to define. Eventually, though, I came to realize that I’d been looking at things all wrong. We can’t change The World, but we can change people’s worlds.
When an officer goes to help a family who’s home has just been burglarized, it may be the sixth burglary call they’ve been to that week. But for that family, this is probably the first time they’ve ever had anything like that happen to them. They’re scared. They’re worried. They’ve lost more than just their property. They’ve probably lost their sense of security too. The world doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. The way that officer responds to that particular call can have a tremendous affect (for good or ill) on the family that has so recently been victimized. It can change their world.
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 life and our profession.
The same can be said for our own problems, those that face our profession. 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 societal issues. I can’t change that. I can’t stop the protests or the shootings or the fear and distrust or the related troubles across our great nation. But I can make sure that my town is the exception. I can make sure that the members of my community know that I have a love for them as my fellow man, that they can trust me, that I have a deep and honest desire to bridge the divide, even if I don’t have all the answers. I can’t change the nation, but I can change my community.
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 is this reality that should compel us to continue performing our duties with passion and dedication, long after the shallow, naive motives that first drove us to the job have faded in the cold, harsh light of reality. The world can be a cruel place, and cops often see the worse that it has to offer. It’s easy to become discouraged and disillusioned when confronted with those truths.
We can’t change the World, but we can change people’s worlds.