Every time we train cops and dispatchers in the United States we begin the class by reciting The Pledge of Allegiance together. We ask our students to focus on the words, the history, and who we’re all serving and why. It’s one of the rituals we engage in during training to help nurture our own sense of mission and that of our attendees.
In the 1990’s my husband Dave Smith interviewed Dr. William Zieverink on the Law Enforcement Television Network for a video training series on police officer survival called “The Science of Survival.” Dr. Zieverink, then a neuropsychiatrist in Oregon who worked in marketing, talked about his research as a young Army psychiatrist. He talked about how survivors tend to have three common traits: faith in a loving God, a strong family identity, and a deep sense of “mission.” In talking to 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, no matter what they had endured. These men not only survived, most eventually thrived! This unwavering sense of mission is essential to our ability to overcome adversity; that’s something we can all learn from.
If you’re a law enforcement officer, do you remember when you first got hired? You were going to help people, keep the community safe, and even put your own life in jeopardy to keep the peace. You wanted to put burglars and drug dealers and child rapists in jail. You were on a mission! Then maybe you became a field training officer, 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 police work, doesn’t it?
So do we ever lose sight of our mission? Of course! We get burned out, beat up and worn out; sometimes we wonder why we 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! Think about all the positive things you’ve done, or will do, as a cop. If you hadn’t been there, who would have helped that battered wife finally leave her abusive husband? Who would have arrested that drunk driver who might have killed himself or an innocent family just out for a drive? Who would have solved that burglary, taken that accident report, or talked to your kid’s 4th grade class on “Career 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 get to her begins to heal the moment you arrive. You affect the lives of individuals each and every time you come to work. What you do matters.
Now don’t confuse any of this with that “Mission Statement” that may hang on the wall of your police department’s lobby. The organization may have certain goals, but it’s the people who accomplish them. And everyone, not just the sworn personnel, should share in 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, the janitor who cleans the locker rooms; they should all feel a part of the “mission.” In fact, of all my assignments as a sergeant, supervising the Animal Control Officers was one of the most inspiring. Our 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 cynical at times, but they always seemed to be strong in their convictions. The majority of the animals they served were someone else’s victim; our ACO’s never lost sight of that and I think that’s what kept them going. It helped keep me going too.
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…sometimes whether they want us to or not. Police work isn’t just a means to an end; the “end” being a paycheck and maybe a pension, it’s a “mission.” And someday this mission will end and you will retire and move on to something else. The healthiest and happiest police retirees (I’m now one of them!) are the ones who see whatever they do after retirement as their new mission, whether it’s helping with the grandkids, sitting on a beach, or working at the local gun store.
It might sound cliché, but as we learned from Dr. Zieverink, it’s actually “science.” Faith, family and mission are what keep us emotionally healthy even in the worst of circumstances. Never lose sight of why you put on that gun and badge in the first place. Don’t let cynicism erode your original enjoyment of this job, and don’t let the media, the politicians and the keyboard warriors wear you out. You are essential to the freedoms we all enjoy and your mission is an important one. Enjoy it.