Citizens’ Police Academy: Character Counts
I just finished a 2nd ‘ridealong’ with a police officer — this time a sergeant with the police department in the city where we live. I joined him for most of his third 11 hour day — in which he supervised his patrol team of 7 other cops, visited ‘hot spots’ where the police were called upon for help, reviewed lots of paperwork, and seemed to multi-task — constantly.
This was the last part of the “experiential” learning component to the Citizens’ Police Academy — a class I’ve been taking every Thursday night usually from 6:30 – 10 pm. <I had to miss the day-long class when my classmates shot a bunch of different weapons at the shooting range, sat through the high-speed-chase-simulator, and learned to do traffic stops…but I definitely hope to make that up in the fall!>
This whole experience has been incredibly surprising — let me try to give voice to the variety of ways in which I’ve been impacted.
1) You can tell who the good guys are.
Our city apparently has the most selective law enforcement agency in the area — and you can really tell. Officers will walk into the room + you can see what kind of people they are. Most are men, strongly built, with a commanding presence, straightforward expression, and so forth. Probably what you’d expect. The stereotypical police officer. But I’m not so sure that’s the widespread impression of law enforcement agents today. Given the fact that most media portrayals present a “bad cop” sort of image — I’ve been so surprised: these are definitely the good guys. You could almost palpably feel their integrity + character–though I know that sounds crazy or unbelievable as I write this now. But you can just tell.
One low-ranking guy, who freely admitted he had no expectations of being promoted higher up — was the exception to this. There was something about him — he seemed a bit off. Too casual in his choice of words, a bit foul-mouthed … there was a certain laxity about his posture and the way he spoke about his work that made me think: “One of these is not like the others. I’m not sure how you got hired; I wonder how long you’ll stay.” But maybe he was that proverbial exception to prove the rule: everyone else emanated a moral integrity + deep commitment to uphold the rule of law. I’m glad I live in this city.
2) There really are bad guys out there.
One class, I remember a few of the officers referred to the criminals they detained or arrested as “bad guys.” It struck me that it’s been a very long time since I’ve heard ANYONE use the term “bad guys.” Maybe that’s because it seems so black + white, stark, absolute. Little kids use that language. Comic books have bad guys. But there were no bad guys in Cambridge/Boston/New England — where I lived before — these were not places that seemed to have or recognize moral absolutes. But here, at our city police department — there really are good guys, and there really are bad guys.
Last week, the special enforcement team came + presented about their work involving local gangs. They brought this shallow cardboard box filled with the various weapons they’d taken off guys they’d arrested — along with some pictures of their gang tattoos as well. One weapon was a four-inch awl attached to a round ball with a Nazi-symbol painted on it. Apparently, these are held in the fist of a gang-member with the pointed part protruding between one’s fingers… so that when you punched someone, you also impaled/gouged/stabbed them. One of the other weapons was literally a wooden club with inch-long spikes coming out of one end of it. Another was a club with the heaviest, densest rock attached to the end. It looked like something had been made of hematite, mixed with concrete, rolled into a ball — high-pressure-compacted like a diamond and then filled with lead. I thought: this feels like death. People make these? And then carry them around? I couldn’t fathom ever doing that or knowing people who would do that. There really are bad guys out there? 😦 Yes, Dorothy, there are.
3) Character Counts when you’re a cop.
This one’s really obvious, you’re going to tell me. And I know. But somehow a recent simulation we all went through, where we had to assess what was appropriate “use of force” in a threatening situation made me realize just how quickly a cop has to react to a given stimulus. We were paired up and sent into a room where a police officer was pretending to be an aggressor (with varying degrees of seriousness). We were given wooden batons with padding as our main defense… and the officer was padded as well, with lots of protective covers for his arms, legs, chest, and head. I have to admit, with everyone watching, with the baton IN my hand by default… as soon as my partner started to hit our aggressor, I hesitated a bit, but then jumped in. The class during discussion reassured us that it was necessary and important for us to have reacted that way as soon as the officer started waving his arms at us in a menacing fashion — but I was still a little surprised by how easy it was for me to join her in (gently) hitting our aggressor.
On the ridealong today, I was really surprised by how many off-putting/irritating/negative things happened to the officer I accompanied. A gang-member cursed at him repeatedly even though he was understandably in the wrong. The officer had to manage two cell phones, a computer console in the patrol vehicle, a few other ridealongs, a “use of force” debate between the PD and the Fire Department — AND drive safely and at high speeds to each call we responded to. While we were taking a break at a local Starbucks mid-day, a pick-up truck drove past his police vehicle at such a high speed + so recklessly — that his car hit the officer’s left side-mirror + broke it into 4 pieces that scattered across the sidewalk and up the street. Oh yes, and then he drove off — instead of owning up to what he did.
Character Counts — and you can tell it does when it’d just be so easy to lose your cool, flare back with a vengeful justice, and rail back at the one who is provoking you. I was incredibly impressed + surprised at just how much this field of work tests one’s outer fitness AND inner strength as well. Both matter… and who you truly are on the inside, and what kind of soul-work you’ve done to be a person of peace…can really come out daily in this job.
4) One Common Humanity
At the same time — I realize how all of us — the good guys, the bad guys, even me, an eagerly-note-taking outside audience — we’re all people together. One common humanity. I’ve loved how I’ve learned how to find the man or woman behind the uniform. It amazed me how much the uniform initially blinded me to the person inside it — I have had to really look hard to see + find + connect with the person behind the dark blue wool, the badge, the shiny name plate, the stiff bullet-proof vest, the shiny black boots, the striped pants. There’s a reason for all the protective gear — but over lunch today, I was able to meet the person wearing it. Heard about his time overseas in a little German town while on duty with the Air Force. Learned he was from Massachusetts, went to a military school in New England (that he was impressed I knew the name of!). Heard about his high school friend who was paid big bucks then to code for big companies. Who then worked in Taiwan, of all places — where my family lived for decades.
And during another part of the day, when the gang-member sat on the curb, beneath the imposing presence of two cops who were questioning him and taking stuff out of his pockets — I also got to know him. We made eye contact a few times… and I could tell from my expression in my side-mirror that I looked worried + concerned. He probably wondered who the Asian girl in the big police SUV was, and why I was sitting there, watching, buckled safely into the passenger seat. I felt for him. I wasn’t sure at first whether they had legitimate cause to be hard on him; we hadn’t been there to see how he came to be detained in the first place. But when his worried mom, angry sister, and cute niece came to get him… and I saw the subtle shame + reasonable anger all around… I felt for all of them. Sure, he was probably a ‘gang-banger’ who shouldn’t have 15 different colors of permanent graffiti markers in a fake LV bag in the trunk of his mom’s car — which he shouldn’t have been trying to open + drive with his suspended license. But he was also just a 21-year-old son, brother, uncle, …and neighbor of mine… sitting on a curb looking sad, just a half-mile from my house.
I’m REALLY glad I’m taking this class. Who knows if I’ll ever get to serve any local law enforcement agency with all that I’ve gained from this Citizens’ Police Academy… but if I do someday, I’ll do so with a strong sense of duty, honor, and shared humanity.