A couple of years ago, I spoke to an assembly of grade school children at a local elementary school. The principal asked that I talk to the kids about what it means to be a good citizen. I had 10 minutes to make an impact on 250 little citizens, who probably mostly had going home on their collective mind. Nothing fancy or flashy. No props. No dazzling slide show. Straight, simple, easy-to-remember talk: That’s what I went for.
Focusing on practical, everyday acts was the best way to reach some of these kids. I, of course, mention waving or saying hello to police officers whenever they got the chance. I bring up being respectful and kind to the elderly. And then I proceed to trash. You know—the wrappers, bottles, bags, and junk we see every during a simple drive or walk down the street. Some trash appears to be so ancient, it’s as if it has fossilized. The kids are listening.
I still have them. Asking them to think of their own backyard, I tell the kids about how I once heard it described as a tiny patch of Planet Earth, a patch to call all their own. On this whole, massive planet, we have a speck of it, and aren’t we lucky? This is making sense. I can see it in their eye contact with me. I expound by suggesting we take care of our own little patches because it’s important to us. We want the things that we’re around constantly to look nice. My time standing in front of the cross-legged kids is growing short. “Treat your city, your community, the same way you treat that patch of earth you call yours. If you see trash on the ground right in front of you, stop and pick it up, even when—and especially if—you’re all alone.”
Trash, of course, is just one example of a broader idea: having integrity as a citizen and steward. And with that my little talk was over.
How often I find myself needing to force myself to live by my own advice. It’s one thing to do something virtuous in front of your kids, for example, like going to the beach and doing a clean-up. But what about when I’m by myself, walking into the police station in the middle of the night? Trash is everywhere, even around our police departments. I notice it all the time. But I have this or that do to. There’s no way I can take the 1.5 seconds to bend over, pick up the plastic bottle, and then carry it for 15 seconds into the police station and drop it in the recycling bin. Too busy. Sometimes I walk past it. Other times, I remember my own words about what it means to be a good citizen, so I stop and take care of it.
As a leader on my department, I strive to do the right thing, all of the time. It’s not just in criminal investigations, arrest reports, or traffic stops that I need to be the most mindful and disciplined. Perhaps it’s also when thinking about my agency and the city it protects. Taking pride in one’s workplace means taking care of it aesthetically and environmentally. Caring about your city, county and state (and, of course, the USA) means caring about how it looks. If I can take a moment and pick up a stray grocery bag or make it a point not to flick my Portable Breath Test tube to the ground after using it, that’s all a small part of being a good citizen We cops should try to manifest local pride whenever possible.
Our country is beautiful. But there are parts that are shamelessly left to rot. A small patch at a time: That’s a good way to begin.