On my desk is a framed collage of pictures put together by my family. A photo in the middle is my first day on the job. I’m standing in my parent’s living room wearing my new pressed uniform with family and friends around me. We are all smiling. They had just spent time praying for me as I embarked on a journey that would change me forever. A couple of hours later, I started my first graveyard shift with my FTO and off and running. Although this shift was relatively uneventful, I felt fueled by pure adrenaline. Everything was new. Everything was uncertain – and I loved every minute.
I reference this photo and my first shift when I speak with police officers, community groups, and faith-based organizations. It is one of the events in life that formed and shaped my story. We all have a story. Life comes to us in seasons full of victories, adversity, and change, and I routinely think back to events and people that shaped my journey. I recall what led up to the event or moment and consider the blessings and challenges afterward. And though I realize it can be very unhealthy to dwell on the past regretfully and negatively, I believe it is good to remember the events and people that have shaped us and our story. My first shift is one of those defining and shaping moments.
For me, significant adversity led up to that moment in the photo. A few months earlier, my mom died on the day I tested for the position. It remains one of the most emotionally polarizing days I’ve ever experienced. I am the oldest of four boys, and it left my family reeling. My youngest brother was only ten at the time, and though my mom’s death was somewhat expected, nothing could fully prepare us for the loss. My dad was a wreck. My wife Jennifer and I were engaged at the time and spent our days helping my dad and brothers move into a new season of life. The months ahead became a strange blend of emotions as I worked through loss and grief, started police work, finished college, prepared for a wedding, and barely slept. I felt as if I moved through each day on pure adrenaline.
As I recall the 25 plus years since that first shift, I marvel. I recently gave a presentation to police officers, and I asked the group to think of a word or phrase to describe the feelings and emotions surrounding their first shifts. The responses entailed many familiar and colorful descriptions. One of the cops then said the word “unprepared.” Exactly. No matter how much academy, classroom, or skills-based training you’ve had, nothing can fully prepare us for the street. However, when I look back, my most significant deficit was the lack of preparedness for how to process and move through the darkness, brokenness, and trauma we see regularly. A whole new world quickly opened up for me as I went from the mundane to adrenaline-fueled emergencies. Regardless of how we are wired and how mentally tough we believe we are, continuous exposure to trauma and connecting with people during their darkest and most challenging moments affects us. It takes a toll. The days, months, and years accumulate within, and without a proper understanding of what is building, we can quickly move down destructive and tragic paths.
Within the first two weeks on the job, I was exposed to multiple tragedies, including the horrific suicide of my shift sergeant’s close personal friend. The Sergeant, my FTO, and I responded to a welfare check at the man’s home. His wife was out of town and couldn’t get ahold of him. The man’s truck was in the driveway, and lights were on inside the house – no answer at the door. My FTO and I slowly and quietly crunched through some shallow snow to the back of the house. Light illuminated part of the backyard from a bathroom window. My eyes scanned back and forth along the shadowy lines of the house until I saw a bullet hole protruding through the siding. I showed my FTO and we moved a small planter box close to the house. Stealthily, I climbed up to peek inside the bathroom window. I saw the man’s lifeless body lying on the floor, his head grotesquely distorted by the bullet he fired through it. It was surreal and looked fake as my mind processed the situation.
After we made entry into the home the next stage came. Aftermath. The sobs of my sergeant who had lost a close friend. The notifications to the man’s wife and family. The pit in my stomach as I processed the event and attempted to remain strong and competent under the watchful eyes of my FTO. Unprepared summed it up. I had no idea the extent of this job’s great rewards and great costs. Yet to this day I still enjoy it and know it is my calling. I’m often asked if I would do it again, and without hesitating, I respond, “Yes.” However, there are many things I wish I knew at the beginning and would do differently. Most of us who started “back in the day” had no understanding of the terms “wellness” or “resiliency.” The terms were either completely non-existent, tethered only to physical fitness, or in a context unrelatable to law enforcement culture. Even in 2022, we are still just gaining traction in the area of overall, comprehensive wellness as it relates to our profession.
Many years into my career, I started feeling the deep darkness of depression setting in. The cumulative effects of the job in my life had reached a breaking point. My coping skills were terrible. On the exterior, I kept a brave and positive face for my family, friends, and the brothers and sisters I hold the line with. This dark feeling was unfamiliar and frightening. I was committed to fighting it alone and never letting anyone know. On a family vacation, I found myself purposely swimming toward my death. By God’s grace, I am here. I know I am not alone. My purpose and passion are to keep this conversation moving forward in our police community. We still have much work to do as police suicides still outpace line of duty deaths. Suicide is the extreme. So many others are facing struggles that still end in brokenness and tragedy.
Last year my wife and I founded an organization named Foundation IV. Our slogan is Redefining Adversity. Our unique profession is constantly facing adversity, and as individual peace officers, we continually face adversity. We must commit to changing the narrative and learn how to redefine the effects of this adversity. Beginning day one through retirement – so no cop filling our shoes is unprepared.
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