Axl Rose and Guns 'N Roses called it, "The Jungle." German rocker Krause Maine and the Scorpions referred to it as, "The Zoo." There are various names for the streets that we roam throughout our careers as police officers, but one thing is certain... it's a front row seat to the "Greatest Show on Earth."
Unless you've rolled through the dark streets, highways, and county roads during the witching hour, you can't truly understand it. What we see and experience in our career is hard to describe to anyone outside of law enforcement. We dwell daily in the underbelly of society, answering calls and responding to what is often the worst moment in someone's life. But we volunteered to do it and answered the call because we truly believe in justice, integrity, and service. It's not just a job for most of us, it's our ministry and calling. We love it, breathe it, thrive in it, train relentlessly for it. But how do we survive 25-30 years, day in and day out, rolling around and living in the gutter each shift encountering crime, fear, and darkness -- then transitioning every day back to our "normal" life as a spouse, father, or mother? It's not easy, and for most, it's uncommon to do so without heartache and loss along the way.
I am incredibly fortunate because I retired healthy, but it didn't always look like that and it took intensive and intentional work to make it happen. And I still encounter issues, struggle with memories, and deal with trauma, but I know God is still restoring. There were moments in my career of genuine fear because of the circumstances I was facing, and seasons when I didn't know if I would survive emotionally. We train from day one to shoot, drive, and be physically fit for a fight, but most of us never train for the aftermath of a critical incident, shooting, loss of a coworker, or sustained exposure to trauma.
I'm going to ask a few questions, and make a few comments, and then try to answer based on things I've seen and personally learned. How do we make a cultural shift to move the needle and change the next generation coming in behind us? How do we change the divorce rate, suicide stigma, and addiction issues that plague our Blue Family? What can we do now, for those of us that have just retired, or are in the twilight of their career? How do we make sure that the current and future academy classes and curriculum being taught includes emotional survival, and that sustainment training throughout our tenure adequately reflect a focus on officer wellness as a whole, and not just tactics?
The simple answer is - it starts with you. If you are in a position of authority as an elected or appointed official, or if you are on a national board, a retiree looking to give back, a captain over a division, a patrol sergeant over a few officers, or if you are an officer simply trying to make an impact every day, then you are exactly the person that can make a difference to enact and be a voice to influence change.
Emotional Survival, Resiliency, and Officer Wellness are all words and terminology that have slowly started to make their way into our jargon the last 10 years. The one tihng they all have in common is taking a holistic approach to ensuring there is an education and process for addressing the emotional needs of our officers. Peer support has been around for at least 25 years, but it has only been in the last ten years that the need and benefit of peer teams has emerged as a necessary tool for departments. Educating our officers from day one in the academy that mental health is just as important, if not more important, than any other skill set they will learn is the only way to teach the next generation that there is no shame in asking for help. Mental health, just as firearms proficiency, is a perishable skill that needs to become a normal part of your career.
My 25 years as a deputy sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshal were as fun and meaningful as I had hoped and dreamed they would be. I had an incredible career, working on assignment in 48 states and 3 foreign countries. But my journey was also filled with incredible pain and grief. I made over 1000 felony arrests, was involved in six shootings, was a first responder at 9/11, lost six friends in the line of duty to felonious shootings, and also had eight friends who died by suicide. In 2011 alone, I attended 11 line of duty death funerals. When I say that I had dark seasons and periods of grief and numbness, I mean I literally had months of trying to figure out how to get up and move forward each day. I had sleepless nights, I numbed my pain with alcohol, and I emotionally removed myself from friendships and relationships because I was unable to appropriately function. If I hadn't had true friends continue to reach out and check on me, to hold me accountable, and to finally literally drag me to a counselor to seek help, I don't believe I would be here.
In 2003, I finally south help. I twas a wonderful therapist, peer team members, and C.O.P.S. that gave me an understanding and a path to healing. This support group helped me see that, instead of taking my trash out to the curb, I had been stuffing it in a closet, allowing it to rot and seep out into the rest of my life. Sucking it up and compartmentalizing wasn't cutting it. I learned how to properly take out my trash. And over the next 15 years, as I faced and dealt with professional and personal tragedies, I learned how to immediately seek assistance and stay healthy. And because I learned to be vulnerable with my pain, grief, and practice of resiliency, I was able to face the hardest year of my life - 2017 - when my 26 year marriage ended, my mother passed away from ovarian cancer, and my 16 year old daughter was sexually assaulted, all within an 8 month period. I knew that no matter what I was facing, I had the skill set, support system, tools, and resources to not only survive, but to walk through the fire and come out the other side alive.
In October 2018, after retiring the previous month, I attended the C.O.P.S. co-workers retreat, and it changed my life. I had worked and supervised a peer support team for 15 years, had coordinated Support Services at National Police week for 12 years, ensured that I consistently went to counseling as needed for regular 'oil checks,' and honestly didn't think there was anything else I needed, as I had retired in a good emotional state. My experience at Co-Workers Retreat was life-changing and made me realize that the road to healing is an ever-changing landscape. It was the first time that I was in a room with 15-20 other officers who had lost coworkers in the lien of duty and was able to share my own story with others who understood my deep grief and loss, listening to similar experiences and journeys. It made me realize that it is never too late to learn more about yourself, and that the proverb about "iron sharpening iron" is one of the greatest gifts we have.
I'm now onto my next career and second chapter of life, working with C.O.P.S. and the Warriors Rest Foundation giving back, training peer teams, walking through trauma and critical incidents with other officers. I hope that my experience and story can encourage others and that I can be part of helping change our culture and prepare the next generation of officers. I hope that you will too. I challenge yo uto find ways to jump in and make a change, to mentor, to be open and vulnerable to sharing your lessons learned, and to realize that there are people and organizations that are there to help.
We are incredibly privileged and blessed to be part of the Thin Blue Line family. My hope and prayer for you is that you reach retirement whole and healthy, and that you beocme intentional with making yourself the best you that you can be. If you are struggling, keep stepping forward every day and find help and accountability - we are here. If you are healthy, find a way to be involved and give back - join the fight. Your time in the jungle and the zoo is a unique experience and journey that only a select few can understand. You wont' miss the circus, but you will miss the clowns. When your career on the streets is finally done, know that there are still many ways you can protect and serve those coming behind you that will carry the torch forward. Godspeed and stay safe.
Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal (Retired)
Warriors Rest Foundation