“What did you learn the most by being a cop?”

That is the question I was asked by a teenager not long ago as I spoke to an eleventh grade high school class about law enforcement. It gave me pause to think before offering a reply. I thought it was worth asking the same question of a number of my retired police comrades via e-mail to see what they would say. Some of the replies were very thoughtful and profound. Some short, some long. I am sharing these comments with my law enforcement friends and colleagues and family members for their perusal. Attribution is omitted, though responders are welcome to chime in on the blog. Here goes:

1. “I learned to check my cynicism at the door. Believing that 99% of the population that we served were good people who wanted the same things in life that I wanted in life.”

2. “Despite your best efforts and how hard you try, you can’t fix every problem, you don’t have every answer and keep the good and bad circumstances in perspective. Perform your job fairly and honestly.”

3. “One of the things I learned is exemplified by a video you can look up on Youtube called The Nobility of Policing, a Franklin covey Production. I think you will enjoy it, but it evokes emotion. I always had the sense that w were something larger than ourselves. This is why I react so strongly to certain topics (published by a certain former Captain we all know and love) related to our country. The sense that, in law enforcement, we are part of something that affects the greater good and that we should be looking for ways to bring us together rather than focus on the differences that keep us apart.”

4. “A very rewarding experience and you meet so many people with extraordinary problems. The majority of the police family like to be helpers and leaders in their community. We are always involved in community projects and youth programs to assist and help others. If you have to say what you have learned, I would say the complete change in our society and respect for others have diminished.”

5. “I’ve learned how to deal with most problems concerning other people.”

6. “Easy – Listen to all sides, evaluate, thoughtfully consider options and make a well reasoned decision. And I use the same process today.”

7. “I learned that you must temper justice with mercy.”

8. “People are often not what they seem. Those who appear to be ‘good’ can often be very bad and sometimes pure evil. Those who appear to be ‘bad’ are often good and can be the best friend that you ever had should you need them. MLK hit the nail on the head when he spoke of the ‘content of their character’.”

9. “To thoroughly listen and observe before making a decision based upon the best information available at the time. If the decision can wait until more information becomes available, wait. Because, at times, our first impression is wrong.”

10. “Nothing is as simple as it appears and never make up your mind until you know all the facts – without taking someone else’s word or opinion.”

11. “Sorry, but I have to give two answer. One) How kind, loving, intelligent and generous people can be. Two) How cruel, heartless, ignorant and selfish people can be.”

12. “I believe mine would be,… never trust the bastards. In fact, once a subordinate said, as a lot of them said, and that was… ‘trust me’. I responded that the last person I trusted put me up for adoption. He stopped dead in his tracks and said ‘really?’ I said, ‘no’ but I don’t give trust too easily or words similar.”

13. “My biggest lesson, which was also my saddest lesson, was not to trust the cops I worked with and in particular, the ones I worked for. A total distrust for management. When in the academy, they taught me not to trust the outsiders, the public. But during my career, most of my back stabbing injuries were made by those I worked with and for.”

14. “The thing I remember from my patrol days, was that profiling does work. You are usually right with your instincts after dealing with some of the low-lifes that we dealt with and that there are a lot of sick people out there. I learned that I could only trust my family and close cop friends to stand by me and to socialize with and that the higher in rank you get the smaller your cojones become. That’s just what I feel I learned. I really don’t miss police work at all. Strange as it may seem, but I do miss some of the guys I worked with.”

15. “The law is not black and white but has many shades of grey. Police officers are not perfect. Next to the military, being a police officer is the most noble profession in this country. You get from something only what you are willing to put into it. No effort, no reward. We put really bad people in jail, some of which are so evil they do not deserve jail, but we have rules. Being a policeman is very frustrating. People expect and want us to do more than we can and sometimes we want to do more than we can. While on the department, I met some of the finest people one God’s green earth. I also met some of the biggest idiots God has [ut on this earth (both civilian and law enforcement.) I enjoyed being a policeman and would have stayed longer but the internal B.S. finally got to me. And last but not least, I met my wife of 35 years while we were both ‘on the job’.”

16. “Thought about this on and off all day. Learned more than I could ever recount. If I had to distill it down it would be…self control of self in all circumstances.”

17. “I don’t know whether I learned it or just reinforced it, but never judging a book (or anything else) by its cover was a powerful lesson.”

18. “I would say, one thing that stands out for me is, befoer you take any action, always make sure you listen to the other side of the story. People can be so emphatic and convincing of their situation that it is easy to want to go charging ahead, which may be the wrong thing to do. Make sure you get all the relevant facts before making a decision as to your actions. Secondly, I would say that your intuition is usually correct. Keep that in mind when assessing a situation.”

19. “What I learned the most is that people are basically good and everyone should be treated as a good guy un til given reason to treat them otherwise. Too often, cops come off as all business and no humanity can be found in them. In order to garner the respect cops deserve, they need to show empathy for the victims that they encounter.”

20. “Enjoy life, it’s short.”

21. “I think one of the most important things I learned was to never ask someone to do something I would not do myself. Lead, follow or get out of the way. I never asked someone to go into a building ahead of me. Also I never took a gratuity of any kind. The person you took a half price meal from today was someone you may have to arrest tomorrow and I know that an attorney will never ask you a question that he doesn’t already know the answer to. On other thing, and probably most important. Organized criminal activity cannot exist in a community without political and police corruption. “

22. “Coming from my own career as a Chicago police officer where I was a beat man, a detective, and lastly a supervising sergeant, I can say that what I learned most of all is the following: One)… I do not immediately disbelieve any conduct allegedly committed by a human being. Fact is, I learned that the brain is a very complicated organ and is quite capable of even the most unthinkable and horrific acts ever discovered and then some. Two)… I learned that cops meet both the best and the worst of people – (and everyone in between). I learned it’s the cop’s job to figure out instantly exactly what type of person he/she is confronted with – as the cop’s life and the safety of others is immediately at risk. Most good cops possess this sixth sense of ‘knowing instantly’ and they enjoy long careers as cops. Those lacking this sixth sense should perhaps seek another employment as they are both a danger to themselves and those they serve. 3) … I also learned that the police profession is mostly a thankless job. Seldom do those you serve truly want to be nice to you – they do so out of self-imposed fear, but seldom out of gratitude. Any cop seeking gratitude from those they serve will most times be disappointed. Being a cop means knowing yourself when you did a good job and that’s all that is required by you. Don’t hold your breath waiting for those you serve to say ‘thanks’. Even the pols who are elected officials in the local where your police department is located will only use the cop for political means on most occasions. If a cop makes one error, he’s toast – if he does everything correct, who cares? Usually only the guy you saved from the bully, and then, just briefly. 4) … Lastly, I learned that being a cop is something that one must really want to be – in my case my beloved father was a cop for over forty years and he taught me a lot. Seeing the class act that that my father was, simply made me want to walk in his footsteps and become a cop too. While I wanted to be like my father, I soon learned that I simply wanted to help those who needed help from all those lousy people who would try to injure them in some terrible way. I soon learned that had I not felt this way, I would have dumped the cops job quite early on – I learned that the best cops have this feeling and it makes them do a great job for others. I guess you might say I never liked a bully, I was always for the little guy, and I learned this feeling is a good thing – in both police work and in general.”

23) “That people can surprise you in the most pleasant and most unpleasant ways. Never assume that the biggest guy is the baddest guy. He may just save your life.”

24) “I loved being a cop. The hours and lack of days off sucked but I was willing to accept that to do something that I always wanted to do. I used every opportunity to further my education and was successful in getting promoted. I relished the additional responsibility and wanted more. I had lots of wonderful experiences, some sad, many not, but one thing more than anything else. Pushed me to pursue a change in careers. I can remember it like it was yesterday. Memorial day was always celebrated in our community with a large parade, lots of floats, bands, the ever present fire trucks which the kids loved. Of course, owing to the large amount of people, traffic, flashing, people cheering and the like. I had the windows rolled down and was slowly moving forward to keep the parade in line and waving to the crowd (just like the firemen). As I passed a young boy waving an American flag and standing next to his father, the boy yelled out, ‘hello officer’ – he father in a loud voice so everyone could hear, yelled, ‘don’t talk to him, he’s just a cop.’ I have always respected police officers and taught my kids to do the same. They turned out pretty well and have never had any run-ins with the law. The citizens of this country have lost respect for honesty, human decency and tolerance. They are self-absorbed and never take responsibility for their own actions. I think that a lack of respect started a long time ago, perhaps with that little boy at the parade, and we are a poorer society for it. Sorry to have run on so long but you asked. I have never told that story before.”

25) “During my career, I was constantly reminded that there are some really bad people in our society that most citizens never encounter. As a law enforcement officer, I came to the realization that no matter what I did most of these bad people will never change. The court system and so-called criminal justice system is becoming weaker instead of stronger and the number of unsolved crimes increases each year. We simply cannot build enough prisons to house all these criminals, so the ‘system’ allows them to walk among us and continue their lifestyle (which often pays very well). Although it is a never-ending battle which we will never win, it is still worth it to work a case to conclusion just to put the cuffs on them and take them for that ride. That’s what I miss most after retirement.”

26) “You’re right, it’s a tough one – and then it gets to be like an essay test in school – I start rambling! Don’t know if any of the following makes sense. I spend about an hour with it. The need to use discretion, common sense and humanity – charging a kid with agg battery because he has a fight with his brother can alter the remainder of his life. Even though what you do seems very anonymous most of the time, somehow – and I don’t profess to know how – people in an area know you and form opinions. Sometimes, the most effective thing a police officer can do is listen. Many times we are called because nobody else was willing to do that. The quickest person to judge, or believe the unsupported worst about a cop is too often, another cop. An officer who wears his/her uniform with pride, is fair and never shows fear, is far less likely to be attacked. Thirty-five years ago, we believed that the best way to stop drugs and dependence on welfare was to work with kids and try to instill different values. But then, as now, the real influence is the home and the street. Inner-city kids – as a group – will never reach their true potential – no matter what programs are created so long as they are taught to hate by those who use history as an excuse for laziness, failure, and dependence on government. We also need to stop the knee jerk reaction to build parks and basketball courts whenever there is a problem. Let’s try libraries, computer labs, music, better teachers, more field trips to inspire them, etc. most law enforcement agencies are involed in too many activities that are not in line with their primary mission. We don’t need special units to treat people decently, to hand out coloring books, to give tours, or demonstrations to kids, or to speak at community meetings. These are all things that can effectively be done by well-selected, caring, well-rounded and well-trained professional law enforcement officers, who spend the majority of their days investigating crime. At the end of the day, they’re far better equipped to understand and address citizens concerns – and their interaction with the kids will mean more.”

27) “I think the most valuable lesson I learned from being a police officer is that there are many many different kinds of people in this world and although they may think and behave different from me or my family, they can still be very good people. That there is not always a right or a wrong, but what they believe in, is right to them. I learned that it is better to understand these different cultures than to try and change them by criticizing them, but by showing them how I’m different and why it may help them to think differently than they do now.”

28) “To know when to be compassionate.”

29) “Perhaps not a direct reply to your question, but I believe that if you truly believe in the career you have chosen, in my case law enforcement, it will reward you with success in your family life and the many opportunities it allows you to achieve goals you have never dreamt of attainng in a lifetime. I guess the cliche’ of reaching for the stars became my reality when the stars shined bright in my hands throughout my fo48 years of brotherhood in a great profession. I hope I made some sense with my ramblings.”

That’s it. All the responses were posted verbatim. They covered lot of ground and with rare exception, I think everyone made excellent points. Thanks very much for the contributions.

Oh? What was my response to that eleventh grader? Much like some of these. I was on the spot, no time to ponder. So I hesitated a moment, before the first word came from my mouth: Tolerance. Being exposed to so many walks of life, cultures, values, personal struggles, opened my eyes to the world helping me to understand that even some of the worst of people may not have had any other choices in their early lives. That’s not an excuse, but an analysis by which to guide my emotional feelings. Thus, I try never to hate.