I’m not much of a ‘T.V.’ watcher. I have less than a handful of shows that I pay attention to and I watch none of them live. Living in the 21st century has its perks with being able to watch your shows on the go or from your DVR when you have some down time. But between working as a police officer, helping to lead our organization-Humanizing the Badge- and being a family man, I don’t have much time left for sanity, let alone T.V.
To take it a step further, when I do watch T.V. I typically don’t choose to “watch the news”. Even after becoming a cop, I would catch bits of stories that I had been involved with and chuckle at how “off” it would often be from the truth. But in the summer of 2014 I was relaxing on a nice leather sofa looking out over a lake in the backyard of a vacation home. I was happy to be far away from the stress and drama of everyday police work--I’m sure none of you know what that’s like. However, it would seem that thinking about the job was inescapable because in a rare moment of watching “the news” I was taken back by how officers were being portrayed in the media at large and how the public is portrayed in their responses to anything involving law enforcement decisions. Notice, I use the word “portrayed” because I don’t necessarily believe that this is representative of the common person (more on that later). Still, for me, as I watched the news for the first time in a long time, I told myself that “things are getting harder in this job.” For a few months, there would be a few very public watershed moments for how law enforcement, and I would argue--the truth, would be viewed by our next generation.
I think over the last year or so there has been a collective “gut-check” moment occurring in many cops (not to mention other first responders). It was like the old Clash song “if I go there will be trouble, but if I stay there will be double”. In the end, I settled on doubling down--and from the looks of it you are all gluttons for punishment just like me. Not only did I want to stay, but I began to feel like I wanted to say some things: things that would help my fellow officers and also help people understand who we are, what we do and why we do it. In other words, I wanted to build better bridges between cops and the people they protect.
All of this, while it wasn’t my first gut-check moment as a cop and it certainly won’t be my last, was still significant as it led to me writing my thoughts down and sharing them with others. In other words, it led to action, which I hope to inspire you to today. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about when I refer to these “gut-check” moments. Sometimes they are major moments requiring time off work and other times they are literally in the moment, moments, in which small decisions that could have great impact are made. Will I stay a cop? What kind of cop will I be? Or we ask ourselves other questions like “Is it really worth it?” “Do I really make a difference?”
In our effort to find answers to these questions, I would suggest to you that we must understand and embrace what really matters and learn to shut out all of the rest of the noise. Being at peace within ourselves about being peace officers isn’t about the absence of problems but being calm amidst the storm.
**I mean, should we really let some 30 year old dude in his mom’s basement yelling for more hot pockets to distract us from our mission?** You see, the trends in social media (twitter, instagram, snapchat, vine, etc.--all of which I engage with regularly, most often just being an idiot for short videos) are just that--trends that come and go. The next time a “reality star” makes a “bad decision” or a sports figure overdoses, the cop stories will again take a temporary back seat until nothing else is going on or until it’s time for another politician to make someone happy again for a vote.
So if all of this isn’t what we should be focused on, then tell me..what DOES matter? Glad you asked….I don’t pretend to be the great and all powerful OZ behind the Thin Blue Curtain, but I can at least be honest about what I have learned and share it with you. Maybe it will be of some help. If it’s not, well maybe you’ll still buy me a quality adult beverage some time anyway, despite my terrible shortcomings.
What I hope to convey to you today are a few things that really matter. They matter so much that they must run deep-so that they can help keep you effective in your job:
YOUR INTEGRITY MATTERS
Cops are leaders. No, not everyone wears stripes or a white shirt or sits behind a desk, but we are all leaders in some way because of the examples we set for everyone watching. And I agree with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” So if you lose your integrity, you lose.
Whether or not people are watching us and recording us with suspicion is based on fact or fiction really doesn’t matter. What matters is how we respond to the increasing eyes upon us--will we handle it with integrity or will we play into the hands of those that would prefer to see us fall? It is events like this where we need to be reminded that we must hold firm to the character that is required in this line of work.
But integrity is much more than just how people see you or the reputation you develop. It’s about who you are when nobody's watching. It’s about what you seek to accomplish that will never be noticed. It’s the unseen part of the ship that is under the water but if compromised will bring the whole thing down.
YOUR FAMILY MATTERS
One of the greatest movie lines of all times (and a quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius) is in the opening scene of Gladiator “what we do in life echoes in eternity.” Well, the vibrations that will echo in eternity start now, particularly with those who know and love you the most, your family.
Let’s be honest, on the days where we’re more than fed up with policies, politics, prisoners and just people in general, we still push on because of who we are going home to. If it were left up to being just about us, we would fail. We need to be inspired by raising up the generation that comes behind us-starting in our families.
We can and should be fueled by our families: the kisses and hugs goodbye before work, the quick phone calls or texts in between calls (or left on during a foot chase---my wife wasn’t too happy with me on that one), the drawings or short stories your kids make about you, or even when your kids are able to start showing that twisted and sarcastic cop humor that only people who love cops can truly understand.
We must focus on our families. We must work for our families and let them inspire us. If you are that single guy or gal, then look for a healthy example and hang out with them so you don’t go out and jack it all up when you get there! But you still have parents or others to lean on, hopefully, and if not, come to my house, we always leave room at our table.
THE BROTHERHOOD MATTERS
The thin blue line is real. No, it’s not a means of protecting bad cops but a symbol of protecting all that is good from all that is bad; It represents the few who are willing to give it all for the many. For me, no one represents this better than my own brother, Cpl Matthew Edwards, who was shot and killed in the line of duty on 7-23-10 responding to a burglary call. In the immediate moments that followed, my brother’s partner was able to give chase and return fire and wound the assailant--because he believed he owed that to his brother.
Eventually, I was in the courtroom only a matter of feet from the man that shot my brother in cold blood and I was armed; not just me, but dozens of other cops. The thought crossed my mind about how easy it would have been for myself, or any one of them that had served alongside Matt, to put an end to this killer’s miserable excuse for a life. Yet, no one threatened him; no one so much as spoke a malicious word to him. It was in those difficult weeks of the trial that the thin blue line began to make sense to me. It was that restraint that existed in those suffering officers that separates “us” from “them.”
Oh that doesn’t mean none of us wanted to take our own revenge—cops are human. But surrounded by a court room of others who stood on the right side of the thin blue line, I was reminded that our true character is revealed not in the moments when all is well, but when life becomes difficult. That truth has taught me to be ever grateful to the brotherhood that exists in law enforcement with bonds that will simply not be broken.
YOUR COMMUNITY MATTERS
There is one primary reason any good cop does this job and it’s the most cliché: to help people. Cops learn to joke about this because the hard exterior necessary to do the job must be exposed, yet it is that “weakness” that is our greatest strength and fuels us with our greatest motivation to overcome the fear of losing our families and ourselves in this job. You come to see the purpose of law enforcement as greater than yourself, greater than any one individual.
But our form of helping isn’t just the feel good stuff like buying lemonade from sally or shooting hoops with billy. It’s going out, digging, and catching the bad guy. It’s the foot chases, car chases, the fights and sometimes the gun battles. It’s the patrol through the street you didn’t realize you spooked the person that would have stolen a car or broken into a home. It’s a conversation you thought was minor, but that helped someone think just a little bit differently.
Both sides of the law enforcement coin are necessary to really serve and protect your community.
Also, it never hurts to be reminded that the vast majority of people really do support us, even they aren’t actively realizing that they need us.
You see, the overwhelming majority of people may not see the world from the same perspective as an officer, but they understand enough to know that we need and have their full support. While it doesn’t seem to be as newsworthy as controversial arrests or officer involved shootings, we cannot forget that while we are here together, someone has offered a random act of kindness to a cop they’ve never met. A coffee has been provided for an officer whose eyes are barely able to stay open to finish that last report; a water has been given to an officer who has stood in the heat for hours; a thank you card has been read in a roll call room from elementary school kids who hope one day to get their chance to drive fast, catch the bad guy, and be a hero; a quick and sincere thank you has been said to an officer on the street; sometimes that thank you even comes from someone an officer has arrested months prior, because it helped them to see that their life needed change. Like the frame of a house, the unseen is the most critical at holding the things everyone else sees together.
I recently attended the National Police Week in Washington,D.C., with a group of fellow officers. While we were standing in the office of the Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, he shared some significant words with us that I won’t soon forget: “There will always be people who will criticize and hate us for what has to be done to keep them safe, but we take comfort in knowing we’ve preserved a world where they have the freedom to have that opinion.” Yes, there are those who are critics of law enforcement, that are happy to perpetuate lies and myths rather than embrace the truth, and who will encourage and incite others to rally against us. Still, let’s not be hasty to forget that the vast majority of the citizens we so willingly serve are thankful for what we do and really do have our backs.
In the end, perceptions come and go--but the real hard work of actually getting into the mess of people’s lives and doing what we can will far outlast false notions that the ignorant want to perpetuate.
YOUR FAITH MATTERS
I won’t get all “preachy” on you, but listen, everyone asks some form of these questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s wrong with the world? and “How can we fix it?” These are spiritual questions and faith provides an answer for that. I won’t debate with you why I believe what I believe with regard to my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know--that without a logical and consistent framework to answer those questions, it’s easy to go off the rails or to turn to something else that only brings temporary satisfaction: booze (and don’t get me wrong..I love good beer and whiskey), women (also, again..I love women) but too much of either or the wrong one can get you in trouble, gambling, etc. I’ve seen it--I’ve watched it, and I’m willing to bet you have too.
We have to have a way to process some of the things we see and experience, do we not? I was encouraged at the end of my police academy training by a police chaplain who reminded us all of the Scripture passage: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword (shotgun or glock) in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
Law and judgment can't be subjective. Unless we ourselves are submitted to a higher law it will be increasingly difficult to do our work without becoming discouraged and unjust ourselves. We are enforcers of the law, but we too must be subject to a higher authority and I would encourage you to consider where you stand on this issue and what answers you have to those significant and spiritual questions.
In the end, what I’d really like you to know that YOU MATTER. We all know this job isn’t easy--each day we prepare for battle; each day we live our life on and off duty in the proverbial fishbowl; we have a front row seat to the deepest moments of despair; and we ride a roller coaster that if we’re not careful takes a physical and emotional toll on us and those around us.But you matter and the work we do together matters as first responders. Yes, this job has difficulties but they are worth it. They are worth it because living a life that matters is about living a life of principle, not excuses for why the world isn’t a better place. It’s worth it because our sacrifices in this job aren’t just lip service but genuine work toward change. It’s worth it because we show others that the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. It’s worth it because we fight to carve out a better path for those who come behind us. You matter my friends, don’t ever forget that.