There have been many times at the end of a long shift, after a particularly difficult incident, or simply a conversation with a non-law enforcement friend that I have had an internal debate about why I chose police work as my life’s calling. I reflect back to a rural childhood where seeing a law enforcement officer was a rarity, there certainly isn’t a shining example of a role model in blue from that time in my life.
We didn’t have a DARE program, although we did have an “Officer Friendly” who came to my small elementary school. I remember just thinking that he was old, and marveled at the idea that this ancient sheriff’s deputy was in some way responsible for anyone’s safety in spite of his patience and efforts in his once a year or so visits to my classroom.
I think we only received about 4 television stations on our old two-story tall antenna. One of those channels regularly aired spaghetti westerns and rerun episodes of Bonanza. I do recall being drawn to the archetypal frontier sheriff embodied by Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza, played by Ray Teal. Sheriff Coffee didn’t get excited by much, and calmly went about his business. If he needed assistance, he could always count on the Cartwright family to come through in the clutch. Marshal Rooster Cogburn had his own charms in True Grit, as did most of John Wayne’s characters, but he loved his hooch and had enough problems that I ruled him out as well. Andy Taylor and Barney Fife were entertaining, but the idea that they were law enforcement officers was lost on me, especially as a child.
As I grew older and our television channel selection improved with a move into a more populated area (a whopping 7,000 residents), I vividly remember the LA riots prompted by the Rodney King roadside beating and the OJ Simpson pursuit and trial that followed just years afterward in the City of Angels. Songs like “Fuck the Police” and “Cop Killer” were recorded to mixed tape cassettes for me by friends with less watchful parents and were smuggled into my house to be enjoyed on my faithful Walkman so no one else would hear them.
As my high school friends and I began to tell tales of being harassed by our local officers for speeding, cruising, and congregating in parking lots of our few available closed retail stores, my views were skewed by popular opinion. Somehow we managed to identify with the lyrical plight of NWA, a group nearly a decade old at the time, and so close to a rural middle America farm community that they may as well have been on the other side of the world. As a kid that wouldn’t have done anything illegal if I had to, I understood that my world and theirs was totally different. But, how dare those officers pick on the high school kids for just sitting in a parking lot, right?
As high school drew to a close, I left my sleepy little community as quickly as possible to save the world as a United States Marine reservist because my mother would not sign an active duty contract when I enlisted at the age of 17. Before leaving for training, I applied and was accepted at a state university. I felt as though I needed to select my major before I left, and as I reviewed the available courses I landed on Criminology with the thought that I would learn about laws and lay a foundation for law school after I finished my 4 years of study.
Reporting to class a week late after I graduated from boot camp, I soon figured out that my course work would center around theories about why people commit crimes and recidivism rates rather than the study of laws and law enforcement. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in college but understood immediately that none of my classes were going to prepare me for anything that I wanted to do with my life, along with the understanding that I had no interest in spending any more time in a classroom.
In order to graduate I had to complete an internship in law enforcement and in corrections. I worked in a juvenile detention facility/school at the time, so my corrections internship was easy. I did not seek out a ride-a-long internship program like most of my peers; instead I opted for joining a very small local agency as a reserve police officer. As a group of folks entering several small local agencies at the same time, we attended a jointly run “pre-basic” academy which provided 40 hours of training and satisfied state law to allow us to be enforcers of the law. After completing this “intensive” training, I rode with the only FTO at the department for one 12 hour shift before I was deemed ready to fight crime as a solo patrol officer.
I quickly understood that my “intensive” training was lacking in many ways as I conducted my first traffic stop and had to call the one full time officer that was on duty just to ask how to report my traffic stop on the radio. I kept him on the telephone as I requested the driver and license plate’s information from dispatch. I gave him the run down on why I stopped the car and asked him if I should write a ticket or a warning. To his credit, this officer patiently walked me through everything and afterward began to mentor me.
I learned a great deal from this salty one year veteran of the force. I started to cover shifts as the only officer on duty in the jurisdiction for full time officers so they could take days off and felt as comfortable as I could in doing so. I soon began to look forward to my next opportunity to volunteer my time, learn new things, and test myself. After I graduated from college and a few months of proving my mettle, I was offered a full time job at the same agency.
This was a small blue collar community, full of hard working, hard drinking, rough and tumble folks who really didn’t mind a tussle with the police. Methamphetamine gripped the community. It was not uncommon to find and assist in the dismantling of a meth lab on at least a weekly basis. As the only officer on duty, I had the opportunity to work a lot of different types of incidents. There were no detectives, so we were expected to investigate all manner of things to the end without assistance.
I did learn a lot. I learned that it’s really hard to make ends meet on a $25,000 a year salary at such a small agency. I learned that only one officer on duty at a time is insane, even in such a small community. The old Texas Ranger motto of “one fight, one Ranger” sounds great until you respond to a fully engulfed bar fight with no back up reasonably close as an early 20-something kid armed with a Glock, two sets of handcuffs, and little to no training. I also learned that this was something I truly enjoyed. There was something about being an officer that spoke to me in a way that few things had to that point in my life.
I was called away from that agency and deployed to Iraq with my USMC reserve unit about 5 months after I swore in there as a full time officer. My experiences during that deployment coupled with the fact that I had returned home to a wife that I had barely lived with and our first born sugar donut made me decide to try life without a firearm attached to me. I tried a lot of different things in that short period of time. Everything seemed hollow while I was working to advance the profit margin of some corporation. I felt the urge to do something more.
I returned to law enforcement with my current Donut County agency and haven’t looked back. I’m sure there are many folks in career fields that they love and hate all at the same time, but this one is mine. I curse it as I remove my uniform and rub swollen knees, achy feet, and a back that will probably never be right again. I get agitated as the white shirt wearing administrators of this Donut County agency make decisions that are so far out of the realm of common sense that they don’t even remember why they made them but refuse to change because they wear a white shirt. But the bottom line is this, for whatever reason, this career seems to be my life’s calling. If you’d allow it, I’d say I’m reasonably well suited for it. I’ll likely never figure out why it is, but with any luck I’ll retire and hang it all up at some point in the future with my body and mind fully intact.
Now the old NWA song represents something different to me; it’s now more of a mating call in the hopes that Mrs. Donut will answer it.
That’s all for now, time to go patrol the Donut.