Military and Police

Law Enforcement Lifelines

Had lunch today with a dear friend who, way back…when I first walked into the halls of police HQ, welcomed me with a handshake. On that fateful day, I presented as a “police intern” candidate from the University of Tampa where I was studying criminology oh-so-many moons ago. This greeter who turned out to be a lifelong buddy showed me the ropes in police dispatch (where I was initially assigned). How communications officers interact with police officers and, conversely, how they process the public’s requests for police service was boggling to this untrained brain. He was an agency instructor. Not many months later, I was hired by that same Tampa Bay-area law enforcement agency which I would then and forever embrace as my second home. Promoting from dispatch, my friend became a sworn policeman. I followed suit in the same traditional sequence for many cops: transporting from one side of the mic to the other, being handed keys to a police cruiser as the rite-of-passage trophy of sorts.

Akin to retired or about-to-be-retired cops all across America, “the good ole days” was among choices on today’s menu…besides a delish Mediterranean dish which tamed the growling pleas of my hollow belly. Among souls drenched in blue, there are infinite times police chums mull how it used to be—dissecting which police chiefs were faves, or how policies and procedures seem counterintuitive to the mission of law enforcement, how the anti-cop climate may motivate or dissuade people from joining police ranks, best police canine ever, etc. Certainly, politics is a stale staple who those then, now, and in the future will be forced to nosh on, like it or not; it is a part of the police culture, and police chiefs are either in the middle of the playing field or on the sidelines receiving signals from external figures (non-cops). Sometimes they are wrapped up in one bundle of total controlmore on that monster in a moment.

My bud’s ideal police chief differed from mine—well, to a certain degree anyway. One chief always echoed “We will chase until the wheels fall off” while another (a polar opposite) constantly mandated a report upon almost every activation of the lightbar or for taking too many seconds to get to a non-priority call. Bipolar moods sometimes emanate among law enforcement executives; the side the citizenry is not privy to…other than when Officer Friendly has to explain away all the prohibitions and reasoning perpetuating hands-off protocols and how/why “We can’t help you. Sorry.”

A few police chiefs in between the aforementioned polarity sort of administrated with a patchwork of allowances/prohibitions, depending on mood of the day and the current hallway whines from city council members. Most politicians refrain from chatting with their cops. Suited me just fine; I spoke with more constituents and was pleased to interact with social humans. It was what I signed up for.

What didn’t really strike me as odd or surprising was the differentials between me and my friend: I crave to be back on the job whereas he professed elation to be far away from the cop shop as possible. I get it: as he non-jovially bellowed, “The job nowadays is nowhere near the fun it used to be.” While his assessment is not inaccurate, that premise also implies variations on the theme of effecting changeit is what we make it. Yes, an idealist’s stance. There is always room for adjustments and modifications, motivated by the will to see change positive change despite tyrannical figures leading some cop shops carelessly into inferno-like climates while having zero eyes on my six.

My buddy, in particular, got so thoroughly scorched by command staff paranoia and unceasing tyranny that he was virtually squeezed from the police ranks. Set up to fail and suffocate under the heavy wrath. It was a bad time which he survived and refuses to review. I respect him.

That friend’s first-hand view colorizes one of the not-so-isolated incidents in police agencies around the nation; great cops feeling the heat from power-tripping police executives is a crystalizing trait in police circles. Another buddy’s situation unraveled his beloved police career the same way: a police chief had it in for him and did everything to crush his spirit. Rather than say he succumbed to the bogeyman police chief’s whim, that friend opted for self-preservation and departed the agency, taking his experiences and talents with him.

He matured to admit he was feeling mounting anxiety over reporting for duty, was dealing with depression stemming from chronic head-butting from his “police leader,” and otherwise felt the quickening deterioration of his physical/mental health. Bluntly, he recognized none of that bode well for any tour of duty. After nearly 15 years dressed in blue and donning a badge, he closed that door and launched a wellness entity for first responders experiencing exactly what he endured. Again, I see his recourse as self-preservation, not necessarily resignation. His wife and children realize the dividends of a lifestyle change, proof enough for anyone.

Whether it stems from command staff eyeing a political career after their law enforcement journal is written, or a misplaced spine resulting in seeming betrayal and throwing the rank and file under the proverbial bus, crime-fighting has become increasingly littered with political detritus. Great cops become victimized by the crush of political sway ostensibly more inherent in law enforcement circles now than ever before. (Stay tuned for a developing piece regarding a northeast police entity and its elected leadership semi-publicly wrestling over control of police operations.)

I follow the blogs, accounts and pages of retired police chiefs and sheriffs, via whom I can readily interpret philosophical prose, many telegraphing getting out of police work because of mainly two things: The overly-politicized playbook and severe underappreciation by both elected officials and the citizenry. Great chiefs purged by thorny circumstances, their breadth of knowledge rendered collateral damage. As alluded to above in several areas/ways: it is what you make of it…unless it is killing you and hard astern is the fix.

Differing from some of my police chums, my take is the anti-police climate in current society is tantamount to so much opportunity to effect change. It’s not like cops are so unused to dealing with naysayers; it is customarily the lifeblood of one of myriad purposes for the existence of law enforcement. Come and fix our problems, right? Simply put: folks sometime have difficulty following the rules, and it takes a disciplined individual whose critical-thinking skills are more than enough to help steer rudderless folks as well as to circumvent misguided police bosses, including the combined rarity of mayor/police commissioner powers and authority. Fight back, Portland police!

Cops perform traffic duties beyond guiding in the right direction; the legs and minds of individuals often need direction, despite self-professed wherewithal in the area of…life. As a policeman, I have encountered my fair share of individuals from whom I was left with the impression, How on earth did you ever make it this far? Sometimes applies to some bosses, too. Or more than some. Those dubious leaders compelled me to gravitate to the stellar police individuals who held rank, knew honor, and who exuded the proverbial cops’-cop persona without fail. That magnetizes my infinite interests in law enforcement, much the same when I were a five-year-old witnessing NYPD warriors work the beat and sergeants at the head of the pack.

Despite some police executives stepping all over the chips, the law enforcement lifeline doesn’t necessarily wane for cops on or off duty. Neither does it permanently pollute the waters for retirees.

As a side note, my colleague and I talked about human psychology and how it readily transcends effective community policing, meaning the yahoos who know far better about laws than police officers whose bread and butter is derived from enforcing the statute book, ahem…with real-time experience to bolster their revelations, attributions, and testimonials.

As a retired cop who salivates over progressive police work and the subculture we refer to as law enforcement, the contingent of which performs the death-defying duty (with some casualties along the way), I diligently follow the current affairs good and bad in my chosen profession. That would include the reported shortage of law enforcement applicants and the purported reasons why the inventory is drastically depleted. OpsLens Contributor Brian Brinker reported on this dilemma. Further, OpsLens Contributor Steve Pomper penned a piece regarding selling out small-town police agencies.

I miss my law enforcement lifeline(s), those around whom I feel most at ease, those who will laugh at me while I devour all the pizza because they know it is my nirvana. They know my vices, I know theirs, and that makes for ideal company while reveling in temporary utopia.

I’ll close with an all-encompassing lifeline story, one of the many indelible calls in the latter part of my police career. This one in particular entailed several 9-1-1 calls from residents startled-awake by the voice of a female screaming “Help me!” at 04:25 hours. Arriving in the general area, the pleas for help led me to the Welcome mat and open door of a 92-year-old elderly woman who had fallen and couldn’t get up. She lay right there in the threshold. Her deep-set blue eyes smiled at me as I sized up the situation: the zig-zaggy blood trail leading to her resting spot at the door stemmed from brittle bones broken from her fall on tiled flooring within her quaint apartment. One of those bones snapped and speared her frail right arm, jutting like a wayward tree branch. She was somehow smiling and she seemed confident in her (our) resolve. She said she had been on the ground for hours and knew she needed to summon help, and that meant expending every grain of energy to get to the front door (couldn’t lift herself to un-cradle the hardline phone perched on the counter). She extended her hand (the one with a protruding bone and cascading blood), her eyes inviting me to take it. I gripped it gently; she enclosed her fingers around mine tightly. “Please, just stay here with me…until the ambulance arrives,” she said.

She knew the routine. We chatted about nothing of importance; whatever worked to keep her dialed in/conscious. I believe she gave me more hope than I was attempting to provide her. A strong woman. Fate called it a draw. There was some unspoken connection, but I couldn’t define it right then. I simply did what I was supposed to do: be her lifeline by ensuring she wasn’t brutally assaulted, maintaining the scene, monitoring her condition, and reporting changes/findings to incoming fire/rescue personnel. As paramedics arrived (we always had a kick-ass response time).

End of shift shortly thereafter, I went home for a snooze-fest as the sun rose. Later that afternoon, my favorite police chief’s secretary woke me with a telephone call to ask if I could report to HQ before 17:00. “Chief wants to talk to you,” she said. Naturally, I obliged. Suited and buckled for bear, I arrived and reported directly to the office of the chief of police. I entered his open-door policy/domain and was introduced to a guy named Leo. His handshake crushed mine…and he wouldn’t let go. I glanced at the chief, expression signaling for some intel. The chief explained the broken 92-year-old woman call “from last night.”

Leo introduced himself as “her son”…a retired NYPD police sergeant who was at that time employed as a court security officer in downtown Tampa.

Leo and I went on to be good friends. Whenever I had criminal or traffic court in the too-damn-early morning (after working the streets all night), the sweet woman’s son and I always embraced and rekindled “that night you stayed with my mom.” The welled-up eyes of that brother in arms, and his super-sincere handshake each time we bumped into each other in the halls of justice, was my elixir for when the misguided politicians and/or police leaders evinced how out of touch they can sometimes be.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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