Coming home. A simple phrase with so much meaning. The thoughts that it provokes, the memories it conjures, the images it displays are different for each of us, depending on our life experiences, our desires, and our interpretations. It seems like only a short time ago I would come home to the pitter-patter of tiny feet—the echoing sound of a toddler running across ceramic tile to greet me at the door. The high shriek of a child’s voice screaming, “Daddy’s home!” The giggles, the “How was your day?,” and the moment of reunification that seems frozen in time. Almost every parent can relate to this memory, and others may even relate to a similar response from a beloved pet. It seemed in that moment that nothing else mattered; mommy or daddy was finally home, and life could get back to normal.
Time changes everything. Over the years, the pitter-patter of children’s feet becomes the thud of teenager’s tennis shoes. You are no longer met at the door. Instead, you may hear a deep, dispassionate, “Great… Dad’s home,” echoing from somewhere in the house. This greeting is most likely coming from the living room couch where an electronic game or television is playing in the background. The excitement is no longer there, and your daily schedule has descended into a ritual of leaving and returning, without cause for excitement or wonder.
Time changes everything. Over the years, the pitter-patter of children’s feet becomes the thud of teenager’s tennis shoes.
This is a natural part of the progression of life, and it is often no different in our career. Do you remember the first few times you wore the uniform? How it felt? How many times you checked for the proper fit in front of the mirror, just wanting to make certain it was perfect? Do you remember the first time you sat in your Field Training Officer’s car? And do you remember the first call you went to? If you have family or roommates living with you, do you recall their response when you returned home from those first couple shifts? Your family was so excited, wanting to see you in your uniform, the beaming smiles, the pats on the back, and the words of congratulations.
No matter where in the country you serve, your career likely began in a police academy of some type. You spent months learning, educating yourself on the details of the job, the laws of the state and community in which you serve, and how to properly use all the equipment you would one day be issued. While in the academy, you were likely participating in regular physical fitness, working out several days a week, striving to be in the best shape you could be for the career ahead. The academy was all about comradery and teamwork. There was a sense of excitement among the group knowing that you were in this together and that somehow, someway you were all going to make it. You knew that someday you would all wear the badge, and you were excited about it, no matter what the tasks of the day demanded.
This excitement remained through the orientation at your new agency and place of employment. After completing months at the academy, having only a few weeks of introduction was refreshing. However, somehow, these weeks seemed to go by even slower. You were so close to finally being on the road, so close to your goal of becoming an officer. No matter if being a police officer is something you dreamed of your entire life, or if just one day you decided you needed a job and you applied, the process helped to create a feeling of accomplishment.
Finally, your first day on the road arrived. You likely remember every moment of that first day. The feeling you had when you sat in your first roll-call. There was certainly apprehension, but deeper there was enthusiasm, a knowing that you had made it this far, that you could complete the process. Every call was exciting. Sure, some were tragic, some may have been concerning, some may have even been boring, but at the end of the day there was an eagerness behind everything you did.
The first couple times you returned home after a shift, you were greeted by family. They wanted to hear about your day. “What did you see? What did you do? What was it like?” If you have small kids, they probably asked to see the lights in your car, to hear the siren and maybe even quietly whispered, “Can I sit inside the car?” They wanted to hear the funny stories, and you told the humorous tales with gusto. And they thought they wanted to hear the tragedies, so you told them the edited versions you could recall. They were eager and you were excited, and they wanted to know everything about what you were doing and who you had become.
Over time, it all changes. It is slow at first, like the evaporation of water on a hot summer day. You don’t notice the slow change. At first, you notice your response is different. Calls you used to approach with interest become routine. The awe and wonder are no longer there, and you begin to feel a rise of cynicism, maybe even resentment towards those you serve. The parts of the job you used to find exciting and full of promise become annoyances and aggravations. It takes years, but slowly and steadily everything you used to love about the job becomes everything you hate. Pressure grows, frustration grows, and impatience grows, and you find yourself beginning to wonder why you even chose this line of work.
It takes years, but slowly and steadily everything you used to love about the job becomes everything you hate. Pressure grows, frustration grows, and impatience grows, and you find yourself beginning to wonder why you even chose this line of work.
Now, it isn’t that you don’t want to be a cop; in fact, that’s the one thing that makes sense. It is the clearest thing to you, the fact that you are still a cop. Somehow it seems that it is the definition of being an officer that has changed. It is no longer you in your cape, flying about, solving the ills of society; rather it is the reality of a society with so many ills you begin to wonder if they can be cured. Once, you dreamed of helping victims find justice, and now you begin to think that the term “justice system” may be a misnomer. You have felt the frustration of the revolving door of the courts and detention. You have seen evil seemingly win and felt the anger when the vilest appear to be vindicated.
You still want to be a cop, but your definition has changed. The real question is: why has it changed? This change seems so deep, so core to everything that you know that you begin to wonder if it isn’t you that has fully changed.
It is here, in this place we have all been, that I would argue that it is not change, but rather the natural seasons of life. Just as a teenager no longer thinks as a child, no longer cares about the same things he cared about as a child, and no longer behaves like a child, so it is with us as we “grow-up” within a career. We begin to see the world differently because of our comfortability in it. The world isn’t as we once knew it, because we are there, we are interpreting it according to our involvement. It isn’t that these frustrations were not there before we became part of the system, they just were not your frustrations. It was not the world that you knew as intimately as you do now.
Sure, cynicism can creep in, even deeper concerns such as resentment, but they are reactions to a world that existed before you even first put on the badge and will be there long after you hang up your uniform for the last time. The answer does not lie in changing that which is out of our control. The answer is maintaining ourselves in the storm, making sure to preserve the proper perspective and to guard against cynicism, resentment, and even hatred.
The teenager sitting on the couch playing a video game when you walk in the door doesn’t love you any less now than when he would run across the tile floor, and you don’t love them any less, they just see their world differently. They no longer expectantly wait for dad or mom to come home because they are reaching a level of autonomy, and your world is not the most important thing in their world. Their world is evolving with each revolution of the earth around the sun.
It isn’t that the lights, sirens, and uniforms don’t interest friends and family anymore, but they are no longer new or different; it is simply who you are, who you became. The new car scent has officially worn off.
You still have a sacred mission, and until the day you decide the job is no longer for you, you retire, or you leave for reasons outside of your control, we must remember what brought us here in the first place.
This evolution has occurred on the job as well. You now see the frustrations, but the core mission, the core need that brought you here still exists. The career still needs your involvement to try to stem the tide of injustice and mayhem that would exist in a world without law and order. The reason you are here is no different than it was years ago when you went through the academy; it has only progressed. The goal now is to protect the part of yourself that sees this as a mission and to be careful not to lose yourself in the job. For if we lose what brought us here in the first place, we risk not being able to complete the duty to which we have been called.
For each of us, putting on the uniform should every day be a coming home celebration. You still have a sacred mission, and until the day you decide the job is no longer for you, you retire, or you leave for reasons outside of your control, we must remember what brought us here in the first place. Welcome Home!