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Blooming in Stone

It stood there resolutely, a monument to the can-do spirit, a testament to the against-all-odds mentality.  In the middle of a crushed limestone driveway, it stood there, improbably alive.

 

I saw it out of the corner of my eye while I myself stood in the inexorable southern heat, futilely willing my cooling sweat glands to do their job. I walked closer and observed that not only was the pansy living in the early summer heat, it was blooming, just as beautifully as ever.

 

Driveways are rarely good places to plant flowers, and one should definitely never attempt to plant in the middle of them. And yet, there it stood. And that is not the only way it was out of its element.  The pansy was of the variety viola tricolor var. hortensis; it is not a plant that likes heat, and it absolutely prefers well-drained soil. It is a flower that is known to have a longer germination cycle from seed, 1-3 weeks, making it a perfect annual to start indoors, which allows it to make its appearance in late spring, after the last threat of frost has subsided. However, since it also does not like heat, it becomes in the Deep South more of a winter annual, planted when the north is still trying to decide if it is going to be sixty degrees today or snow.

 

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Photo by Ontheblueline.com

Yet, somehow, the pansy ended up here–in the middle of a driveway, in the intense heat of a Southern summer. Its seed was likely carried in by bird droppings and ended up landing here, far from where any seed would likely want to be (provided, of course, that it had an opinion) by pure random happenstance. But after landing in this most inhospitable location, something happened.  Change began to take place. Heat caused a reaction in this little seed, coupled with moisture and humidity. First, little feet in the form of roots began to emerge, each seeking nutrition and providing stability. Then a single stalk sprang up, its little leaf seeking the sunlight above, like a deep-sea diver emerging from the blackness below. Next, an unfurling began, with more leaves emerging from the stalk. The mission of these new leaves was simple: catch moisture and deliver it to the waiting roots below. The roots expanded, reaching as far as they could past this little plant to gather as much nutrition as possible from its garden of stone. Then it happened, the crescendo, the unveiling; a bud emerged from the stalk, cautious at first as it opened ever so slowly, peeking its face of color around a curtain of green, until finally the beckoning sun pulled it from hiding and its brilliant color exploded, smiling for all the world to see.

 

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Photo by Ontheblueline.com

One thing that decades of landscaping experience has taught me is that plants ultimately will grow where they are happy, and where they are happy is determined by the plant. Whether you have a “green-thumb” or garden by YouTube, think about the plants that make it and the ones that do not. If plants interest you at all, you have seen the person who over-preps, over-plans, and over-cares for their plant. They make the trip to the hardware store, buy the highest quality plant, quickly discarding all the surrounding ones for any sign of a blemish. They buy the best soil, making sure every additive and fertilizer is in it.  Perlite: check. Miracle Grow: check.  Lime: check.  Everything that can help the plant be nurtured and grow, they buy. They get the plant home, carefully removing it from the container. They loosen the roots to give the plant the best chance of not being girdled. They then plant it in the right location–proper sun, proper shade, proper soil–and then they water, water, water.

 

A few days later, as you are walking around your yard, you look over at your neighbors’ plant, and the once-thriving, newly-planted specimen has moved on to wherever plants go when they are no longer living. According to all expert advice, that plant was in the proper location and everything was correct for it to thrive, and instead it died.

 

By contrast, if you have ever walked along the rocky gullies of central Indiana or the sandy cliffs of Northern Michigan, you have seen Hemlocks–towering, evergreen Hemlocks–growing in the most unusual of locations. Exposed roots, limited soil, limited nutrients, moisture that is only provided when the snow or rain comes, and yet they tower above many of the trees in the forest, when there is no plausible reason for them to make it. You see their roots above ground, snaking between rocks, and the tree itself bending and warping as it seeks light from the sun above the canopy. You wonder how the tree even stands, let alone lives.

 

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Photo by Eric Sanman on Pexels.com

 

Why does one tree make it, and another does not?  How can an overprotected beautiful specimen die in 24 hours, but a flowering plant in a driveway that never should have taken root in the first place live long enough to share its bloom with the world? All of this with no care, only neglect and a harsh, unforgiving environment.

 

The answer is ultimately unknown. Sure, there is speculation. We can discuss genetics, unknown factors such as disease, insects, and fungus. It can be as simple as too much water causing the roots to rot, or not enough water causing them to shrivel up and die. There are also theories as to succession: which plants come first and can seek out and find nutrients, and which plants come second to live off of the nutrients supplied by the first living matter to occupy an area, such as when new growth begins to come back on a volcanic mountain.

 

Whatever the actual answer in a particular situation, it seems that people can be no different. How is it that one person can seem unaffected by the storms of life, but another person’s entire world fall apart over a seemingly minor inconvenience? How is it that trials make some stronger but for others it is a crisis from which they may never recover?

 

I remember early on in my law enforcement career seeing the Field Training Officers and Sergeants who had been at the agency for almost 20 years and were proverbially “Rusting in Place/Retired On Duty.” The “RIPRODs.” They were doing something that they had fallen out of love with a long time ago and felt like they were just biding their time to get to the goal of retirement. They would come across as prisoners, each shift scratching their mark into the prison wall, to keep track of how many days until “freedom.” We have all met them.  Everything was horrible, nothing good was happening, and often everything in their life outside of work was falling apart as well.  They were planted, barely, but wilting due to an underlying bitterness present in everything they did.

 

However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us.

 

I also remember seeing newer officers and supervisors, who had overcome great odds to get where they were. They had faced trials and turmoil in their personal lives and sometimes their professional lives, but rather than giving in to the storms, they grew stronger roots, anchoring themselves in the belief that this was just something they were going through and knowing the sun would shine again.

 

Whether in law enforcement or really any career, we all know people in both camps: the ones who believe that everything negative is happening to them, as though it is some deep-seated conspiracy aimed solely at their happiness, and the ones who believe that bad things happen around them, but they can learn and grow from the lessons that these trials provide. This is a drastic difference and it is almost entirely due to perspective. Our deep-seated beliefs about life and our role in it have a foundational effect on our ability to weather any trials that may come our way.

 

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Photo by Suparerg Suksai on Pexels.com

 

In life, real storms exist, and they are not always little rain showers. Sometimes they are hurricanes in the low country, they are insurmountable waves and winds buffeting us like wooden structures in sand. Our likelihood of survival seems bleak, and that is the best-case scenario. However, one thing about storms, no matter how terrifying at the time, is that they pass, the wind and waves subside, the sun peeks back out from the gray curtain of clouds, and the song of birds and of life returns. However, only the plants with strong developed root systems can survive these storms, and only people with strong developed core values can handle these life-changing events and come out stronger on the other side.

 

Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.

 

If we find ourselves in life-changing storms but are always living in the belief that the storm is coming back rather than enjoying life between the storms, we do ourselves a great disservice. We begin to believe that the storms are the only reality of life, and we never again try to bloom. Life is not solely about being comfortable and only existing in the perfect conditions for growth. The perfect temperature, the perfect soil, the perfect water, the perfect light. Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.

 

Whether on the job or in our personal lives, there will always be setbacks.  There will always be moments when we question our own survival and whether or not there will be a tomorrow. However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us.  We can land among the rocks in the most inhospitable of environments and then bloom among the stone.

 

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Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, April 18, 2019.

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Coming Home

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.

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Photo by Johan Bos on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

 

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.

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Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

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.

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Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on Pexels.com

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!

 

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, April 3, 2019.

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Painting Rocks

It seemed to be the most mundane of all tasks. The intense afternoon sun was directly overhead, and the heat and humidity surrounded him like a heavy wool blanket. The tropical heat of Florida was unfamiliar to him, and each labored breath he took made him wonder why he had ever come here in the first place. Tiny sweat droplets could be seen gathering on his glistening forehead as the moisture seemed to only intensify the sun’s reflection.

He stood in a field of white sand. He had a shovel in his hand that he would use to dig into the soft dirt, removing it from what appeared to be the beginnings of a hole. Each time the metal spade would dig into the loose sand, the soil around it would loosen and partially fill the hole he had just dug. Over and over this dance continued, dig a little soil and watch the surrounding soft sand partially refill the hole. The unrelenting heat, coupled with the monotony of this task, led to the initiation of a conversation by one of the fellow workers. The other man could not make sense of the repetitiveness of the task and began to complain. In fact, he ceased working, threw his shovel on the ground, and sat in the shade of a nearby tree.

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A conversation ensued between the two men in reference to the fairness of the supervisor. The man who was sitting in the shade saw the supervisor as an unreasonable tyrant forcing them into hard labor in the blistering heat. The man made it clear that he had no respect for the leader and that he no longer wanted such a mundane job. However, it was only his first day on the job, and he was known for moving from company to company, never happy with any place that he had worked. This work seemed to him to be the most ridiculous of jobs and something he saw as being far beneath him.

 

The male who was still digging the holes that partially refilled as he dug had been working for the supervisor for many years, and he truly respected him. He knew that though the work was grueling, the pay was fair. He also knew that though the environment was inhospitable due to the location, he knew the owner did everything he could to lighten the workload.

As the men talked, the man under the shade tree stated that he did not understand why the other man was working so hard and stated that he would be walking away after he had rested. The man then looked up to the other man still consistently digging and asked, “What is it that makes you stay?”

The man with the shovel replied simply, “I stay because I know the man that I work for, and I will do anything that he asks of me.” After a brief pause, the man went on to describe the owner as a man of character, a man who cared when his child was sick and he needed time off, a man who was there when a serious accident almost cost him his life, and a man who constantly supported his desires–even when he asked if he could simply dig the holes for the others who would be planting behind him.

Sitting in the shade, the man was silent for a moment and then inquisitively looked up and asked in an almost stuttering voice, “You want to dig holes?”

“Yes,” he replied gently. “You see, I can no longer operate the equipment since the accident; my eyesight will not allow me. I can no longer plant the large trees because of the strength that it requires and the injuries I sustained.  And can no longer walk great distances quickly enough to move material around.  But the owner knew I needed a job and offered me this one. I owe him everything for his kindness and his caring support. Whatever task he requires of me, I will do with what strength I have left, to the utmost of my ability.” He paused and continued, “You see, digging holes is one of the most important jobs we have. If they’re not ready when the planting crews get to them, then the process is slowed, and it affects the entire operation.”

The man in the shade stood up and quietly walked away. He could never understand the wisdom of the man to whom he had been talking. As he walked away, the methodical thump of a shovel striking sand could be heard behind him.

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I once heard of a supervisor that would ask his people to paint rocks. They were simply brush strokes on native stone for no apparent reason. It’s a task both mundane and thankless. When asked why they would paint the rocks, they almost always replied that it was not because they wanted to paint rocks, but because of who was asking them to paint them.

These stories above are illustrations of the response that great leaders get when they ask for seemingly mediocre tasks to be completed. Sometimes the task is exactly what the person needs and wants to do for their own growth even though the assignment seems lackluster. A seemingly menial task may be the best fit for them and where they are right now in their career. In other cases, the job that is being asked may be truly insignificant or the followers do not have the whole picture, but the person doing the asking is someone that people want to follow.

This analogy is often true in times of war. Though no good leader would intentionally want to lead their people into a deadly scenario, it is a possibility in war that what you are requesting could lead others to their deaths. Why do people follow these men and women into a war zone? In the world of firefighting, why would someone follow another into a burning building? In law enforcement, what would make someone choose to follow others into an active shooting area?

Some might argue a blank follower-ship, a proverbial lemming scenario: they jumped off the cliff, so you jump off the cliff, and so forth, and so on. Though this can be true in some scenarios, I would argue that this is not the case in the majority of situations. When those who survive are asked why they went into the inhospitable environment knowing that they might not survive, they usually respond with some version of, “Because of whom I was following.”

When those who survive are asked why they went into the inhospitable environment knowing that they might not survive, they usually respond with some version of, “Because of whom I was following.”

 

But what does this have to do with law enforcement and holding the blue line? We have all had that one supervisor–the one whose face immediately springs to mind whenever the subject of bad leadership comes up. The first labels that come to mind might be “micro-manager,” “uncaring,” “hard to understand,” and “undisciplined.” We may even use harsher terms or language that describes major character flaws, possibly even unethical or immoral behaviors. We all know and can probably tell a story about a bad leader we have had in our lives, regardless of our profession.

If good leaders are the antithesis of bad leaders, then we can discover what defines them by reversing the traits of a bad leader. If a bad leader is defined by the list above, then the opposite holds true for a good leader, terms such as: “allows for autonomy,” “caring,” “easily understood,” “disciplined” and “ethical,” maybe even “moral.” We all know the signs of good and bad leaders because we have had them in our lives. From the time we were a child, we began to develop an understanding of who we would prefer to follow and why we want to follow them.

In law enforcement today, there is a polarizing effect that takes place when it comes to leadership.  In some organizations we have strong leaders that people will follow into any situation, while in others, we have leaders that no one wants to follow at all.  As with any business, there is a difference between positional authority and leadership. Someone can be given a position of authority–such as passing a Sergeants or Lieutenants exam–but if no one is following them, then they are not a leader. The test for leadership is determined by stopping and seeing who is behind you. Who is it that is charging up the hill towards battle (real or proverbial) with you?  If you glance back and no one is there, then you have no true followers.

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Leadership is something that is essential to a law enforcement organization, from the front-lines to the office of the Police Chief or Sheriff. This is a career that requires you to be able to lead people or at a minimum take charge in a precarious situation where decisions must be made on a moment’s notice. However, this is often determined by positional leadership in the organization and complicated by the chain of command structure. This is an important structure in law enforcement and military organizations but can often lead to an increase in people with positional authority but lacking in actual leadership skills.

The real question is, where are you? What is your role? And why do you do what you do? Do you feel sometimes like you are mindlessly digging holes only to see them partially filled back in with each shovel full you take? Do you feel like you are pointlessly painting rocks just for the sake of changing their color? We all have these tasks, these requirements, that are asked of us. What we must come to terms with is: why do we do them? Is it simply because someone of a higher rank asked us to, or are we following this person because of who they are and where they are leading us? Finally, we must ask the question: if it is solely because of positional authority, then what am I doing differently to be ready to lead when my turn comes?

 

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On the other hand, if we are like the man on his first day sitting under the shade tree refusing to do what is asked, then we are not setting ourselves up for success should the opportunity ever arise for us to lead. That way of thinking will not develop a leader but rather someone who at the best can hope for positional authority should they even stay at the organization long enough to have promotional opportunities.

 

Finally, develop the skills of good leaders in your life, so that someday when you need to ask someone to dig holes or paint rocks, they will simply say, “I do it because they asked me, and they are the kind of man or woman I want to follow.”

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to begin to take notice of your organization and your role in it. Observe those who are leaders you want to follow and what sets them apart, and begin to emulate their actions and reactions. Notice what defines a bad leader, and be vigilant to refrain from those traits in your own life. Finally, develop the skills of good leaders in your life, so that someday when you need to ask someone to dig holes or paint rocks, they will simply say, “I do it because they asked me, and they are the kind of man or woman I want to follow.”

 

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, MARCH 2019.

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The Silence

This Post was written in honor of the men and women who wear the uniform everyday and in memory of a recent loss close to home, you will always be remembered. 

Sound. It is an interesting thing. For those blessed with hearing, a sound can mean so much; it can mean everything. Sound is one of the primary ways we experience the world. From the time we are a little child, sounds stick with us and begin to define our perception of the world. Sounds such as the lullaby mom used to sing, the seriousness in daddy’s voice, and the understanding tone of a loving grandma; all begin to clarify our place in the world .

This continues throughout our life and begins to exemplify the defining moments. Maybe it is our favorite song heard on the radio, the music we first danced to, the understanding voice reflection of a close friend. These sounds provide the backdrop of our world as we know it and our understanding of it.
 
This definition is true with many types of industries and vocations.

Sound begins to describe a career and the moments within it. The whir of machinery, the simple taps on a keyboard, the drip of a coffee maker, the distant voices congregating in a break room, and the sound of the bosses footsteps coming down a hall; they become the drumbeat that fills the background of everyday life. Over time they dissipate into the dull hum that plays out in our everyday moments, but if you stop every once in a while and try to push back against the noise, you will hear the simplest and most distinct of sounds that make up our everyday life.

Law enforcement is no different; sound fills the tapestry of everyday life on the job.

Law enforcement is no different; sound fills the tapestry of everyday life on the job. Sounds that are not as common or simply do not exist in other careers. It can start with the simplest, purest form of noises, until the sounds build on each other, each beginning to tell a story as they build into a crescendo.

The simple sound of a zipper on the side of issued black Rocky boots. The swooshing sound they make as the zipper tightens the support of the boot around the ankle of the officer. The audible click that is heard as the snap is closed on the black leather keeper that goes over the zipper.
 
The sound of velcro being pulled apart. Its distinctive ripping sound made as the sides of a ballistic vest is tightened and retightened to get the snug fit just right.

The sound of velcro being pulled as the outer duty belt is straightened to the inner keeper belt. Moving it, loosening it, to get it to fit just right below the vest.
 
The sound of metal clicking as the snaps on belt keepers are clasped. Each placed strategically around the belt to hold it in place in case something was to catch the belt, someone was to grab the belt, or the weight of the tools, coupled with gravity, would cause it to shift.

The distinctive sound of a magazine being slipped into a handgun, the metallic sound of the slide moving forward to chamber a round. The audible click that can be heard as the firearm is slipped into a retainment holster and nestled into place. The click of the magazine release as it is again removed from the holstered firearm, one last round entered, and then placed again into the magazine well with a click.

The clicks, the snaps, they continue each with their own distinctive tone, as the radio is put in its place along the belt and the cord for the microphone is ran to the uniform’s shoulder. Cameras are affixed with the faint sound of magnets finding their attraction, flashlights are added and piece by piece the uniform is put in place. The uniform coming together as a symbol of the vocational role this person plays in the world.
 
The human sound of a sigh, as they take one last glance in the mirror to make sure that it is all there. The sound of exhalation as the unrelenting thought, of “what am I missing?” comes to the forefront. The sound of one last pat down as all the pockets and holders are checked and inventories to make sure everything is present.

Not all the sounds are this harsh in their delivery, some sounds that surround law enforcement whisper as they join in the nightly chorus.

The sounds now move outside. The sound of a car door on an agency vehicle being shut. The door to a unique office environment, unique to only a few careers. Next comes the sound of the engine starting and the fan noise as the heat or air conditioner kicks on and is adjusted. The whir of fans begins to chime in as the computer and radio come to life and the beeps and notifications they send out announcing their resurrection fill the air.

The symphony is in full display as the sound of the tapping of keys on a laptop keyboard join in and passwords, routing information, dispatch logs, and other information comes to life at their fingertips.
 
The shrill sound of voices begin to pierce the dull rumble of background noise. Dispatchers and officers begin the back and forth electronic communication.

The penetrating sound of excited voices on in-progress calls, the defeated sound of an officer dealing with the one call he was hoping he would not get, and the questioning sound of dispatch wanting to know the details of the call, knowing more is happening than what is being relayed.

The ear-piercing sound of a radio tone-out, the high pitch squeal that makes all officers stop whatever they are doing and pay attention. The questions come fast. What is happening? Where is it happening? Who is there?
 
These sounds encompass every part of the job, each distinctive in its own right, but collectively loud and harsh. The sound of sirens on a patrol car trying to keep time with the flashing red and blue lights. The distinctive sound of fire rescue and emergency services vehicles, their red and yellow lights reflecting in the sky.

The sound of tires on asphalt as a vehicle is driven fast or the squeal of a vehicle turned too quickly on pavement. The rushing sound of the engine when the gas has to be applied rapidly.

Some noises are so unique to the profession that they cannot be confused with any other. The well-known sound of handcuffs being clicked. The metal on metal clasping which leads to a loss of freedom. A sound so distinctive that it can produce a knowing sigh, or an angry outburst.
 
Every call comes with its own distinctive sounds. The sound of voices telling you what happened from their perspective. Each voice vying for your attention, each seeking to get an audience before you, knowing that a decision will be made that could impact their life forever.

Sometimes these voices can never be forgotten. The scream of a mother who just lost a child. The sound of an enraged man whose high has caused him to act out. The cry of the wife who just saw her husband end his life in front of her. The disturbing sounds that signify the end of life, they are often most haunting of sounds. The sound of agonal breathing, the gurgle of liquid and air that can often be the prelude for life slipping away.

There are some sounds in this career that are so distinct that everyone knows their importance, regardless of their walk of life. Chief of these sounds of the sound of a gunshot, its projectile piercing the air, disturbing the quiet of a home and a neighborhood. The concerned calls, the responding sirens, the vehicles still running as they are parked on subdivision streets.

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Not all the sounds are this harsh in their delivery, some sounds that surround law enforcement whisper as they join in the nightly chorus. The simple cadence of footsteps on a building check in the early morning hours. The strike of the boot on concrete providing a percussion-line in the darkness.
 
Sometimes it is the simple sound of a child’s voice saying thank you at the window of your mobile office. Other times it is the grateful sound of the cashier saying, “Thank you for what you do,” or the citizen stopping to shake your hand with a knowing smile and saying, “Thank you for your service.”

These softer tones are the ones that help to stymie the roar of the evil that exists in the shadows where we serve. Yet over time, the harsher tones often win out; they become the overwhelming sound that can define the career. The quiet “thank you” is lost to the sirens and screams. They are the sounds that often cannot be escaped from.

It is the sound that cannot be escaped from that is worst of all, for when it builds and builds into a crescendo, it becomes so overwhelming that it is all you hear—building and building until it finally overwhelms the senses and what once was background noise now takes over every aspect of thought. At this point there is little perceived alternative but to silence the noise. Sound has become the enemy. The repetitious, haunting nature of these sounds does not dissipate without intentionality.

Sound has become the enemy. The repetitious, haunting nature of these sounds does not dissipate without intentionality.

Sadly, in some cases the sound becomes too much—a constant humming tone, a Tinnitus of sorrow. For some, the sound is so overbearing that it must end; the quiet must be allowed back in. The demons that once danced at the edge of the darkness, just outside the light, have crept in through shadows, moving closer and closer, enveloping more and more light, creating the sense of anxiety, and the feeling of no escape.  For some, you may hear the sound of the alcohol bottle being opened and the sound of liquid being poured over ice. For others it may be click from the plastic safety lock on a bottle of pills and the sound of a swallow as they seek relief.

In the most tragic of cases, what you may hear are sounds of finality. These sounds can be the rubbing of a rope over an exposed rafter. The cut of a knife against skin. The click of the firearm being loaded followed by the explosion as the trigger is pulled. These are always accompanied by secondary sounds, involuntary noise created by the inevitable stoppage of motion. The sound of a firearm falling and landing on the floor. The shuffling sound of a body slumping over as gravity begins to pull unimpeded from the strength of the living. Sounds of horror such as the gurgle of blood for a few final moments, the sound of dripping fluid on the surfaces below.

That is when you hear it; its voice now screams in the background for all to hear. It is the inevitable sound of silence.  
 
The drumbeat of voices has silenced for this one, a final silent moment. Or at least that is what is believed to have come. However, in reality, peace cannot come out of this type of tragedy. The sound dissipates for one only to become louder for all those who knew them.

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As the moments pass, the sound comes roaring back in the land of the living,  among the brothers and sisters who must bear the weight of what has happened. A new roar of noise is heard above all the others; the sound of grief and loss has permeated all who knew them. The sound of phone calls and scheduling, the sounds of responding units. The sounds of loss and heartache, tears and brokenness. The sounds of family members hearing the tragic news of loss. The sounds of their grief-stricken reactions to that news and the sound of press conferences and media being notified that a brother or sister decided the noise was too much, they needed relief.

The sound of questions being asked. Questions that can never be answered. Why? How could we not see it? Why didn’t they talk to me? What was going on? Why was it so unbearable that they didn’t think they could reach out? Did they reach out, and I somehow missed it? The questions turn to anger, then resentment, then resolve, until finally acceptance.

No more is the struggle solely with the internal demons of one. It is the shared voice of the defiant, of the strong, of the courageous, the unified voice of the collective, saying, “We will not lose another on our watch.”

Over time the silence again returns. This time it is a haunting silence. No more will those boots be zipped, the sound of a duty belt will never again find the velcro. The snaps of the duty belt keepers will never again be heard as it is being put together to be worn. The vehicle will never again be started by that officer, and the computer and radio will not come to life to signal the start of another day. Their voice will never be heard across the airwaves of those who wear the radio. The sirens will not fill the air and the lights will no longer flash and reflect. Never again will that officer hear the cry of a parent, the whisper of a child, or the wail of a loved one. It will be for them always… Silence.

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This story does not end in silence, not today. Today is different. This tragedy, this horror, this loss, has prompted a new sound. Sounds meant to override the pulsating drumbeat of evil noise. Today a brother called a brother or sister just to ask how they were doing, a knowing and understanding voice to calm the storm. Today a hug was given between zone partners, a knowing touch to make sure they knew they did not have to bear this cross alone, for the pain is easier carried on multiple shoulders. Today at read-off, a pat on the back from a supervisor told a fellow officer, “I am here for you anytime you need me.”  And today a thank-you note slipped in an agency mailbox told a new officer they were being thought of and prayed for.
 
Today the silence is no more. No more is the struggle solely with the internal demons of one. It is the shared voice of the defiant, of the strong, of the courageous, the unified voice of the collective, saying, “We will not lose another on our watch.” A unified voice saying, “We will hold this line together.”

 

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, March 2019.

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The Watchman

A recent trip to the Florida State Fair provided inspiration by stepping back in time. In a hidden corner of the fairgrounds, just outside the flashing lights of the Ferris wheel and the constant hum of vendors selling their wares, sits a collection of buildings from the late eighteen hundreds.  Quietly they sit away from the hustle and bustle of the carnival rides but close enough for the smell of fried anything and everything to drift and hang in the air. These wooden treasures have stood on Florida sand from shortly after she became a state and were here before an automobile ever rambled on dusty Florida limestone. Walking down the wooden ramp to the last remaining green grass at the state fairgrounds you feel like you have stepped into a simpler time even if you are surrounded by motorized wheelchairs and ringing cell phones.

“Simply, the blue light stood in the dark void of night and warned of the danger that others could not see.”

In here, the smell of fried pork skin mingles with the sweet charred scent of caramelized kettle corn. It appears to be a village, a circle of wooden structures, each representing another aspect of town life. The church, the general store, the one room schoolhouse, the print shop, and the blacksmith all present, as though someone had called roll call. The buildings are manned by reenactors, history docents, and lovers of the past, each giving a piece of the story, often a story that still echoes in the pages of time. As you walk past each of these buildings you see consistency in build and in color with the exception of a bright red caboose that sits near the Okahumpka train depot.

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Okahumpka, a name that will still make any middle schooler or honest adult smirk, was a geographic area whose greatest attraction was cattle fields that nestled up to a chain of lakes. The train depot stands as a memorial of this simpler time, with a large model train filling the interior, providing a diorama of life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Walking the wooden decks, looking across the lush green grass, I could almost hear the distant whistle of a train. You could feel the hot afternoon sun, beat down on you as you waited patiently for a distant loved one, or just word from anyone who had sent their message along the rail. It was here on this relic of the once great Henry B. Plant Railway system, that I noticed a metal sign with the word watchman. This peeked my curiosity and as with so many things this led to the next part of the adventure which was getting the answers.

She was a female at least 65 years young, her blonde hair turning gray, and beginning to reflect the blue gray of her eyes. She smiled with a knowing smile, and her skin wrinkled at the edges of her mouth making it clear that she had spent a lifetime smiling. Her skin was tan and leathery from years of being in the sun and exposed to the elements. She spoke as someone with knowledge, someone who grew up with the Florida land and though she was not from a railroad family, she had knowledge in the transportation that changed the face of North America forever.

Above where she stood was a series of glass lamps, signal lamps that were hung above the window that opened to the outside deck. When this train depot was in its original birthplace in Lake County the tracks would have lied just beyond this window, so that messages could have been exchanged as the trains chugged by on the way to their next destination.

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The lanterns caught my eye each with a different color of glass and each holding a different meaning to the observer. Some of the lanterns contained yellow glass, others clear glass, some had red glass and there was one which stood out to me, sitting near the middle, with blue glass. It was a lone blue light hanging in the window as a signal for all. I began to speak with the lady who began to tell me stories and spoke about the different messages that could be conveyed with the different color lights. The clear lamps she told me were simply for signaling purposes, they were used to convey a message or to light an area in the darkness. The yellow lights she explained were for caution, they warned the engineer to be on the lookout for possible danger. Red, she explained, was of course the universal sign for stop. However, when she looked at the blue light, she expounded, she said that in America it stood for danger, it too was a cautionary light warning the engine and its occupants that danger was possible, but that it could be avoided. Simply, the blue light stood in the dark void of night and warned of the danger that others could not see.

I found the parallel uncanny. Just as the safety of the train and all of its passengers and goods were under the protection of a faithful watchman, so too are we as citizens under the faithful security provided by todays law enforcement. The term watchman has been around for centuries and was brought over to North America from England. It was the role of the night watchman to keep an eye on the village, town or city during the late hours of evening and into the early morning. I guess it is true what mom always said, “nothing good happens after dark.” That is why the watchman was there, his task was simple, to stand between the evil that lurks in the shadows and the citizens asleep in their beds.

The role of the watchman dissipated with the Municipal Police Act of 1844 in New York City and the creation of police departments all across the United States. However, the term watchman has endured and is still codified in Florida Statute along with a lengthy list of other law enforcement positions.

“Keeping the watch has always been the role of those drawn like moths to a flame to the career of law enforcement. It draws those who prefer to walk the outer fence near the wolves than to be nestled behind the fence with the sheep.”

Keeping the watch has always been the role of those drawn like moths to a flame to the career of law enforcement. It draws those who prefer to walk the outer fence near the wolves than to be nestled behind the fence with the sheep. It takes an understanding that the true danger is believing that the danger does not exist. For it is better to embrace the fear outside the fence and try to conquer it than to pretend there is nothing to fear.

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Law enforcement officers today have continued the role of the watchman. Even now, when in the early morning hours, I conduct a building check or a foot patrol, I feel a pull back to the early days of a protector walking a beat. As I walk, I am drawn back to the very foundations of law enforcement. Whether it is walking under a street lamp in the dark and watching the shadows dance on the outer fringe of the ring of light or listening for the sound of footsteps that do not belong, each step I take transports me back.

We as law enforcement are still the watchman, waving the blue light, warning of the danger that lies ahead.

Today we stroll the streets in vehicles with computers and radios, but we still stroll, knowing that crime is still afoot. Knowing that the very danger the watchman was hired to prevent still exists. We are still hoping, as did they, that our mere presence will be the lamp warning of the danger that lurks in the shadows. A lot has changed in the world in one hundred and twenty years, but one thing has not. We as law enforcement are still the watchman, waving the blue light, warning of the danger that lies ahead.

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, FEBRUARY 2019.

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The Mental Toll of Mental Toughness; A Story

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please seek help immediately, you do not have to struggle alone. 

He sat there staring at the black silhouette of a handgun, lying on the cream-colored sheets. It was motionless, and so was he. Well, he was motionless at first glance, but upon closer inspection you could see his chest rise and fall, you could see his eyes flutter occasionally when pulled from their blank stare, and you could see the occasional repositioning of a foot or a hand as uncomfortableness would force the movement. However, what you could not see was all the motion inside his head. In his mind there was endless shifting begging for clarification and understanding.

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As you survey him, you would not see any damage, hear any pain or discomfort, or feel the angst that was there. There were no visible wounds, no lacerations, no punctures, no physical defects. What you might notice is moisture, you would have to look to his blue eyes, past the blank stare and towards the edges where the color meets the white, there in that space was a tinge of glistening moisture, moisture that spoke to something that could not be seen. Tears are a funny thing, they can be felt, but their voice is mixed and is not clear. Tears can be mistaken for joy, for pain, they can indicate being overwhelmed. They are clear and loud in their delivery, but lack in the clarity that allows the observer to know why they are there. Today, in his eyes these were not tears of joy. They were tears of pain and they were tears of devastation.

As you continue to study the scene, your eyes would inevitably go back to the handgun sitting on the edge of the bed. The black Glock 42, its name indicated by the markings visible as you glance down, appeared to have a magazine inserted into it. Within the magazine, one could assume were 6 rounds nestled together, neatly in a row, and an additional round chambered into the sleek handgun. One may be concerned as they looked at this firearm, as to its purpose, its role in the scene. Yet, it has no intent within itself, no action that it can take from its motionless state unless enacted upon by an outside force.

Near the gun, sits a badge, its gold reflecting the light in the room creating a star-like pattern on the nearby wall. Its star-shaped silhouette seems to indicate that it belongs to a Sheriff or a Deputy. The badge holds no authority, no strength on its own, but it can represent both strength and authority. The badge means nothing where it lies, but it can mean everything where it is wielded. Like the firearm that it lies next to, it’s only role is to be obedient, to be a tool, and to fill a role when called upon.

The male reaches down and picks up the badge. He holds it and feels it. He feels the weight, both real and perceived. Yet, its weight can be almost too much to bear. Who would have known that such small piece of metal, a piece of silver, a piece of gold, a piece of tin, could have such a profound heaviness. The badge represents so much, stands for so much and remembers too much. A tears salty moisture finds its way from the man’s red cheeks to the edge of his gold badge, sitting on the edge for only a moment, before cascading to the floor with the assistance of gravity.

Gravity. Weight. Heaviness. Those were the words that describe this scene, but why?

The items in this scene cannot remember, but he can. They cannot recall the traffic scene. They do not recall two a.m., when a mother of three young children stopping at the store on her way to the house to pick up last-minute Easter gifts for the kids. Her mind certainly focused on their smiling faces and a blessed day of friends and family, church and Easter egg hunts. Her mind was certainly with her family as she pulled out of the store’s parking lot directly into the path of an intoxicated driver who never even attempted to hit the brakes. The lights, the sounds, the screams, the smell of hot brakes and burnt rubber. The smell of blood and the struggle to try to sustain life in the face of certain death. No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.

“No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.”

His mind goes back to the infant lying lifeless in the child’s parents bed. The initial indication that someone rolled on him and smothered him during the night. He remembers vividly the young baby motionless, appearing like a baby doll on the sheets. The badge and gun were there as he tried to console the parents, assure them that even though they lost their entire world; that somehow, and in someway it would be ok.

The roller coaster of his mind continued, up and down, around and around, memory after memory. Dead body after dead body, young and old, drug related and health related, expected and gone too soon; they all just mix together and run through his mind. He thinks of the abused victims, children beat by loved ones, children sexually assaulted by the very ones who were supposed to protect them, children with no one left to care for them and children whose voices never even had a chance to be heard. Victims who have lost almost everything and victim’s who have lost everything to include life itself. Their voices echo in his mind, they are a constant drum beat, driving steadily to a crescendo of hurt and pain. That is where he is today, the drum beat has grown, the orchestra has assembled and the angst and pain seemingly has no outlet as the sound becomes deafening.

He sits the badge down and reaches over to the nightstand and grabs a rocks glass. The gold from his badge refracting through the jagged design, etched in the glass above the brown liquid. The brown liquid moves slowly around the cubed ice as the glass is gently circled in his hands. The alcohol moving around the ice as water moves around rocks in a gentle stream. Alcohol. The one thing that he hopes will help. All he wants is for the drumbeat to lesson and the memories to fade. However, even though alcohol may slow down the memories, they don’t evaporate. Alcohol can make the voices quieter, but they do not leave. Where once was screams there is now a roaring whisper. Yet, much like the overwhelming song of the katydids on a summer night after a brief rain, the memories of suffering flood his soul and continue to echo in the deep caverns of his mind. He sips the alcohol, still wishing for relief and the glass is sat back on the table.

It is premature to assume that it is only the sounds of the past that haunt him tonight. It is also his own questions, the interrogative statements that pry at his very heart. Did he do enough? Was he fast enough, smart enough, strong enough? Was he in the right place? Did he make the right decision? Is he wrong to think this way? Pointed questions, questions that beg an answer where no good answer exists. On and on they go, until the worst of the questions rises to the top, the abhorrent, What if…? This question has no answer. The very asking of it requires an assumption thus guaranteeing it cannot be determined. Where there is no control, there is no ability to question variables. You cannot know what will actually happen today or tomorrow, because you have no control over it. Since you have no control over it, you also cannot say what would happen if anything about it were different, it is by its very definition, an unknown.

The memories of the uncontrollable continue to race through his mind mixing with the questions of the unanswerable, becoming simply overwhelming. He needs answers but cannot have them, he needs peace and that too remains elusive.

He reaches down to the silhouetted gun and picks it up. His palms sweat and moisture can be seen on the shaft of the firearm as he moves it about in his hand. He notices the weight, much like the badge, it is heavier than its actual weight. The gun holds a power as well, one of life and of death. It is the end of the decision-making process, the final step on a decision tree. Once the trigger has been pressed back to release the firing pin, it cannot be brought back. The hammer, the pin, the strike, the primer, the powder, the projectile; this chain of events cannot be stopped once the decision has been made. If that decision is to take a life or to save a life, once in motion, the decision has been made and only God can intervene.

Tonight though, instead of the trigger, he hits the magazine release on the black polymer body of the handgun with his right thumb and catches the magazine with his left. He drops it on the blanket beside him and grabs the cool metal slide of the weapon and pulls it straight back, watching a round eject unto the floor in front of him. Quickly he takes the gun and throws it a short distance, allowing it to land on the floor, and slide to its resting place along the wall. He then reaches back to the table and grabs his glass of whiskey. The tears are streaming quicker now and each breath he takes is faster and deeper. His only thought, “I can’t do this, I have always been so tough.” However, right now, all he can sense, all he can feel is weakness, the perception that he us unable to control even himself.

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He has been tough, he had to be. When he was the first to arrive to the auto accident and watched the life of the young mother slip away he had to be “tough.” He could not cry, he had to act. He had to seem strong, impenetrable, as he told a mother she would never see her daughter again and knew that she would have to relay to her grandchildren that their mother was gone forever. He had to be tough when faced with physical challenges, he had to be tough when faced with people who hated the badge simply because of what it represents and not who is. He had to be tough when faced with gunfire, tough when rescuing others from fire and water.

Tough had become a defining part of the persona he created. A persona that was beginning to feel more like an alter-ego. Inside he felt so weak, but he knew in his mind he had to be strong for those around him. He had to not only be strong at work, but strong at home. Strong for a family that didn’t understand what compelled him to this line of work, strong for a wife who never wanted him to leave and strong for a son who just wanted dad to be home. However, all this strength felt like a charade because it is the curse of mental toughness.

“He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point.”

He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point. Mental toughness is a dam filled to the point of spilling over, a river that cannot maintain its banks, a drink that has escaped its glass and escaped across the wooden bar top. The damage is the only measure by which it can be observed and much like the breaking dam, when the damage finally reveals itself, it is so significant he may never recover. This is the reality of mental toughness, is that it is a strength given not received. It is a strength that has a limit if not rejuvenated. When the last drop of strength is given with no refueling, the only result is emptiness or loss, which is often labeled weakness. Strength is not salvaged by ignoring its loss. The choice to ignore the inevitable is why relief is sought in the first place, whether it be in a handgun, a bottle of alcohol, reclusive behavior, sexual promiscuity or illicit drugs, relief is the only goal.

Mental toughness is a misnomer. It is true that a strength of mind has been developed, but in its development a weakness is created, a weakness that makes the strong feel as though they are losing control. Feeling that they are losing the very part of themselves that allowed them to do the work they were called to do originally. It is this feeling, this lack of control, that begins the spiral which becomes the unconquerable challenge. If allowed to continue, it will spiral downward, until the need for relief becomes so strong, so overwhelming, that it is sought after by any means.

Today the story ends differently. After setting the glass of whisky back on the small wooden table, he reached for his phone. At first he didn’t know why, but something compelled him, something told his that today he could make it. He called a friend, a friend from work, someone who has fought the same demons, someone who though they may not have won the war, has won battles. It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought. The conversation was short, it wasn’t even descriptive as what was going on, but the friendly and knowing voice over shadowed the haunting voices for at least long enough to set the bottle to the side and to think about his wife and son at the house, to think about life, rather than the echos of death.

“It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought.”

After hanging up, he sat his phone down. He reached down and picked up the star and sat it next to the bed on the nightstand, he then reached down and grabbed the magazine and the Glock handgun. As he had a thousand time before, he loaded the weapon and sat it next to badge to keep him safe. Picking up his phone he called his wife assuring her he would be home in the morning. He looked over at the bottle of whisky, picked it up and poured it down the sink. As the last drops circled the drain he smiled and thought that tonight he still had the strength to go on, tomorrow will be a new fight, but that is tomorrow. Tonight he went to sleep.

This post first appeared at On The Blue Line, February 2019.