Our Honorable Profession

On New Year’s Day, I received a telephone call from a good friend who is one of New York’s Finest. I will refer to him as Officer X to protect his anonymity.

Officer X wanted to talk for a while. The N.Y.P.D. recently lost a well-known police officer Peter Figoski who was murdered on duty in December. The news broke on Saturday that A.T.F. Special Agent, John Capano died while stopping a pharmacy robbery on Long Island, N.Y. Officer X was really down and frustrated with the public. His frustration was people do not respect the police or the military like they used to. The increase in violence against cops over the last several years is really starting to hit home for Officer X. Add in the fact he is approaching the 10 year point as a cop, he works the day in-day out daily grind, the tragic events and people he… has witnessed and now his co-workers are being overzealously pursued within the agency for minor rules and regulations violations. Welcome to policing Officer X.

Officer X was overtired from the special duty he was called in to assist for the organized chaos known as New Year’s Eve in Times Square on Saturday. I asked Officer X about what time did his work day begin for this duty. 1145 hours, Officer X replied the day was good. He got a security post off the main drag which created some boredom but he was assigned with great group of cops who made the best of the gig. Officer X started to growl, our team got pulled off with a large team of other cops from the square and we raced down to Zuccotti Park because the Occupy protesters were trying to overrun the police line protecting that restricted area. Officer X is now really upset as he relates some of the events. “Here we are after midnight, hundreds of these people standing there taunting us, spitting at us, swearing at us while 68+ people are arrested and N.Y.P.D. tries to restore order. I can’t understand that we risk our lives for these people and this is how we get (expletive) on.

I sat there for a moment trying to put myself in Officer X shoes. A mixture of danger, disbelief, confusion, frustration and lack of sleep was being articulated to me over the phone. I could relate to his discouragement and I can hear him finally taking a deep breath and relaxing.

I asked him a question, “What is the most important role a police officer performs?” Now there is bewildered silence in this phone from the Big Apple. I asked Officer X, “What is the most important role a police officer performs or for that matter a member of the military in our country?” He sighs that he can’t think. I remind him that we have a duty to protect the Constitution of the United States. We have to remember that we protect the right for those people to picket- protest or demonstrate to exercise their free speech. There are troublemakers everywhere Officer X. Remember, for every protester that you’ll encounter, there are 4 times more citizens who respect us. I asked Officer X to consider focusing on the people who look up to us especially kids and seniors.

A point I wanted to share with Officer X is we need to maintain our professional demeanor and our behavior. Our society’s standards have changed and we do deal with a challenging public.

I related a story to Officer X that was told to me by the late Boston Police Officer Walter J. Fahey. I met Walter after he retired from the Boston Police Department in 1996. Walter became my closest confidant and mentor over the years. He was a popular and well respected working cop who loved his family, everybody and the job. Massachusetts law forced Walter to retire at age 65. He was just short of 40 years on the Boston job. Walter was a great teacher as he listened too many of my rants of frustration. Walter related this story to me one night at dinner at the Victory Diner in Boston.

He came on the job in the mid 1950’s and he worked with a veteran officer, Ray Winston. Walter was in a huff about some guy who gave them a hard time on the street one day. Ray Winston turned to him and told him in a gentle but firm tone of voice this message:
“Never seek the level of the people we deal with. Remember Walter, we do not deal with the Rockefeller’s or the Kennedy’s.”

Here I am many years later, sharing this same message to Officer X. This has been one of the most important tips Walter Fahey told many cops over the years:
“A police officer is an honorable profession, don’t you forget that”

The late Dr. George Thompson developed a technique, Verbal Judo to teach fellow cops and other individuals who deal with the public, the skills to counter and deflect verbal assaults by other people. He has several books on this topic but my favorite is his original, Verbal Judo: The Gentile Art of Persuasion. I use these skills often while dealing with people. It is a very effective tool when dealing with the troublemakers and people who are difficult. Doc Thompson discusses Empathy when we actively listen to people. Placing ourselves in the person’s situation while respecting these people in our conversation really diffuses tense moments that can turn into an ugly confrontation.
I stated earlier that we, the law enforcement professionals need to maintain our professional demeanor and behavior. We are human beings performing a difficult job for a demanding public but I must remind you that some individuals want nothing more than to piss off a cop so someone can record it. Please remember there are CAMERAS EVERYWHERE folks. We have seen recently some missteps by our peers that have been posted on-line and the news media is begging for amateur photos and videos to broadcast. Please practice your communication skills and remember to think about your own behavior when that weak moment presents itself. Become a Verbal Professional with the skills the Verbal Judo Institute has introduced to our profession. Check out their website: www.verbaljudo.com

I was honored to listen to Officer X and share with him my experience. We have different jobs; different locations but we are cops. Whether we work in the big city, small town or the rural country our duties are similar and we all face the same frustrations. We have an opportunity to grow and change the way we deal with stress, frustration and coping skills in our profession.

Officer X is fortunate to have programs like P.O.P.P.A. within the N.Y.P.D. These are police peer assistants who listen and offer referrals for professional counseling. The past stigma of weakness and the fear of detection if you asked for help are slowly changing. Many police administrators and union leaders are realizing the physiological and emotional effects that police work has on our personnel and their families. I encourage you to speak in confidence to a trusted co-worker, a peer assistant, your chaplain or call your E.A.P. to spend some time talking about things, good and bad. Don’t internalize it. Do discuss it, dump it and build up your resiliency toward future encounters.

I want you to do this right now. Take out your cell phone and place into your contacts: Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020 or www.safecallnow.org. This nationwide 24-7 hotline created for public safety professionals is ready in the event that you or a co-worker is overwhelmed by a distressful situation. A great program performed by other volunteer public safety professionals.

It is healthy to share these fears and frustrations of policing with a non-judgmental volunteer or clinician. As we discuss issues that trouble us, we start to realize our willingness to accept some things that we have no control over. This builds our resiliency to persevere when dealing with difficult people.

You and I have the ability to demonstrate to the public everyday why policing is an honorable profession. Walter always joked, “You can’t get into trouble when you kill them with kindness”. REMEMBER: We are the honorable profession.

Stay safe and be well!

Sgt. Mark St.Hilaire is a police officer in a Metro-west suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He is a volunteer peer assistant with a regional C.I.S.M. team. He can be reached by confidential email by CLICKING HERE. Follow Mark on twitter:@npd3306 or www.Linked In.

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About Mark St. Hilaire

Sergeant Mark St.Hilaire has 25+ years as a police officer and is currently serving as a Patrol Sergeant in a suburb of Metrowest Boston, Massachusetts. Mark is continually training as a police peer assistant, and serves as a volunteer member of a regional C.I.S.M. team. He is committed to educating public safety professionals about the benefits of good health,developing our relationships and emotional wellness to improve our quality of life on and off duty.
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