Being a police officer has been described as so many things.
It’s a job, it’s a profession, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a commitment, it’s a calling.
For me it’s my identity. I can’t say it’s what I dreamt of as a child; I really can’t pinpoint a single day or time in my life where I can say, “that’s it, that is the day I knew.” All I know is that title of police officer is no less a part of my existence than my fingerprints.
All police officers dream of changing the world, and whether it’s to change how the system works or how our children thrive, change is the forefront of every recruit’s drive to put on a uniform and get to work. We all dream of a long career, policy-making stories to tell new recruits and after twenty or thirty years passing all our wisdom to a new force of shiny badges.
In the academy it is drilled into us daily how some of us will never make retirement. How some of us will be slain in the streets, others will be fired for dishonesty and a few who will die at their own hand. We hear statistics about divorce, alcoholism, violence and every other evil that plagues the uniform.
At every training we are told to find ways to cope with the darkness that follows us; we are given pamphlets on where to go for help. Leaders give speeches on being our brother’s keeper, how we are part of a family that will never let us fall alone. We are told to train physically, be proficient with our weapons and to ask for help when needed. Like good little warriors, we nod in agreement. We vow to race to our squad mate’s aid, to not survive but to win! We are warriors with a team willing to fight beside us, to rescue us from any battle, to never let us fight alone. We vow to take care of each other’s families if “the worst” were to happen.
So we set out each day, with a sense of pride for the oath we took, the uniform we wear and the family we stand with. We are indivisible and indestructible! We are police officers, sheepdogs, hunters and protectors. We are ready for the worst, and trained to be the best.
Then the worst happens.
The real worst-case scenario. The one that you don’t train for, you don’t talk about. The one there are no stories for. It’s not a knock on the door, it’s not a black band around your badge. It’s not your name forever engraved on the wall. That is only what you thought was the worst.
But as you lay in the hospital bed, staring at the ceiling, as doctors move about you methodically, trying to put you back together, the truth starts to become clear. As days, weeks or months pass, you know death is not the worst scenario. As faces fade from the hospital, doctors lose interest, as the stress of just living sets in, you begin to actually wish for death.
Death brings closure, it brings families together, it brings the community support and love. What you are brings loneliness, rumors, assumptions. It is a piece of your existence slowly crumbling from under you. It is your fingerprint fading away.
You are injured. You are scared inside and out. You are a shadow of the parent, spouse, child and friend you once were. You are a plague to those who served beside you. Suddenly the thin blue line becomes as wide as the great divide. You are the reason for closed-door meetings and whispers in the halls. No one wants you. They will say you are broken, that you’re a liability, that you are this or that. Suddenly people who you never met know your life story; they have an opinion about everything you do. The more you keep your head down and try to become invisible, the longer the doors stay closed and the louder the whispers become. Eventually all you hear are whispers, all you notice is group chats going away, phone calls going to voicemail, until you belong nowhere. Until you have no more fingerprint.
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When someone is injured, everyone assumes someone else is there. The reality is the hospital rooms grow cold and quiet. As lives continue on, you stand still. You scream for help but no one wants to “get involved”. When you are injured, things like Depression, PTSD, TBI, Chronic Pain and Anxiety only apply to other people. Your agency and co-workers will convince you how made up these terms are. If you fight with all you have to get better, then you were never hurt to begin with. If you give in to the loneliness, you are weak and never deserved the uniform.
At first you think it will get better. You think if you fight long enough, hard enough, the whispers will stop. You think your friends are just busy, but then you think you are an inconvenience to everyone. As time passes, you will see it is fear that keeps the rumors flowing, fear that keeps the phone from ringing; you are a reminder of their mortality. You are proof that surviving is worse than death. People need you to disappear, they need you to be faking or exaggerating, because then it will never be them lying in that cold room. It will never be them stuck in that chair. It will never be them who screams in pain every night. It will never be them who wakes up alone.
Then, it gets even worse. You understand that your career is over. You are forever marked. If you try to get a pension to help the burden on your loved ones, the world will hate you. If you walk away quietly, your family will suffer. There seems to be no right choice. The job you gave so much to turns its back on you then attacks every fiber of your life. Everything you have ever said or done is examined. Your life is put on display, for all to see, every mistake, every bit of vulnerability shown to the world for all to know.
When people ask what you do, you no longer are allowed to say you’re a retired police officer with any pride. Your dignity, your being, your trust is gone. We talk about the media, the community, those who never wore a uniform, as the enemy. They are the ones who make our job harder, the ones that pick us apart and try us in the court of public opinion.
When you are injured you learn the truth. The real enemy is those who stood beside you. The real enemies are those you once called brother, the ones that swore to fight next to you. The real enemies are yourself, your supervisors, your leaders and your co-workers. We are what make the job impossible. It is our fear, not of death, but of surviving, that makes us stay silent.
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With any injury there is no closure; life doesn’t just move on. There are no memorials, no cries for justice. There are just shattered pieces of you sprinkled all around. There are no more fingerprints, you have no identity, no worth to the world.
There is just silence.
In a world where the uniform you wear brings hate from every crack, I implore you, do not forget. Do not let silence set in. Do better. Be better. And you will never have to be afraid.