On New Year’s Day, a good friend, one of New York’s finest, called me. I’ll call him Officer X. He wanted to talk. The NYPD recently lost veteran Officer Peter Figoski, murdered on duty in December. The news broke that Saturday that ATF Special Agent John Capano, was killed during a pharmacy robbery on Long Island, N.Y.
Officer X was down and frustrated about the current lack of respect for the police and military. The increase in violence against cops over the last several years is starting to hit home for him, as he approaches the 10-year point on the job. He works the day in, day out daily grind. He has witnessed many tragic events and people in crisis. Now his co-workers are being scrutinized for minor rules and regulations violations. Welcome to policing, Officer X.
He was overtired from a special duty assignment to the organized chaos known as New Year’s Eve in Times Square. His work day began at 11:45 a.m. Officer X said that the day started off well. Supervisors assigned him to a security post off the main drag. This site created some boredom, but he was working with great group of cops who made the best of the gig.
Then Officer X growled, “Our team got pulled off with a large group of other cops from Times Square. We raced down to Zuccotti Park because the Occupy protesters were trying to overrun the police line.” He became upset as he related the events. “Here we are after midnight, hundreds of these people standing there taunting, spitting, and swearing at us while 68+ people are arrested, and NYPD tries to restore order. We risk our lives for these people and this is how we get (expletive) on.”
I tried to put myself in Officer X’s shoes. A mixture of fear, disbelief, confusion, frustration and lack of sleep fueled his discouragement. Finally, I heard him take a deep breath and relax.
“What is the most important role a police officer performs?”I asked him. There was a bewildered silence coming from the Big Apple. I asked him again, “What is the most important role a police officer performs or for that matter a member of the military?” He sighed, “I can’t think.”
I reminded him that we have a duty to protect the United States Constitution. We protect the right of those people to picket, protest or demonstrate to exercise free speech. There are troublemakers everywhere, Officer X. For every protester that you’ll encounter, there are 4 times as many citizens who respect the police. I asked Officer X to focus on the people who look up to us, especially kids and seniors.
I advised Officer X that we must maintain professional demeanor and behavior. Society’s standards have changed. We all deal with a challenging public.
I told Officer X a story that the late Boston PD Officer, Walter J. Fahey, told me one night over dinner at the Victory Diner. I met Walter after he retired from BPD in 1996. Walter became my closest confidant and mentor. He was a popular and well-respected 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 and listened to my frustrated rants many times
Walter came on the job in the mid 1950’s. At that time, he worked with veteran officer, Ray Winston. Walter was in a huff about some guy who gave them a hard time on the street. Ray told him in a gentle but firm tone:
“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 import tips Walter Fahey gave me over the years:
“A police officer is an honorable profession, don’t you forget that.”
Dr. George Thompson developed a technique called Verbal Judo to teach cops and others who deal with the public how to counter verbal assaults. His first book is very helpful: Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. I use these skills often while dealing with difficult people. Dr. Thompson encourages empathy when we actively listen. Placing ourselves in the person’s situation, while respecting them in our conversation, diffuses tense moments that can turn ugly.
Law enforcement officers are human beings performing a difficult job for a demanding public. Some people want nothing more than to piss off a cop so someone can record it. Remember there are CAMERAS EVERYWHERE.
We have seen recently some missteps by our peers posted online. The media begs for amateur photos and videos. Practice effective communication skills. Think about your own behavior when that weak moment presents itself. Become a verbal professional with the skills the Verbal Judo Institute has introduced. Check out their website: www.verbaljudo.com
I was honored to listen to Officer X and share my experience. We have different jobs in different places, but we are both cops. Whether we work in the big city or a small town, our duties are similar. We all face the same frustrations. We have an opportunity to cope better with stress and frustration.
Officer X is fortunate to have NYPD peers who are trained to listen and make referrals for professional counseling. The past stigma associated with asking for help is slowly changing. Police officials are realizing the physical and emotional effects that police work has on personnel and their families.
If you feel frustrated, speak in confidence with a trusted co-worker, a peer assistant, your chaplain or call your EAP. Don’t internalize job stress. Discuss it and dump it. As we discuss issues that trouble us, we realize our ability to accept some things that we have no control over. This builds our resiliency to persevere when dealing with difficult people.
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 if you or a co-worker are overwhelmed
We have the ability to demonstrate to the public every day 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: [email protected] Follow Mark on twitter:@npd3306 or www.Linked In.