“Why do you want to be a police officer?” I asked this question more times than I can remember while interviewing entry-level candidates. As you can imagine, the answers varied. The response I gave when being hired included my internal sense of justice. I wanted to catch “bad guys” and put them in jail. However, I did not articulate it that way. I’m sure I said something similar to most candidates—something correlating with “public service.”
I am an expressive person. As an expressive individual, I love others with great compassion and, on the flip side, can become angry rather quickly. As I become older, and hopefully, wiser, I learned my professional drive and sense of justice were motivating factors connected to the emotion of anger. When channeled positively, it fueled me to peak performance adding sustainability—I didn’t want to wave the white flag.
We often associate anger with self-destructive behavior, and with good reason. Anger has led , to foolish and irrational decisions that have gotten many of us in trouble. We also see it on the wrong side of the law every day for the same reasons. But for illustrative purposes, think of anger like a weapon.
Most in law enforcement have enjoyed firearms recreationally, but we all have experienced them professionally. We know when used properly, they are invaluable—a demonstration of strength and power. When in the hands of those who are evil, or out of control, they wreak havoc—a display of chaos and disorder.
Human emotions have strengths and corresponding weaknesses, but we typically have negative impressions of anger. That is because anger, and its bi-products, such as bitterness and resentment, become personality traits in far too many people. But when used as a primal reaction to fear, threats, and injustice, anger is motivating.
We simply need to channel the motivation gained from anger to fulfill our obligations and insure we remain professional and do not cross the line—a challenge that takes tremendous self-control and discipline.
Think about your last foot pursuit or use of force incident. Did anger motivate you? It may have saved your life! I had to explain this process while providing a voluntary statement following a fatal shooting I was involved in. Was I angry that someone tried to take my head off with an axe? You better believe it. Did anger fuel my will to survive? Absolutely! Were my actions justified? By the grace of God, yes!
What about the really difficult sexual assault or murder investigation? The internal drive to push through barriers might be anger—and thus useful. I would argue some controlled anger toward dreadful crimes is appropriate. Without it, we tend to become robotic and look at crime statistics as numbers rather than real people who have been victimized.
Blue Bloods is one of my favorite television shows. NYPD Homicide Detective Danny Reagan, played by Donnie Wahlberg, demonstrates righteous anger in pursuit of justice nearly every episode. His strength clearly has corresponding weaknesses, which could be another article, but I can identify with him. Can you?
We are emotional beings engaged in a volatile vocation. No matter how much we try to remain psychologically detached, it is bound to happen. The purpose of writing is to bring it to your attention, distinguish it for what it is, channel it to a favorable result, and recognize there is a point where anger transitions from constructive stimulus to destructive impulse. The stoic among us will have much less use for this information, but if they supervise others, it is useful nonetheless.
I recognize this article might scare some supervisors, managers, and chiefs. Let me emphasize that I do not condone or encourage any form of anger that leads to caustic behavior or professional misconduct. Many things that upset the professional in all of us are usually worthy of irritation, but the inability to control emotions is what leads to violation of policy and, in some cases, law. The lack of self-control is typically the problem, not the emotion of anger.
Think of it this way. If I tell every criminal violator to turn from his wicked ways out of love, instead of enforcing the law as I have sworn to do, is that a problem? Sure it is. It is called dereliction of duty. Do I have a “love” problem? No, I have a “neglect of duty” problem and will find myself unemployed if I cannot see that love also means accountability.
I believe officers need to recognize anger as a worthwhile emotion that will be present in the performance of duty, but it needs to be harnessed. Back to my illustration, a firearm can be used in a justifiable homicide or a murder. When used lawfully, it can preserve life. If used unlawfully, it can destroy a person and likely lead to a loss of freedom and prison. If anger is treated with the same respect as our firearms, it is likely to be helpful, not hurtful.
Imagine you respond to a call for service at a well-attended, makeshift market place because a man is knocking over tables in local businesses. The man has done so in anger. As the tables fly, so do goods, livestock, and money. Would you make an arrest?
If so, you just arrested Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless of what you think of him, few would argue that he did anything to flaw his unblemished record. He told the moneychangers, “Is it not written, my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” In other words, the merchants were violating prescribed spiritual laws—God’s Ordinance—and Jesus was mad. He confronted unscrupulous individuals and sought justice for the sanctity of the temple.
If anger was used to motivate a perfect man to pursue justice, I believe each one of us can use it to right the wrongs we encounter without feeling guilty by its’ presence. If self-control is teamed with a righteous anger and used appropriately, it can be our ally not our enemy. Love is described as the greatest gift. To exercise love in our capacity as Sheepdogs, anger may be required to confront the wolves. May we all navigate the waves of anger predictably present in our profession with wisdom, self-control, and discernment. And above all, be safe, as I’m a little angry at the flood of evil that has led to so many In Memoriam articles the past ten days:
- Officer Stephen Arkell – Gone, but never forgotten!
- Detective Charles Dinwiddie – Rest in peace my friend!
- Constable Joseph Prevett – You are loved!
- Officer Michael Petrina – You will be remembered well!
- Master Sergeant John Collum – Well done good and faithful servant!
- Officer Roberto Sanchez – God bless you brother!
- Officer Noel Hawk – May you sore like an eagle!
- Trooper Gabriel “Gabe” Rich – You have given others emotional wealth!
- Trooper Chelsea Richard – Thank you for your dedication sister!
- Sergeant Patrick “Scott” Johnson – Farewell beloved hero!
Authors Note: The ten-day window for each In Memoriam was May 4-14, 2014. There is no doubt others have died since. I am sorry for the continued loss. The greater law enforcement family mourns, but we continue to report for duty because others need us, and that’s who we are!
Jim is the author of The Spirit behind Badge 145. He worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-seven years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. During his career in law enforcement, he worked with, supervised, or managed every element of the organization. He holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations. Jim is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at [email protected] or view his website www.jimmcneff.com, which is geared toward helping officers.