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December 23, 2008

Finding Purpose



During a recent visit to a police department for training, the training officer who was responsible for acclimating me to the facility met me at the entrance.  As I walked through the lobby door, I was abruptly given the command to “Stop”.  The Lieutenant directed my attention to the floor where I saw a beautiful inlaid tile replica of their police badge that took up a majority of the otherwise empty room.   He said, “We walk around it.”  I was absolutely intrigued at the notion that each police officer finds the 10% of free floor space to walk around the badge so as to not step on it.             

I haven’t stopped thinking about the profound level of symbolic awareness since my visit to that police department.  The police officers that serve the City of Aurora have the same pride but there are few reminders that force us to pay daily homage to our chosen profession. Our training is elite and concentrates on the tactical skills necessary to perform our duties but, admittedly, we don’t stop to think about our purpose as often as we should.  Most of us entered this profession because we were drawn to public service but somewhere along the way, a few have lost their vision.  Many enter this profession with wide eyes and possibility only to find that the observance of human suffering day after day takes a toll on their outlook.  Many didn’t mind the idea of working nights, weekends and holidays until they began to learn how it would negatively affect their families.  Many have become jaded after watching criminals set free by our court system because of a savvy defense attorney or a technicality in the case.  Over time, some police officers stop believing that they can make a difference.

Even with such strife, we all believe that law enforcement is one of the noblest professions.  We don’t take lightly that one action by a police officer has the ability to affect a life either positively or negatively.  Our hope is that the influence is positive but there are times when a citizen is left with a negative perception of the police.  To borrow a line from the movie Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  It is our responsibility as police officers to use the powers afforded us by the United States Constitution for good.  With this in mind, each action by a police officer should be committed with the intent to uphold the law and keep the peace.  Every arrest should be made with the intent to uphold the constitution and promote justice.  Each interaction with a victim of a crime should remind us to use empathy rather than the “just the facts” method of gaining information.  Those who do their jobs well leave a victim feeling understood and confident that their police are doing the best they can to help. Because we are often inundated with information (whether accurate or not) coming at us from several directions when we respond to a call, an officer may forget what it feels like to be a victim because we are so focused on learning the truth— and then moving on to the next person experiencing a crisis in their lives. Unfortunately, when this happens, what once was a noble profession is reduced to a job.

People in other professions are not immune to the phenomenon of losing the purpose and drive they once had.  A recent Harris poll revealed that over half of all Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs.  Could this be because they lost their sense of professional purpose?  The same polls suggest that many people want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves and would sacrifice salary for such satisfaction— in other words— a sense of purpose.

In his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Steven Covey offers an example of a postal worker who views her job in a very unique way.  Rather than taking the perception that sorting the mail and placing it in the appropriate mailboxes is mundane, she believes herself to be a catalyst for bringing people together.  She believes that she is bridge that connects one person to another. For every piece of mail she places in each mailbox, she is serving a purpose. Imagine if we all applied the same thinking to our respective professions.  The key is to find meaning in all that we do.

Once we attach meaning, we begin to feel as though we are making a contribution. When we, the police, lose sight of our purpose and our flame goes out, we must look within ourselves to rekindle our fire.  Sometimes all it takes is the realization that we’ve just given a domestic violence victim a night of safety or we’ve taken another gun off of our streets.

While a massive inlaid tile patch in the lobby of the police department is a unique reminder of a police officer’s calling, the symbolic gesture of pinning the badge over our hearts each day should be enough to conger up the feeling of the first time we affixed the badge to our uniform and set out to change the world.  The key is reminding ourselves everyday of our own contribution.            

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