When I resigned as a police officer, the most difficult aspects of leaving the job were not the calls or the pay. It wasn’t the driving fast or carrying a gun (I still do both). It sure as hell wasn’t the politics and paperwork. No, the toughest aspects of leaving were separating from the brothers and sisters who were my fellow cops and relinquishing the title of ‘police officer’.
I had attached a great part of my identity to this title. There is so much pride in it. There is pride in the title because it is not easy to get: one must go through an extensive application process and then the academy (the Austin academy is a real bitch and this is coming from a Marine). There is also the self-respect which being a part of this incredible profession provided. It didn’t take long for me to be seen by other people and by myself not simply as Dustin but as Dustin the Cop. The thought of giving that up was painful. And even when I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to resign, it took a great deal of strength to walk into my supervisors’ office and tell him that I was no longer going to be a cop. Being a cop is who I was. What would I be after?
Let me ask you, dear reader, who are you? Answer the quesion in it’s deepest sense. What defines you? Did you answer with your profession? So many of us do.
Imagine one of those awkward gatherings of strangers that we’ve all had the misfortune of attending. For lack of a better word, we’ll call it a party. At this party, someone asks you what you do. Here is what they are really asking without even realizing it: “Please define yourself to me so I know how to label you and categorize you in my brain. Thank you.” Lot of implied subtext there, I know.
You, of course, will dutifully answer “Well, I’m a (fill in the blank).” This profession defines you. And when you answer with something concrete and defined, you relieve the asker from doing too much mental work. Thank God! Mental work is hard. And that person is just trying to remember your name.
Ok, now fill in the blank with ‘cop’. As in, “Oh, I’m a cop.” You gotta say it real cool, though, ya know. Almost flip, as if it’s no big deal. “Oh, I’m a cop. Whatevs. You may have noticed my tacti-cool Oakley sunglasses and 5.11 cargo pants. Yep. Ahhhhh. No big deal.” But it is a big deal. Because you’re a cop.
C’mon guys and gals. We say we don’t like the attention at parties, but we do. Pull the, “Oh, I’m a cop”, gem out at social functions and you are immediately one of the most interesting people in the room. And what are those fans going to want next? All of us know. They want to hear you tell a wicked cop story. The gorier the details, the better. Like that time you broke down the door and found the weeks old decomp (that is a short for decomposed body for you non-cops). It’s so gross, but so damn entertaining. Or, if you are trying to win points with the opposite sex, you might throw out the time that you saved the baby from the flaming building. Because, you know, the hose-draggers hadn’t arrived quite yet (love you fire-persons; smooches).
Oh, the adoration of the masses. It is wonderful. We eat it up. All of us. That instant respect. The sideways glances of citizens when we are waiting in line for food at a restaurant. The wide-eyed child who asks in awe, “Is that a real gun?”
That shit is good for the ego, man. It’s also as addictive as crack and just about as dangerous.
The pride of being a cop starts at the academy. Don’t you remember it? The muscle-bound red shirt (the academy instructors wear red shirts in Austin) screaming the standard fare while you sweat in push-up position: You are now a part of a brotherhood! Every cop is your brother and sister! We look out for each other! Protect each other. We are The Thin Blue line. Veterans will also recognize these themes from their boot camp days.
It’s so much indoctrination, but, dammit, it’s so necessary. It is human nature to crave the identity and acceptance of a group. Because when you are out there shagging calls in the dead of night by your lonesome self, you need the reassurance that someone is going to come running from somewhere if shit gets deadly. The mental security of the fraternity is so vital for the individual cop. You are a part of the team. You are one of us. We have your back. And we are going to be there for you and look after you no matter what.
Between the adoration of the masses and that urgent sense of belonging to the pack, the idea of ‘being a cop’ becomes so entwined with the individual that cops are prone to losing themselves in the process. Pretty soon, ‘being a cop’ is all you see in the mirror. You have no other identity. Imagining the day you hang up the uniform becomes a day of dread. It is the day you lose you.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, cops of all ages! I submit to you a sober and desolate truth: there is going to come a time in your life when you are no longer a cop. Roll that thought in your head for a second. Swish it around on your pallet like a sour and rancid wine. There will come a time in your life when you will leave the profession of policing.
I am not claiming that the metaphysical idea of “once a cop, always a cop” is not true. Because the profession will always be a part of you. You will always be the sheepdog, uniform and badge be damned. I get it. I understand. And I agree. But all of us are sheepdogs before we even apply for the position. It is the mentality of wanting to be the superhero who catches the bad guy and saves the family that got us to be cops in the first place. That is not my point.
I am referring specifically to the fact that whether it is in one year, five years, twenty, or more, there is going to be a time when you will have to hang up that uniform. When that time comes, how will it affect you? Will you have another definition of you upon which to brace the fall? Will you be elated or desolated? Will you be happy or sad?
Reader, I have one, sole purpose for writing this article. I want all of my brother and sister cops in this world to both embrace the pride of being a police officer while also letting it go. No cop should fear to leave the profession of policing because, “It is all I’ve known. I’ve never done anything else.” Every cop should be proud of their careers and accomplishments. Then they should turn around and be able to proclaim, “But it does not define me. It is not all that I am.” Because there is so much more to each of us.
We are also fathers and mothers. Writers and thinkers. Poets and philosophers. Do-gooders and philanthropists. For every person, there is an interest and group outside of their profession. Embrace that and nurture it.
This article was written for cops because I was a cop and identify with that amazing group of men and women. But it can and does apply to professions across the board. Every one of us needs to accept that we are more than what we do. Our own mental health depends on it.
I stared down the identity crisis. Some days I still duel with it. I know that many others do too.
Thanks for reading,