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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Save Us From Ourselves

Published in the Sun Times Beacon News                                                                                                       Columnist Kristen Ziman

National Police Week is celebrated annually during the week of May 15th and each year, members of law enforcement pause and reflect upon those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Police Officers who die in this profession don’t lose their lives - - they give them.  Every officer knows and willingly accepts the risks involved every time they begin their next tour of duty.

 When a brother or sister in blue is lost, we often use his or her experience to remind us that tomorrow is not promised to anyone.  We attempt to gain some insight on what went wrong in the hope we can use the scenario as a training opportunity and learn better techniques to protect ourselves. 

 During National Police Week, we also have somber reminders of those officers who took their own lives.  Unfortunately, these scenarios are discussed in whispers as other officers speculate the reasons why or develop hindsight that reveals many warning signs.  Despite those signs, there are not many confrontations.  Police officers are extremely intuitive when it comes to reading the emotions of others.  We have to be.  Every police officer I know can tell when a person with whom they are interacting transitions from being cooperative to someone who poses a risk.  This profession forces us to hone our observation skills because it is a matter of survival.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the skills that we’ve perfected on the street are not always applied to those with whom we have personal relationships.  Co-workers are no exception.

 Throughout my career, I’ve often heard officers say they’re worried that one of their colleagues is going to “eat their gun”.  The phrase befits an officer going through a horrific personal or professional problem.  No matter what the scenario, we talk amongst ourselves but rarely reach out to the officer in need.

 For the Aurora Police Department, this topic remains especially painful.  A beloved sergeant committed suicide in 2004.  His closest friends knew he had been detached and distant but never speculated he was about to take his own life.  Those closest to him live with the internal conflict that begins with the statement, “If only I had…done something…asked the hard questions…pried.”  Suicide leaves so many unanswered questions and we never know if our intervention would have saved a life.

 I know of one officer who pulled himself through his own darkness in solitude.  He recalls being on midnight shift several years ago when he was going through a bitter and angry divorce and felt as though he had reached the point of desperation and hopelessness.  Because of his personal problems, he was drinking more.  His productivity at work suffered and he made some mistakes that resulted in disciplinary action against him.  One night while working, he drove to a remote location and got out of his squad car.  He carefully removed his duty weapon from his holster and placed it to his head while pleading out loud to his higher power, “Give me one reason not to end it all.”  As he worked up the nerve to pull the trigger, he glanced over at the picture of his children that he painstakingly placed on the visor of his squad at the beginning of each shift and he lowered his weapon.  He now realizes that his children’s faces had saved his life that night.   Today, he is happily remarried and a productive police officer who had to live through the darkness in order to see the light.           

 Police officers are problem-solvers by nature.  Unfortunately, some are better at solving the problems of others while their own lives are in disarray.  The job teaches us to hide emotion as a coping skill - a skill that is necessary to shield us from the suffering we see on a regular basis.  It doesn’t teach us to ask for help when we need it and that can be the one thing that saves us from ourselves.                       







Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Trust but Verify

Sun Times Beacon News
by Columnist Kristen Ziman

My children think it’s cool to have parents that are police officers. Since they are only in elementary school, there is a rock star status associated with the uniform. When I offer my shiny handcuffs to their friends, my kids are left beaming with pride at the awe of their comrades. Because I am a sensible person, I realize that my adorable young children will most likely lose that luster as they enter into their adolescent years and denounce my profession. This phenomenon will have less to do with the profession itself and more to do with the rebellion that naturally occurs during the teenage years. Plus, I plan to stalk them using my keen detective skills inherent with the trade.

By that, I mean that I will insist on knowing every one of their friends. To make life more torturous for them, I plan on telephoning the parents of their cronies each time there is a sleep-over planned in order to ensure parental supervision. I will be suspicious when they answer their cell phone and give their location. If GPS cell phone tracking isn’t advanced enough to follow them on Google Earth I will surely demand that they call from a land-line for verification purposes. To further make their lives miserable, I will personally enforce the curfew laws of the City of Aurora making sure that the a hours are adhered.

As if that weren’t enough, I will respect their space just enough for privacy but will hone in on their belongings in their bedroom and question whenever I see anything that raises suspicion. Furthermore, I will set expectations of their academic performance and if their grades do not meet those expectations, they will cease their extra-curricular activities until they have reached my proposed academic eligibility.

Being a police officer for 16 years gives me insight into the fact that some parents are not fulfilling their parental job description as well as they should. I have seen many parents who blindly trust that their kids are doing the right thing without questioning or confirming. Those same parents seem surprised when they get a call from the police department informing them that their child was arrested for attending an underage drinking party and need to be picked up from the police department. Some parents are even insistent that it couldn’t be their “Johnny” because he is sleeping over at a friends house. I’m not at all insinuating that kids won’t make bad choices now and again. Because teenagers are coming into their independence, the occasional withholding of the truth and testing of the waters is to be expected. This does not make your child a juvenile delinquent but rather a perfectly normal adolescent. The key is having proper perspective and knowing what actions are a battle of wills and what actions are teetering on bigger problems.

For example, we were experiencing a rash of vehicle burglaries in a particular area of town. On one evening, a teenage boy was observed by a witness suspiciously walking around parked vehicles and looking inside the windows. When officers arrived, they learned that the young man was out past curfew and arrested him accordingly. When the officers went to the teenager’s home, they spoke with his parent and gained consent to look around his bed room. The officers discovered several car stereos and GPS units in the teen’s bedroom – obvious proceeds from vehicle burglaries. It was unbelievable to me that the child’s parent didn’t notice the accumulation of electronic equipment piled up in plain view. The mother had no idea that her son was out past curfew and hadn’t bothered to question him regarding the property in his room.

Denial is another emotion that every parent must fight. When my children come home and tell me that they were wronged at school by a friend or a teacher, my first question to them is, “What was your role in the incident?” I often find there is more to the story than they lead me to originally believe. When parents don’t pursue the story in its entirety, they often find themselves in conflict with the school or the police by vehemently defending their child without exercising the possibility that there may be merit to the issue.

I have been involved with many parents who immediately dismiss a police officer or school official that expresses concern about their child affiliating with gang members or engaging in questionable activity. The moment of truth comes when the police officer or school official pulls up their child’s MySpace page or pictures on their phone and shows the parent images of their son or daughter flashing gang signs to the camera. Some police officers make home visits and speak with parents for the purpose of informing them that their son or daughter is fraternizing with gang members only to find the parents vehemently defending their child. A search of the child’s room by consent of the parent can sometimes reveal gang graffiti on the walls and drawn in notebooks boldly declaring their allegiance to a gang. Many times the parent doesn’t know that the symbols are gang related but most don’t bother to ask or research. These are only a few examples of parents wearing blinders that prohibit them from seeing what is really going on with their child. It is those very blinders that put kids at risk of being a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime.

My overzealous parenting really has nothing to do with my job as a police officer. It has more to do with my job as a parent. Although I exaggerated the use of a GPS tracking device for my kids, I believe that every parent must make a concerted decision to police their child. That is not to say that you should never trust what your child says. Trust but verify.

I am prepared for my children to grow out of proudly declaring to their friends that their parents are police officers. I am also prepared to trade in the rock star status in exchange for taking an active role in their lives and keeping my eyes open to the things that can potentially harm them - even if they get upset with me in the process.