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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Each Life Unravels Differently | Respect

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on November 4, 2012.

American journalist Hunter Thompson said that we cannot expect people to have respect for law and order until we teach respect to those we have entrusted to enforce those laws.

When I read those words I couldn’t help but think of the citizen complaints I’ve taken as a supervisor where the origin of the complaint was that the citizen felt “disrespected” by the officer. Respect is a powerful thing. Even though many people cannot define it they know when it is not existent.

California Sheriff Deputy Elton Simmons has been a motorcycle cop since 1992. In 20 years and with over 25,000 traffic stops, he has not received a single complaint. You might assume that he doesn’t write a lot of tickets, hence the lack of complaints. Actually, he believes tickets save lives and is unforgiving to those who break the law and offer phony excuses for doing so.

After learning about Simmons, CBS affiliates trailed him one day during his shift. They learned very quickly that Deputy Simmons “has the pitch-perfect mix of authority and diplomacy with none of the attitude that sometimes comes with a cop.” During his interview, Simmons said that one thing he hates is to be looked down upon. “I can’t stand it – so I’m not going to look down at you” he said.

That is the essence of unconditional respect--- to see and value others as people.

It means not violating or disregarding another’s personhood. That means that a president of a university and a homeless person on the street deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion despite the disparity of their lots in life. We must remember that each life unravels differently and where people are is not always an indication of who they are.

Police officers have a tendency to live in an “us versus them” mindset. Because we interact with people who break the law and are conscious of those violent criminals who wish to do us harm, the lens for which we see the world becomes skewed. The fact is that humans are neither all good nor all bad (psychopaths being an exception). J.K. Rowling said, “We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.”

When we see those we arrest as all bad, we determine that they don’t deserve our respect because they have disrespected the law and society. This doesn’t mean that we have to trust them, but we should respect them. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

Respect can still be given to those who disregard the law. In fact, I find that the most successful police officers are those who understand on a deeper level the concept of respect. When a police officer treats a person in handcuffs with empathy and compassion, I know that they are operating on a higher plane and using their influence rather than relying solely on their power and authority. If they have to apply physical force, they do so with restraint and necessity and not for the sake of exuding power.

One might think that being respectful to all people is a sign of weakness and I disagree vehemently. The interesting part about respect is that the more you give away, the more you get.

It takes great courage to show compassion and respect to all human beings – especially to those who look, think, and behave differently than us. We are all equal in the fact that we are all different. We are all the same in the fact that we will never be the same.

I think Deputy Simmons has the right idea. When we stop looking up to people or looking down at people, we will start to respect all people.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Character Trait that Sets People Apart

As a police officer, my job description has changed over the years but the one thing that still fascinates me about policing is human behavior.

I was never a psychology major in college but I have come to believe that those entering law enforcement should, at the very least, minor in behavioral science.

When I worked the street, I was puzzled by the way different people reacted to similar situations. I found myself viewing the world as a laboratory and every human encounter was an experiment in social behavior.

I started to analyze the ways in which some people reacted to a traffic ticket. Some would be extremely argumentative and rude while others would receive it politely and respectfully. Of-course you might say that a police officer’s demeanor sets the tone for the interaction and I can’t disagree so perhaps that is not the best example in sharing my observations.

I noted that when responding to traumatic incidents, some crime victims were emotionally strong while others seemed to “breakdown” when faced with a similar scenario. Although I noted that people handled death and trauma quite differently, I’ll reserve my commentary because reactions to these situations are at the core of emotion and there are many variables involved.

Rather, I’m referring to incidents where there is a notable hardship incurred but not a loss of life. For example, in responding to burglary victims, it was fascinating to have a front row seat into the layers of emotion that surface when a person was faced with this type of an invasion. Some saw it as a devastating and debilitating blow to their security and peace of mind while others put it in perspective and even found a way to be grateful that there was no human life harmed.

The character trait that sets the two extremes apart is resilience. This can be said for any event or interaction involving human beings. Why does one person fall apart when they are faced with a difficult situation while another perseveres or even thrives in times of turmoil and strife? These coping mechanisms can be seen throughout everyday life if you carefully watch the world around you.

Have you even ridden in a car with someone who becomes furious with other drivers and has fits of rage in response to their actions? This, I believe, comes from the same place that dictates coping skills in other areas of life. When we see people come unraveled by the small inconveniences in life, it is a good indication that they will have trouble coping with bigger problems.

Resilience is a skill that is taught early on. When my children get hurt and I know that it’s nothing life-threatening, I tell them to “suck it up and take the pain.” I’ve gotten curious looks from others when I’ve said this in public but the message I’m trying to convey is that you have to keep moving through discomfort.

If you are alive, it is inevitable that you will experience both physical and emotional pain at some point. How you cope with that pain is what sets you apart from those who survive and those who thrive. Ask any police officer who has been shot and had to continue to fight through the pain in order to live. In that moment, they had to either lie down and surrender or make a conscious choice to survive.

Everyday life isn’t much different. Resilience is gauged by our ability to recognize the stressful (or painful) situation and then consciously choose to maintain composure.

Having the mental fortitude to re-frame pain and place it in proper perspective can add much needed clarity. Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if you don’t believe it’s as good as the one you had before.

You can fight it or you can accept it--- and try to put together something that's better.