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Monday, December 30, 2013

What makes you come alive?

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on 12-30-13

In positive psychology, there is a phrase called being “in flow”.  This means that you are engaged in an activity that you enjoy that is neither too challenging nor too easy. 

It requires the perfect amount of concentration and you know you are “in flow” when the world around you seems to fade away.  You lose all sense of time because you are fully immersed in what you are doing.  It is the thing that makes you come alive – your passion.

Many of us may find ourselves “in flow” when we are participating in a hobby. 

When I write, I lose myself.  In fact, I don’t normally know exactly how I think or feel about something until I sit at the computer and watch the words pour out.  It is my sub-conscious thoughts that come from deep within my mind and I struggle to type fast enough to keep up.  I often begin with one topic and am amazed when the words I’ve strung together to create sentences never follow the same path on which I began.

Being a patrol officer put me in the same state of flow.

I loved that job.  I liked being tied to the radio and answering calls because I never knew where the next one would take me.  I loved the challenge of conflict and the psychology of human nature that I encountered each time someone called 9-1-1.  I liked the feeling of fear and learning to push through it.  I loved the satisfaction of being on the right side of justice.

In Aurora’s not so distant past, we went from call to call and I can often remember looking at my watch wondering where the 8 hours went.  I was “in flow”.  

Many people aren’t “in flow” in their life’s work.  For many, their occupation or job is something they have to do to make ends meet – not something they want to do. 

The luckiest people in the world are those who have found a way to incorporate their passion (flow) with sustainable income.  Imagine the thing that moves you every day and imagine waking up every morning and being able to spend your day doing that very thing.  Now imagine getting a paycheck for it.  That’s why it makes sense to figure out what you love to do first and then pursue that as an occupation.

Unfortunately, that isn’t typical of how life works.  I love to write but that certainly doesn’t mean that I would be able to generate income from it.  If it were that easy, there would be no starving artists.

Fortunately, I love policing and even though I’m not in the squad car anymore, I get immense satisfaction from watching the men and women who are out there doing the work.  When I see the results of their accomplishments and how that translates into a peaceful city for our citizens, it gives me purpose. 

Even though many of us aren’t spending our days “in flow”, finding purpose in our life’s work is the next best thing.  If you stop for a moment and think about how your job contributes to the world, it reframes your existence.

A mail-carrier might think their job mundane as putting mail into mailboxes day in and day out may seem that way.  But what they are actually doing is connecting people from around the world. See the difference?  When you change the way you think, you can find meaning in almost anything.

As you traverse into 2014, find ways to bring new meaning to your current existence.  Determine what you are doing when you are “in flow”.  Figure out the thing that makes you come alive.

Now go do more of that.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Where You Lay Your Head

When my kids were in elementary school, I used to volunteer in their classrooms for holiday parties.

During one Christmas party in my daughter’s first grade class, I was assigned to run a craft table with another parent.  She seemed relatively pleasant and we were making small talk helping the children glue little reindeer noses on their cut-outs.  She said I looked familiar (and I was thinking the same) but we couldn’t pinpoint exactly where we had met.

And then her face changed making it clear to me that “the light bulb” went off in her head.  “You arrested my husband”, she exclaimed loud enough for everyone in the classroom to hear.  I
then instantly recalled the exact incident involving her husband at their home.

My 7 year old daughter looked at me with eyes as big as saucers so I responded as any nice person would by saying, “Ohhh, nice to see you again”, followed by nervous laughter.

I bring this up because it’s one of the many times I’ve run into someone with whom I’ve had an interaction as a police officer while off duty.  Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me because I’ve never felt threatened or been in a position where I was genuinely concerned. 

Other officers have not been so fortunate.  One of our tactical officers once lived down the street from a gang house. When the occupants learned where he lived, a homemade bomb was thrown at his home.  He and his wife became genuinely concerned for the welfare of their family and made the personal decision to leave the city.

It is extremely stressful to be in a constant state of heightened alert.  During the course of our work day, we expect to operate in combat mode.  Given the history of ambushes on police officers, there is never a time to be complacent of our surroundings while on duty.

However, our homes should be a peaceful retreat to let our guard down – not somewhere to look over our shoulders or worry about our children being harmed in retaliation for doing our jobs.  For this reason, many officers opt to move outside of the city limits to minimize the probability of running into any “clientele”. 

There is great debate about residency requirements. Many people believe that a police officer who lives in the city in which they serve will take more of an interest in policing the city.  Being vested in the city all of the time – not just during an 8 hour work day, some argue, makes the police officer woven into the tapestry of the community.

Officers feel very strongly about the safety issues that come with living within proximity to the streets they patrol and the criminals they arrest.  Furthermore, most families are dual-income and have a need for flexibility to accommodate officers' spouses who work in other cities.

I used to be very much in favor of residency requirements but I’ve since waivered on my position.

I choose to live in Aurora.  I was born and raised here, my career is here and we decided to raise our children here.  I have always felt a strong connection to this city and I simply wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. 

But I completely understand the need to live with a little anonymity and detachment.  I’m not convinced that commitment plays a part in residency. I know many police officers who do not live in Aurora but are committed to the community and are intensely dedicated to its citizens and their wellbeing.  I also know officers who live in the city that might not share those same ideals.

People become police officers because they genuinely care about people--- all people--- without regards to geographic boundaries.  Personally, I think you can love this city and dedicate your life’s work to the welfare of it no matter where you lay your head.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Why People Don't Trust the Police

I was having a perfectly uneventful morning whilst sipping my coffee and catching up on the latest news through my social media sites.   I stumbled upon a “NBC Investigates” clip with the headline that read, “Former Detective Admits to Coercing Confessions.” 

That got my attention so I clicked on the link to hear former Rockford police officer Doug Palmer declare that the “justice system is broken”.  My heart sank and my stomach ached while I watched as he vomited the transgressions he committed while holding a position of public trust.

He was the lead detective on a 2002 murder case where an 8-year-old boy was shot to death.  The suspects were three African American men who Palmer reveals were gang members, but were falsely convicted of the murder.  Palmer admitted he coerced confessions by beating the men.   He went so far as to fabricate witness statements.  In one instance, he handcuffed a woman while her baby lay crying on the floor in order to force a false statement from her.

As a result of Palmer's misconduct, the men were found guilty and served 10 years of their 50-year sentence until their attorney’s sought out Palmer who agreed to testify on their behalf.  The man responsible for putting them away was now the catalyst in overturning their convictions.

Palmer blames his actions on his supervisors.  He said he believed two other men were responsible for the murder, but his superiors felt those individuals would be difficult to convict.  In essence, he claims he did what he was told.  He said that if he didn't follow orders, he would be 'in a life-boat all by himself'.  And so he chose not to speak out.

In the interview with NBC, they reported that Palmer left the police force.  They omitted the fact that Palmer left in 2005 after an “unethical” relationship with a female informant lead to the dismissal of a dozen drug cases. 

I don’t know why Palmer’s conscious got the best of him 10 years after the wrongful conviction but certainly you can argue that at least it did.  I agree.  The time is always right to what is right.  

Palmer stated that he was at the mercy of his superiors and under immense pressure to solve this case.  Why then, when he separated from service 8 years ago and was released from the pressure of his police department and his superiors, did he not come forward?  It would seem that his life-boat was safely docked.

Former Rockford Detective Doug Palmer
The truth is, Doug Palmer disgusts me.  This is obviously a man whose values and principles were askew when he entered this profession and his actions during his tenure tarnished every badge in the Rockford police department. 

It’s tarnished mine as well because he said in his interview that the police will always win because people believe the police.  When asked if they should, he answered, “Not all the time, no.”

Mr. Palmer, it is people like you that cause public trust to erode.  You and those like you who enter the law enforcement profession dishonorably do a disservice to the community you serve and to your fellow officers – and especially to the 3 men who were wrongfully convicted because of your actions.

I stand shoulder to shoulder with men and women who fight against injustice by following the law and upholding the Constitution of the United States.  The majority of police officers would rather lose their job than follow an order that is illegal or unethical.

I’ve dedicated my life to social justice and I know that our system has flaws.  But I take exception when you decide to clear your conscious 10 years too late and leave the public with the impression that our system is broken and the police are untrustworthy just because you are.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lessons from the Boxing Ring

I got my @$$ handed to me in the boxing ring.  Forgive the vulgarity, but it is the only way to adequately describe what occurred.

When a sergeant from my department asked me if I would be interested in participating in an exhibition boxing match for charity against a female commander from another jurisdiction, I happily agreed.  The words “charity” and “exhibition” drowned out the words “boxing match” in my head.  I was expecting oversized clown gloves and putting on a fun show for the crowd.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I heard much trash talking from the other side of the county but I really thought it was just hype to generate ticket sales for the event.  

Since I’d never boxed before, I sought out a boxer, MMA fighter and overall “badass” to help me with some basics so I would, at the very least, punch and move properly.  In hindsight, I should have trained much earlier than 2 weeks out because my opponent was doing just that.  

When I stepped into that ring, I was prepared to entertain the crowd.  When she threw the first punch into my face, I knew it wasn’t for fun.  Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, right?  I don’t remember much from my bout.  In fact, my trainer was apparently screaming from my corner telling me to “get out” and “block” and I can honestly say I didn’t hear a word.  I never felt pain, either.  I could see her fists coming at my face and I knew she was making contact, but it didn’t hurt at all in the moment.  That’s the beauty of adrenaline.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to talk myself out of a lot of fights over the course of my career.  For the ones I couldn’t, the scenario always ended the same way:  the bad guy ended up in handcuffs.  If I started alone in a fight, I knew there were more of my brothers and sisters in blue on the way to assist.  In the ring, I couldn’t call for back up.  At one point, she hit me so hard that I reverted back to my police training and I instinctively turned to find cover.  In a ring, there is nowhere to go but back into the fight.

I held my own.  I stayed on my feet.  I endured 3 rounds.  I lost by majority decision.  But I learned a few things for which I am grateful.

The first of which is to be prepared.  I think if I’d have taken this bout as serious as my opponent, I might have prevailed in at least one of the rounds.  I have no one to blame but myself for making the assumption that this was a game.  Those who prepare don’t need luck.  They win because they put in the time on the front end so they are ready for the moment.  

This isn’t as much about boxing as it is about life.  For police officers, you can never know when you will find yourself in a dark alley with a bad guy who is ready to sacrifice it all to get away and hurt you in the process.  You must train for those moments where life meets circumstance.  Train for the unpredictable so you get to control the outcome.  Those who are unprepared will find themselves wishing they’d have trained harder for the fight that really matters - if they live to tell about it.

For those who don’t face criminals in dark alleys, life it still about preparation.  It’s about committing yourself to constant self improvement.  Take the classes you’ve been putting off, read the book that will make you better at what you do, start training your body.  Take on a new challenge that moves you out of your comfort zone because when you come out on the other side, you will be better.  Never miss an opportunity to improve yourself because you can never know when it will pay off.

That was my second lesson.  I had never boxed before and as the fight grew near, I was legitimately terrified.  But I committed to the event and I asked myself the question I ask every time I get nervous about an upcoming challenge:  “What is the worst thing that could happen?”  I came up with the following answers:  I could lose.  I could get publicly humiliated in the process.  I could actually get hurt.

The funny part is that getting hurt played the least part in the equation.  I’m not sure why but I’m not scared of getting injured or being in pain.  I’ve endured pain before and I know it’s temporary.  I wasn’t even particularly worried about losing.  I knew going into this bout that my opponent was bigger and stronger and thus, I had no delusions or false confidence.  So public humiliation was the only lingering barrier and I figured I could live with that!  Once I formulated the answers to the questions and accepted the worst case scenario, I was able to move forward.

I stepped far outside my comfort zone and in the moment, it really sucked.  I wanted to revert back to my safe place.  But I’m glad I stayed in and endured.  And now that I’m on the other side, I’m better for having done it.  Even with the loss and the humiliation.  I’m better because I tried.

Photo by Ed Corral Photography
I couldn’t give up because it would render pointless every lesson I’ve ever taught my children about failure and resilience.  Much of life is showing up and if you end up taking a beating, that’s okay as long as you get up again.  It’s about perseverance and staying in the fight.  

And finally, I learned that the people in your corner are the ones who matter most of all.  

The actual fight is a blur to me but one thing I do recall is looking out to see the faces of my friends and family cheering me on.  The ones who showed up are the ones who will still be there without a winning title and when the rest of the crowd goes away, they’re still in my corner.  They don’t make trophies for that.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Courage to be Authentic

I entered this profession in 1991 at a time when it was progressive enough that women in policing had already secured a place, but not progressive enough that women held leadership positions.  In my state, we were accepted into the thin blue line but we would maintain our positions within that line for awhile and not out in front leading the line.

By the very nature of human adaptation, we sought to “fit in” so much so that we bartered away our uniqueness for a place at the table.  When I was a brand new police officer, I acted the way I thought I was supposed act and I emulated those around me. 

This was a stretch from the person I actually was.  I was a chubby kid throughout my childhood and I’m kinda grateful for my parent’s lack of knowledge about nutrition because with every slice of pizza I shoved into my face, I learned to be funny to compensate for my husky waistline.   The summer before my senior year of high school, I discovered exercise and health and lost the weight.  But I was still funny.  I was voted “Class Clown” by my fellow classmates because I had mastered quick-wit and humor as a way to draw others in.  I was usually the loudest person in the room, and quite frankly, I don’t know how to be any other way.

So when I fulfilled my dream of becoming a cop, I stifled that part of me and applied my proverbial mask that I dubbed my "street personality”.  My small stature magnified my insecurity so I overcompensated by being over the top.  

I used to believe that this phenomenon was exclusive to women but I’ve since realized that it is not gender-specific.  We all spend much of our time watching social cues and emulating others so we don’t stand out too much.  We are innately designed so that we adapt to our environment.

For the first year on the job, I was a poser.  I pretended to be tough and I talked a big game.  That is, until a criminal-type ran from me on a traffic stop.  I got a much needed lesson that my skills and stature were nothing against a 6’3’” muscle-man.  I gave chase but failed to consider my gift of being pretty fast when I needed to be.  As the gap between he and I was closing, I recall having the semi-conscious thought: “What am I going to do when I catch him?”  

So I formulated a plan to to pounce and tackle him to the ground, then cuff him.  I got within 3 feet and sprung on him with Tigger agility and grabbed his shoulders.  

But.he.didn’t.fall.  His footing wasn’t in the least bit affected by my acrobatic feat.

I didn’t have a “plan B” because it never occurred to me that my “plan A” would be thwarted by physics.  I never made a conscious decision to hang on to him - it just happened.  So as I was riding this guy’s back through the backyards  of a neighborhood on the east side of Aurora, my “tough guy” act fell away and I said to him:  

“We both know you could really hurt me if you wanted to.  But you won’t -- because it won’t increase your street cred given my obvious proportion.  And it certainly won’t help my reputation among my fellow officers.  So let’s just end this and I’ll arrest you for your warrants which is inevitable sooner or later anyway.  I won’t charge you with fleeing and we’ll call it a day.”  

He stopped.  Just like that, he stopped abruptly.  I slid down his back and handcuffed him with no issue whatsoever.  

He said, “Ma'am, no one has ever been real with me like that.”  

He also said, “You dropped something back there” which turned out to be my radio that had bounced out of it’s holder.  So we walked together and he showed me where I dropped it (no kidding).  I picked it up and said in my most confident voice over the air, “Subject in custody”.  

I ran into that guy many times throughout my career and he never gave me a problem.  He gave other cops a problem -- but not me.

After that incident, I started being me.  I brought MY personality to my job and I started making great successes.  I learned that when you treat people with dignity and respect and never look down on them (even when they are literally laying in the gutter), they will cooperate and even help you.  

I was a successful police officer because I stopped trying to be what I believed I was supposed to be and started being authentic.  I diffused situations with humor and I didn’t withhold compassion like I thought I was supposed to do.  I was me.  

Then I got promoted to sergeant and the same thing happened again.  I started acting the way my bosses over the years acted because I thought that was how authority was supposed to look.  Fortunately, I was conscious of it and I forced myself to remember the lesson I learned 9 years earlier.  

It’s a struggle to go against the “norm” and it’s much easier to attempt to live in the contrived notion of what others believe a Chief, a Captain, a Lieutenant, a President, a Board Member (insert any title here) should be.  

Whose template are we trying to fit?  We should be more concerned with results.  Are we getting the job done?  That should be the litmus test and should matter more than anything else.  What’s wrong with adding personality to the process?  When it’s time to put our game faces on, we always do.

It’s so counter-intuitive but the fact is that when we start using the skills and the gifts that are unique to us (humor, passion, compassion, creativity) -- when we begin being more of who we really are -- this authenticity makes us better at leading people.  It does so because we aren’t borrowing power from our position.  It does so because we don’t have to try and remember to be a different person at work.  Humans aren’t built to compartmentalize the different facets of our lives.  I’m always astounded when people tell me they are a different person at home than they are at work.  That must be exhausting to try and remember who to be based on where you are!  

I know what stops us from being who we really are.  We are worried what will "THEY" will think.  What will EVERYONE think?  

The best moment of my life came after I finally asked myself, “Who is this THEY that I’m so worried about and why do I give them so much power?”  The answer is actually really simple.  I keep a list of the “they’s” in my life whose opinion really matters to me.  I call them my “Personal Board of Directors” and they are comprised of my family, friends, and mentors with strong values and high expectations of me.   When I begin to worry or the criticism starts to get to me, I refer to my list and as long as I’m doing right by them, the noise falls away.  

If there is a time where I know that my “THEY” would not be proud, I know that I have to make some changes.

And if you find yourself on the other side as one of the critics or the one who stands in judgment, stop.  Check yourself.  Be introspective enough to question your own judgments of others and instead of criticizing, seek understanding.  I have found that my biggest critics are usually people who don’t even know me. 

You are never going to satisfy all the critics (especially the higher you ascend in an organization).  That’s okay -- that’s where COURAGE comes in.  You could be the ripest, juiciest apple in the world, and there’s going to be someone out there who hates apples.

There are those moments when I struggle and am tempted to fall prey to the criticism that suggests I don’t act (or even look) “Commanderly”.  And then I think of the men and women in my department and the results they produce and the relationships I have with them that are based on mutual respect and I realize I’m doing something right.  I’ve gotten this far in my career by being me and I’m proud of that.  And I’m not going to change to fit someone else’s template.  

We all need to find the courage to be authentic and even vulnerable at times.  Vulnerability is not for the weak -- it’s for the strong.  It takes courage to stand out because it’s much easier (and safer) to fit in.  

You will have critics and people will judge you but as long as you are right with the “they” in your life and as long as you are doing the right thing, for the right reasons, and at the right time, you should be YOU as much as you possibly can.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Love and Fear in Leadership

Do you think leaders should be loved or feared?  This leadership question has been debated over the years with different surveys and trends that reveal many opinions on the matter.  

Some believe that fear is a motivator and that people, when left to their own devices, will not perform without the threat of discipline or punishment.  Instilling fear then, is a motivator unto itself.  The fearful leader rules with an iron fist and order is achieved through the genuine belief that discomfort will result should they not perform.  Police officers can sometimes fall back on their position of authority and use their badge to motivate through fear.  Parents do this by using the “Because I said so” approach.

The problem with being feared is that people don’t develop intrinsic motivation to perform (motivation that comes from within us).  When people perform out of fear, they soon become resentful and that results in a revolt against authority over time.  When a police officer instills fear when they could have used influence, defiance occurs.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the leader who is loved.  This leader gains the admiration of his or her people based on affection.  This leader typically craves being looked upon favorably by those they lead.

A leader who is loved may become so accustom to the feeling of admiration that it clouds their thinking.  It feels good to be loved and it’s easy to get caught up in the warm and fuzzy throes of positive emotion.  As result, the loved leader will make decisions based on the need to hold onto that feeling and thus, will attempt to appease their people rather than risk upsetting them.  The consequence is that these loved leaders will soon turn to others to make the tough decisions so they don’t have to be the “bad guy”.  In parenthood, this results in being more of a friend than a parent.

Many say that leaders should be both loved and feared.  I disagree and argue that they should be neither.  Instead, they should be respected.

Respect is born out of high regard and is elicited by a persons abilities, qualities and achievements.  It is an esteemed reverence for skill but the overarching characteristic for respecting a leader is based on reciprocity.  That is, they genuinely hold their people in high regard and honor them for their contribution to the organization.  

Leaders who are respected follow a simple formula when making any decision -- whether it be about policy or personnel:  

Am I doing the the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons?  

If the answer to any component of this question is “no”, they re-evaluate and formulate a response that is in proper alignment.

A respected leader will always be able to give transparent reasons for the decision they made and will never feel ambushed or insulted when asked to do so.  A respected leader understands that they will not please everyone all of the time and makes peace with that concept because they have followed the formula. 

I firmly believe that you can buy a person’s back, but you cannot buy their heart.  Quite simply, I can force someone to do what I want by threat of punishment (fear) and that method will be effective; but only in the short term.

However, when the heart is fully engaged and people believe that they are valued and respected, they will perform because their purpose and their passion persuades them to do so.  It takes time to build an environment where values and expectations are communicated clearly and where people are appreciated for their skills.  This is no easy feat because it requires honest and open dialogue and transparent policies with constant communication.  

Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on the leaders at all.  Maybe the answer is finding the “why” in what we do so that we perform not for someone but for something bigger than ourselves.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The best way to avoid the path of devastation is to steer clear of it all together.

I tell my kids the reason I didn’t do drugs was because I was afraid I might like them.  (I could have told them that the DuPage County Coroner’s office has reported 38 heroin overdose deaths already this year but I’ve learned that statistics don’t resonate very well with kids.) 

Heroin used to be taboo among many recreational drug users because it was injected intravenously with a needle into a vein. The common belief was that anyone who “shoots up” is a “junky”. 

Because human beings are masters at rationalizing their behavior, a growing number of people are now experimenting with heroin because it doesn’t have the stigma of yesterday.

Manufacturers of heroin have since figured out how to refine it with such purity that it can be smoked or snorted, so it doesn’t seem so scary anymore. Not to mention that it’s pretty cheap compared to other popular illegal drugs so even those on a limited income can afford it.     

It is for these very reasons that we are seeing more deaths from heroin overdoses.  Some might call it an “epidemic”.  In order for something to be called an epidemic, there has to be a widespread occurrence so, I think the term is fitting.

The fact that humans are pleasure-seekers by nature makes heroin easy to market.

If I were the CEO in charge Heroin, Inc., I would have my sales team give away free samples because one use is all it takes to develop an addiction.  It’s a derivative of morphine and anyone who has been given the substance in a hospital for pain relief can attest that it makes you feel really groovy.  In fact, I would choose that line as my marketing slogan.

The return on my investment is the addicts I’ve created who will beg, borrow and steal to get their next fix.  Heroin addicts are not born.  They are made---hence my philosophy that I’m terrified I might like it.

I wrote my last column about Drug Rehabilitation Court and I received a lot of responses based on this comment I made:

I still struggle because I believe we arrive at addiction by way of conscious choice.  A reasonable person must suffer the consequences of choosing a path where they know there is a strong likelihood of it ending in destruction.”
Some people felt as though I wasn’t showing compassion for those who have found themselves on the aforementioned path.  One person declared that they didn’t choose the path – it was chosen for them.  Their parents were drug addicts and thus, the path was already paved in stone for them.
I never meant to imply that our circumstances don’t play a colossal role in the course of our future.  Any social scientist with PhD after their name will tell you that the environment to which we are exposed dictates our cultural and social norms.
I will, however, argue that our paths are not paved in permanence.  I had the honor and privilege to be educated about Drug Court Rehabilitation and I am so pleasantly touched by success stories of those who have overcome their addiction to become productive members of society.
Paths can change when we have the courage to be honest and admit we are going in the wrong direction.  If we don’t know we are on the wrong road, I have found that human influence can be the one thing that changes our course.  All it takes is one person to stand at the fork in the road and help us make the turn.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t fall down now and again as long as we keep getting up and moving forward.
Some people will try to lure and entice you down the wrong path. The best way to avoid the path of devastation is to steer clear of it all together. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Finding Empathy in Addiction

Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on September 15, 2013

In my 22 years at the Aurora Police Department, I have had a front row seat to the devastation and destruction that befalls individuals who have addictions.

Drug abuse can cause once law-abiding citizens to turn to criminal activity in order to support their habits.  I’ve watched people turn to prostitution, theft, robbery and even murder because of the shackles of addiction.

Repeatedly witnessing the pain that abusers caused to others made me less than empathic to the struggles of addicts.  Because our view of the world is shaped by the lens we wear in our own life, my personal experiences caused me to lack compassion. 

When I became the Commander of the Investigations Bureau, I assumed responsibility to approve or deny Drug Rehabilitation Court for those who enter into the criminal justice system.

Drug Rehabilitation Court handles cases involving non-violent, drug using offenders, who agree to an intensive supervision and treatment program. The Court brings the full weight of all interveners (e.g. the Judge, Probation Officers, Law Enforcement Officers, Prosecutors, Defense Attorneys, Treatment Specialists and other social service personnel) to bear, forcing the offender to deal with his or her substance abuse problem or suffer severe consequences.

The process begins when a person is arrested for a crime.  They then have an opportunity to apply for drug court if they are claiming an addiction. 

The cases I received at first glance were easy because I was determined to deny anyone that had a criminal offense other than possessing a drug.  I decided that anyone who committed a crime and blamed it on addiction was not worthy of the program.

I was reading through the police reports associated with one of applicants and noted that he was arrested for burglary.  I was about to give the stamp of denial until I looked closer and saw that the burglary victims were the offender’s parents.  I picked up the phone and dialed their number because I had this overwhelming need to hear their story. 

I spent 45 minutes on the phone with the couple who took turns telling me stories about their adult son and how his heroin addiction unraveled their lives.  They appeared to be loving parents who had to contend with a son who made a wrong choice.

They tried reasoning with him.  They tried putting him in rehab on numerous occasions only to watch him relapse over and over.  When he lost his job and his family, they took him in.  Then they started feeling scared by the other addicts he would bring home and they ultimately made the decision to kick him out.

Every night they went to bed wondering where he was sleeping or if he was even alive.  As if that weren’t painful enough, they were burglarized and learned it was their own son who had broken into their home.  He stole their possessions so he could sell or trade them for more drugs and they were faced with the most difficult decision of their lives – to press criminal charges against their own child.

The application for drug court was no longer a piece of paper.  A real life jumped from the words strung together in the police report and caused me to change my lens and my judgment.

I still struggle because I believe we arrive at addiction by way of conscious choice.  A reasonable person must suffer the consequences of choosing a path where they know there is a strong likelihood of it ending in destruction.

But I have come to understand that it is not for me to withhold compassion or empathy.  It is not only my job to ensure that justice is served, but to also to help those who are lost; find a new and better path.

For more information on Drug Rehabilitation Court, visit and click on the General Information tab at the top of the page.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Boredom, School and the Prefrontal Cortex

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on August 19, 2013
                 Every school year, my kids count down the days until summer vacation.  Once it arrives, the jovial occasion is met with roasting marshmallows over a bonfire started with kindling made up of old school folders and papers.

The bellowing smoke is symbolic of another year rising and slowing dissipating into the past with excitement for a long summer ahead.   They fill themselves with s ’mores, stay up too late, sleep in too long, and all is right with the world--- until about 6 days into summer vacation when my phone rings at work and I hear “we’re bored” on the other end.

  The word “bored” is forbidden in my house.  Boredom is an emotional state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, and not interested in their surroundings.  But how can that even be?  We live in a great, big, vast world and the possibilities to occupy our time and our minds are endless.  If you are suffering from boredom, you are suffering from a failure of imagination.  But I digress.  This column is not about boredom.

After the camps are done and the woodpile for the bonfire has dwindled, there is no fighting the inevitable – the start of the new school year is just around the corner.  Boredom (I’ll allow the word in my own column) has actually created anticipation for a new beginning. My kids will never admit it, but they secretly crave the routine and order that happens when school begins.   Or maybe it’s just me.

The backpacks are bursting at the seams with school supplies and the new shoes are still clean and pristine as they head off to school with nervous excitement.  They wave you a goodbye and the world returns to its natural order.

You head off to work with coffee in your hand and what?  Look at the time!  You are running late to work and of course the inevitable happens.  You are stuck behind one of the MILLION big, yellow school buses that seem to be EVERYWHERE.

  No worries.  You’ll just gently pass on the right and scoot around it before it puts out that big, red stop sign arm so you inch up and... NO!  Pow!  There’s the stop sign.  You know you aren’t supposed to pass a school bus because it’s super illegal but you strongly consider it.  Fortunately, your clear head prevails and you recognize that the laws are in place to protect younger children who often have limited experience with traffic and lack the skills to negotiate it safely.

As a motorist, you remind yourself that you need to take special care while driving during school hours.  (Please note that I’m giving you the actual script that should go on in your head as this occurs so I’ve done all the work for you.)  Since you are a logical and calm human being, you simply plan to leave a tad earlier from now on so you don’t have to even consider passing a school bus that is loading precious, miniature human beings. 

And while you are being so logical, don’t forget to respect those vest-wearing crossing guards who make you stop so the miniature humans can cross the street.  They get paid peanuts (and not even good ones like macadamia nuts) to keep your kids safe while putting their own safety in jeopardy.

Above all, remember to be patient.  The school speed zones are there for a reason.  The part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex is responsible for reasoning and decision-making.  It isn’t fully developed until we are in our mid-twenties so the kids on their way to school are too young to safely circumvent the sea of vehicles surrounding roads at their schools. They have an excuse to lack common sense.  We don’t.

Now go have a great school year.  Only 286 days until summer vacation!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Victimization is a Choice

If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can to escape it. Right?

Actually, that’s a common misconception. The truth is when you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you are more likely to give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

I expect that you might argue this point by saying that you would fight to leave a bad situation in which you find yourself because that’s what most people believe. We don’t want to think of ourselves as weak or helpless and so we vehemently proclaim, “Not me”.

Think about the last time you declared that you weren’t going to vote in a local or national election. Did you say: “Why should I bother? Things never change” or “My vote out of millions doesn’t really matter anyway”.

A child who performs poorly on math tests and assignments will quickly begin to feel that nothing he does will have any effect on his math performance. When later faced with any type of math-related task, he may experience a sense of helplessness.

This concept, helplessness, occurs when people feel that they have no control over their situation and leads them to behave in a helpless manner. By that, they become paralyzed with inaction and it causes them to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

Humans are adaptive creatures and once we have resigned ourselves to the notion that there is nothing we can do about our situation, we simply accept our fate. In the book, “You Are Not So Smart”, author David McRaney talks about the effects of learned helplessness and explains that an extended period of negative emotions can lead to giving into despair, thus accepting your fate. He uses the example of loneliness. If you remain alone for a long time, you will decide loneliness is a fact of life and pass up opportunities to engage with other people.

I was a detective in the Domestic Violence Reduction Unit for five years and it was there that I became aware of learned helplessness. Some victims began to feel as though they could not escape their situation and those futilities led them to accept their plight. This concept is important in understanding why battered women don't attempt to free themselves from an abusive relationship.

The loss of control in any situation will lead to feeling helpless.

In policing, we see this phenomenon daily. So many people believe that external forces such as genetics or social class dictate their fate when in fact, conscious choice and relentless action proves otherwise.

The best part about learned helplessness is that there is a cure. We can combat the symptoms of feeling like a victim through conscious choice. When we make choices for ourselves – even small choices – we are revolting against helplessness and gaining control over our lives.

It all begins with the conversations we have with ourselves inside our own heads. The negative self-talk perpetuates a state of victimization when all we can hear ourselves say are things like, “Nothing is ever going to change”. Instead, we can make a conscious choice to declare that things will get better. Once we start to believe what we say, our actions will follow. The seemingly simple act of changing our mind-set is not actually that simple because we are hard-wired for victimization. It’s easier to blame the world around us for our problems rather than to embrace the notion that our inaction is the precise reason we are miserable.

If you were a victim of neglect or endured abuse as a child, you can blame everything bad in your life on your unfortunate circumstances and drown in the pond of self-pity or you can choose not to allow your circumstances to define you.

You have the power to rewrite your story and break through the walls of helplessness.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Abuse and Intuition: Trust Your Instinct

When I was a patrol officer, I once was dispatched to take a report for a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by her mom’s boyfriend. The child’s aunt brought her to the hospital and notified police after her niece made some comments about the male anatomy and sex to which the average 7-year-old would not be privy.

The little girl had to have a rape kit completed, which is used to collect evidence such as clothing fibers, hairs and bodily fluids, which might help identify an assailant and provide evidence during a criminal trial. It’s an intrusive process that no one should have to endure — especially a little girl.

As I conducted a preliminary investigation, I couldn’t help but notice that the little girl was laughing and playing with the toys that the hospital staff brought for her. She certainly didn’t resemble a child who had been molested, and I secretly wondered if her aunt had misconstrued what she said or jumped to conclusions. After all, the girl didn’t seem scared or outwardly afflicted.

I followed that case to the end. As it turned out, the little girl’s mother didn’t believe her child. She vehemently defended her boyfriend, with whom she had been in a relationship for two months before allowing him to move in and babysit her daughter. The boyfriend was eventually arrested and charged.

I would go on to respond to many similar cases. I learned very quickly that there are some common myths associated with sexual assault, and that the human psyche is very complex.

One might think that a victim of sexual assault would be fearful of their abuser, but quite frequently, that is not the case. Depending on how savvy the abuser is, there is a level of manipulation that is choreographed. Humiliation, shame and fear equal silence.

Offenders reinforce these feelings by what they say and do to their victims. They use the shame and fear to bind the victim to them and isolate them from others who might help them. Victims are often terrified that they will not be believed and ashamed that they don’t know how to stop the abuse. They often feel trapped between wanting the abuse to end and being terrified of other people learning what has been done to them. That fear can keep victims silent while the abuse continues. Seventy-five percent of victims never disclose abuse, keeping it a secret forever.

Some victims remain silent because they don’t have any proof of the abuse, which makes allegations their word against that of their abuser. While it is helpful to have physical evidence (which normally results from immediacy in reporting), it isn’t always possible to obtain. That doesn’t mean there cannot be a solid case for a conviction based on victim testimony.

And though it might be difficult to understand, some victims defend their abuser and may even deny they are being abused. People react to trauma in different ways. It is not uncommon for victims to maintain contact with their abusers, because they might still feel affection for them even though they hate the abuse. This is especially prevalent when the abuser is a member of the family or a close family friend and in instances where the victims are children. There is no “book” on how children respond to trauma. You would be wrong to assume that you know how a child would or should respond.

Sexual abuse doesn’t just occur when a mom allows her new boyfriend to move in. It happens in families with blood relatives and close friends in backdrops you might not suspect. When you discuss “stranger danger” with your children, also reinforce that, if anyone ever abuses them, they need to tell.

Be vigilant in safeguarding the children in your life by listening to your intuition. When something feels wrong, it usually is.