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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Superintendent Eddie Johnson's True Character Revealed

Last year, one of my officers contemplated suicide.

The story has a happy ending but it took him over a year to fight the system to keep his job because the state revoked his FOID card as a result of being an inpatient at a mental health facility. Our city leaders supported me in fighting for his job and we attended depositions and hearings with determination.

The only way to get to the other side is to go through it and this officer fought to get there. 

During this time, I was at an unrelated meeting with Superintendent Eddie Johnson and shared this story with him. He called me to follow up out of concern for our officer and we shared our thoughts about the system being designed to prevent a police officer from asking for help. After witnessing what this officer went through, anyone else struggling would be deterred from seeking guidance. We commiserated but decided that it was up to us to change the culture. I appreciated Superintendent Johnson’s care and concern for my officer and his passion for fighting this affliction in our profession. 

The following year, we had a mass shooting where five people were killed and five of my officers were shot. Superintendent Johnson was among the first to reach out and ask what we needed. He offered prayers for our officers and support for our entire department as we attempted to navigate our darkest day. He said, “Aurora is our sister city so let us know what you need from Chicago.”

I will never forget the care and concern Eddie showed for our officers and me. I have watched him navigate the perils of leading the 2nd largest city in our nation and I have been proud to see the accomplishments that CPD has achieved in the last few years. And in the middle of it, he took the time to reach out and offer support. That tells me all I need to know about another human.

On behalf of your sister city, I thank you for your 31 years of dedicated service to our noble profession and wish you peace and contentment as you turn the page to the next chapter of your life.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Don't You Dare Give Up on This Life

*I never published this post because the officer asked me not to do so out of respect for his family. He contacted me and said he's ready to share his story because he believes he can help other officers who are in pain. The original post had his name changed. This is his real name and this is his story. 

Today is a great day.

Over a year ago, one of my officers nearly committed suicide, and today we found out he gets to return to full duty.

It was after midnight and Pete retrieved his unloaded service weapon, held it to his head and pulled the trigger just to hear it “click.” In an act in furtherance, he loaded the pistol and left his house intending to finish the job outside so his wife and kids wouldn’t find him. In a final act of reconciliation, he decided to call his sister-in-law and made a pact with himself that if she answered, he’d let her talk him out of it. But if she didn’t answer, he was prepared to end his life.
She answered.

I want to pause here for a moment and thank whatever higher power aligned the stars so she would answer the phone after midnight. When I ponder the alternate outcome had his call gone unanswered, I would be telling a different story.

His sister-in-law convinced him to phone a peer officer who happened to be on duty that night. He responded and convinced Pete that he needed to seek treatment. Pete went willingly to the hospital and voluntarily admitted himself for inpatient treatment at a mental health facility where he remained for five days and engaged in individual and group therapy.

After being discharged, Pete continued with outpatient treatment where he continued to get stronger and make progress towards wellness. I spoke with him several times during that time, and I was surprised by how open and forthcoming he was about his suicidal thoughts and what brought him to that moment where he nearly left this earth. He was facing his demons, and I felt with all my heart that he was prevailing.

It was shortly after that we received word that his Firearm Owners Identification Card (FOID) was being revoked under 430 ILCS 65/8(e) which prohibits a person who has been an inpatient in a mental health facility within five years from possessing a firearm.

This makes perfect sense to me. This is what we passionately protest when we hear of a mass shooting where a person with a mental illness was able to purchase a weapon. But there is a conflicting principle at play here and one that cannot be ignored.

Pete gained a medical release from his physician who found him fit to return to duty. I sent him to an independent medical examiner who came to the same conclusion, but because he was ineligible to possess a FOID card, Pete couldn’t work as a police officer. We filed an appeal with the review board of the Illinois State Police under a section of the law that provides relief to a law enforcement officer who did not act in a manner threatening to himself, another person or the public. They denied it based on his being a danger to himself, and this also makes sense to me. I do not for a moment begrudge the ISP review board for following the law.

Pete became overwhelmed by the stress of police work and the toll it takes on the family. He was walking around in distress and not one of us knew until he almost pulled the trigger that night. But it didn’t make sense to me that an officer like Pete who has worked as a police officer for over 20 years would lose his job because he asked for help.

But there is a liability and I get that. Imagine if the ISP were to give Pete his FOID card back and he did something unthinkable. There would be outrage and we would have no rebuttal given that the law is clear on the matter.

But having suicidal thoughts does not make a person mentally ill.

We decided to challenge the denial and filed for Pete’s case to be heard before an Administrative Law Judge. Pete’s attorney and all his supervisors in his chain of command testified on his behalf. I told the judge that I would not be advocating for Pete if I felt that he posed a danger or liability to our police department, his fellow officers, or the citizens we serve.

The judge agreed and felt that by a preponderance of the evidence that Pete was not a danger to public safety. Because the Illinois State Police has jurisdiction over the matter, it went to Director Schmitz who granted the petition. Pete returned to work and is flourishing. In fact, I feel that Pete is stronger having come out on the other side of this.

I fear this incident has sent an unspoken message to police officers that the last thing you can do when you are having dark thoughts is to ask for help. Rather, it’s contributing to the stigma in law enforcement where we pretend we are unaffected by the film reel of tragic events that plays over and over in our heads.

I understand the liability. I really do. But I think the greater liability is with an officer who is a ticking time bomb and refuses to seek help for fear of losing his or her job. Since this incident, we lobbied for legislation to be changed. Governor Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 5231 into law which prevents police agencies from requiring a FOID card as a condition of continued employment. But that doesn't change the culture where many still believe it is a stigma to be associated with the thought of suicide.

Some people think it’s weak to ask for help or to admit when they are overwhelmed. The truth is, there is nothing weak about it. It took great courage for Pete to call his fellow officer and ask for help and I think it’s time we honor courageous acts rather than punish them.

*If Pete's story is your story, reach out for help now:

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Hatred is the Highest Form of Contempt

Just one month after the mass shooting in our city, shots rang out again on the other side of the world and despite the distance, I could feel them here. The massacre in New Zealand was fueled by hatred, and though the circumstances were different, I can’t help but draw a parallel motive for the mass shooting at Pratt. 

Hatred. I was taught from an early age to avoid that word. I might dislike peas or a person, but to attached hatred to something is on another level. Maybe we have lost the conditioning to discern between dislike and hatred. Hatred is the highest form of contempt one can feel because it goes beyond indifference. Indifference is safe because not caring about something or someone is benign. It doesn’t evoke strong emotion or reaction because it doesn’t move someone to action or response. 

But hate motivates. Hate is fierce and consuming, and it drives human beings to do things that are unfathomable and unconscionable. When it takes over, everything goes dark, and everyone goes down with the person who possesses it.

I called the Aurora shooter an “evil soul” and was criticized for using those words. I stand vehemently by them because I looked into the eyes of every family member who lost their loved one and through sheer transference, I felt their pain. I sat at the bedside of the police officers who were struck by the bullets as they were running towards the gunfire. Interestingly enough, the officers were unphased. They would have gladly taken more shots that day if it meant saving lives, but the faces of their loved ones told another story.

I refuse to roll back or soften my words.

Anyone who can feel hatred to the point of consummation where it drives an act of violence against someone else possesses evil within them. And that is not a diagnosis used to defend violent action. You don’t get to assign mental illness as an excuse because nothing infuriates me more than creating a nexus of mental illness where there is the freedom of choice. It is insulting to those battling mental health issues to be compared with those who are fueled by hatred. These killers planned their executions. One brought a gun to work knowing he was going to use it. The other wrote a manifesto in preparation of the bloodshed. Freedom of choice is the greatest of human freedoms, and when it is driven by hatred, it is calculated and evil. Period.

I struggle to understand how someone can become so consumed with hating another person. Even more puzzling is hating a group of people because of their religion or race . Maybe that is the crack in my argument where some will affix mental illness to illustrate that the level of disdain can only be explained as being ill. I understand the need to have a diagnosis so it’s easier to grasp, but I’m not there.

Right now, I’m disgusted by these human beings who take out their anger and hatred on innocent people. Hate alone is a powerful thing and adding a firearm to that toxic formula is a force multiplier that ensures the keeper of the hate can do as much damage as possible. 

In Aurora, we have a strong and vibrant Muslim community. Our Muslim brothers and sisters from New Zealand are seemingly a world away but they are us, and we are them. In the wake of this hatred, please know that your Aurora Police Department and the citizens of this city have our hands on your back. 

Perhaps MLK’s words are befitting for Aurora – the city of lights:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Love more. Hate less. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Who Do You Want To Be?

I attended a retreat with the Mayor and the City of Aurora Executive Team yesterday. This has become an annual event under Mayor Irvin’s leadership, and the purpose is for all department heads to come together and recap our collective achievements and chronicle our challenges from the previous year. It allows us to get in sync and develop a roadmap to progress in the year ahead.

I love this event because it is a reminder to me that the police department is not the center of the solar system (a fact of which I frequently need a reminder). All city departments are aligned to the Mayor’s goals, and it’s so productive to understand how we all work in synergy to elevate our entire city.

But what really captured my attention was when facilitator Marianne Renner talked about engaged employees. It was interesting to learn the categories of employee engagement and where we all fit in. As she described the levels of engagement, I found myself assigning identities to each. Here is the breakdown:

34% of you are actively engaged. You are the people who are loyal and committed. You are always working towards goals, and you contribute to the progress of your organization. You show up to events, you come up with new and ideas and new initiatives, and you get involved.

Photo by Sgt. Ed Corral
53% of you are productive and generally satisfied. You come to work and do your job, but you’re not really invested in anything beyond that. You are the silent majority that doesn’t complain but really doesn’t care beyond your 8-hour shift.

13% of you are actively disengaged. You are the malcontents. You know who you are. Every decision is stupid, and you find something to complain about no matter what the situation. You are unhappy and let that unhappiness show in words, attitudes, and actions. You undermine the performance of others by continually voicing your displeasure.

I guess what surprised me about the study is that those in the 53% category can transition to the actively engaged group with some effort. Marianne said, “You can’t change people; you can only attempt to influence them.” I started thinking about how I could try and inspire and motivate this group in my organization to become actively engaged. The police department leadership seeks to create opportunities for career advancement and specialization. We do our best to acknowledge good work. We have strived to create an environment where communication trumps notification. So why do we have so many people in the middle category?

I thought about that hard, and I decided this might be out of my control. Maybe it's your job to motivate you -- just as it’s my job to motivate me.

Motivation is tricky. To be inspired, you have to be motivated to seek and receive inspiration. If I read a book or an article, I’m influenced by it (positively or negatively depending upon the content). But I have to seek out those sources or read them if they are provided to me. It's still my job to take the step. People inspire me. Some inspire me to be better by doing the opposite of what they do. Others inspire me through their excellent work and actions. During our retreat, our Mayor inspired me by sharing his vision for our city and how we fit into his vision. He is so passionate about progress, and his excitement renewed my energy and enthusiasm.

Passion persuades people. So maybe we surround ourselves with people who inspire us.

If you are one of the 34% who is actively engaged in the place that you are, congratulations. Your organization’s success is because of you. Your enthusiasm is the thing that sets you apart from the disengaged, and you are likely a happier person both at work and at home. You are inspired, and you inspire others. You are winning at life, and you are the people that I want to hang around because that stuff is contagious. Amy Poehler said it best:

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”

If you are one of the sad 13%, I would love to tell you not to come to work. I would like to say to you that all you have to do is pick up your paycheck every 2 weeks. But even then, you’d probably get mad that we aren’t mailing it to you. I wish I could find a way to inspire you to be at the very least, mediocre. But you’ll resist. And when you do leave, it will be addition by subtraction. But until then, we can’t ignore you because you whine pretty loud. But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s this:

“Don’t try and win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”

If you are the silent majority of the 53%, you are just okay. You are going through the motions doing the minimum, and you are utterly mediocre. When you leave your organization, people will say, “that fella was ‘meh.’”

I want more for you than mediocre. I want you to wake something up within you, so you feel a spark of excitement for something. I want you to feel the pride of devising a solution to a problem or creating something out of nothing. I want to bring you over to the “engaged” group not just for our organization, but for you. Because you have no business accepting just okay. And when you get tired of being mediocre and become more than that, everyone around you gets better as a result.

Maybe this is your moment to acknowledge where you are and commit to breaking the chains of apathy.

Here is what I know. You can’t sit around waiting to be motivated or inspired by someone or something. You have to seek out inspiration. You have to move towards it.

Who do you want to be?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

This Patch is Ours

This is our patch.
There are many like it, but this one is ours.

That saying was borrowed from the Rifleman’s Creed and was spoken in jest over the years referring to our uniform patch. “There are many like it” was a poke at its generic design that was adopted by police and security agencies across the nation. It became a running joke about how many different agencies had the same design. But it was ours.

Photo by Sgt. Ed Corral
The consensus over the years was that APD needed an upgrade. In 2006, the command staff at the time started contemplating changing the patch. When I was promoted to lieutenant in 2008, a committee was formed to seek input and design a new patch. We gathered feedback from officers and quickly learned that people wanted different things in their patch. Some wanted buildings to reflect our downtown. Others wanted patriotic flags and bald eagles. Some wanted skulls and crossbones (that didn’t make the cut!). It seemed that every human had a different idea of what it should be.

So, we mocked up as many elements as we could and presented it to the 7-person command staff. I recall laying out the designs and taking a step back as they studied the patches. Their discussion turned into dissent as they voted on their favorite. That morphed into suggestions of different designs they wanted to see incorporated with no one agreeing on the same ideas. I walked out of that room thinking the chief was going to have a tough time sifting through all the opinions and settling on the winning patch.

I never heard another word about it.

That taught me a few very important lessons. First and foremost, a patch is in essence, art. The beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder and all of us are drawn to diverse interpretations of beauty. It also taught me a leadership lesson that is applicable to every decision made in an organization: someone will invariably be unhappy. That’s why so many leaders stay with the status quo. It’s easier to keep things as they are so as not to incur conflict.

Photo by Sgt. Ed Corral
But APD doesn’t do easy. It was important to our command staff that we honor our past, so we sought out to research the APD patch that was used prior to 1969 where the first pictures of our current patch surfaced. The patch from 50 years ago was a simple design with a gray background and a maroon border and a maroon 5-point star. It simply said, “Aurora Police Dept” and that patch became the inspiration for the new design. We decided to steer clear of buildings or landmarks in Aurora because once again, those are opinion-based elements. We opted instead to place the official City of Aurora seal in the center of the patch because it hasn’t changed since 1857. We wanted to honor our past but give it a modern and clean look with our values: Honor, Service, and Integrity. The result is our new patch adopted in 2019.

This is a change I do not take lightly. And as much as I wanted to upgrade the design, the first time I put on the uniform with the new patches, I was flooded with emotion. My dad wore that patch for his career, and it was part of my childhood. It was symbolic of APD. I have worn our patch since 1994 when I became a police officer. Officers who have left this earth have worn it. Our beloved retired officers have worn it. Our current officers wear it and it is a part of all of us. It will always be our patch and it will remain in our legacy. Tradition is a fragile thing in a culture built entirely on memories and there can be no creation without tradition; my hope is that the new patch is a reflection of our past.

Our police department is not the same as it was in 1969. It is exactly 50 years later, and we respect and honor our past, but we evolve and grow into our present. Our police officers and civilian staff are bold, innovative and progressive. Our new patch is symbolic of these characteristics and we wear it proudly because it is our patch. There are many like it, but this one will become ours.

Photo by Sgt. Ed Corral