In celebration of making it to the big 5-0, I’d like to share a few pearls of wisdom about being a part of this machine we call police work. My advice isn’t so much about laws and the consequences for breaking them, or the mechanics of doing the job. My words will be more about how to work within the system of this paramilitary profession; figuring out how to stay sane when you know you’re doing right, but someone with stripes or collar hardware says otherwise. Ethics and morals have evolved over time and seem to be generational — what was once taboo during the “old guard’s” youth may now be perfectly normal — and therein lies the rub.
As we get older (I’m guilty of it), many of us tend to stop being open to new ideas or opinions differing from our own. Even something as trivial as fashion or different styles can cause problems. For example, in 1985 I was just 22 when I started my police career. I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of piss and vinegar and sported a flattop haircut, which was pretty fashionable at the time — for men and women. The problem for me was being around administrators who all began their careers when I was a toddler, and for some, before I was even born. They came from a different era, when “women looked like women,” whatever the hell that meant.
So, while a flattop was appropriate for the men, I caught all kinds of flack for my hair. Not because it was an officer safety issue, but because the old guard claimed it was “unprofessional.” I looked at the policy and knew I was within it. I also couldn’t find anything to clarify what exactly unprofessional meant. It was an entirely subjective matter, and I was the focus of their attention because I didn’t fit their generational ethic and moral code. I fought them and ultimately won the battle, but in some ways I lost the war.
I continued to be under the microscope because I was deemed a troublemaker. If not being satisfied with being told, “Because I told you so,” or having a firm belief in what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — then I guess I was a troublemaker. Fortunately, I was introduced to the split sheet concept (“The Split Sheet,” Street Level, April 2012) by none other than Lt. John Morrison himself. John shared this pearl of wisdom with me and it saved my ass several times. Virtually every other point of advice I’ll give you here reverts back to this little gem.
We’ve all been told — and told others — life ain’t fair. Boy howdy, is this ever true in law enforcement. A simple example of this would be being told yelling at someone you stopped was unprofessional, against policy, inappropriate or whatever. Then, a few days later you witness the very person who told you yelling at someone was unacceptable — screaming at someone! Guess what? Life ain’t fair. And the whole unfair-thing can grow exponentially when trying to transfer, promote or just avoid losing your spot on a squad to someone junior to you.
Learning to cope with the life-ain’t-fair rule requires you to take a deep breath, count to 10 (100?) and in many cases turn the other cheek. Keeping unfair slights in perspective is key, but I admit over time things can add up and segues neatly to this advice: Choose your battles wisely. It took me many years, and many discussions with my husband Roy, to put down my jousting lance and stop tilting at windmills. Doing battle over every little perceived slight is time-consuming and only adds unnecessary stress to your life. I’d suggest battle is an option for those things impacting the agency as a whole, and not the smaller, more personal issues. If it’s wrong for the public or the agency, fight the fight. If you’re upset because of some sergeant’s passing comment, sit it out.
Police work can be stressful all on its own. Dealing with the old guard, annoying personalities, office politics and all the other crap takes effort to manage. Remember the reasons you got into this profession and let those reasons keep you doing the right thing — every day. Remember this world is full of all sorts of different personalities and you’re not going to get along with all of them. And, you may even have to work for some of them. Try to be fair in your own dealings, but remember, life ain’t fair so be ready to smile and turn the other cheek. Prepare to be railroaded at times, but choose your battles wisely. Most importantly, remember the power of the split sheet, and keep your sanity. The light at the end of the tunnel is retirement — it’s not a locomotive.
By Suzi Huntington