Photo: Kelly Bracken
After she'd read a recent blog of mine, a reader posted a comment on my personal Facebook page. I'd been busy following my own advice and pimping myself online, and she wrote: "Dean, Dean, DEAN!! I wanted to hear how you rose above the Type-A personalities and came into your own without following the methods they employ. Believe me, they can't help it just as much as you can't help ducking and covering. Until then, (and it takes one to know one) aren't we just whining?"
Fair question, even if it assumes that I did "come into my own." To the minds of more rank-conscious souls, my accomplishments as a deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were comparatively meager. Most of my career was spent as a sergeant without my having ascended higher—even if I was inordinately tasked with the responsibilities of a pay scale above mine in playing watch commander. However, unlike some of those Type-A personalities, I didn't prostitute myself to get a 100% appraisal of promotability (more on that in a bit).
When it comes to the prospect of whining (and make no mistake about it, I have been known to whine), it is not without cause, precedent, or motive. By revisiting realities of my professional experience—what went right, what went wrong, and just how the hell things turned out differently than expected—I might be able to illustrate just how I "came into my own." For me, "coming into my own" is simply a matter of how I ended up here—writing on various aspects of law enforcement, often with an eye on the rearview mirror. And so, a relatively brief trip down memory lane of the good, bad, and the ugly.
First off, coming into one's own does not mean that they are doing it alone. In my case, it was as often as not a result of others assisting me along the path as it was the result of my going my own way and doing my own thing. Please note my conscious selection of the word "assisting" as opposed to "helping," for like the encouraging bayonet prod along the Bataan Death March, offering incentive doesn't always translate to an act of help.
Well-intentioned types such as my captain at Temple Station encouraged me to transfer to the Sheriff's Information Bureau, the place on the department for ambitious deputies to gravitate to. And later, as captain of that same Bureau, he asked me to leave it. As hurtful as it was at the time, I realized that I was a poor fit for the unit and should not have gone there in the first place.
Despite this setback and my having momentarily ended up at one of the department's gulags, a fellow malcontent and I still ended up making sergeant before everyone else at the Bureau and I would be a damn liar if I said that outcome didn't warm the cockles of my spiteful heart. I would also be lying if I said that I wasn't the beneficiary of a timely and singular change in promotional protocol, one that altered the "appraisal of promotability" portion of the examination from an arbitrarily apportioned numbers system to one obligating evaluators to simply conclude "yes" or "no" as to whether or not the candidate was capable of performing as a sergeant and deserving of it. The department subsequently reverted back to a numbers-based system.
Lessons Learned: Sometimes perceived setbacks can be blessings in disguise, and if timing isn't everything, it still counts for a helluva lot.
Even if I was occasionally reminded of a line from that Johnny Cash song, "Ira Hayes" ("They'd let him raise the flag and lower it like you'd toss a dog a bone"), the fact remains that for all my lamentations of not receiving enough love from the department, I was occasionally accorded some acknowledgment for the work I did for it. Support came from some unexpected corners as did unanticipated awards and citations. The former undersheriff of Los Angeles County, Howard Earle, was instrumental in my receiving the Government Service Award from Cal State Los Angeles. I received recognition from a senator a decade before his nephew took a shot at me with an assault rifle. A variety of civic authorities commended my efforts at impacting crime and enhancing the department's reputation. The department awarded me its Medal of Valor.
The latter did not come easily, however. A fellow sergeant, William Howell, had submitted the recommendation only to have it round-filed by a lieutenant who I routinely butted heads with. His reason for rejecting the recommendation was the description of the shootout was "too flowery." Another lieutenant, Randy Olsen, took up the cause and several of us were recognized in 2000 for our actions on an Easter night two years earlier.
Lessons Learned: Speaking your mind will gain you enemies, enemies who may resort to chicken-shit deprivations to get the better of you, but that doesn't mean that others won't have your back. Indeed, those so inclined to go to bat for you might well do so for the very things that you have done to alienate yourself from others.
Of course, there is a high correlation between being mouthy and speaking precipitously, as well as making premature conclusions. I am no exception.
Once while attending a force training seminar, I spoke quite critically of a deputy-involved shooting wherein a pregnant bystander was shot and killed. It was the kind of thing that was easy to grandstand on—or so I thought—and so I did. A lieutenant who was more intimately acquainted with the details of the incident quickly set me straight. The dressing down I received was pretty severe, and I didn't like it one bit. But I had it coming. In spades.
When I retired from LASD and went to work for Bobit Business Media—POLICE Magazine's parent company—I met a co-worker whose sweet disposition put me on guard. Having learned a long time ago that just because a person exposed their teeth didn't mean they were smiling, I have always found promiscuous insincerity even more off-putting for me than open-faced hostility. Out of habit, I relegated her to one of the less favorable boxes in which I tend to file people. But as time went by, and I was witness to how she conducted herself with others, I came to realize that she was the genuine article, a genuine sweetheart for whom I have acquired great respect and commensurate remorse at ever having suspected otherwise.
Lessons Learned: Just because you think you're a know-it-all doesn't mean you are. Try and be a little patient in getting as many facts as you can before drawing conclusions—in-house, and out. That way when you do shoot your mouth off, you can do so with a clear conscience.
Throughout my time with the sheriff's department and since, my choices of role models and heroes have been at play. It wasn't that the men and women I adopted as spiritual guideposts weren't worthy of the respect others and myself accorded them. They were.
One of these deputies was a legend, working in a merciless capacity as a traffic deputy at Temple Station where it was commonly believed that the man would even cite his own grandmother. God knows he had enough multi-generational dockets among many of the local families. Tall and lean and with a tendency to address everyone as "Bubba," the cigar-chomping Charley cut a memorable image. Having been voted "most likely to succeed" in high school, a Vietnam war veteran, and the honor cadet of his class, Charley possessed the type of pedigree that suggested a person destined to go places.
But Charley was not one to suffer fools gladly, irrespective of where they were encountered, or what rank they occupied. And if someone made the mistake of soliciting his opinion, he was quick to share it, sans any euphemistic couching of sentiments.
Again, one could hardly help but respect such candor, but rarely was it appreciated by its intended audience. Still, I believe that if he'd wanted to that Charley still could have promoted and gravitated as high as he desired on the department. But he retired as a deputy.
My training officer was another deputy that I admired. While I did not enjoy his mentoring methodology, I have always acknowledged that he taught me a helluva lot and I will forever be indebted to him.
The inability of these deputies to co-sign someone else's BS or accommodate the insincere, and their willingness to let others know where they stood, left big impressions on me.
I always wondered how far such men and women might have ascended within the department's ranks had they exhibited as much political tact as they had political savvy (just because they didn't play the reindeer games didn't mean they didn't know how to or were incapable of recognizing who was playing the games). Had they been burdened with the kind of Type-A personality that caused a fellow Industry sergeant to retire because of a heart attack, they might well have. But the fact that they didn't endeared them to me all the more.
My romantic take on their attitudes had a lot to do with my own. I probably internalized more than I should have each time I saw Clint or the Duke take some martinet down a peg or two.
As a result, I wasn't shy about fighting on behalf of others, even some I didn't necessarily like if I thought it was the right thing to do. And by participating in chief's hearings, not only did it usually end up with some intended punishment being mitigated if not entirely removed, but it served as a warning against others thinking that they could have their way with me.
Lesson Learned: Some people are more worthy of admiration than emulation. The determined stalwart persona you find in another can come off as petulant and argumentative in one's self. But if you do go that route, at least try to get some good out of it.
Most of these lessons were learned too belatedly for them to have been of much profit to me, and it has only been with the advantage of considerable hindsight that I even came to see them for what they were. Even then, I don't know how much I would change things if I could.
But if their cumulative effect of these hard-learned lessons was not that they did help me "come into my own" without succumbing to the ambitious habits of Type A personalities and such, then at least the experiences by which they were acquired were. I can't even say that I personally regret them all. If I hadn't occasionally screwed up, or been screwed over, I'd have that much less to blog about. Still, I sincerely believe that if you stand to learn a vicarious lesson through the experiences of another, you should.
I could go and on, and usually do. Reserving the right to revisit the matter later, I probably will. In the meantime, I will acknowledge that while "coming into my own" was not necessarily a good thing, it was as honest a thing as I could muster. For like those alluded to, I was familiar with the Machiavellian template even if I didn't abide by it. But that romantic in me—the same one that looks wistfully at those men and women I'd admired and wonders "what if?"—likes to believe that I could have accomplished much more on the department if I had played the game.
As it stands, I ended up getting the hell out of Dodge while I still had some degree of sanity left. Before the department started having everyone work multiple assignments, hiring standards went in the bucket, promotions became even more problematic, prisoners started getting flushed out of the system, pensions got messed with, and things really went to hell.
Today, I am doing what I believe I was destined to do: Write. Whether I continue to get paid for it continues to be a day-to-day affair, and this week’s election makes it even more so (already, stocks are tanking). But subsidized or not, it is a pleasure that I can continue to indulge without the department threatening me to close shop on my social networks, or otherwise impeding my intellectual whims.
Hopefully, this has provided a little context for "how I came into my own." And shown you how you can avoid doing likewise.