In November 2001, I found myself at Rockefeller Center in New York City at the lighting of the Christmas tree. I was wearing my badge and a jacket that identified me as a police officer. Strangers patted me on the back. They held doors for me. They wished me a merry Christmas and told me to “be safe.” They even thanked me. For what, I had no idea, especially since I’m a state trooper from the Midwest and not a New York City Police officer. I was completely caught off guard.
In the aftermath of 9/11, police, fire, and EMS enjoyed a level of support that had not been seen in modern times.
What had happened to erode the idea of the cop as a good guy? Somewhere along the way we had settled into the idea of “us” against “them.” What we forgot was that at one time we were one of “them” and eventually would be again.
After the events of 9/11, suddenly we were the good guys again. Why? Was it because so many officers lost their lives? Far more firefighters died, as did civilians on that day. But we, as cops, all became heroes—although most never saw the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or the field in Pennsylvania that day.
We became what the American people thought we were. We became friendly. We waved to people. Most of all, we smiled. It wasn’t all about catching the criminals. It was about living up to what America expected. We got back to being the good guys we started out as fresh out of the academy.
We all came into law enforcement to do the right thing. We all want to be the cop who saves the child. We want to be the hero. We won’t admit it, but it’s true. We love the adrenalin, we love the excitement, and we love the feeling of driving down the road and having kids wave and people treat us with respect. We missed that and didn’t even know it. We got so used to being the enemy that we didn’t know what we’d lost until the Fall of 2001. When our image improved, we saw what things should have been like all along.
So now what? I wish I could say I enjoyed the same warm feelings in New York when I returned in April 2002. But I was just another anonymous person in an anonymous city going about my business without notice.
What had changed? I was the same guy who had been there six months before. I was still in law enforcement. I was still trying to protect my country, my state, my friends and family just like I was on September 11. Maybe the fact was I had changed back to what the public expected. I was the cop behind the dark glasses who forgot how to be friendly, how to wave to people, and most of all, I forgot how to smile.
How hard is a smile? What does it cost? Nothing. What can we gain? Everything. Smile at your family before you leave for the day. Let that be what they think about while you are on the street in harm’s way. Take a moment to smile when you come to work. Smile at your dispatcher. He or she is your lifeline. Smile at your sergeant. He or she deserves a little kindness, too. Smile at the public. Not everyone sees you as the bad guy. Some respect your work and admire your dedication.
Smile. That’s the key to being one of the good guys. And who knows? Someone just might smile back.
Sgt. Steven Click is a 21-year veteran of the Ohio State Highway Patrol with more than 18 years as a commissioned officer. He is currently assigned to the Office of Field Operations as a supervisor at the Ohio Statehouse. This is his second contribution to POLICE.