In striving for personal improvement, some may draw upon a mental image of what an ideal cop should be, something that transcends the professional terseness of Joe Friday ("Just the facts, ma'am."), or the Socratic questioning of Harry Callahan ("Do you feel lucky, punk?"). For they know that becoming a better cop involves something beyond marshalling the personality quirks of some archetype. But who to turn to? The artist might have his muse but who inspires the cop?
The cop who seeks to better himself may have a hard time finding an ideal mentor. In an era that promises amorphous change and delivers blistering debt, cops can be forgiven for being a mite bit skeptical of any prospective change agent that comes their way. The messenger needs to be evaluated along with the message.
With this in mind, what better messenger than someone who is successful and happy in his or her job?
Answer: Several of them.
Keep It Real
Success entails valuing what we do and who we do it for. Unfortunately, some cops acquire an Us vs. Them mentality.
"Them" can be everyone from suspects, to admin, to peers, to the citizens we serve. In a profession that offers ample opportunity for frustration, the temptation to put up walls and just say the hell with it can be strong.
Charlie Varga has seen it, particularly with younger cops.
A SWAT sergeant with the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, Varga notes that cynicism is the biggest danger to cops, and it is proportional to the disappointment felt by the individual officer: The more idealistic the officer, the greater the discontent.
"Cops have to keep their expectations and goals within the job realistic," notes Varga. "Just because you're not going to change the world doesn't mean the work you do isn't important. We can make a difference-one person at a time."
By focusing at a more microscopic scale-on the individual victim or suspect-you're better able to avoid cynicism.
It's no small conceit.
Sgt. Lou Olivier with the Rye (N.Y.) Police Department has saved four lives during his career. Knowing that gives him a constant sense of accomplishment, and a drive to keep going and improve his ability to do his job: There may always be a fifth.
Don't Buy into the Hype
Sometimes cops can suffer the residual temptation of creating their own war story. Mark Weidhase, a supervisor with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), believes this is largely a residual effect from the academy.
"A problem with academy instructors is that they're compelled to relay their one or two great war stories," observes Weidhase. "These collective stories create a perception on behalf of the student that they're daily occurrences. To impressionable recruits, these war stories are cool: That's what they want to do. But we don't get to choose which war story we live. Odds are those instructors didn't pick that battle that day. It came to them; it'll come to you. Be ready for it, but don't chase it."
By continually laying the foundation to respond effectively when that battle comes to you, you are embodying what a better officer should be.