Recently some good friends came to spend a relaxing weekend hanging out with the Sarge and me at our Tucson home. Both are counselors and writers and he still pounds a beat in a Chicago suburb. As the wine flowed and the conversation wandered, we ended up in the melancholy discourse about friends we had lost, or who were suffering some misfortune.
One friend died of liver failure and another struggled against cancer; a third had bounced back from a terrible divorce while a fourth was devastated by a terrible sense of abandonment following retirement. After examining each of these crime fighters' travails the only one in our group that night not to have worn the badge looked sadly at the rest of us and said, "Why is it law enforcement so often shoots its wounded?"
Indeed…why do we? We all admit law enforcement is not a mathematical equation with one answer to all problems. It is an artistic profession with instantaneous events, crises, and decisions that will be analyzed ad nauseam in hindsight by everyone from the sergeant, to the Supreme Court, to cable news and beyond. I noted it was not unusual for me to do an interview with a winner of a deadly confrontation only to have the hero falter with emotion and express that I was really the first person outside of investigators to whom they had told their story—and their feelings.
How can that be? And how can it be that when one of our brotherhood is suffering they don't get the emotional support so desperately needed, or worse get criticism for failing to do this or do that which "surely would have changed the outcome?" I have had "experts" express to me that the vast majority of police shootings could be avoided if we only trained better. I don't want that expert reviewing my actions. And even when a confirmed mistake has been made, the role of friendship is to first heal, and then give advice.
As our discussion continued we agreed two dynamics are essential for supportive camaraderie to occur: first, someone has to offer it. Then, second, another has to accept it. This is the old "transmitter and receiver" model of communication. Too often this formula is incomplete; the help is never offered or the recipient is not open to receive help. In one of our most tragic examples of lost friends discussed that night, it seems a large number of colleagues from the agency had reached out but he was not in "receiver" mode.
Tragically, this is a common problem and a tough one to solve; but what we can do as brothers and sisters in blue is make sure, at the very least, that we are transmitting support and care. I know, in my case, of a friend who left the profession stating that, since his shooting, not one friend had reached out to him. Boy did that shoe fit; I still feel the shame for not being the friend to him that I claimed to be.
Not calling a friend in a crisis, whether it is a shooting or a divorce, seems like a passive act, but in the long run it hurts them and, if you truly care, it hurts you. Don't say to yourself, "It's everybody else's responsibility." Remember, if we assign it to Officer Everybody, then Deputy Nobody ends up doing it—and we all know what a terrible job he does. Care, understand that what you do helps, and reach out.
Conversely, what about the one in need? Does she say nothing is wrong but seems distant or has become a discipline problem? Does he shrug off support but also stops doing all the fun hobbies and squad activities he loved to do before the crisis? Use the power of positive annoyance and keep asking and reaching out, please.
And finally, if you are reading this and feel you are alone, abandoned, betrayed by this profession and your friends, try reaching out. Tell your friends how you feel And if you absolutely believe you have no friends, no one who cares, risk one more thing: call someone.
There are a multitude of peer support teams in our law enforcement family, as well as counselors who specialize in our profession. You are not alone and you are not the first, by any means, to feel this way. Support services like SafeCallNow.org have helped many first responders come back from the brink and heal, so make sure their number is always on the bulletin board.
Hopefully, with lots of caring, we can someday say, "We leave no one behind!"
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.