More than anything in the whole world, at the age of seven I wanted to be like my costumed hero. I collected Batman comics, Batman bubblegum cards, little plastic batrings, and even had my own utility belt. If I had my say, bat bedsheets would have covered my bat PJs, and everything and anything that bore the caped crusader's logo would be mine.
A persuasive argument could be made I was maybe a little too enamored of Bats.
One day, I climbed a tree in my babysitter's backyard. As I did, I noticed that there was sufficient distance between several sets of limbs to allow me to slide down the trunk between them. Cautiously, I slid from an upper set to a lower. I realized that I had found something I'd always wanted.
Reminding myself that the prudent batpoler makes it down alive, I made a point of sliding down the bark a few inches at a time before getting my footing on some lower set of limbs.
Flushed with success, I re-scaled my batpole and did it again, this time climbing a little higher and sliding a little farther. I continued to repeat the process, with my ascent and descent getting a little quicker with each succeeding effort. Fear dissipated, and so did my caution. I found myself contemplating a new challenge: Speed.
Finally, I climbed to the very top and started my descent.
And then a peculiar thing happened. My feet missed the first limb. And the second. And the third. And an interesting phenomenon took place: My arms bounced off each succeeding limb and I gained that speed I'd so previously coveted.
By the time I hit the ground at light speed, I'd broken all my existing records, and possibly my ribs.
How long I lay there as birds and planes and stars navigated a beautiful blue sky above me I don't know; nor can I say how I ended up on the babysitter's sofa where I remained until my mortified mom picked me up. Dad comforted me by noting that at least "Superman" wasn't currently in syndication.
"Your dumbass would have probably jumped from the top of the goddamned thing, otherwise."
But I did learn a valuable lesson the very second I missed that first limb: A person has to know their limitations.
No less than Dirty Harry has expressed his opinion on the matter, and I like to think most cops adhere to the philosophy.
At a surface level, the adage seems an easy one to embrace. But just how do we know what our limitations are? How does one challenge himself to get better without exceeding the status quo?
Caution is one way; training in a controlled environment, another.
But let me ask you something: Is that really how you do it? Are you routinely exposing yourself to supervised scenarios and being objectively evaluated by those who've been there and done that? I suspect that with the possible exception of firearms training, the answer is no. Once you are off training, it is more likely that you somehow find yourself in situations that by their inherent nature force you to do better. Which can be good. And which can also be dangerous.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of envelope pushing within our profession is patrol driving. Whether or not we're rolling Code 3 to a call or chasing a vehicle, many of us think we can cover the ground just a little faster than we did last time, irrespective of any changes to the environment or our familiarity with it.
And it doesn't matter what ground we're covering, or how.
We can be chasing some perp down a back alley on foot. Suddenly we're not holding up at every blind corner, or keeping track of what's underfoot. Perhaps our need to keep sight of the suspect's hands takes a backseat to our determination to close the distance on him. Then we suddenly find ourselves stepping into a pothole, getting clotheslined, or worse. I know. I've written the employee injury reports and had a few filled out on me, too.
Even filling out paperwork can become fraught with complications as we hurry to wrap up some latest victory in a bid to get back out and get another. Then we wonder why the watch sergeant looks at our arrest reports with dread and the D.A. won't file our cases.
As a deputy, I tended to fixate more on myself and what I was doing. I was someone who liked to pay lip service to not giving a damn what others thought of him or how my actions were being evaluated by others. It was only after I'd become a supervisor that I truly began to watch my fellow deputies.
Some deputies were slowly evolving train wrecks, fascinating in their ability to needlessly complicate their personal and professional lives with precipitous behavior.
But then there were others who always seemed to have a rein on themselves, their emotions, and their trainees. No matter how many years they had been on the department, they found a routine that worked for them and abided by it. They weren't always exciting to watch as say, the "devil may care" kid who flew by the seat of his pants. But I respected the hell out of them. And trusted them, too.
Did they ever push the envelope? Yes—that's what made them pretty damn proficient cops in the first place. But they did so incrementally and with common sense.
I find I work better when I remind myself of their example. When I remember that I don't know half as much as I think I do and not one millionth of what I should. That when I'm tempted to comment on the next Santa Maria incident, maybe I should wait just a bit longer. That maybe I need to continually ask myself, "Does this matter avail me an opportunity to push the envelope, or an obligation to?" The answer to that question is one reason I put the brakes on blogging about the Farmington (N.H.) PD incident wherein a resident was arrested for discharging a firearm into the ground while detaining a burglary suspect. I don't have enough facts yet (and the PD's chief ain't making it any easier).
Might my blog be a little less inflammatory? Yeah. Maybe I'll have a few hundred less readers for the week. But will I actually have modeled desired behavior for a change? I like to think so.
So think twice before trying to one up yourself. Or, to paraphrase Han Solo, "Don't get cocky, kid."
Otherwise, you might find yourself barking down the wrong tree.