Taking Care of Our Best

No one knows when it happened, or why, but somewhere along the line - a traffic stop? A radio call? - he cut a corner.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

A sergeant recently told me the story of an officer he used to know.

The man was the best cop he'd ever known, an opinion apparently shared far and wide through the officer's agency.

From day one of the academy, he was recognized as the real thing, someone destined to leave his mark. Blessed with poster boy looks and a winning personality, he also proved a rare specimen that was as book smart as he was street savvy.

He possessed an enormous capacity for catching on quick, and once out of the academy and on patrol, seasoned quickly on the job, displaying a maturity and tactical soundness beyond his years. He recognized when something wasn't on the up and up, anticipated others' anticipations, and knew the best and safest approach to situations.

His every intuition seemed fail-proof, his every decision sound.

A fitness buff, he worked out religiously, and encouraged others to do likewise. His reputation for bravery was unassailable and commendations from appreciative citizens thanking him for how he helped them with some problem filled his mailbox.

In the men's locker room, a casual glance on the inside of his locker door revealed court subpoenas stacked deep beneath a magnetic clip, and the savvy defendant knew to plea bargain rather than risk having the officer testify against him in court.

Seemingly, there was no aspect of the job he was weak in. He was what every cop, deep down in his heart, aspires to be.

No one knows when it happened, or why, but somewhere along the line - a traffic stop? A radio call? - he cut a corner.

The thing was, he got away with it.

In due time, he cut another corner, and again, it was without repercussion.

He began pushing the envelope. And still he got away with it.

Formally and informally, guys began giving him attaboys for his innovative short-cuts. Emboldened by his success, he began cutting corners elsewhere. And each time he was given a thumb's up.

If he was admired before, he was now the stuff of legend: "Did you hear about that t-stop he made the other night? Took down three armed dudes on a t-stop all by himself..."

Then came the night when he did something nobody would have expected of him, and he was shot and killed.

His death left a lot of people scratching their heads. Why'd he do something that even a rookie would have thought twice about doing?

There were those who suspected they may have been partly to blame.

For they knew that in rewarding sometimes suspect behavior a person can encourage more of the same. That in admiring him as much for what he got away with as not, they'd emboldened him to continue cutting corners.

Do some of our peers feel a pressure to live up to their reputations?

Absolutely. And the more defensive their assertiveness in denying the point, perhaps the greater the likelihood they do.

A friend of mine recently said that nobody ever tells you what a great cop you are until you retire. They may acknowledge it to other cops, but not to your face. I think that more often than not he's right. It's as though in saying someone else is a great cop, it might somehow be at our own expense.

Maybe that's why those who do hear it place such a premium on their reputation, and seek to preserve it.

We should be more inclined to tell our peers what great cops they are while they are on the job. If nothing else, by giving them that credit due, it might make it easier to call them on it when they do screw up - and well before things devolve from sound practices to chaotic improvisations.

The next time you see one of your best do something truly above and beyond the call of duty, ask yourself: Should I be giving him a pat on the back? Or a tug on the Sam Browne?

I'll never forget one sergeant saying that his biggest regret was not chastising a cop for driving too fast. He decided to wait another day when the time was more conducive for it. The cop was killed in a preventable traffic collision before they had that conversation. Might that chat have averted the tragedy? Maybe. Maybe not. But that sergeant will forever regret not having at least tried.

It's not easy or endearing to discuss such things with peers or subordinates - and damn near impossible with those above us.

But it will at least allow us to look at ourselves in the mirror for years thereafter. And perhaps allow them to do as much, as well.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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