Commentary, Leadership

On Police: A Firefighter’s Perspective

Police car with fire apparatus behind it
Photo courtesy the Indianapolis Fire Department

Commentary by Eric J. Russell, Ed.D., CHPP

I remember sitting in one of the front pews at a Friday mass in St. Peter’s Church. I was in the eighth grade, it was Lent, and attendance was mandatory. I didn’t want to go. Still don’t. At least back then we could look forward to a fish-n-chips lunch. From the pulpit the priest delivered his homily. It was about how we judged others. In his talk he used a common adage: when you point one finger at another, there are three pointing back at you. He held up his hand to demonstrate to the mostly elementary and middle school flock. As is to be expected from young people, we all started to make our own hand gestures, leading some (myself included) to make said hand gesture using the middle finder. Heathens! That led to laughter, which of course led to detention…purgatory for misbehaved youth.

I despise the overuse of sayings, but although I want to say I loathe the finger-pointing one as well, reluctantly I have to admit it sticks with me. This one simple proverb has aided me in navigating this world, and I think it at least gave me more hope, more empathy, and a little less judgment. I like to think it has supported me in not becoming too jaded from my career, a career that afforded me the opportunity to see the things that go bump in the night, meet the boogieman, and witness the worst of humanity.

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As a young Airman of 19, I already understood violence; I knew what humans were capable of doing to both self and others in acts of unspeakable cruelty all before I could legally drink. At 26, and now a captain, I knew all-too-well the realities of human misery, neglect, cruelty, darkness, tragedy, and loss. By the time I took an early retirement to start a second career in academia, I had a hard time thinking about what I hadn’t experienced. My memories are bundle wrapped with a tight little bow, readily accessible whenever I make the mistake of watching the news. It’s as if somehow many of my career’s worth of experiences came together from the minds of horror writers. The rapes and abuse of women and little girls. Fending off and retrieving parts of a child after a dog mauling. The nonsense associated with the murder of innocence. The suicides of young people. The setting ablaze of someone’s home because another was angry with them. Running out of a house towards an arriving ambulance with a lifeless child while trying to blow air into his little lungs and compress his chest. The feeling you get when a gun is pulled on you, the sensation of being shot at, or what it’s like to defend yourself or your partner from being stabbed. Throughout a career, probably every professional responder has had the same or similar experiences. It’s a part of the job, the nature of the work. It’s what they signed up for, right? Well, I’m not sure. What I do know is that for many responders it’s traumatizing. It changes who they are. I’ve witnessed downward spirals and behavioral changes in some of the people I served with. Some weighted down by the forces of bureaucracy that keep them from asking for help, some from navigating the behaviors of toxic leaders, and for others, just the sheer magnitude of loss and tragedy that causes one to question humanity. 

I served a career as a firefighter with the Department of Defense. I loved the profession and wouldn’t change a thing; to me it’s the greatest job on earth because it’s both rewarding and humbling. Everything I experienced throughout my career, I did so with a crew–I was a member of a team of world-class professionals. These teammates became my lifelong brothers, my family, my tribe. We always worked and responded together; we were never alone in the darkness because we were always at each other’s side. And because I was a firefighter, I was loved by the public, championed as a hero who risked his life to save the day. People simply trust firefighters, they confide in them, and there’s little animosity towards us even when things go wrong.

For police officers however, what we hear today are voices all over the United States expressing an opposite opinion. That they’re the problem, that they need to be defunded, or worse, abolished. People don’t see cops like they do firefighters, yet cops save so many lives and they tread the same waters as firefighters do. However, they’re tasked with something that can only be considered an improbable mission–to hold the thin threads of society together with what little they have. All the while the environment they function in asks them to suffer in silence, hold back the pain, and keep it together when most would justifiably break. Moreover, they’re painted with a broad brush of public judgment that rightfully highlights a small group of bad actors but doesn’t describe the average law enforcement officer in the least. Most cops, without hesitation, will place their body between a threat and citizen, even if that citizen just got done spitting on them.   

As I watch what’s going on in our society it has got me thinking about police, specifically that lone officer responding to an incident. On almost every call I have been on in my career, there was also a police officer present. Many times, first on scene. Alone. At times beaten and bloodied from tying to subdue a violent individual. Maybe the first one to roll up on a car wreck with multiple ejected-unrestrained teens, where minutes feel like hours when all you can do is triage and pray. Or how about being the first one on scene of a domestic violence incident where the suspect is in fact an out-of-control individual pumped up on a mind-altering substance wielding a butcher knife? Such experiences scar the soul. They harden a person and cause them to question humanity. Memories of these incidents converge over time to nurture a responder’s post-traumatic stress disorder. We as a society are quick to demand our veterans be made whole from the horrors of their experiences, yet outside of first responder circles, little is ever said about helping the guardians of society–especially cops. For some reason it seems they’re exempt from public compassion.  

In my book, In Command of Guardians: Executive Servant Leadership for the Community of Responders 2nd edition, I noted that the average citizen can never see the world through the lens of a public safety professional. Even family members don’t seem to appreciate why responders must sit facing the door, that they identify egress points when they enter a room, or they have a hard time not watching people’s hands. Additionally, I argue that it’s the responsibility of those entrusted to lead guardians to be the responder’s steward, and at least attempt to foster public empathy for what responders must go through. These leaders aren’t just the police and fire chiefs, but also the politicians who hold power over responders. Leaders must understand and citizens must be made aware of the hardening of hearts that occurs in souls of responders; specifically, the psychological trauma that comes from a constant negative feedback of what people do to both self and others. It shapes both behavior and personality. Much of the trauma, especially for police officers, comes from being invited to participate in the horrors of others and then not having a healthy community of support where it’s okay to not be okay for a while. For firefighters, the trauma is there, too, but it’s different. Because, again, the way society sees it, firefighters get to save the day. From the civilian’s point of view, the situation seems to be different for the cops, and maybe it’s because they have guns and bulletproof vests.  Yet I wonder if they ever pondered why a cop needs that bulletproof vest and gun in the first place. I’ll give you a hint, it’s because of us.

Using data from the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, in just 2018-2019 we Americans murdered 7,097, raped 48,087, robbed 146,740, and aggravatedly assaulted 326,132 people. We set more than 13,000 arson fires. We committed 2,447,734 property crimes, 383,328 burglaries, 318,221 motor vehicle thefts, and 1,774,257 larceny-thefts. Remember that these are just numbers coming from communities with a population of 100,000 or more; thus, so much more goes unreported. On top of all of this, in 2019 there were 337 mass shootings and more than 29,000 injuries with firearms, and according to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2018 we killed 10,511 people in drunk driving incidents. That same year, the CDC reported that 48,344 of us committed suicide. And don’t even get me started on the 60,000+ annual overdose scenes where responders get to watch people’s lives deteriorate in real time. On every single one of these incidents, it’s the first responders who are tasked with dealing with the aftermath. And on a majority of calls, there is that lone police officer first on scene playing the role of initial witness to what we’ve done. And as that officer goes about doing their job, the reviewed bodycam footage and videos shown in trainings and shift roll calls depicting scenes of the 50+ officers killed by criminals each year are playing on a loop in the back of their mind.   

The Journal of Traumatic Stress published a study in 2015 titled Critical Incident History Questionnaire Replication: Frequency and Severity of Trauma Exposure Among Officers from Small to Midsize Police Agencies. The research discovered that the average cop will experience more than 180 trauma exposures over the course of their career. Whether we want to admit it, such exposure changes a person. Most of the trauma that cops experience are a direct result of our own behavior. Maybe it’s not using helmets and then wrecking a motorcycle. Maybe it’s choosing to commit a strong-armed home invasion with a family inside. Maybe it’s ingesting an eight ball while toddlers starve and overheat in the backseat of a car. Our trauma becomes the officer’s trauma. And we as citizens hold a lot of responsibility because we are answerable for the millions of criminal and self-destructive acts we commit annually.

Many of us are privileged enough to not know what it’s like to serve and protect. We get to exist in this blissful ideal that all people are good, kind, and giving. That all we need to do is get rid of law enforcement and instantly a utopia will arise where we don’t inject poison into our veins or take up arms against another. However, for those in the trenches, they are well-aware that society is both fragile and vulnerable. These few public servants who willingly step forward to support it are now starting to questioning their service. Worse, they understand that an indirect abolishment of police is in fact occurring across the country in the form of low recruitment and retention of new and future officers. Police are also aware that their role is no longer simply law enforcement, but also public social worker, psychologist, and marriage counselor. The very ones who took an oath knowing the career will never make them rich or famous (and now not even appreciated) are still try desperately to hold society together while circumnavigating the psychological trauma that comes from the citizenry and politicians openly questioning the need for their very existence.

Due to this openly stated desire on the part of some of us to do away with cops, police officers now must face not just our behaviors, but also wide-ranging attacks from the very people they willingly protect and serve. With many citizens calling to defund or even abolish policing in communities, what do we do with us? Are we as a people willing to reform? Are we willing to change our ways? Because what if the cops just decided they had enough and walked away? What if your average cop—who is dealing with the countless acts of cruelty we perform on both ourselves and others, coupled with the open hatred coming from society and the media—decides that it’s become too much and quits? What happens to society? For if we as a society decide to find cops guilty of association and order them gone, who will be there to contain our vilest of behaviors? The reality is that without cops there to protect and serve, our worst predatory selves will be set free to prey upon the most vulnerable. Thus, if we agree that the court of public opinion can render a verdict that police are the problem and need to be cast aside, then it will be a judgment that could only come about by ignoring those three fingers pointing back at each one of us.

Eric J. Russell, Ed.D., CHPP is an associate professor with Utah Valley University’s Department of Emergency Services where he teaches homeland security. His writings and research involve the influence of homeland security education on responders as well as the impact of servant leadership on organizations and individuals. He is the author of more than 70 peer-reviewed and trade publications as well as two books: The Desire to Serve: Servant Leadership for the Fire and Emergency Services (Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership) and In Command of Guardians: Executive Servant Leadership for the Community of Responders (Springer). In addition, he speaks nationally on the subjects of servant leadership in the first responder professions. He retired early as a captain from the Department of Defense (DoD) Fire and Emergency Services with combined active duty military and DoD service.