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Are You Wearing Someone Else’s Uniform?

A police training advocate and former police chief, former federal prosecutor, and continuing very smart man, Chief Jeff Chudwin is a man I am honored to call my colleague and friend. I first heard him speak at the ILEETA convention in Wheeling, IL, a number of years ago. He said something then that stuck with me, and should stick with you:

“If you don’t get up and go to work every day expecting to get into a fight, then you are wearing a uniform that rightfully belongs to someone else.”

I took Jeff’s words as a personal challenge. At the time, I was the Medical Officer for the Waupaca County Sheriff’s Office and SWAT Medic. I had a uniform, a sidearm, a rifle, and I responded to SWAT callouts routinely. Now, I was never supposed to be the guy at the top of the stack of the entry team, and I was never the designated marksman with the 308 doing overwatch; I was supposed to be the guy inside the perimeter who was designated to provide second-tier emergency medical care in the hot zone.

But I was there in uniform and armor with a loaded gun, just like every other team member in that hot zone. And just because I was a doc didn’t mean I wasn’t there to get into a fight if a fight came to me. I was trained to fight and prepared to fight because every member of the team depends on every other member of the team. I would not have taken the job if I wasn’t prepared to fight. I would have stayed in my nice, safe, Emergency Department every day otherwise. 

And this is where the problem arises. In every job there are people who are good at it, dedicated to it, and who embrace the full spectrum of duties and responsibilites. But there are also people who aren’t very good at it, who may even avoid doing parts of the job that they aren’t good at or comfortable with; and this is OK, as long as they move into a position within that job that doesn’t require them to do those “undesirable” parts of the job. 

For instance, a USPS employee who has bad feet. This guy may be a great postal employee, but he’s not cut out to be a letter carrier making home deliveries. He needs a job in the post office where he can sit to do his job, or at least not have to walk as much. No problem, those jobs need people to do them too. 

Or, in the case of my Emergency Department, there are docs who are great at doing all the aspects of the job, which covers the whole spectrum of skills and talents from taking care of a toddler’s boo-boo and comforting the kid’s anxious mom (who is the real patient, most of the time, btw!) to being able to run a trauma code, intubate the critical patient, bang in the central venous lines and chest tubes, and manage the cardiac drugs that will keep him alive long enough for the surgeons to fix the internal leak. This part of the job, the critical care part of the job, is the talent/responsibility that makes the difference between and urgent care doc and a true Emergency Physician. And if a doc doesn’t have those talents, skills, and willingness to jump in to use them, he or she has no place in my Emergency Department. Funny thing: in today’s ED’s, something like 60% or more of our work is basic Family Medicine, 30% or more is complex internal medicine, and less than 10% of our work is critical care medicine. Yet the skillset and mindset that defines us as Emergency Physicians is the ability and willingness to tackle that 10%. 

It’s the same thing with cops. Yes, cops are trained to fight, shoot, tase, pepper-spray, and even shoot bad guys; but new boots quickly learn that almost all of their work is a combination of social work and traffic bylaw enforcement. Most of them grudgingly accept this, because if they wanted to be social workers, they’d have gone to school to become social workers. But a smaller minority of cops actually like the social work, and get into policing as a way of doing it. Some of them start off that way, and some of them drift that way. 

These cops may find that they like to wear the badge and the uniform, but they’re scared of the fights… and this can be good, or bad. It’s good if they recognize it and move themselves out of active patrol duty into an administrative job. Just like the postman with bad feet. But if they don’t make that change, they are putting themselves and their fellow officers at risk should the shit hit the fan.

More important, like the SRO at Parkland, FL, last week, they could put the lives of the citizens they are sworn to protect at risk. I won’t name the deputy who failed in his duty so tragically. But let his shameful lack of action serve as a beacon, like a lighthouse warning ships of a rocky shoreline, to the officers who still serve. 

The role of School Resource Officer looks awfully good to the wrong kind of cop. The chance of a fight is very low. So a cop who’s afraid to fight, or too old and close to retirement to fight, may look at the SRO job as an easy way to finish out his service and slide into his pension. But this is NOT the sort of cop we need in our schools. We need the cop who can and does get along with kids and teenagers, who can be Officer Friendly 99% of the time, but who is not afraid to get into a dust-up or a shoot-out every day.

Every. Single Day. 

As Chief Chudwin said, if you’re not the guy or gal who’s prepared to do that, you have no business wearing the badge and carrying the gun. That badge and gun belong to somebody else, and you’re just an imposter. Get out of there before you screw up, before a bunch of kids get killed due to your inability to do your job, and before your cowardice is put on display for the entire nation to see. 

Let that job go to someone who can do it. Let that job go to someone to whom it rightfully belongs. 

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