The role of law enforcement has been the main topic of news for several weeks, due to the irresponsible acts of someone who should never have worn a uniform. There is an honor and self-sacrifice that comes with taking an oath, which is tarnished by those who don’t deserve the privilege.
To protect and serve is for many a calling. It requires sacrifice and a commitment to others over self. When one disgraces the uniform, it affects us all. Our heart breaks over any loss of life, but it is particularly difficult when race is the focus.
While the discussion has centered on the bad actions of a few within law enforcement, I wanted to balance the discussion with a few of the events that occur daily across the country, and how most who wear the uniform respond.
We care deeply about the people we are assigned to keep safe, and even when the circumstances involve taking someone into custody, we take that responsibility seriously. We know that for most people it was a momentary error in judgment and we try to treat them as we would expect our family to be treated.
The community engagement aspect of our jobs is the fun part. We get the joy of “Shop with a Cop” during the holidays, bringing a smile to the face of a young child who is wondering why Santa doesn’t come to their house.
We get to work with some amazing local service organizations, who help those in greatest need, to feel valued, as members of our community. We mentor young people who sometimes just want an adult to chat with. We share a cup of coffee with neighborhood families and talk about their hopes and dreams and introduce them to others they may not yet know. We joke with kids in school hallways so that if they ever feel endangered, they have somewhere to turn. These are the things that warm our hearts and feed our souls.
There are, naturally, challenging aspects to our job, as well. A few of those scenarios are detailed below and will give you a view through the lens of law enforcement.
We often encounter people at their lowest points; they are scared, depressed, injured, or simply feeling powerless over something that has occurred. Emotions are often heightened, which can easily cause people to behave out of character. Good people can have bad days.
A call comes in. There is a scream on the other end: “Help, hurry!” The phone drops, shouting and crying can be heard on the other end. The phone is grabbed, and an address is given, followed by a simple desperate, “please” and the call ends.
We don’t know what’s happening, but it is clear that every second counts. We arrive and can hear yelling from the street. We bang on the door to be heard, uncertain if we will need to break in. The voices stop. A man answers the door. We inform him that we are here in response to a call. Everything is fine, we are told, they were just arguing and they’ll keep it down.
We explain that before leaving, we must enter to make sure everyone is alright. We notice that one of the man’s hands is behind his back. A woman is curled up on the floor crying. Over in the corner is a young child, face swollen, tears in his eyes, holding his ears, rocking back and forth. We don’t know what the man is holding, the woman looks beaten up, we are not sure of the child’s condition, and we don’t know who else is in the house. Is this domestic abuse or a break-in?
Another call. The woman can hardly breathe, all she can say between sobs of despair is, “she’s gone.” The responder tries to get an address and more information. “She’s gone, she’s gone. How could this happen?” We arrive and the woman is walking around the room in circles, hysterically crying, “My baby, no, no, no!” She falls to the floor and points to a room down the hall. We don’t know what to expect.
As we open the door, there is the lifeless body of a young girl, hanging from the overhead light fixture. Our hearts race as we quickly grab the girl, call an ambulance, and try to administer CPR. Her body is cold. We can feel the tears welling up as we are pumping and counting, hoping that there is still a spark of life left, as the rope swings in front of her Harry Potter posters, and the mom is now standing in the doorway, numb and speechless. Her baby died by suicide.
It’s late at night and the car can barely be seen from the highway. We rush down and find two people, one struggling to get out, the other motionless. There is blood everywhere. The door won’t open, and we notice flames coming from under the car. In a matter of moments, the car could explode.
We call for the fire department and we anxiously begin breaking the windows. We are able to pull out the passenger. The driver is unconscious and stuck behind the wheel, but is alive. If we don’t get him out immediately, we will certainly lose him. The passenger said they were avoiding a deer on the road. The clock is ticking as the flames are getting larger. One way or another, we are getting him out of that car.
We receive a call from a group of roommates who had a party the night before, and now they cannot awaken their buddy. We arrive moments before the ambulance. The guys are clearly nervous and incoherently rambling. Their friend is on the bathroom floor, barely breathing. Next to him is a needle with some grey liquid inside. It turned out to be carfentanyl. Their friend ultimately died of an overdose, and his roommate’s lives will never again be the same. In the young man’s room was a photo of his fiancé.
The toddler was playing at home, then suddenly gone, vanished. How could that be? He must be hiding nearby. We’ll check out the neighborhood, maybe he left to explore something that got his attention. Within hours, hundreds of neighbors volunteer to search. Days go by and nothing, as a family sobs in pain. The photo of that darling child is imprinted on our minds and our hearts. We are still looking, determined to find him.
“Someone stole my car! It’s not just a car, it is my livelihood. I need it for work. If I can’t work, my children won’t eat, and I can’t pay rent. I have no money, what am I going to do? Please help us!”
“I’m afraid to go to school. There are bullies who always make fun of me. I’m in trouble at school because I can’t always finish my homework. I’m embarrassed to say that I have to work at night to help my family. I’m tired all the time and I may need to start taking something to stay awake. I don’t have money for lunch and my parents are afraid to apply for help because they are not citizens, so I’m always hungry. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I just want it to end.” The school officer works to match up this student’s family with county services and organizations that can help. We are concerned about the student’s safety, mental health, and potential drug abuse or suicide. We cannot lose a good kid to poverty. It’s important that he knows, he’s not alone.
The car was weaving erratically. It’s only mid-day. Is the driver drunk, sleepy, or injured? Upon turning on the lights, the driver hits the accelerator and the chase begins. We must be careful because we are near residential neighborhoods where children could be playing. Why are they running? What is the safest way to stop them without endangering anyone?
We finally have them cornered. As we walk up, we cannot see inside. Who is this? Are they dangerous or under the influence? Are they armed? We wear a body vest but a close-range shot to the head ends it all. Yet, we must secure the situation, the community depends on us. It could be nothing, or it could end everything.
Law enforcement is one of the most personally rewarding careers anyone could have, but it comes at a price. The range of emotionally devastating situations that we face stays with us well after the uniform comes off and it can take a toll on our family life. Some experience depression as they attempt to suppress the emotions that come from being that person who stands between peace and terror. Yet, for most of us, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
We are entrusted with maintaining the security and peace of our neighborhoods. The most primal instinct is to be safe, and we pledge to make that possible. Some have even paid the ultimate price, yet it does not deter us from our duty to protect and serve.
If you are uncertain of how to make things better in this world, join the team. We are always seeking ways to continually improve and grow; making sure that our actions equal our intentions. We continually offer opportunities for training and certifications. We aim to be the best and are looking for those who seek the same.
Don’t let the actions of a few deter you from the fulfillment of a career where you become the difference you’ve been waiting for.
James van Beek is the elected sheriff of Eagle County in Colorado.
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