It’s the word I think of during National Police Week.
Emptiness. In time, in space, in places personal to each one of us.
It’s the pain in our hearts, the anger in our minds, the wrenching in our guts. It’s a vacuum in cop’s kids’ futures. It is the children who will never be.
Over the years, when I’d run into a recently retired cop, my reaction was always “Congratulations! You got out alive.” At the time it was a heartfelt quip – part envy, part happiness – but today it’s an acknowledgement of the reality which has become so much more prevalent in cops’ minds.
One of my former colleagues who still works the street, was recently the target of two teenagers who crept up to his patrol car with plans to rob him with a knife. He heard one urging the other, “Do him. Do him.”
That’s right. Rob a Police Officer.
That’s where certain elements of our society have gone. It’s not that people intending to harm Police Officers are anything new. They’re just more emboldened; in greater numbers; fearless in stupidity, and reckless in belief.
Every cop knows what their likely intention was. It wasn’t just to rob him. They were armed with a knife and were going to take an armed Police Officer by surprise. A Police Officer who they knew had at least one gun within reach. They were going to kill him and take his gun. You’ll never convince me, or him, of anything different.
Great street cop that he is, he leaped from his car and surprised THEM. He grabbed one (who confessed to the plan) and the other ran off. The Police Officer might have thwarted probable injury and possible death, but he reduced the incident to “what might have been” – the stuff of every cop’s nightmares.
The potential of yet another void. Your own. That too is where the pain resides.
There’s pain in remembering the past. There’s pain in recalling the circumstances when you fought for your life; where you were on the verge of willingly creating a void for someone else in order to go home. You remember the fear. The struggle. The aftermath. The prayerful thanks afterward. The gratitude for colleagues who rushed to your aid. The trembling which accompanies the adrenaline rush.
If you’ve never had to fight for your life or consider taking a life in order to preserve yours or that of another, you’ll never understand the multitude of “whys” involved with police work. I’ve given up trying to successfully explain why Police Officers need to approach and do things a certain way. The less-than-adequate answer is “survival.” I leave it at that.
I think there’s a little bit of “survivors guilt” in every Police Officer, both active and retired. When we honor those taken from our ranks, we also acknowledge “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s a bizarre hybrid of blessing and happenstance which is beyond understanding.
Traveling to Washington D.C. for National Police Week is a pilgrimage every cop should take. It is there, and then, our nation’s otherwise invisible Thin Blue Line becomes apparent with a spirit that is palatable. The shared pain is cathartic. The support for grieving law enforcement families is therapy for the soul.
There’s a specific moment during National Police Week, during the Candlelight Vigil, which is held at night at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. In that moment, silence washes over a crowd of thousands of Police Officers and supporters, one candle’s flame turns into many and a single blue laser splits the darkness overhead. For a few minutes in that specific space, the void is filled with remembrance and reverence.
As one who “made it out alive” I worry for the future of law enforcement. Intolerance of others’ views, insensitivity toward people living in hard circumstances, and a lack of appreciation for life all appear to be growing. That growth endangers the Police put on the front lines to protect society; a society which expects law enforcement to operate perfectly in a split second. We now have a culture which has proven repeatedly, that it prefers to react with flawed thinking and unchecked emotions instead of facts.
In recent years, whether anarchist, assailant, “activist,” social movement, or misguided member of the media, one message has been made exceedingly clear: Police lives don’t matter.
Yet another void. In thinking.
I value this particular void because its emptiness of thought reminds me Police Officers make a difference EVERY DAY to someone, at some time, somewhere. Over and over again. It’s mostly in many small ways, but might be one grand gesture, a moment of understanding, or instant of empathy. Certainly, by feats of heroism.
Police Officer deaths on duty are sacrifices for the greater good. It doesn’t matter if society doesn’t realize it. What matters is every Police Officer should be able to live through the risks and go home to their families who sacrifice right along with them.
When that special Police Officer doesn’t return home, their family continues to sacrifice during the rest of their lives.
By living in the void.
Hank Kula is a retired police sergeant with 26 years in law enforcement. A certified crime scene investigator, crash reconstructionist, and former journalist, Hank works as a police instructor with recruits, veteran officers, and supervisors. His instructional specialties are in crime scene management and investigation, photography, communications and public information. Click to view more articles written by Hank.