First responders require more than compartmentalization of their emotions to carry on. And that is difficult.
You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom…And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall…
Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (portrayed by Jack Nicholson) to Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (portrayed by Tom Cruise).A Few Good Men (1992)
I’ve had two long careers in my almost 60 years. I was in the Army and Army Reserve for 23 years, and I’ve been a cop for a quarter century. During the police academy one of my instructors (himself a Navy veteran) made the point police work is a para-military organization. While we have similar organization and rank, and both swear an oath to the constitution, civilian law enforcement is there to “protect and serve” the general population, while the military is there to win America’s wars. Police are also more restricted on use of force, particularly deadly force.
With that as a set up, I have often used the most famous quote from A Few Good Men when discussing the characteristics of civilian law enforcement. Both overlap here. Perhaps it is a degree of professional arrogance, we are executing a critically needed function others can not, or will not, do. But both are, to use the old cliché, the sheep dogs guarding the sheep from the wolves. From 2014’s American Sniper:
One of the characteristics of both professions is they require a certain detachment to the suffering of others. Discussing this with a friend, she called it compartmentalization, defined as “…a defense mechanism in which people mentally disconnect conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences to avoid the discomfort of contradiction.“ Put another way, to separate the items at work from the home or other off duty endeavors. While that is part of it, it goes to a greater degree than a businessman, medical personnel, or other high stress positions.
Reading a review of the four officers’ actions in the Rodney King incident, a man (I cannot remember his name or position) said it well, “Police work, it’s sometimes brutal.” And that is the word, brutal.
In March 2015, at a Wal-Mart parking lot, police were called to investigate an assault case. The first arriving officers attempted to detain the people and a fight quickly ensued. By the end, one suspect was shot and killed, and one officer and another suspect were shot. Over one woman striking a Wal-Mart employee.
In a recent post I reviewed the ambush of four officers in Fargo ND. Apparently, the suspect wanted to commit more homicide at a festival down the street. Recently Ryan Clinkunbroomer, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was ambushed while sitting in his car. As of this writing, the only lead for motive is the shooter was schizophrenic and may have heard voices telling him to kill a cop.
Personally I’ve seen the burnt bodies of women and children, killed in traffic accidents. Working an extra job at an emergency room, I saw a man crying uncontrollably over the body of his three-year-old daughter, killed by smoke inhalation from an apartment fire. I look just enough to insure there will not be a disturbance, then move onto to my first duty; I ask the charge nurse how the body will be moved without her family seeing it.
I’ve seen the bodies of three children (and their father) dead in an accident. As a fellow cop (friend, and fellow Army veteran) described it well, “It looks like they were just asleep.” All gone before the oldest one was ten.
Like countless patrol officers, I’ve seen, and worse smelled, the decayed bodies of naturally deceased people. After looking at that, we explain the legal procedure needed by state law to the next of kin and conduct the initial investigation. And you have to push your emotions off to the side. You have a job to do, and being sensitive may get into the way.
I’ve run into areas were someone is shooting, and after finding the injured man, you only think of what to do to control the scene, how to get him medical help, and if able, take a suspect into custody. You need to drown out the screams of the casualty and family and friends.
Yes, it goes against everything human. We must set aside the natural feelings of compassion and empathy. But we must; the mission comes first.
No, I’ve not listed a few items above to toot my own horn. They are just functions cops and other first responders all over the country do daily. And yes, pulling your emotions out of the incident is required. Unpleasant, but required. Most people cannot do that, but a sheep dog must. As Colonel Jessup said, “You need me on that wall!”
Michael A. Thiac is a retired Army intelligence officer, with over 23 years experience, including serving in the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the Middle East. He is also a retired police patrol sergeant, with over 22 years’ service, and over ten year’s experience in field training of newly assigned officers. He has been published at The American Thinker, PoliceOne.com, and on his personal blog, A Cop’s Watch.
Opinions expressed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers.
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