Law enforcement is uniquely American—independent, fragmented but united in working toward a larger cause. Law enforcement officers are expected to enforce laws at the state and federal level, but also the city and county level. State and federal laws provide unity among agencies, while local ordinances and agency customs allow flexibility.
Further, there is no one law enforcement culture. Rather, subcultures exist based on the type of agency (e.g., highway patrol, corrections, fish & wildlife, sheriff’s office), the communities the agency serves and the services it provides. Fragmentation within our law enforcement culture allows the line officer flexibility while responding to calls for service. But this autonomy can also make it difficult for officers to maintain a sense of purpose over the course of a career. Caught up in our individual roles, we can lose sight of the ultimate objective: serving society. We start to ask, “Is it worth it?”
The 5-Year Itch
When you’re first hired on as an officer, you’re “indoctrinated” into the agency culture through field training. After that you work under the close tutelage of fellow officers. Eventually, you’re set free to work on your own or with a partner, albeit under a sergeant’s supervision.
From a technical standpoint, most officers are at their peak around the five-year benchmark. After that, it’s not uncommon to experience some level of boredom or frustration. Most of us entered law enforcement to “make a difference,” and after five years or more, it can seem that what we are in fact doing is “society maintenance.”
What do I mean by that? Too often, officers hold down the fort until society changes norms that will positively impact future behaviors. Seatbelt laws are a good example. Laws forced adherence, but a shift in cultural values is what made seatbelts an effective life-saving tool. Not surprisingly, realizing you’re merely holding down the fort until the cultural shift occurs is a bit disheartening. This is often the first time you find yourself asking, “Is it worth it?”
The Physical Assault
Obviously, many officers make it past the five-year mark. Some officers promote to supervisory or management positions. Other officers find value in continued service at the line level. Regardless, they eventually must contend with another “Is it worth it?” moment.
In my case, not long after passing the five-year mark, I was tasked with training new officers. Training created a desire to supervise, and supervision led to management. In larger departments, administrators can duck routine calls for service. My department, however, required patrol work by all officers regardless of rank. As a manager, I held the title of undersheriff, but I handled my share of patrol calls.
Those calls for service ran the gamut, from coroner’s cases to bar fights to domestic violence. You name it; the rural county deputy is going to handle it, often as a solo officer. In addition, we were provided take-home cars and were expected to respond to calls for service while off duty. I worked at night, and it was common to receive calls after going off duty.
As the years passed, the late-night calls, lack of sleep and physical confrontations took a physical and emotional toll. Wearing the green tights made me feel invincible, but after 10 years of service (and at just 40 years old), I developed a severe lower back problem and collapsed while on duty. Helping society was my calling, but it was evident to me that it was also having a lasting impact on my health. I started to ask, “Is it worth it?”
I’m hardly alone. Law enforcement is a physically demanding career. Many of us endure injuries and ailments that will affect us long after retirement. Knowing this, it can be difficult to press on.
The Emotional Gut Punch
The third type of questioning is different in that it can happen at any point in one’s career, although I would venture to guess that it more commonly occurs after many years of tenure. Feeling useful is a profound part of law enforcement. But all too often officers are faced with perceived lose/lose situations, making a feeling of usefulness a distant academy dream.
In my case, it was late August, and the department was short-staffed due to on-duty injuries, vacations and budget cuts. Filling a night shift, I called dispatch to receive beat information and was informed of an “overdue” boating enthusiast. The reporting party indicated a friend went sailing two days earlier and had not been heard from since.
I drove from my residence to a lake location people often used to launch boats. It was raining, and nightfall was coming soon. When I reached the makeshift boat launch, I saw an unoccupied truck matching the description given to me by dispatch. The pickup had a boat trailer attached, but the trailer was empty, and I did not see any vessels in the vicinity. I confirmed that the pickup truck belonged to the missing person. I scoured the area and called for air assistance. However, the inclement weather and nightfall made flying or launching a boat dangerous, so I arranged for air and water resources to deploy at first light.
That didn’t stop me from continuing my search. I drove the edge of the lake in my patrol vehicle, using my night vision, spotlight and occasionally my siren to try to locate the overdue party. I hiked the lake’s edge near where I had discovered the pickup truck. I continued searching throughout the night, arranging for a deputy to meet me at daylight and assume control of the search.
With daylight dawning, I made one last sweep of the area where I thought the boat might be. Hours had passed since I started searching, but the weather had calmed, and the lake was still. I rounded a bend and saw what looked like an overturned watercraft. I drove to within about a mile of the overturned craft and hiked the remaining distance. Upon arrival, I confirmed that what I was viewing was an overturned watercraft. Next to the craft was an individual floating face down in the water. The search and rescue operation appeared to have become a recovery.
I called for water resources, but before they arrived, dispatch received a telephone call from for the missing person’s mother and transferred the call to my cell phone. The mother was very emotional and wanted to know if I had located her son. The vessel certainly matched the description. However, there was no way for me to determine who the person was until water resources arrived. Additionally, death notification should never be completed over the telephone.
This was the third case I had worked in my career in which a child’s death preceded their parent and part of my duty as a deputy coroner was to give death notification. I am a parent, and while speaking to the mother, I felt a rush of emotion come over me. I was exhausted from the night’s work and struggled to keep my composure. Tears welled in my eyes.
I assured the mother I would inform her the second I was able to confirm my suspicions. I hung up the telephone and attempted to regain my composure. I felt as though I had failed. Officers are expected to react with professionalism no matter the circumstances. Some officers bear the burden by remaining emotionally detached. I am not one of those officers; I profoundly believe that being useful in any given situation requires empathy. At that moment, empathy or not, there was nothing I could do to help the mother. I asked myself, “Is it worth it?” I was sure it was NOT.
Over the next few hours, I confirmed my suspicion: I had located the deceased body of the missing party. The emotional burden—having located another child and knowing the circumstances dictated that a mother receive notification via telephone that her son had died—left me numb inside.
About a week after this event, I arranged to meet with the mother. I still felt an overwhelming sense of loss. Rationally, I knew I had done my best and had to find peace in that fact, but heart and mind were having none of it. At the conclusion of our meeting, the mother looked across the table and said, “I came here to meet the man who found my son, and hug him.” The moment was so profoundly moving that it brought tears to my eyes. I struggled to keep my composure. I walked around the table, and the mother hugged me.
Law enforcement is not just physically demanding; it is also emotionally demanding. Over the course of a career, we work many calls that can cause us to question whether this is something we want to keep doing. If we’re lucky, at least some of them are resolved with the kind of affirmation I received from the boater’s mother. Is it worth it? That moment made me realize it was. I did not find her son alive, but I found her son, and that was important, too.
But I can recount many more calls for service when my actions were not affirmed, and I know I’m not unique in that regard. Many officers believe being professional means hiding emotion. Until there is a cultural shift in the industry to encourage officers to discuss matters of emotion, good officers will bury feelings that become toxic over time, resulting in addiction, suicide or at the very least a career move. For those officers, the answer will be, “It’s NOT worth it.”
A Question We’ll Keep Coming Back To
We do not choose a career in law enforcement to make lots of money. I left a much better-paying job to join the sheriff’s office, and I never regretted doing so. But the fact that we choose this calling doesn’t mean that our commitment to the job will never waver.
We don’t often talk about it, perhaps because we like to think we’re above such weakness of will. But we should. Because for every officer who pushes on through the five-year itch, or the mid-career physical injury that seems like it will never heal, or the call that hits us like a freight train with grief and despair, there’s another officer who doesn’t. Maybe that person assumes he or she is the only one who feels like this, that they’re not “cut out for” a law enforcement career. If we can reach out to them, if we can acknowledge that these points of self-doubt are normal and not something to be ashamed of, we might just be able to prevent a great officer from becoming a burnt-out officer, or from leaving the field all together.
We also need to help officers remember that value is determined by the citizen receiving law enforcement services. What might be a routine daily task for the beat cop could make a huge difference to a citizen. It does not need to be something like diving through the window of a moving automobile to stop a pursuit, running through cemeteries or rivers after suspects, breaking up bar fights and jumping over fences during foot pursuits.
As for me, my time has come. Many officers enjoy a career spanning 30 years or more. It took just 16 years for the physical demands to catch up with me. I am due in the very near future to have a triple lumbar fusion. But even in the wake of painful back injuries, surgeries and the emotional demands, I end my law enforcement career sure of one thing: You bet it was worth it!
JAMES CONCANNON retired as a sergeant with the Sierra County (CA) Sheriff’s Office, where he served since 2001. From 2011 to 2015, he served as Undersheriff, then returned to the sergeant rank after an administration change. Concannon earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State University in California and his master’s in criminology, law and society from the University of California-Irvine. He is also a professional services representative for Lexipol, helping law enforcement agencies implement policy and training.