When I began my career with the Calgary Police Service in 1979 I graduated, I was assigned to ‘E’ District in downtown Calgary. The department had not allowed recruits to go from training to the downtown district for a number of years — they felt most recruits were not able to handle what they would face there on a daily basis. That changed when a handful of the members of my class were assigned to go downtown.
My primary patrol area was the east end of the downtown core. It was the smallest geographic patrol zone in the city but had a high concentration of seedy bars, a lot of drug activity, violence, prostitution and other criminal activity. Just before I graduated, the former commander of that zone took me aside and told me to have a picture taken with all my teeth as I was likely to lose a few early in my career in one of the many fights in which I was sure to find myself.
My first thought was that he didn’t have confidence in my abilities and I took that personally. However, as I sat back and reflected, I realized “It’s not about me.” He was simply trying to prepare me for what was to be an eye-opening experience for a 22-year-old rookie. Years later in a promotional interview, I reminded him of the story and we shared a laugh as I smiled to let him know I still had all my teeth.
My first field-training officer hated having to work with me. In fact, he did not talk to me for the first week we worked together. It made for some very long nights, as we were the late car night shift in the district. That meant we started a half hour after everyone else and went home a half hour later in the morning. As an eager young officer, it was hard not to take his resentment of working with me personally. The reality was that it was “not about me.”
It had to do with a number of factors including having to give up a great long-term partner to work with the new guy. It was about the extra paperwork that comes with being an FTO. It was about the extra responsibility of being an FTO. In a very busy and very violent patrol area, it was also about living with the uncertainty of how your partner was going to react and if he was going to be able to handle himself. It was never about me as a person. By the end of our six weeks together, we had grown to become good friends and learned a great deal from each other.
Early in my career, I had a hard time not taking personally all of the insults and the verbal and physical attacks. Over time, I learned that it was not about me. In fact, it had nothing to do with me personally. It had to do partly with the fact I was a cop, but it was mainly about the other person’s rage, biases, anger, fears, and other issues. I just happened to be the one that was there to take away their beer, their dope, their spouse, or their freedom.
It was harder when victims or people who you were notifying of a death in the family turned on you. Once again, it was not about me. It was about their fears, their anger, their feelings of being violated and their need to lash out at someone or something. I just happened to be the closest target.
The most challenging were times when subjects spit in my face and threatened my family. On one occasion, a subject in the booking area told me he was going to find out where my kids went to school and slit their throats. On the face of it, those are very personal attacks, but it was only about me if I let it be. It was really about the subject trying to piss off the cop that arrested him to get me to say or do something that would come back to haunt me or jeopardize the criminal case.
Over time, I also had to learn not to take internal politics personally. It is easy to get caught up in the moaning, groaning, whining and bitching about “the department,” especially when you are the object of an internal investigation. Like everyone else, at times, I got caught up in the mindset of “Woe is me. The agency doesn't care about me.”
Of course, the agency didn't care about me. The agency is just an entity and it is incapable of caring. As Dave Smith rightly says, “Love your job, but don't love your agency because it cannot love you back.”
In his powerful book, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement,” Dr. Kevin Gilmartin reminds us that “no one will go through their career with their professional virginity intact. Everyone will get screwed by the organization sooner or later.” Once we accept that reality, we can prepare for it and deal with it effectively when it happens.
As I progressed through my career and became a trainer, I always had to remember that training was not about me. It is always about the student. As a trainer, no one cares how smart you are or how skilled you are. What they care about is whether you care about them and have the ability to teach them skills that may save their lives. This goes back to one of the key themes of the courses I teach: You have not taught until they have learned.
In hindsight, I could have saved myself a great deal of stress over the years if I had simply understood this one simple philosophy: It’s not about me.
As I write this and reflect on the many lessons I have learned over the past 30 years, I have come to realize that as much as it is not about me, it is all about me.
Here is what I mean when I say it is all about me:
• Being professional despite insults or attacks is a personal choice
• How I react to politics in the organization is a personal choice
• Checking my ego at the door as a trainer is a personal choice
In the end, it is always about choice, and what will help me make a more desirable choice is life’s most powerful question: What’s important now?
What’s important now — regarding outside influences and pressures — is to understand that “it’s not about me.”
What’s important now — from a personal perspective — is to understand that “it is all about me and the choices I make.”