These are hard times we find ourselves in — for just about everyone, cops included. We used to be able to joke about crime, saying, “Hey, it’s job security!”
Positions have been eliminated. Empty positions that haven’t been eliminated are left unfilled. Cops have been laid off in large numbers. Smaller towns have completely eliminated their Police Department as a “luxury” they “can’t afford.” Others have gone to all part-time forces, to avoid having to pay for insurance and other benefits.
As a Chief in a small town in south central Virginia, I watched the migration of officers come from the Midwest to take positions with some of the larger departments in Virginia and North Carolina — forced to leave or uproot their families from the home many of them had known all their lives. I felt bad for them having to leave all that was familiar, but was grateful that they were at least able to continue in the profession they obviously loved.
Then came my turn.
The town I worked for had lost almost all sources of business and manufacturing revenue, other than traffic ticket revenue. The politicians didn’t want to anger the citizens by raising taxes, so more and more pressure was put on the department to increase the number of tickets being written. Suffice it to say that there was a conflict of policing philosophy. Then it got worse. As a cost-cutting measure, the council decided to completely eliminate funding for the Chief of Police position. In a matter of a couple of weeks, I was “laid off.” They then appointed a part-time rookie to serve as Town Sgt., and didn’t even give him a one-dollar raise.
Evaluating the Prospects
I had a pretty decent resume of experience and training, and I became a finalist for a number of Chief positions in Virginia and North Carolina. But you know what they say about horseshoes and hand grenades... I was competitive in each instance, which was good for the ego, but someone else got the gold.
I widened my search, applying across the country to a wide variety of departments. I didn’t meet with much success once I got outside my region. Then, by virtue of a networking connection, I heard about a little town in Washington that was looking for a Chief. In Washington. As in State.
As in, 2,500 miles away, completely across to the other side of the country, away from my parents, my sisters, my friends. Away from everyone. Not exactly where I’d been looking to relocate to.
There was another, and perhaps larger, concern: my career. This position was far, far from my anticipated career path. I knew exactly what career path I wanted to follow. I’d started in law enforcement as a civilian volunteer, then a Reserve Deputy, then a Patrol Deputy, then an Investigator, and then Chief. I’d been on track with where I’d planned my career to go: halfway through another Masters degree, nice strong resume of training and experience, looking to move up to a larger PD. I knew exactly what I wanted, and what it would look like, and was steadily moving toward the spot I wanted to reach to finish out my career — Chief of a 25- to 40-officer department. My next job should have moved me into that arena.
My prospects weren’t bad — I’d been getting the bronze and occasionally the silver, after all, so surely the gold was coming soon! But these are tough times, and there are no guarantees in life or law enforcement. I’ve never been one who dealt well with being unemployed — a condition I’ve tried to avoid like the plague throughout my life. Given the realities of life, I figured I should at least take a look at the position in Washington.
Looking Deeper, Thinking Harder
First glance was anything but reassuring. Eight months ago, it would be the last place I would be looking for work. The town had a population of less than 1,000 people. It was in the middle of nowhere, one and a half hours from the nearest shopping mall, 45 minutes from the closest movie theatre. The department was tiny — a Chief, a clerk and two officers. Tiny. On the surface, taking a position there would be career suicide — I’d be moving in the opposite direction from what I’d been heading toward my whole career. This couldn’t be right!
But then, I started thinking. And evaluating. And looking inward. I had to strip away issues of ego, and discard any “shoulda’s” connected to them. An honest self-examination brought me back to the core question concerning the validity of my career and career plans: why was I a cop?
It obviously wasn’t for the money or (these days, especially) career security. Why was I willing to put on a vest, badge, and weapon, and risk losing my life every day? What was I hoping to accomplish?
Then came the offer of employment. I wasn’t desperate for work — I still had numerous months of unemployment coming, and was competitive in my job search. No guarantees, of course, but I was getting interviews and finishing for the most part in the top three. No cigar, but encouraging. I decided I should visit the town after the phone interview, before accepting the position, and was blown away by what I found.
Life is Short
Sometime during several days of serious soul-searching, I had a moment known as “zazen” — a sudden enlightenment. I came to realize that quality of life had been a distant second for me in the pursuit of my career path. The past several years have been pounding me over the head with the message, “life is short.”
While I’d certainly like to make a worthwhile contribution to the quality of community in a medium sized city, I realized that I could probably have a greater impact and more lasting contribution in a small town community. I accepted the position.
I don’t know how long I’ll be here, of course — the mayor and council may be replaced by individuals who are not positive and supportive, or who are busy pursuing their own agendas. These things happen. I hope it won’t, but life goes on within us, and without us.
What I do know is that I have no desire to leave anytime soon. I’m not here with the idea of working two or three years, then jumping “up” to a bigger department. I want to do what I do with my life here, and accomplish whatever I’m able to accomplish in the time I have in this life. That’s a feeling I haven’t had in my career before now — I was always looking at the next step “up.”
I’ve come to recognize that “up” is an illusion.