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Words to live by when you're out on patrol

New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s words resonate for law enforcement today as much as they did a century ago

On October 14th of this year it will be the 100th anniversary of the assassination attempt on Presidential Candidate Theodore Roosevelt.  After he had been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, the indomitable Teddy Roosevelt waved off medical attention, mounted a podium and completed a scheduled 90-minute speech with a .38 caliber bullet lodged near his heart.

At the time of the assassination attempt, Roosevelt’s resume’ was already impressive.  Before Theodore Roosevelt was the Bull Moose Party Presidential Candidate, he had already served as President of the United States.  Before that he had been Vice President.  Prior to that, he was a dynamic leader serving as a colonel in the Spanish American War, known for leading the now famous Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers on charges that took San Juan Heights. His actions eventually earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor (presented nearly 100 years after the battle).  Prior to the Spanish American War he had been Secretary of the Navy.

But before any of those things, he served as Police Commissioner on the City of New York Police Department.

Truer Words Were Never Spoken
Roosevelt’s tenure as a police commissioner was marked by his aggressive efforts to modernize the department as well as to remove the tentacles of corrupting political influences.  Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography about the need to strike at the heart of corruption, but noted there was little need for improvement in the area of courage on the NYPD.  He said of New York Police Officers, “They had always been brave in dealing with riotous and violent criminals.”

President Roosevelt’s most memorable quotes subtly reveal his days in law enforcement had clearly left a mark on him. Many quotes are meaningful to law enforcement officers to this very day. For example his most famous being, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.” Although Roosevelt was referring to foreign policy, these words in some form are still passed on today by crusty old beat officers to raw recruits.

Roosevelt had this to say to the soft-on-crime crowd in the 19th Century. The quote could be used by any firearms committee today arguing to modernize and arsenal, “I have not the slightest sympathy with any policy which tends to put the policeman at the mercy of a tough, or which deprives him of efficient weapons.”

The Commissioner was also able to put the enforcement aspect of ethical policing into perspective like no other, when he concluded, “No man is above the law and no man is below the law” and again when he said, “Obedience of the law is demanded not asked as a favor.”

While making arrests officers often hear limp justifications for the poor decisions made by miscreants. Roosevelt had this to say to wrong-doers, who might feel their excuse should allow them to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, “No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency.”

Every defensive tactics instructor has at one time or another spent hours trying to explain the concept and application of justifiable use of force. Roosevelt made the complex simple, by using eight single-syllable words, stating, “Don’t foul, don’t flinch — hit the line hard!”

For officers who have in crisis been compelled to act — only to later find themselves under attack by a “Monday Morning Quarterback” for the actions they took under extreme duress — take solace in these words uttered by Roosevelt, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Roosevelt’s guidance to leaders still ring true today. He declared, “The best executive, is the one, who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” 

Every one of you should feel proud of your career choice for in this great man’s assessment every cop hitting the highways, and streets of this country would be worthy of his respect, because he observed, “No man is worth his salt, who is not ready at all times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life in a great cause.” Policing with honor in the United States of America is a great cause.

Work Hard at Work Worth Doing
This next quote seems once again to speak to officers, who have done difficult things under difficult circumstances.  Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end triumph of high achievement; and at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

For those of you striving valiantly each day in the honorable profession that is law enforcement, Roosevelt also said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

While you are working hard at police work, which is indeed work worth doing, please stay safe, stay strong, and stay positive!

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