- By Lt. Tim McMillan
The Burning Desire To Serve and Protect
"I'm a 19-year-old Canadian criminal justice student. I've wanted to be a police officer for a long time, but I've always wanted to help people. I want to know if you ever get that "burn". That insistent need to change things, when I hear about mass shootings, or even just after watching Patriots Day about the Boston Bombings I get this unsettled rage in my stomach, full of anger and sadness. I have a pretty good hold on it, but I want to know if it's something I should look at as a reason to not become a police officer.
I know cops are to think past their personal emotions when making calls in the field. But even just seeing that 8-year-old boys picture, the one who was killed during the Boston bombing, it INFURIATES me. I want nothing more than to see the men who did it suffer, but I also know that's my ego, pushing me to seek justification in an attempt to ease my subconscious that's always screaming at me, telling me I could've done something. I could've saved someone if I happened to be there.
So instead of punishing myself, I seek vindication through their demise. But tell me Lt. McMillan, do you ever feel that burn? Or am I not cut out to be a police officer. I want to help people; I know I can. But I also don't want to make a mistake and be the reason a good man or woman doesn't go home. Part of me believes that fear could push me to be better, to focus more based on the severity of what it really is. But the other part of me knows I won't ever know if I'm cut out for it or not until I'm actually doing it. If I do it and turns out I'm not cut out and someone dies on me? That would stick with me for the rest of my life."
Wow! Every so often, someone sends me a message that allows for me to discuss a broader topic. In these instances, I will share my reply publicly in hopes that it provides something of value to others and not just the two of us.
With that said, nine out of ten of these messages, often involve a negative pre-existing perception, such as a critically biased or implicitly prejudice view.
Your message is not one of those…
In all honesty, Liam, your message to me is one of the most profound and thoughtful messages I have ever received. Please understand I get a lot of messages, including many from people who ask me about getting into law enforcement. Not a single one of them can hold a candle to the things you expressed today.
Now, about that “burn” you mentioned, let me tell you a little story…
When I was your age I wanted to be a cognitive psychology researcher. I was and still, am fascinated with the human mind. Specifically, I wanted to understand human consciousness and perception. Consciousness is one of the least understood aspects of the entire universe and yet we all carry it with us everywhere we go. Academically I worked towards this goal and as a double major in math and psychology, I spent a lot of time working on the mathematically modeling human behavior and trying to understand our interaction with the universe. Honestly, being a cop was one of the last things on my mind.
However, in the early morning hours of July 26, 2002 that all changed…
That early summer morning, in Savannah, Georgia, two friends I had grown up with, Thomas O’Hayer III and William “Kenny” Carlton, were murdered during a home invasion robbery. This single event was the most prolific and emotional experience I had ever experienced in my life.
In the weeks following their murders, I can remember driving past Thomas’ parent’s home. Day after day I drove past the one-story ranch style home and looked at Thomas’ old pick-up truck sitting idle in the driveway as I passed by. This self-inflicted sadistic ritual of driving past Thomas’ former home went on for a month or two until one morning, I abruptly out of the blue woke up with a sense defined purpose in life.
One random morning in the fall of 2002, I awoke to the realization that there are two types of people in this world. People who say, “someone should do something,” and people who say “I am going to do something.” That morning, I chose to be later of those two types of individuals.
So in the darkness of tragic death, my desire to be a law enforcement officer was born and by 2003, I was a cop…
Admittedly, this “burn” that I experienced was not exactly like you described. I didn’t want to punish or hurt the young man who took Thomas and Kenny’s lives. Instead, I could feel Thomas’ mother’s emotion every time I drove past his home. I could feel the deep pit of emptiness and heartache she was feeling every day, when she woke up to the nightmare of knowing the baby boy she had raised to a young adult, was forever gone from this earth. I knew that Thomas’ truck sat in that driveway unmoved because his mother was clinging onto any tangible links to her baby boy she had left. Before those too were gone.
In Thomas' mother's sadness, I could feel that she didn’t want nor wish the death of the man who took her son’s life. Instead, if she could be granted just one wish, it would be to have her son back.
So the “burn” for me wasn’t to enact revenge for the deaths of my two friends. Rather, it was born in the burning passion to try my hardest to never let another mother have to go through what Thomas and Kenny’s did.
Throughout my career have I seen evil? Wickedness that I cannot understand? Absolutely...
I’ve held the bodies of babies who were beaten until motionless because they wouldn’t stop crying. I’ve watched children grow-up to be young men and then watched those same men die in front of me as blood poured from the wounds inflicted by the violence found in a life on the streets. I have seen a young man’s eyes go dull as life ceased after his grandfather stabbed him to death because they got into an argument over the best way to grill a steak. I witnessed the lifeless bodies of men and women, contorted in gruesome ways because some selfish person decided to drive drunk.
I am not telling you this to try to scare you away from going into the law enforcement. Quite the opposite in fact. I want you to go on and fulfill your dream. You may not realize this yet, but your keen sense of self-awareness and willingness for deep introspection is what will actually help you as a cop. Truthfully, I am confident in saying it will help you someday lead others. Most importantly, you will do it extremely well.
Provided you never lose sight of one very important detail…
One day as you embark on your law enforcement career, never forget the deep underlying reason why you want to be doing what you are doing; your desire to be a police officer; to help others; or even to punish those who hurt the innocent; it is not sprung from the depths of vengeance and anger. In fact, isn't hate that makes you desire to see vengeance rained down.
Rather, your desire is born out of love. Love for life…
At the end of the day, is this not exactly why you feel such an emotional upheaval when you see the loss of innocent life, such as Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed on April 15, 2013, in the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon? Are you not grief-stricken to the point of anger, because of your appreciation and love for life? A love that is so deep it compels you to suffer at the thought that such a young boy, like Martin, may never be able to enjoy it as you do.
It is not the death of sinners you seek. Rather, it is that they also love life as much as you.
However hard it may seem to you now, it is imperative that you never forget what makes a police officer powerful. The real power you have is not the power you choose to employ; rather, it is the power you don’t use that represents true wealth.
See one day, you will wear a uniform and a badge. On that day, you will find that you will have been granted tremendous authority and power. You will wield power over life and death. You will be given the authority to take people’s God-given birth-rite of freedom. This will be a responsibility that you can never take lightly.
You must never forget that the power you yield and the authority you hold is not granted by the badge you wear or the gun you carry. Rather, it comes from the willingness and faith of the public to trust you and have faith that you can responsibly possess such great power.
You must safeguard yourself from ever developing the attitude that you are better than the public. Or if the public is critical of you, that means the public “just doesn't understand.” Remember always, that you are a public servant, which means you serve them… the public.
See the reason that the people will trust you with this power depends on your ability to demonstrate you are willing to sacrifice for them.
The sacrifice you will make does not come from a physical debt. Rather, you must remember that the public entrusts you to represent justice, and be the embodiment of fairness and righteousness. This sacrifice represents the contract you will make with the public, and only then will they entrust and empower you.
The sacrifice you will make for the public is the assurance that you will not succumb to the human ego and desire for the darkness that represents retribution or punishment. In fact, one of the most important things to always remember is that as a police officer you do not dispense punishment at all.
That’s right… police officers aren’t supposed to be the Punisher. We actually don’t even render judgment over guilt or innocence at all. Instead, we are the ones who represent that narrow line which holds up the scales of justice. Your role in life will be to precariously attempt to maintain balance in a chaotic and seemingly primordial battle between good and evil. Your task in this relationship will be to punish no one. Rather, your job is to merely arrange the meeting in which one may be judged and then allow others to render punishment.
Go into your role as a police officer realizing that it is very simple.
You will ensure that those who breach the lines of morality do not evade justice or judgment. Yet, you will never pass judgment or punish anyone yourself.
When a police officer desires to represent the role as they should, they do so with the understanding and willingness that you will immerse yourself this eternal battle of light and darkness. This will be based on the necessity to maintain balance so that humanity can continue to move forward with some semblance of harmonious stability.
It will not always be easy for you.
In fact, many times in your career you will taste the bitter reality that is the emblematic dance of crime and punishment. Often you will be confronted with the complexities of life when you discover that both the cop and the criminal frequently will desire that which is intrinsically unobtainable. In the end, both the cop and the criminal often will wish that a tragic event never occurred in the first place.
Ultimately, Liam, I encourage you to continue to pursue your police career. Moreover, I encourage you never lose the willingness to always look inward at yourself and ask am I doing the right thing? Am I honoring that contract I agreed to the public I would uphold?
Am I remembering that the reason I am overcome by the emotion that surrounds these tragedies, such as the death of young Martin Richard?
Remember, that emotion isn’t because you hate those who commit such egregious crimes. Rather, it is because you love life.
Love life so much that you remember you are selflessly moved by the thought of those who lost their lives when surrounded by the purity of innocence. Never pose the question to yourself is what I’m doing legally allowed? Rather, stay true in your dedication of always asking yourself is what I’m doing ethically correct. If evil wishes to force your hand and make you take violence upon it, so be it. However, always let it be evil that makes that choice and you stay true in standing for everything that evil isn’t.
Remember, we cannot ever bring back Martin Richard. Just like I cannot bring back Thomas O’Hayer III or William “Kenny” Carlton.
Instead, we must try to make sure their memory is a blessing and that his death is not in vain. Let that emotion you feel help guide you to gather courage and integrity when those attributes feel hardest to maintain. Let Martin serve with you as a guardian angel helping guide your way.
Do that… and you will make one hell of a cop and the citizens in which you serve in Canada should be proud to have you serve them. Please keep in touch. I’ll be excited to see you make it all the way when you reach your dream.
Best of luck and may God bless you along your path,