Why I Hung Up The Badge And Left Law Enforcement.
July 26, 2002, two young men I knew growing up- William “Kenny” Carlton and Thomas O’Hayer III-were shot and killed during a robbery at their Southside Savannah home. Only 21-years-old at the time; in an instant, two gunmen stole Thomas and Kenny's lives from their friends, family, and loved ones. To the men who took them, the value of Kenny and Thomas' lives was worth little more than a DVD player.
Thomas and Kenny’s deaths would end up being a flashbulb moment in my life. The realization that people, so young and just starting out in the world, could have their lives so senselessly ended was an actual moment where innocence was lost for me. Facing the emotional toll of their deaths, one morning I woke up with the belief that there were only two types of people in this world. People who say, “Someone needs to do something about this,” and people who declare, “I’m going to do something about this.”
It was from these somber bowels of a tragedy that my desire to make a positive difference in this world was born.
Back in 2002, “doing something” to me meant pursuing a career in law enforcement. At the time, being a cop was the best thing I could think of to do my part in ensuring that other families didn’t have to suffer through what Kenny and Thomas’s had to endure.
Less than a year after that fateful summer night, I would find myself learning criminal law and procedures, defensive tactics, performance driving, and the fundamentals of firearm use at the Georgia Basic Peace Officer Academy. Basically, as the old saying goes, “ I was learning just enough to get me hurt.”
Finally, by the end of 2003, I raised my right hand and was sworn in as a Police Officer with the Garden City Police Department. At the time, I was only 21-years-old; same age as Kenny and Thomas when they died.
With a residential population of 8,900, Garden City is an industrial buffer between the historic city squares of downtown Savannah, and the upper-middle class bedroom community of Pooler. Compared to the enormous forces of America’s major metropolitan cities, with a sworn staff of 40 officers, the Garden City Police Department could easily be considered a small department. Discounting the Los Angeles or New York PDs of the world, Garden City Police Department would be reasonably large when contrasted to the average 12-person departments that account for 87% of America’s law enforcement agencies.
In light of its superficially nominal population and police force, covering 14.3 square miles, Garden City, Georgia could hardly be compared to Mayberry. By population proportion, Garden City boasts a violent crime index rating of 2 (with 100 being the safest); meaning the town is only safer than 2% of U.S. cities. To put the city's crime rating in perspective, Chicago’s score is 8.
Having spent my entire working life focused on crime and safety in Garden City, I can attest the city’s crime index doesn’t paint an entirely accurate portrait of the southern town that occupies the land were the Confederate Garrison of Savannah surrendered to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in December of 1864 (effectively ending the Civil War). Interestingly, the city demographics are remarkably close to that of the greater United States; including even a large section of undocumented immigrants.
As the years passed and I juggled being a cop and full-time undergraduate, then graduate college student, focusing on the field of cognitive psychology, I would gain a true an appreciation for how much the city could be seen as a microcosm of the United States. In essence, I was immersed in a living laboratory of human behavior every day I came into work.
To be honest, in 2003, as I spent my day’s crash coursing my way through criminal enforcement, the Garden City Police Department didn’t exactly have the best reputation. For some time, the Savannah Morning News had been littered with headlines of GCPD officers being accused of a variety of police misconducts. The golden age of the “good ole boys” at Garden City PD had come to a tumultuous end in late 2001 when city fired the Chief, Patrol Commander, and a portion of the agency’s sworn staff. Of course, some of GCPDs “Men in Black” – a reference to the department’s all black uniforms- wouldn’t be so fortunate just to lose their jobs. Instead, in the final days of GCPD’s cowboy era, a few former cops would find themselves on the other side of a prison cell. Though widely inaccurate regarding the “new GCPD,” the reputation of agency’s past is a burden, it’s had to bear for many years. In fact, over the years, it was routine for someone to see me in uniform, shudder and say, “I don’t go through Garden City.”
Now, had I been in the police academy in 2001, almost assuredly I wouldn’t have thought about going near Garden City PD. However, by 2003, the climate of the agency was a much different place, thanks entirely on the part of a retired Army Colonel who’d been brought in to right the ship: Chief David L. Lyons. Within a very quick span of time, the agency that was once investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for having an inner-department white supremacist club, was dramatically changed by Chief Lyons. By November of 2017, when he announced his retirement to accept an appointment as the U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Georgia, Chief Lyons had successfully morphed Garden City into a progressive, community-oriented, state and nationally accredited police department. It was such a dramatic change to the department he’d once took over that in 2016, out of over 700,000 registered entities in Georgia, Garden City PD was named #15 in Georgia Trends annual “Best Places to Work in Georgia” list.
Part of what made Garden City Police Department arguably one of the “best places to work in Georgia,” was what Chief Lyons offered me one October afternoon in 2003 when he hired me - a chance.
Nothing was ever handed to anyone at GCPD; instead, officers were given a chance to be as great as they wanted to be. Things like promotions or job assignments were always objective and 100% fair in how they were dealt out. When I rose through the ranks as a Corporal, Sergeant, and finally a Lieutenant; it wasn’t because I was the most popular or well liked. In fact, candidly when they pinned the chevrons on my sleeves and handed over the reins of an entire patrol shift to me as a 28-year-old Sergeant, more than a few people were probably a tad nervous. Undeniably, my Patrol Commander at the time was because those exact words were said during my first day “pep talk.” To his credit, at the time I was known for being somewhat of a loose cannon. My promotions, just like everyone else, were achieved through fair and impartial testing processes that excluded the potential for subjective influence. Highest scorer wins; it didn’t matter who you were. If you came out on top, it meant you got a chance to succeed.
Looking back, I would like to think that I always made the most of the chances Chief Lyons and Garden City P.D. offered me. Within a decade in half, I was able to work as a patrol officer, Detective, K9 Officer, Traffic Officer, Sergeant, and finally a Lieutenant. Thanks to a leader with a bias towards having highly trained officers; I was able to amass thousands of hours of P.O.S.T. training credit, including becoming a certified Law Enforcement Instructor. Not by birthright, rather, by the guidance of good leadership, we were fortunate to have had as many fair chances to succeed as we did at GCPD. Unfortunately for the greater whole, I now realize that a lot of people in the police profession don’t have it as good as we did when it comes to growing up in a climate of success.
I’m not sure no matter how long I stayed in policing I would have ever felt like a “veteran.” With every new day bringing some new novel aspect of policing in modern America, I honestly cannot see how anyone could ever feel like they'd "done it all" or "seen it all." In the end - from car chases, shootings, stabbings, rapes, robberies, and the proverbial cat stuck in the tree- I do at least feel like in the last fifteen years I’ve had a chance to taste a sample of everything being a cop has to offer. No different than any of our favorite foods; over time as we mature and our taste buds change, that which was once flavorful and spicy, suddenly and indescribably can become bland. Or, as Jimi Hendrix once sang: “Castles made of sand, fall in the sea eventually.”
October 26th, 2017, fifty pounds heavier than the scrawny kid that embarked on his law enforcement career in 2003; I sat in the municipal courtroom of Garden City and listened as Chief Lyons announced that effective December 1st he was retiring from Garden City P.D. For some of us, Chief Lyons’ announcement was hardly a surprise. Though Congress wouldn’t finally confirm him until April of 2018, for the past several months, there had been mummers that the Chief was going to be nominated as U.S. Marshal for Georgia’s Southern District. That morning, I was genuinely happy for my soon-to-be-former Chief. However, internally it was hard not to feel an uneasy sense of uncertainty.
Admittedly it was irrational; however, I couldn’t help feeling similar to a person who opts to stay home when all their friends go away to college; the slight vestiges of being left out. Up to that day, in my mind, I had always assumed that it would be me that left the agency before it would have been the man who’d hired me.
In the ensuing months after Chief Lyons said his final goodbyes, ambivalence to the generally consistent environment I’d come to know only continued to grow. By the end of 2017, the other assistant patrol commander who worked opposite of me, Lieutenant Don Chapman, announced his intent to retire. By the end of January, he’d be gone. Before the first day of summer arrived, Captain Al Jelinski followed suit and hung up his gun belt for the last time. Three men, all of whom I’d “grown up” under in policing were gone, coupled with a new internally promoted Chief of police; the tides of change felt like a dense smothering fog that permeated every corridor, nook, and cranny of the only employer I’d ever had in my adult life. It was unmistakably evident now things were different.
Initially, I struggled with thoughts of how my entire professional landscape had unexpectedly and unceremoniously changed. However, once I drowned out all of the noise and junk we add to our lives; and instead listened to the intuitive whispers that ever-so-faintly try to guide us through life, I realized the truth. It wasn’t the changing environment that made me feel so disoriented and uncomfortable. I was ignoring the real problem. I was the one who needed to make a change.
Now, willing to embrace the tingling uncertainty of what the future holds for me- July 26th, 2018, precisely sixteen years to that tragic day that led me to the decision to be a cop, I worked my final shift from behind the wheel of a police car.
Anyone who’s followed me over the years knows I’m willing to be a very vocal against the mistreatment of others. At times, my public advocacy for others has even included being critical of particular events or systemic issues in law enforcement. As such, it admittedly would be a far more exciting and enticing story to say that my abrupt retirement from policing was the result of some inner-professional conspiracy to excommunicate me from “Copland.” Indeed, that would be a far sexier story and likely generate much more attention. However, it also wouldn’t be the truth.
Having a willingness to discuss important, at time controversial issues, I have never expected everyone to agree with my opinion. In fact, I actually encourage disagreement, because that is how each of us learns and grows. I do hope that people know, above all else, I try very hard to make sure everything I share is the truth.
Maintaining a proclivity towards honesty, like of all life’s unsullied principles, the truth of what led to my abrupt early-retirement from policing is complex. Yet, if I had to simplify and sum up my decision- basically it was just time.
For most of us, time is an arbitrary concept we use exert a sense of control and order to the passage of our days. In reality, there is nothing more significant we can experience than time. As far as the eye can see and beyond, as Albert Einstein proved, for the three-dimensional world to exist, it must do so in the fourth dimension of time. Time is the all-powerful, uncontrollable, omnipotent overseer of the universe.
We often tend to view time as being a stable linear constant. However, the truth is time is anything but steady and unremitting. An hour spent doing something pleasurable or exciting seems to pass in an instant. Meanwhile, 60 minutes of misery feels like a lifetime. In its true essence, time is a mysteriously omnipresent entity that is dynamically dependent on each individual experiencer.
The idea that everyone’s goal should be to live a long life is only half-way correct. We should all hope that the total of our days spent on earth is significant in number. However, our lives should fly past us in an instant; because at least then we can say that we genuinely enjoyed it.
To truly enjoy life to fullest, and make those hours feel like minutes or months feel like days, a person must pay attention and respect time. Like any meaningful relationship, respecting time means, one must listen.
At the end of the day, the simplistic and equally complicated answer for why I left policing behind is the truth… After listening and paying close attention, it was just time.
Fifteen years later, I was no longer the same person who was moved by the death of his friends to become a cop. Unlike the skinny 21-year-old who raised his hand and swore to uphold the badge, not only was my hair a little greyer, and weighing in fifty pounds heavier; now, I was a husband and father of three. My entire life goals and responsibilities were dramatically different.
As a Lieutenant with the Garden City Police Department, my permanent schedule for the past five years had been 3:00 P.M. to 3:00 A.M. With three children, six, four, and two-years-old at home, the amount of time I’d lost with them over the past five years is immeasurable. When it comes to realizing it was time to hang up the badge, as multifaceted as the reasons may be, ultimately, there is none more significant than an unwillingness to not lose any more time with my family. Ultimately, being remembered someday for being a great cop is irrelevant, if being a great father doesn’t come first.
Entry in my son's kindergarten journal:
"My Dad is a cop. He is a great cop. I love him. I never get to see him."
Having come to the conclusion it was time for me to leave law enforcement for good, I now had one other problem to contend with. What happens next?
Just because I recognized I was no longer the same person I was in the passing months after Kenny and Thomas’ deaths, didn’t mean I had lost that passion for pursuing justice and defending others. Instead, I now had to contend with how could I satisfy a thirst for righteousness when being a cop was all I’d ever known.
Now, there is indeed one other of time’s multidimensional existence that was a significant influence on my decision to hang-up my gunbelt. It’s the aspect of time we cannot control, and ultimately the bond that brings every detail of our lives into meaning… Timing.
For me, “the timing was right,” involved a random text message early one Sunday morning from a man who I knew of, but didn’t really know. From this unexpected message would spring forth an unexpected opportunity that suddenly made all of the scattered pieces of time’s puzzle come together and paint a clearer picture.
No longer did I have to wonder how I could seek justice in this world; instead I suddenly saw an opportunity to do far more to help others. No different than Chief Lyons had done for me fifteen years ago; now I was being given a chance not merely to seek justice through enforcement. Instead, I was now being given an opportunity to pursue a purer, almost biblical, form of righteous. I was being afforded the chance to fight for justice, not from within the cover of existing authority, instead, from the position that I’ve always felt more comfortable. From the place that all true fairness and justice should emerge… from the vantage of the people who are affected.
So just what is it that I’ll be doing now?
Well, for that you’ll have to wait. Not because it’s some big secret; but because that’s not what my message is about here today. Today isn’t about what comes next; it’s about why my past is now officially my past. It's a message about knowing when its time to do something different in life and then having the courage to take that first step.
Assuredly, there are a lot of people out there who will read this, who like me, realize that its time in their lives to do something new. The best advice I can give to anyone who might be facing the same situation is don't be afraid to listen to to time's soft whispers. Don't ignore that slight tugging in the back of your mind. Because, as unstable and unpredictable as time can be, once its gone, there's no getting it back.
For what happens next; I’ll be sharing plenty of that in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. May they each pass by with lightning speed.
However, for now, I cannot express enough how thankful I am for the experiences I’ve had over the last fifteen-years of policing. None more significant than having the honor and privilege to serve alongside some of the finest men and women in any day and age. In the end, it will be the people I’ve worked with, both at my former agency and from surrounding departments, that I will miss the most.
I will always cherish the memories of wearing the badge; yet, now, I’m looking forward to this new chapter and excited for what comes next.
To be Continued…