The Entire Interview with Michael P. Kelly
With all that’s happening in law enforcement, we went looking for some answers from a Christian perspective. An author, Michael P. Kelly is a retired police sergeant from the Huntington Beach Police Department in southern California, with more than 30 years of law enforcement experience. Additionally, he has taught academy classes.
Two years before retirement, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the Lord’s blessings and a team of good doctors, he survived the ordeal. Mike has done volunteer ministry work for his local Catholic parish and has also conducted public speaking presentations about his spiritual life as a police officer and cancer survivor.
How many years have you been an officer? What led you to this line of work?
I devoted over 30 years to law enforcement in California before I retired. I was hired in 1977, when I was 19 years old. I was told at the time that I was the youngest fulltime officer that had ever been hired in the state. I have met only one other officer who was hired at that same age. We were both very young…perhaps too young. But, we both exhibited enough maturity to convince our respective departments that we were good candidates for the job. Whether they were right is still debatable, I suppose, but we both survived and had successful careers.
I decided early on that I wanted a career in law enforcement, because I wanted to experience a lot of life and make a positive contribution. I wanted my life to count for something. I suspect most of that mindset came from my father. He was a career military man who enlisted when he was 17 years old, towards the end of WWII. He retired in the 60’s and spent the rest of his life in blue-collar and union jobs. He instilled in me many of the beliefs I hold dear today. He believed in patriotism, despised pretentious people, honored those who got things done as opposed to those who just paid lip service to important issues, and respected those who had actually experienced life vs. those who merely observed it from afar. It’s probably no surprise that he was a true combat veteran, as were most of his friends. He once told me if I wanted to do something worthwhile, I should be a cop. Dad didn’t say much, but when he did it was worth listening to.
What has been the most dangerous or life threatening situation you’ve faced?
I always chuckle a bit when I get asked a question like this. When people find out you’re a law enforcement officer, they want to know how close you come to their favorite cop hero on TV or in the movies. Invariably, they’re disappointed, because what they see on the screen rarely reflects anything in reality. Interestingly, what goes on in reality is a hell of a lot more dramatic than what gets depicted in fictional entertainment, but it doesn’t make for flashy cinematic affect.
Let me just say that I participated in many high speed vehicle pursuits, confronted scores of violent individuals, have been involved in a lot of physical altercations and “use-of-force” situations, and confronted more people at gunpoint than I can remember. Some adversaries were heavily armed, some were mentally ill, some were trying to fight their way out of desperate situations, many were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and some were just mean and vicious. But, I am glad to say that I never had to take another’s life in the line of duty and I never sustained what I would consider to be a serious injury. Lots of little ones, maybe…which tend to mount up and take a toll over time…but, nothing serious. I’ll also be quick to point out that my experiences on the job are not uncommon. Most officers who spend a considerable time on the street can say the same thing.
What are some stereotypes about police officers?
Well, there’s always the coffee and donut thing, right?
The others seem to fall into 3 main categories:
1) the abusive, knuckle-dragging, insensitive, militaristic oaf,
2) the squeaky clean, naïve, idealistic, self-righteous crusader, and
3) the sophisticated, well-educated, intuitive, analytical genius.
Stereotypes exist only because there’s some truth to all of them, although none are particularly accurate.
Most of the stereotypes, both positive and negative, come from the treatment law enforcement gets in the news media and entertainment industries. Some come from prejudicial attitudes people develop in their personal experiences or political orientations. I dare say a large percentage of people I have debated who hold negative opinions of police officers have never actually met one. That’s a chronic problem in American society, but it’s also another subject.
But, we can’t discount those stereotypes law enforcement brings upon itself via gross misconduct that attracts a lot of attention despite not being reflective of the vast majority of interactions with the public. I honestly cannot explain some of the recent cases of gross transgression and blatant brutality caught on video recordings. Some may charge that these are things that have been going on for years and are now coming to light because of the proliferation of video cameras. If we accept that without further objective inquiry, we are going to overlook something more important. I have seen things lately that neither my peers nor I ever witnessed in all our years on the street. They wouldn’t have been tolerated then, so why are they happening now…particularly in this environment of public scrutiny?
One necessary caveat here: video has its drawbacks, because it doesn’t depict the totality of a situation. We all know from our personal experiences with home videos that it is often like observing a scene through a straw. I have investigated cases where a recording has missed the subtle physical clues of imminent violence that experienced officers can pick up on and move to stop before it starts. This can leave us with the impression that an officer overreacted. That’s why it is so important to withhold judgment until a proper investigation is completed. But, that doesn’t excuse those cases of obvious wrongdoing. What’s behind it? Deficiencies in hiring, training, discipline? Or is it something deeper that has wormed it’s way systemically into the current state of affairs? Worse yet, these incidents give credence to false accusations against officers and breed a prejudice that is undeserved.
At the same time, we can’t escape the true nature of the job itself. There’s an old saying, “Cops deal with all the worst people in society and the all the decent people at their worst.” Quite simply, officers are not out there selling vacuum cleaners. It’s a dirty job that thrusts good people into the refuse of society repeatedly. Officers see first hand all the results of sin…greed, hatred, lust, inebriation, arrogance, barbarism, ignorance…every degenerative human behavior…and all the psychoses, neuroses, fixations, phobias and personality disorders you can think of. It can’t help but taint the human spirit in a uniform way.
What (if any) changes in society have increased the risks faced by police officers today and what influence has that had on morale?
The changes have been dramatic and have affected law enforcement both externally and internally…the public’s view of police agencies from the outside and the officer’s self image, self esteem and view of their role in society. Unfortunately, we’re looking at a “perfect storm” confluence of circumstances that is having a profoundly negative impact on law enforcement across the nation.
Popular culture has taken a turn away from discipline and self-control. In the name of progressive tolerance, we have become lenient and dithering on a whole assortment of antisocial, disobedient and irrational behaviors. Indeed, the very existence of sin is questioned. Many states have decriminalized conduct that, in some cases, constituted felonies a short while ago. Accountability has slackened. Victimization is en vogue and has been internalized by many as an integral part of their character. Ethics and mores are much more subjective, relative, situational and open to interpretation and speculation. Also too are the organic changes we see unfold in every generation; the most recent of which has been a strong egotistical tendency towards narcissistic self-interest. Layered on top of all that are the waves of political propaganda that stir unrest and commercial marketing that support unrealistic expectations of economic success and/or social status. Entitlement is rampant.
All of this influences the stage on which law enforcement attempts to conduct itself and fulfill an incredibly difficult mission…to maintain an increasingly vague and waffling status quo for the sake of public safety and cultural harmony. No other endeavor demands competence in as many disciplines at the same time as modern police work…from medical and behavioral sciences, to interpersonal communication and political acumen, to martial and tactical skills…and more. Of course, legal knowledge is a must at a time when statutory laws from the federal, state and local levels of government are coupled with continually vacillating court decisions that literally fill vast libraries. Additionally, there are department policies, procedures, and codes of conduct galore…all of which vary from agency to agency. The same things that become confusing to the public are often confusing to the officers, themselves.
As of late, the general public has become less respectful, more challenging to authority, and more critical of performance and policies…sometimes with just cause. Those tendencies influence a criminal element that has become much more volatile, more willing to resist arrest and, in some cases, boldly attack officers without apparent provocation. This all comes at a time when sophisticated weapons capable of mass casualties have become plentiful. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an advocate of abolishing the 2nd Amendment. I’ve been around firearms my whole life and made good use of them. But, few of the guns my dad used for hunting and sport were anything like the assault weapons that officers face down today.
And out of this complex cultural mix, police agencies are tasked with having to recruit, select, train, field and retain human beings in uniform who are expected to make and maintain order where there is none…where the rules of engagement are forever changing and largely unrealistic. How does anyone harvest hundreds of people with superior character from a society that largely scoffs at virtues? How do we expect them to be morally resilient when their culture increasingly excuses immoral conduct? They must also be satisfied with multi-tiered compensation and benefit programs, rotational shift work, mandatory overtime, and subpoenaed court appearances that interrupt sleep cycles and days off.
The national career life expectancy for a law enforcement officer is below seven years and dwindling. Divorce rates are well above average in a society that has maintained a 50% marital failure rate for decades. Many agencies are in a staffing crisis, because they can’t establish hiring pools of qualified candidates. If you can manage to avoid being murdered, fired, sued, prosecuted or victimized by a dozen life-threatening work-related injuries and diseases for 30 years, the retirement is great…if you haven’t put too many miles on your body and can live long enough to enjoy it. Who among this current self-indulgent youthful generation would want the job or resist the temptations to leave for the duration of a 30-year career? Amazingly, some still do…or try.
Do you believe that the officers are being given the right tools for their job?
In general, yes. But, the requirements and budgets vary from agency to agency and from community to community. Some extremely useful equipment available today is high-tech and expensive. Not every department can afford to outfit their personnel with the “latest and greatest.” Often, multiple agencies will invest in cooperative programs in order to acquire and maintain high-dollar items. Ultimately, you have to apply the right tool for the job you’re trying to accomplish. What is necessary in a small rural town with a passive population may not be the same as that in an urban setting with a turbulent high crime rate…although that gap seems to be narrowing.
There was a time when manufacturers discovered the desire of police administrators to minimize the direct contact between their officers and those resisting arrest in the hopes of reducing use-of-force complaints and liability. All kinds of gadgets were designed, tested and implemented on a trial basis to facilitate the arrest of a combative suspect while minimizing the chances of injury…to the suspect and the officer. It was a challenge to find something that could be deployed without substantial preliminary and ongoing in-service training. Training is costly. Some were successful, others were not. From that period, we have seen the evolution of things like pepper sprays and TASER guns. But, ultimately, whatever tool or method is used, officers have to lay hands on people and that’s where we still have trouble.
Unfortunately, with the advent of some of these tools, there has been a deviation away from the focus on hand-to-hand tactics designed to physically manipulate a person into a state of control without injury. As a result, it appears a valuable skill set for officers has been degraded. The problem is evident in some of those of video recordings we discussed earlier and may be responsible for some of the controversy. Those of us who have been around long enough to recall when hand-to-hand training was emphasized can quickly identify those deficiencies that have resulted in otherwise unnecessary scorn. It is my hope that police administrators have seen it too and will take corrective action.
Although the majority of police work has nothing to do with the application of force, there has been a lot of talk about the “militarization” of civilian law enforcement with weapons and equipment procured from military surplus, etc. But, frankly, I think it’s been overplayed by the media and activists with an axe to grind. Of course, we should expect and demand professionalism from police officials. These weapon systems are not toys and should be properly deployed when the circumstances warrant. Again, it’s a matter of choosing the right tool for the job.
Let me tell you, when you’re confronting a criminal element that increasingly terrorizes your community with high-capacity, high-caliber, sophisticated automatic or semi-automatic firearms, you better arm your officers with weaponry that will ensure success or you’ll be going to a lot of funerals for victims. I’ve heard news commentators say, “Well, it looks bad…too intimidating.” First off, I don’t think it’s a secret what officers do and why these weapons have become necessary. If nothing else, the entertainment and media industries have been serving us a steady diet of evidence supporting the need for such things. Secondly, if agencies are seen deploying special weapons at a scene, there’s a good chance they may know something that is not readily apparent to bystanders and reporters. So, perhaps, it would be time to take heed. By the way, intimidation can be a good thing, especially when it eliminates the need for force.
Has the media’s reports on the use of force increased the dangers of being a police officer?
Merely reporting on use-of-force incidents is not a problem for law enforcement as long as it is done objectively and without bias. Here, we have to rely on the professionalism of the news media and for them to act responsibly. Unfortunately, many in the media have discarded objective standards for purely political reasons and to advance profitability in a very competitive market. There is very little accountability for unscrupulous news reporters and network executives promoting anti-police agendas with thinly veiled propaganda. The problem is so systemic in the media industry that inflammatory one-sided reporting has become commonplace. That unjustifiably injures law enforcement in general and can jeopardize officer safety…no doubt. It also is a gross disservice to the public and society as a whole, because it defeats the purpose of a free press to properly inform and educate the public.
As has been clearly demonstrated in recent months, the perpetuation of a “false narrative” results in a slanted perspective and denies reality. When that is purposely done to demonize those we depend upon to maintain order, chaos ensues and public safety is lost. I spent several years acting as a public information officer for media relations. I met many professional reporters who proudly upheld objective standards. I also met a few losers who were obviously trying to put their careers on the fast track and make a name for themselves by exploiting a story to generate controversy that didn’t exist. If it was brought to the attention of those running the networks and papers, sometimes corrective measures were taken and those responsible were no longer heard from. Other times, not.
What would you consider to be valid criticisms against law enforcement and what do you think a police department can do to increase the public’s confidence and trust?
Unfortunately, there are times when law enforcement becomes it’s own worse enemy. Despite all the forms of communication available to us today, people often form false impressions of what police work is really all about, because departments fail to take advantage of opportunities to educate the public and debunk the false narratives endorsed by their critics. Things have become so political that many administrators are wary of publicity that could backfire on their careers, so they fall back and become timid, especially on “hot topic” issues like the use of force. When I worked in media relations, I had a boss who advised me to be cautious, because “every interview you do is a career-ending opportunity.” There’s also a tendency to build false expectations when trying to appease politicians and special interests with an over exuberant “can-do” attitude. When you take on more for your agency than you can actually deliver, you’re sure to disappoint people and bring on criticism.
But the negative impact of real misconduct by officers cannot be overstated. There are few jobs that involve such immense responsibilities and when officers fail, the consequences are dire. All it takes is one misstep, one act of misconduct, one “bad apple” to overturn years of hard work, credibility, and honorable public service.
Unfortunately, they happen because law enforcement agencies hire from the human race. As careful as they might be, as selective as they are, as committed as they are to superior standards of conduct, chiefs and sheriffs pin badges on imperfect people. When the hiring pool gets shallow, when there is a shortage of qualified candidates, the chances of hiring someone who will fail to uphold the public’s trust increases. As a result, there are incidents involving violations of law or policy that must be investigated and discipline imposed. If the misconduct constitutes a criminal act, it must be referred to the proper authorities for prosecution. This is the only way to maintain community faith and respect.
In answer to the second part of your question, departments must be committed to objective professionalism; resist political expediency; maintain high standards in recruitment; provide top quality training for their personnel “from date of hire until they retire”; insist on ethical behavior and efficiency from the top down; maintain discipline; and take every opportunity to showcase the department’s virtues.
But, as with any relationship, a department must assertively maintain open and honest two-way communication with the public in order to be responsive to their needs and keep them informed of the challenges continually faced by every officer.
How does the job affect a police officer psychologically, and how does one’s faith help in your line work?
That’s a big question that deserves a big answer. I dare say the subject could fill volumes and is much too complex to tackle here. If there was any doubt left that a job in law enforcement is incredibly challenging and loaded with pitfalls, I hope the previous answers will serve to help enlighten the reader. Having said that let me try to cover some main points.
How does a human being wade through the excrement of modern western society and maintain their sanity? It’s no little feat. Hopefully, they start out with a strong moral basis and a clear, honest understanding of what they’re getting into. When young people who are interested in joining the force come to me and ask for advice, the first thing I do is make sure they understand the realities of the job and aren’t working off a misconception. I’ve popped more than one bubble doing so. But it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they’re in for a shock that they may not recover from. Then, I get into a discussion about what it is that attracts them to the job…not so much to hear about their expectations, but to sound out their moral convictions, because that’s what will be tested more than anything. They’re going to get deep-fried in human suffering, the failings of others, disappointments in the institutions they will serve, and the reality that the best people with the best intentions don’t always win.
So, how does one keep their head above water in the job? They will repeatedly ask themselves, “What the hell am I doing this for?” If they don’t have a good answer at the ready, they won’t last. They’ll either bailout or succumb to the temptations of “the dark side” and get caught up in one kind of misconduct or another…either on the job or in their personal life. As simple as it may sound, they have to remain committed to the principle of “doing the right thing.” That has to be ingrained in them, as a “principle” and not just a preference. And they must be clear on the difference between the two, because a preference can be compromised, subjugated for the sake of higher priorities or sacrificed completely. But a principle is worth “falling on your sword” to protect. If it means your job or the principle, you look for a new job. If it means falling out of favor with the boss, you accept the consequences. If it means losing a case you’ve worked hard on, you move on to the next one. If it means some evil SOB walks out of a courtroom free, laughing at you and his victim…well, that unfortunately happens. Despite your anger, frustrations, sadness, disappointments, etc., you have to turn around, embrace that “principle” and be satisfied. If truly doing the right thing doesn’t fall into that category, they need to find another line of work. Obeying the rule of law is mandatory, but commitment to doing the right thing is the lifeblood of a law enforcement career. That’s not to say that the right thing is always easy to discern in every given situation. Life is full of gray…but, you have to lean towards the brightest shade available. Faith helps clarify those choices.
If a police officer doesn’t believe in God’s existence, and that God is the Author of what is right vs. wrong…good versus evil…then he/she must adhere to another man-made set of values. If nowhere else, they will certainly learn on the job that man is not perfect. Therefore, by definition, a secular code of conduct is ultimately flawed if it is not at least based on Divine Inspiration. And isn’t that what we find at the root of “ethical conflicts?” Atheists can survive in police work, but it’s a tougher row to hoe.
If a police officer or sheriff’s deputy has the benefits of a faith-based support group, they will find it much easier to prosper. Many, if not all, of life’s dilemmas they will face are addressed one way or another by religious tenets. It will also help to make sense of the human chaos they will encounter during any given shift and give comfort when the horrors most people just hear about become vividly real—when the blood stains their uniform or a victim dies in their presence. They will occupy a perch where those things will be witnessed, sometimes up close, and will become routine. Without God’s enlightenment, the experience will lead them to doubt their beliefs, their commitments, their relationships…and the very reason they pin on a badge, strap on a gun, and go to work.
What is your religious background?
Like a lot of people, my religious life has been a mixed bag. My faith in God has ebbed and flowed at different stages of growth from childhood. My dad was a “disenfranchised Catholic.” My mom’s family was heavily involved with the Masonic Order and attended a non-denominational Christian church. I was raised in an ecumenical Christian atmosphere.
I always had an attraction to the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Church after I was married and became a father. That relationship went through several ups and downs and then got real serious in the 1990s. I advanced my faith and participation with the Catholic Church to the point of entering one-on-one spiritual direction with my parish priest. I even toyed with the idea of becoming a Deacon.
In 2006, I was diagnosed with cancer. Things get very serious with God when you face a life-threatening disease. My prayer life grew profoundly with meditation, which opened a door into exploring contemplative prayer. I took more advantage of Bible study programs and took personal study much more to heart.
I survived the cancer with the God’s blessings and good doctors…but, it’s one of those things that tends to always hang over you afterwards. After I retired, I did some volunteer ministry work for the Catholic Church. I sat on my parish’s Pastoral Council for 3 years and taught some adult and school-age formation classes. I also conducted some public speaking presentations about my spiritual life as a police officer and cancer survivor.
As my formal involvement grew, I discovered things with portions of the Church I had trouble accepting. Honestly, I ran into some teachings I questioned, some political stances I disagreed with, and some attitudes of the Church hierarchy I found objectionable. As a result, I drifted away from regular participation. Right now, you might say I’m a disengaged Catholic and a “free-agent” Christian. Let’s just say I’m working it out with God and he’s not finished with me yet.
What is God’s greatest blessing in your life?
Simple…and the shortest answer yet. My family. My wife and I have known each other since high school. We started dating in my senior, her junior, year. It certainly has not always been easy…just ask her…but, we are still together. That, by itself, is a miracle. We married very young and I started a career in law enforcement less than a year before. Our first son was born a year later. There were a lot of things stacked against us. But, we weathered the storm, grew a lot together, and I love her dearly. We have two grown sons that are college graduates with successful careers. And we now have a daughter-in-law and two grandsons that have enriched our lives immensely.
God is great!
Life is a celebration!
To read articles from Michael P. Kelly, click here: Blue Lines