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.

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Soon on ThM: A Life in Law Enforcement: An Interview with Michael P. Kelly – Part 2

-Do you believe that the officers are being given the right tools for their job?
-Has the media’s reports on the use of force increased the dangers of being a police officer?
-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?
-How does the job affect a police officer psychologically and how does one’s faith help in your line work?

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Photo by scott via Flickr