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.

A Life in Law Enforcement: An Interview with Michael P. Kelly – Part 1
A Life in Law Enforcement: An Interview with Michael P. Kelly – Part 2

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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!

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Photo by Chrstian Stock via Flickr