Why do we do what we do?
What is the personal gain in being underpaid and underappreciated, constantly ridiculed and arm-chair-quarterbacked, and always made out to look like the bad guy, the racist, or the criminal, no matter what you do? No matter what decision you make? No matter if it’s in self-defense or if you’re arresting an accused child molester or murderer who is crying and yelling that you’re holding his wrists too tight?
Then a crowd gathers with their cellphones out and starts crying “brutality,” without having any idea what the circumstances were leading to his arrest. Then you are cast in a bad light, you and your department get sued, you get put on the hook, you and your family get death threats, you have to move, you become convicted in the court of public opinion. Why would anyone voluntarily subject themselves to it and enter this line of work? Some of us will get burned out and go on to different professions.
Some of us will stay. Some of us will have long careers and retire fat and happy. Some of us will give our lives for the safety and security of our communities. Undoubtedly, there will be more. But the fight will endlessly continue.
When one falls, another will take his place. It doesn’t matter what the stats say. The only reason this job isn’t in the top-10 most dangerous jobs is because of the training we receive. Officers don’t die often because they are never the second person to react. They want to go home to their families and will do whatever it takes to ensure their own safety. And most people are smart enough to not fight on the streets, but to fight their battles in court.
For the ones that aren’t, well, everyone is responsible for his own choices. No one told them to fight, no one told them to run, no one told them to endanger their lives or the lives of those around them. We do whatever we need to do to keep ourselves and others safe.
We are all human. We go through the same emotions, feelings, hardships, trials, etc. We are no different than you. We are not robots. We are not brainwashed agents of the state or the government. We are not Jedis. We can’t shoot knives out of people’s hands. We are not mind readers. We are not out to collect revenue. We don’t want to harass homeless people. We aren’t racists.
When something like this happens somewhere else we change our profile pictures to the Thin Blue Line, we drop a prayer or two, and we continue on about our day. When it happens here, in our own backyard, it hurts. Bad. It shows us how real this job can be and how everything can be taken from us in an instant. How our lives can change, and the lives of our families and friends can change in one moment.
As a son of a Bakersfield Police officer, I grew up in a household that knew the dangers and rigors of the job. 21 years ago, a crash during a high-speed pursuit effectively ended my father’s law enforcement career. He still suffers today from injuries he sustained, hence the recent surgery. I know what I face. I know when I get out to patrol, it’ll be a whole new climate and atmosphere.
But I’ll be ready; not only because of my training and good company, but because I am in a good place with God. I am not afraid to die. I have no fear per Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
So why do we do it? It’s because it means something when people thank us. It means something when we leave knowing we actually made a difference. It means something when you see someone you arrested for drugs 10 months ago come up to you and say he’s been clean for 10 months, shakes your hand, and thanks you for his wake-up call. It means something when a 18-year-old kid tells you he found God because of you.
These stories happened to me personally, but all officers have moments like this in their career. It doesn’t happen very often, but we remember it when it does. And then we reminisce and know it was all worth it. It means so much to us that we understand we may have to sacrifice our lives for it, like David Nelson did early Friday morning.
This is the way I think. And so do 98 percent of the people I work with.
Thank a police officer today. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it. Godspeed and rest well, Officer Nelson. We’ll take it from here.
— Matt Alvarez is a deputy in the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.