The noble vocation you have chosen.
This morning, 18 December 2019 — the members the Chicago Police Department pipe band were honored to play at a graduation ceremony for Chicago’s newest and finest. Welcome to the Chicago Police Department. You are ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances — act with courage, honor, and self-sacrifice. Never forget this.
We’ve all been to academy graduations and heard the speeches. Some are thought provoking and some are quickly forgotten. We came across this speech presented by Capt. Gary Hoelzer and thought it was so profound and meaningful that we wanted to share it with all of you. There are at least a couple of challenges in this speech that should hit home for everyone.
I hope you don’t consider this your last lecture; but rather your first of many family talks. I’d like you to remember back to that moment in time when you chose law enforcement as your vocation, profession and calling. For me, I have to go back 34 years: I’m standing in the foyer of a church in Fenton—in a crowd, yet alone in my thoughts grappling with a career choice. My only criteria was that when I looked back on a career, I wanted to measure my success by how much I gave, not by how much I received. So I asked myself, “If I could do anything with my life, what would it be?” As my mind sifted through the possibilities, I soon considered policing. I’d been reading a Bible paraphrase popular in the 60’s and 70’s in Paul’s letter to the Romans in the thirteenth chapter. It actually used the term “police officer” when it stated, “The police officer is God’s agent to commend those who do good, and to strike fear in the heart of those who would do evil.”
That’s also a rough definition of the word “justice.” Justice is the standard of societies and of the nations of the earth. It’s a valuable two-sided coin. On one side, to do justice is to bring down those who’d victimize and oppress others. On the other side of the same coin, justice is to lift up those who have been victimized and oppressed, as well as those who need a helping hand and to restore them to a meaningful place in society. Justice—criminal justice—is a high calling for a noble cause.
I also wanted to be like Jim Reed and Pete Malloy of ADAM-12. I wanted to patrol the streets of St. Louis County in that chocolate brown car like they patrolled L.A. in their black and white. Rushing to crime scenes, consoling victims, showing compassion to the down and out and arresting bad guys.
My Calling I was on field training with FTO Russ Dabbs. We were patrolling along Tesson Ferry and I’d progressed to the point where I was driving. I saw a 16 or 17 year old that should have probably been in school, so I turned the patrol car around to check him out. As we turned, we saw something fly away from his hand. Glimmering in the sun, as it landed 20 feet or so away, was a knife with a six-inch blade. As soon as the tires of the patrol car hit the shoulder, the kid ran. I slammed on the brakes, threw open the car door, tossed down my sunglasses (I wouldn’t do that again), while Dabbs said what all good FTO’s say, “Go get ‘em!”
The chase was on. Over a fence I went and I was in full speed running across a bank parking lot in the middle of the day. People were coming and going, watching the spectacle, as a young cop chased a real “bad guy.” I caught him just as he entered a residential area. In the meantime, my FTO slid behind the wheel, turned on the red lights and came around the block to meet up with us. I cuffed him and placed him in the patrol car and then we made the journey to the precinct station (he was wanted for burglary).
When we arrived at the station, we walked in with our prisoner and as I was processing him, I heard my FTO tell our sergeant, “You should have been there Sarge. It was just like ADAM-12!” Upon hearing this, I was ecstatic! Now, I tell you that story because there will come a time in a year, five years or 30 years when you will grow weary in the work. Long shifts, short on sleep, court in the morning after working the midnight shift, promotions or special assignments that go to someone else, insults and threats. Just remember back to the moment you chose law enforcement as your calling. You may grow weary in the work, but don’t grow weary of the work.
The Cost of the Calling As glamorous as foot pursuits across a crowded parking lot can be, confronting certain elements of society alone at midnight isn’t so glamorous. The first time could be terrifying. I was off of field training, still in my rookie year, and I was in a low-speed vehicle pursuit with a subject with a warrant out for his arrest. It was around midnight and my nearest assist officer was about four miles (or 400 miles) away.
Apparently, the driver didn’t want to go to jail that night, so I followed him as he meandered through neighborhood streets until finally he swerved into a residential driveway. His door swung open and he made a run for the front door of the house. In a split second, my brain summed up my options:
Chase him, catch him, fight him, take him to jail. Consequences: I could get hurt or killed, yet fulfill my calling.
Delay, let him get away, work it out another way. Consequence: Fear would triumph, and I would turn in my badge. I’m not willing to pay the cost, so there’s another line of work waiting for me.
I chose the former. I caught him before he entered the house and was in for the fight of my life. Bottom line: We both went to the hospital for minor injuries, he went to jail and I kept my badge.
I was confronted that night with the real cost that may have to be paid in the struggle for this noble calling. It has been said that “All give some, and some give all.” Ask the Fernau family. Glennon Fernau1 is an example for us of one who gave all. Whenever I hear of one who gave the ultimate sacrifice, I always remember that his life wasn’t taken from him; rather, he gave it willingly for this great and noble calling. There’s a cost that must be paid in this struggle for justice.
Another example: Several years ago our detectives were out looking for a man who’d been harassing and stalking his estranged wife because of the threat we felt he was to her. As they were searching for him, the call came out for “shots fired.” The husband was chasing her around her place of employment firing rounds as she tried to get away. I responded to that call and what struck me later was how abnormal it was to human survival to watch five officers scream toward that scene and not go away from it. They’d all experienced their life-or-death fights, and had kept their badges—even when it could cost them dearly. That’s why I appreciate going to work every day because I work with common, ordinary heroes.
Staying True to the Call: Moral Courage My final point is that some officers are willing to die for the call, but are unable or unwilling to live for the call. The best of departments are still comprised of fallible human beings who at times stray down the wrong path. Some of those individuals could be veterans or supervisors who attempt to lead you down that path of moral compromise. Refuse to go there with them. Unnecessary use of force, falsifying police reports, cheating on a time sheet—I’ve seen it all. The badge doesn’t excuse immoral, even unlawful behavior. One of the hardest days of my 30-year career was looking my sergeant in the face and telling him, “I will not do that.”
And at times your own human weakness will be apparent as you’re tempted. Beware of the big three that have damaged or ended many a good career: Anger, greed and lust. I’ve seen careers thrown away for a gallon of gasoline and a parking space. Don’t throw all of your hard work—and pride—away for a moment’s gratification or advantage. Many have.
A plaque hangs in the St. Charles City Police Department and it reads, “Wisdom is knowing the right path to take. Integrity is taking it.” May you choose that path that brings honor to your badge, to your department, to your family and to this noble profession of law enforcement. You’ve started and now finished a difficult and challenging course at the St. Louis County & Municipal Police Academy. We’re very proud of you, for who you’ve become these last six months and for the noble vocation you have chosen. It won’t build you a great portfolio of the world’s riches, but it will produce expressions of appreciation and admiration, and even derision and hostility.
Every shift will be somehow the same, yet starkly different in its shades and hues of the human condition—innocent, tragic, gracious, violent, thankful and mean. May God bless you and go with you, in the sacrifice of your service.
Photo credit Esli Kilponen