– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“There are not enough good things said about the people that put themselves in harm’s way every day for us. What does that say about us?” wrote Julie Hébert.

Police (and Fire and Ambulance personnel) keep us safe from ourselves and clean up our messes. They respond to the results of human pain and depravity, accidents and mistakes and mindless hurrying and inattention, suicides, crimes of passion or planned crime assisted by opportunity. You and your loved ones would not be safe or subject to being saved were it not for our police.

Many of us have acquired our understanding of police work and life chiefly through the lens of movies and TV. We might look up from time to time and remind ourselves that TV is not a faithful presentation of reality. It’s entertainment, the News too, developed to make money when advertisers buy commercial time. Our minds tend to immerge into, or merge with, the stuff on the screen.

Police work, on the other hand, is an immersion into the often unseen reality around us that is not in any way for the faint of heart. Police spend about 80% of their time with that 20% of the population who are the most tragic and unfortunate among us, and who are often violent, addicted, abused and suffering terribly. They expose themselves to situations and conditions from which most of us would run. Police enter worlds foreign to most of us, the world of the abused child or spouse, of shocking suicide, of those who’ve been raped, beaten, cheated; they witness the hatred among us, the damage done by people to other people.

“How was work today, dear?”

Police have huge hearts. I’ve seen their pain and their dedication to doing the right thing, to protect us and to catch the bad guys that would otherwise do us harm. They care deeply about their city and the people and families and businesses and brick and mortar that make it up.

If we know that our soldiers are risking everything that they have to serve Canada in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we need to also know that police embrace huge personal risks for our wellbeing. On a ride along I’ve seen female officers wade in to a stew of drunks fighting in a dark alley, replacing chaos with order and safety (although the drunks surely thought less of it). Even so, police work may not be the physically most dangerous job in the world, but it is one of the most emotionally dangerous jobs out there.

The work may be dull and passive or hyperactive and pressured in the extreme, changing abruptly without forewarning. If you know the exhaustion of vigilance, straining to influence outcomes as though through hope and thought alone, hour upon hour, you might know part of the burden that accompanies investigation or search and rescue.

A recent paper in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior confirms what all officers lament, which is that the uncivil, discourteous, and disrespectful behaviours by the public are a significant source of their stress.

I’ve heard some of their examples of how the public behaves and you have to shake your head. The public sometimes acts like a teenager in full huff, biting the hand that helps them. Suffering undeserved abuse by an ungrateful public is terribly ironic and rather inhumane. But then it’s a cop’s job, as it is a parent’s, to be polite and patient and to labour emotionally (another stressor).

Please, be an adult with our police. Practice courtesy, play nice, say thank you and respect that they are people doing a very difficult job – for you! And if you offend in some way and get caught, remember, it’s your fault.