If I Knew Then: A Letter To My Son

Editor’s note: This is chapter one from If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street. It is a letter from trainer Gary Stoney with advice for his son, who is becoming a police officer.

My Son,

Congratulations on your graduation from the Police Academy and on your aspirations for your chosen career.  It has been said that of all the occupations, a police officer is the one that society cannot ever be without.  They say that we could lose a generation of teachers and, when re-introduced, subsequent generations would recover because we would have law and order.  We could go without doctors for a generation, illness and death would be much more common but the next generation would eventually come back from that under new doctors’ care because we would have law and order.  However, if we lost police officers but for  a single generation they say we would spiral into an anarchist, warlord-state that we would not recover from for centuries,  if ever.  Such is the career you have chosen.

Son I am proud of you and unbelievably excited for you.  This is a fascinating career that will stretch you in many different directions.  I was so excited when I got “the phone call” 21 years ago, telling me I had the job.  I admit to having very high expectations of this career at that time and it has definitely exceeded those expectations.  Now in the twilight of a career as a big city cop, I am given to pondering and penning thoughts and lessons that have somehow managed to bash their way in.  Here are a few that I didn’t know then.

1.    First and foremost, understand these few things that could be called the downside of the job.

  • Many people will not like you.  Actually, I think it is less than three percent of the population, but it is this three percent that you will be in contact with 90 percent of the time, so it will seem like a lot.  Be okay with that; and it is very healthy for you to not like them back.  Cops should not have a Hero complex that needs the recognition and admiration of everyone.  Policing is mostly thankless.  Be okay with that.
  • Shift work.  They say it will shorten your life, so it is important to stay fit and healthy and, most importantly, learn to like the good and interesting and different things that each shift has to offer.  Officers who avoid nightshift early in their career are poorly suited to police work.
  • Wage.  If you want to be a cop for the money, that is absolutely the wrong reason and this is the wrong job for you.  It is an adequate wage but that’s it.  You’re not going to get rich and you will earn every penny you make.  I meet many young officers that are driven by desires for wealth or their spouse’s desire for wealth and they become very disappointed with their career choice.
  • Job Stress.  Much has been said about “the stress of being a police officer.”  The truth is that the greatest source of stress is not having to fight bad guys that want to kill you; it is fighting the frustrations of an inept Justice System and the bureaucracies one is subjected to when one is at the bottom of the food chain in a paramilitary organization.  Decide now that you will play your position to the best of your ability, and don’t get too wrapped-up in doing the Police Chief’s or the Judge’s job.  How you can do this is a point in the final paragraph below.

2.    Choose your attitude.  Many times in life—in fact most times in life—you don’t have a lot of choice in things.  You have to work to survive, you have to live in a place you may not like, and abide by rules you didn’t make, under a leader you didn’t choose, etc.  However, you can choose the important things in life, and there are few: your beliefs, your mate, and your attitude.

Yes, whether you realize it or not, you choose your attitude every day—no one chooses it for you.  Consciously choose the right one every day when your feet hit the floor.  You cannot choose what’s going to happen to you today, but you can choose how you are going to handle it.  You can choose how you are going to let it affect you.

If you wake-up grumpy, you can change that simply by deciding not to be grumpy.  If something happens that puts you in a bad mood, you can change that simply by consciously doing so.  It will never make a difference to 6.9 billion other people on this earth, but it will absolutely mean the world to you, your family, and your workmates for your entire life.  It is probably the most important choice you will ever make because it influences everything in your life all the time, and it is a key to success in Law Enforcement.

There are many negative things a cop will encounter.  That is your job.  After all, folks don’t call 911 when everything is going well.  So a positive, “yes I can,” type attitude or a positive, “the glass is half full, not half empty,” attitude will enable you to accomplish great things and maintain a necessary sense of humor throughout your career.

3.    Policing is not just a job, it is a career, and I believe there are a few careers that, for some, are a calling.  Teacher, nurse, pastor, and author, are examples.  The great ones are called to the profession because for it they have the passion, the burning desire in their gut that I call the fire.  A Policeman is one of those careers.

It is also different from those other fine careers because it is paramilitary in that you are accountable to a chain of command.  You will take orders and may, at some time, give orders.  The phrase “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it,” will come to make sense, unlike some of the orders you will receive.  So, in this regard, this calling is much like a well-paid soldier.  You will often be given a mission or a task; your opinion, or whether or not you feel like doing it, is not up for discussion and, quite frankly, doesn’t matter.

4.    Mistakes.  They are going to happen.  Most times, they ain’t the end of the world and we learn from them and move on, better for it.  Then sometimes we make a big mistake that is life changing and it seems that all is lost.  Let me tell you this about that: our families and friends love us and always will.  They don’t love us because we have never made a mistake and now we have made a big one and they stop loving us.  No, they love us because we are theirs.

So, we make this big mistake, the sun continues to go up and down, the hands on the clock keep going around, and we deal with it the best that we can and learn and grow.  And I absolutely know that anything that does not kill me makes me tougher.  The big mistakes in the Police Arena may happen as well.  Everything you do, do with the best of intentions.  If your heart and mind are in the right place and your intentions are honorable, that is all society can ask of police officers.  After all, they ask it of almost no one else.

5.    Follow the fire in your belly.  I think you are doing this in your selection of career.  You may not be able to put into words completely the reason you want to be a policeman.  That is normal.  Sure, we give the interviewers what they want to hear, “I want to help people,” and the like, which in all honesty is mostly crap.

I didn’t completely know why 21 years ago, but I know now and I will tell you: the truth is that we want our mettle tested.  There are some things in society that only police officers do.  When folks’ lives turn to hell, they call 911.  Doctors don’t respond to the call, lawyers don’t, nor do firemen, newspaper reporters, carpenters, teachers, professional athletes, movie stars, politicians, nor anyone else.  Only the cops go.  More specifically, you.

Oh sure, all of those people will have opinions tomorrow morning about what you did or didn’t do, but they are the very same people fleeing the evil you are racing to confront.  You will recognize them by the terror in their fleeing faces as you pass them on your way in.  So, that is the draw for men like us—the unasked question that we want answered is “Am I up to this?  Up to the challenge of this Calling, this unpredictable occupation in which we never know what is going to happen five minutes from now; can I face what’s on the other side of the door?”

The truth is this is how we are wired: we long to close with evil in righteous battle and crush it.  The battle may be physical or not, it may be with others or with ourselves, it may be with a particular situation or whatever, but it will demand our best and that is what we seek.  The fact that we are adrenalin junkies is a sideline hazard…or a fringe benefit.

6.    Risks.  There will be some.  (If there wasn’t you wouldn’t be signing up—see point 5, above).  Fear.  There will definitely be some.  There better be or you’re in the wrong line of work for you.  Fearless people generally end up needing rescuing…or burying.  I know—I’ve seen both.  Fear is just your butt saying, “Hey dude—wake up.  Things could go really bad here.  You need to be sharp, so switch on.”

Given your particular family lineage, you may find that your fire often leads you to situations where risk and fear are present in abundance.  Others without the fire for it may not understand (spouses and loved ones are often in this group,) and that’s okay—it’s normal—they don’t need to understand.

The key to success in these situations is training and preparation, which gives you ability and confidence.  This will lead to repeated successful experiences that will eventually lead to mastery of yourself, your nerves, other people, and any situation.

7.    Take your skills and talents in stride.  Sometimes we find that we are drawn to a particular area of policing and become very skilled at it.  It could be Investigation, Leadership/Promotion, Interrogation, SWAT work, or something else.  Good, excellent, be the best you can be at that.  Develop it to the utmost and remember two things:

  • You are not special, not better than the next guy who doesn’t have that set of skills; you are just different and have a skill.  Good for you.
  • You are obligated to use it for good, to help others, to show others how to conduct themselves.  Be an example.

The ability to do something well should come with an equal measure of humility, responsibility, and obligation to do what you do for the good of other policemen and people in society.  I have always felt this.  Years back, I was an instructor at the academy and worked with a fantastic group of trainers, teaching all aspects of combat.  Twice in 12 months we had cops phone and say, “last night I had a gun shoved in my face by a bad guy who was going to kill me.  I did what you guys taught me and it saved my life.”  After these conversations, I was floored by the awesome responsibility of positive influence that we each have.  Be it as an instructor of police officers or as patrol officers in our dealings and associations with others.  Human beings are a relationship species and we interact with one another, and you never know how much we influence or sway people in one direction or another.  This is especially so as a police officer.

8.    Life on Earth is precious and fragile—and short.  Even when we live a full life, it is still short compared to time itself.  I have seen death up-close and often, just as you are going to.  It does not respect age, place, occasion, or reason.  You will focus on the mission and do your job in the midst of some overwhelming and sometimes horrific visual and mental stimuli.

It is therapeutic to talk to friends and loved ones about what you saw and did and felt.  It is important for a police officer’s spouse to understand that he will do this and they should be willing to be this sounding board.  You are allowed to feel grief later, after the mission is complete.

In the spring of 1991, I was in a search party for an abducted six-year-old deaf dumb girl.  We found her in a dumpster.  She had been raped and her throat cut.  She was wearing her purple bathing suit and had been stuffed into a mailbag.  It was a horrible call to do.  The crime scene at the dumpster was in line of sight of the victim’s home and the distraught family looked on.

I was the one that notified the mom.  It was absolute mayhem.  We did our job right and put her killer, a neighbor, in jail forever.  That September my roommate, a traffic cop, was shot and killed in a traffic stop.  At Ron’s funeral, I found I was crying hard for him—like too hard.  Then I realized that it was because I was crying for little Rae Dawn,  too, because I never had.

A person never knows when their time (or a loved one’s,) is up so enjoy life, enjoy every day, and enjoy every minute you have with loved ones.  Choose that attitude.  I am keenly aware that every day when I leave the house it may be the last time I see my boys.  It sure makes me cherish every minute I spend with them.

9.    The end of the innocence.  That’s what I call my first year on the job.  As a kid from the farm—blessed with growing-up with some of the finest human beings on this planet (my family)—the learning curve as a cop was steep for me as far as humanity’s problems go.

Two big lessons:  First, humans are capable of the most wonderful, tender, caring, compassion, the most incredible brilliance of invention and problem solving, and the most horrific, despicable, unspeakable evil against their own kind.

Second, my entire life had occurred pretty much between 0600 and 2300 each day before the curtain of night lead to blissful unconsciousness.  A cop becomes very intimate with the city after midnight.  It truly is a different world in many respects.  George Orwell is credited with writing, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”   This is as true today of police officers as it has ever been.

10.    Finally, here is a collection of brief thoughts.

  • Balance all things in life.  Policing will want to consume you; let it do that, but only when you are at work.  It will take a few years for the shine to wear off, and then make sure you develop and maintain other interests.  The best detectives give their brain a rest and do competitive sports or something on their days off.  My role now demands I use lawful violence against society’s worst.  In short, at work I break things and hurt people.  Off duty, a favorite past time of mine is gourmet cooking for loved ones.  Balance in life was a critical lesson taught to young samurais when they entered intense combative training as children.  In addition to their martial skills, they had to choose and master an artistic, horticultural, or culinary skill.
  • Job Stress.  This is how I view things:  When something bothers me or gets me worked-up, I use a rule of five to determine how big of a deal it really is.  I ask myself, “Will this thing really matter in five days?”  If so, I ask, “Will it matter in five months?”  If so, I ask, “Will it matter in five years?”  Most things fail at question 1.  Occasionally, some things—career, family—make it to question 2.  Almost nothing, except some family stuff, makes it to the question 3.  So don’t sweat the small stuff—which is most things.  Stay young at heart, active, healthy, and positive.
  • Policeman’s hunch (your “Spidey Senses”).  This is an absolute fact and there is nothing spooky about it.  What’s funny is it’s almost never talked about, but every cop knows about it and the good ones pay attention to it and develop it.  It fits hand in glove with the curious, suspicious nature that good cops have.  In short, it is human intuition and is an ability that civilized men have repressed for generations—except good cops.  Here are a couple of books for you to read: “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell (2005), and “The Gift of Fear,” by Gavin de Becker (1999).
  • Dark humor.  A misplaced or abnormal response to a tragic or gruesome situation that finds some humor where there rationally is none.  It is a human coping mechanism and is found in all first responder Emergency Services fields and theatres of combat.  You will see it and experience it.  It is not irreverent or morbid.  A couple years back I led my team into a murderer’s house in an attempt to find and rescue his shooting victim.  At the bottom of the stairs, I stepped over the victim’s very obviously dead body.  I knew the killer was in the room at the end of the hall.  Rifle up, I moved down the hall and button-hooked through the door, aware that the ceiling was covered in a pink mist.  My second step carried me over a plate of spaghetti that had been dumped on the floor beside his rifle.  As I moved towards him, I saw an empty rubber Halloween mask lying flat where the killer’s head had been.  Now, obviously it was not spaghetti, it was his brain, and it wasn’t a rubber Halloween mask, it was his empty head; but that’s how it goes.

My Son, this is my hope for you: I hope you will develop your skills and knowledge and try to be the best and to know it all; and I hope you never think that you are the best and know it all.  I hope that you will always treat people well.  I hope you look at victims and think, “this could be my sister or my dad” and treat them like it.  I hope you are the most patient and professional policeman you can be…until someone lifts a hand in violence towards you.  Then crush that violence with righteous indignation.

Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.  With great skill and power comes great responsibility.  Very often in policing, you have no choice in what you have to do to enforce the law or protect people and property, but sometimes we do have discretion.  Here is one of my favorite quotes: “Compassion is the difference between a warrior and a monster.”  I was told this by a very wise and peaceful lady—you know her as Aunt Gail .  Yes, we rough men must stand ready against the goblins, but we must do so without harm to the flock.

You will face many good and great times as a policeman: fun, excitement, camaraderie, feelings of worth and accomplishment, humor, and awe…and at times adversity.  Your Uncle Rob always embodied the consummate policeman and SWAT Operator to me and many others.   The Bad Men he hunted in his career, like the cancer that hunted him afterwards, were no match for his toughness.  If I have an ultimate goal, it is to be remembered by this last quote because it makes me think of Robin .
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

I wish you all the success that I know you will have.

Take care my fine young son .


Gary Stoney has been a full-time Police Officer in a 1700 member police department since 1989.  He has instructed Combatives, Weapons, and Use of Force material since 1991.  In 1997 Gary was posted to a full-time instructor position at the Police Academy and taught Combatives and Officer Safety Tactics until 2000, when he obtained a position as a full-time Tactical Team (SWAT) Operator.  As a Tactical Operator, he is responsible for the training of several different tactical disciplines.  Since 1995, Gary has cross-trained extensively with North American police agencies, tactical teams, and military trainers.

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