So here we are: eleven weeks down, one to go.
More precisely: four days to go.
I’ve gotten close enough to the light at the end of the tunnel now to see it’s not actually a freight train bearing down on me, but an actual end to the tunnel.
Thanks the gods….
This past week, the class chose which of us would give a speech at graduation on May 10. The man chosen, Victor Villanueva, is the perfect one. He embodies the best of what class 2434 can be and frequently is.
But a writer he ain’t…or so he told me when he asked me to help him put words to what the class wanted to say.
So Victor and I spent a couple nights thinking it over and then a long night putting it together. I then spent a monring the next day tweaking and fine tuning and I thought I’d post the speech. This is the actual text, as written and tweaked. This is NOT the version that will be given at graduation. The administration of the Police Training Institute were slightly uncomfortable with my mentioning the turmoil that hit my class — hard — about half way through.
So Victor has excised that part and the rest, as far as I know, is good to go. I hope you enjoy it.
On behalf of Basic Law Enforcement Class 2434, I’d like to welcome our families, friends, our agencies, and the staff and instructors of the Police Training Institute.
As we celebrate our graduation from PTI, it is impossible not to notice the vast differences between each of us. Some of us come from big towns, some from small. Some were military with combat experience, some from various branches of law enforcement such as corrections or dispatch or parole. We even have one gentleman who hails from the Illinois Department of Revenue. So be careful because when he says hello, what he actually means “How about an audit today?”
He is, by the way, our oldest at 59 years. Our youngest, who we call ‘Junior,’ and who we think of as our baby, is a scant 21 years old. His graduation gift will be a shaving kit.
Many of us are parents. Many more of us are…adult children. Many of us are happily married. Some are happily single. We have athletes and we have ballet dancers. We have city folk who absolutely believed in the existence of wild cows, and country folk who didn’t quite understand crack houses.
Wildly divergent backgrounds. We started with 75 different people from 75 different walks of life, each speaking their own language.
We had, essentially, a Tower of Babel.
But we learned each others’ languages. And we began to learn those languages early on with a surprising team-building exercise. You know the kind I’m talking about…corporations use them to build both morale and sales.
During our first few days, we were divided into groups of about twenty and given various tasks. One of these tasks was to stand on a four inch wide beam without stepping off, make nary a sound, and put ourselves in order from youngest to oldest.
Not a single sound, mind you.
No talking, no chatting. No grunting or groaning. No clapping or snapping. No coughing in Morse Code.
Not a sound.
Yet somehow, we did it. We found a common language and lined up youngest to oldest.
And remember, we never stepped off the beam.
Which meant there were twenty people climbing over and around each other; an act much more surprisingly intimate than you would think.
It was all about non-verbal communication.
But it was also about problem solving.
As was, actually, most of our training. Rarely did an instructor tell a student they were dead wrong about an issue. Rather, the instructors wanted to hear what our thought process was; how did we think our way through the problem.
In other words, what language did we invent to solve that day’s problem?
In other other words, how did we keep ourselves on the beam?
It was that very first problem, that four inch wide beam, that set our learning standard for the next twelve weeks. PTI forced us to learn by thrusting us into situations in which we never would normally have found ourselves.
But these situations are normal for us now, and in dealing with them, they have changed us. We are no longer just individuals in it for ourselves. Now we are police officers, in it for everyone else – those we protect and serve – and for our team members.
On day two, which now seems like 487,392 years ago, every individual had to pass a physical test. A good friend of mine had some difficulty running down his mile and a half. He missed the mark by eight or ten seconds, and was forced to make that run again two days later.
In class 2434, we don’t leave anyone behind.
When the officer ran again, he had support. I ran with him and those who didn’t run with him cheered him every time around the track.
We ran and ran. Four laps out of twelve. Six laps of twelve. Eight laps. And as we ran, we realized he was running out of time and stamina…out of strength.
This is class 2434. We don’t leave anyone behind.
We encouraged him. We cheered him. Running at his side, I even yelled at him, trying to get him to run harder and faster. As the time slipped away, I was forced to tell him I would definitely be there to support him when he had to pack his bags and go home.
In that instant, the officer became Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet.
He beat that mile and a half with two seconds to spare.
Because we don’t leave anyone behind.
We are a team.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Many of the problem solving scenarios were scary. There is no other word for it.
During a number of vehicle stops, wherein we practice writing tickets, role-playing drivers would dive out of their cars shooting at us. All of us knew it was a paintball gun. All of us knew we were going home safe at the end of the night. But that didn’t change the fact that someone was shooting at us; shooting at us because we were – are – the police.
A sobering thought. This is a serious job. I’d like to believe we all take it much more seriously now than when we arrived twelve weeks ago. This is a job where we have to fix broken lives…even as some of us are young enough to barely be beginning our own lives.
Our team didn’t happen instantly, nor did it happen easily. There was turmoil. There was a moment when the entire team was threatened by the actions of one person. All of us got painted by a broad brush aimed at that single person.
But this is our career now. Getting painted by that broad brush will happen more often than not. In the media, we are portrayed, oftentimes, as the bad guy. Remember back to Rodney King. Or remember more recently and more locally with the officer in Chicago who beat a bartender and then tried to bribe his way out of the trouble.
Many of us spent days answering questions from friends and family about that officer. We had to answer – to a degree – for his actions.
Stories in the media do not often cast us in a golden light. They do not let people know what we’re doing for them. Mostly, it’s what one of us might have done to them. Who knows, maybe we’d get some good coverage if we managed to find Jimmy Hoffa alive, eating donuts with Elvis.
Okay, maybe a joke about…you know…cops and donuts…wasn’t the greatest joke to make, but you understand what I’m saying.
In this industry the actions of a few color all of us. The bad incidents impact and dishonor every one of us. Because of those kinds of incidents, far too many people have a negative opinion of police. Perhaps it’s also because a majority of time, the public summons us for problems they can not resolve on their own. Maybe they are embarrassed to have to need us.
I challenge all of us to put our newly acquired verbal judo skills to good use. To treat the public and those we serve with respect and dignity, empathy and not sympathy, to not lose sight of the age old principles of policing: to serve and protect.
I challenge us all to stop the strong from victimizing the weak, to mentor the young and counsel those who need it. To enforce the laws fairly, across the board, with impartiality.
Perhaps more importantly, I challenge each and every one of us to guard against developing an us against them mentality.
Becoming police officers was a long time dream for many of us. Sometimes life got in the way but we kept trying. Now we are here, on the cusp of graduation, with the future and career we dearly wanted. And we can not say thanks enough to our families and friends for loving us and standing by us. Thanks, also, to our departments for showing us absolute faith by hiring us and then spending the money to make sure we became police officers and not just cops.
Lastly, to you, my fellow classmates, I wish to say thank you. During the last three months, I have stood next to you in awe and I have admired your mental and physical dedication. But mostly, I have come to realize that any of us could be standing up here today. I am humbled that you chose me to speak on our behalf and I hope I have made you proud. It is my honor to serve in this great law enforcement family with you. I wish you all a successful and safe career and wish you every happiness in your personal lives.
With wishes for a long and fulfilling career, here’s to Basic Law Enforcement Class 2434. Thank you.