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Staying the Path

Richard Thomas, Chief of the North Ridgeville, Ohio, Police Department, recently made these comments to a graduating Police Academy class.

It is an honor to join with you in celebrating such a notable career event as this graduation from a long and demanding police academy. It is appropriate that we take a moment to reflect on the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to complete such a course of instruction. It bears mentioning here that the hard work was borne not only by the students but by their families. Through the years, it has become very apparent to me that a key element for most of us in law enforcement, if we wish to have a productive and satisfying career, is a supportive and understanding family. I commend you for the support you have and will continue to provide to these graduates in those difficult times that inevitably will lie ahead. The graduates themselves are justifiably proud of what they have accomplished, as they should be, and all should take this time to bask in the warmth of their success.

Upon reflecting on what success really is, a noted 19th century writer, Elbert Hubbard, once remarked, “All success consists in this: You are doing something for somebody—benefiting humanity—and the feeling of success comes from the consciousness of this.” For those who seek a life in public service, such success is a truly rewarding experience.

Invariably, when I ask young police applicants why they want to become an officer, they almost uniformly relate to me their desire to help others, to give something back to the community, and to stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. These are, without a doubt, laudable motivations and exactly what a chief wants to hear. However, I suspect the thought of pursuit driving, playing with neat police gadgets, and breaking up bar fights also factors into their quest to become a police officer.

Notwithstanding the less mentioned and more exciting aspects of this particular vocation, I would like to take a moment to speak briefly to the graduates about that one special trait that will serve you well throughout your career and without which you never will be able to lay claim to a career worth mentioning in respectable company. By and large, those who seek to enter the ranks of law enforcement officers are people of good virtue with pure motives and an abiding sense of duty and honor. They tend to be caring and compassionate people, generally of above-average intelligence, and willing to face life’s challenges head-on.

Today, many of you are taking the beginning steps down what may be an exhilarating, often satisfying, yet, at times, frustrating and frequently difficult path of a law enforcement officer. The fact that you will face many difficulties and hardships should in no way dissuade you from pursuing this goal, for, as the poet William Cullen Bryant so eloquently stated, “Difficulty, my brethren, is the nurse of greatness—a harsh nurse who roughly rocks her foster children into strength and athletic proportion.” Could it be, I wonder, that your physical fitness instructors had this thought uppermost in their minds when they prepared for your fitness training? Was this a prominent theme in the minds of your self-defense instructors as they drilled you again and again on the more subtle but painful points ofsubject control?

In the years ahead, you who would now raise your hand and take the oath to serve and protect on behalf of the masses will be faced with challenges of the conscience and the spirit that will test your mettle and will either serve to harden your resolve to stay the path of righteousness or bend you in ways large or small that will collectively diminish us as a professional body and tarnish our proverbial shield. If it can be assumed that we as police administrators have done our jobs properly and have hired the right people—decent and honest, brave and dedicated—and provided them with the necessary training and tools they need to accomplish the tasks that lie before them, then what trait is so crucial that it should take center stage on a day such as this?

I submit to you that this trait is character, defined in the Oxford American Dictionary as “moral strength…the qualities that make a person what he or she is and different from others.” Ladies and gentlemen, for almost 30 years, it has been my honor to work in and amongst law enforcement officers, and I can tell you without equivocation that they are indeed a breed apart. They do a job that is understood by so few and critiqued by so many. And, to do this job well, they all require an abundance of character.

Part of what makes police work so unique, challenging, and satisfying is that to a large extent, it is a solitary endeavor. Officers handle calls and engage the public in any number of varied solo encounters. There is no production schedule to adhere to; there is no manual that can be written to cover every situation and every contingency. It is the officer’s wit, training, and desire to succeed and serve honorably that guide the majority of these day-to-day engagements. The potential for abuse always is present: the chance to gain personally at another’s expense, to wield power over another in an unscrupulous manner, to take advantage of the weak or the wicked, to exact revenge, or to extort goods or services.

It is sound character that thwarts such temptations, character that individuals must bring on board when they join the agency and hone and strengthen as they navigate the treacherous waters of enticement. It is not a trait that can be issued to new officers or a technique they can learn at some advanced school. As former Congresswoman Helen Douglas once said, “Character isn’t inherited. One builds it daily by the way one thinks and acts, thought by thought, action by action. If one lets fear or hate or anger take possession of the mind, they become self-forged chains.” Or, perhaps more succinctly, as the educator and evangelist Dwight L. Moody once put it, “Character is what you are in the dark.

Listen to me and believe me when I tell you that it is during those crucial and pivotal times that lie ahead, when no one is looking and no one may ever know what transpired, that it will be your irreproachable character that will allow you to stand tall and proud in the bright and penetrating light of public, judicial, and professional scrutiny. Character will see you through hard and difficult times. Character will draw others to you as they seek to follow your example and measure up to your standards. Character will allow you to admit when you have made a mistake and will give you the resolve to stand fast in the face of improper influences that could damage you or your agency. Character is why you will be trusted with difficult and sensitive assignments. Character will set you apart as a leader, irrespective of any rank you may have obtained. And, character, once lost, might never again be regained.

As the great American author Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote so many years ago, “Self-trust is the essence of heroism.” I would submit to you that to be heroic, one must be able to trust themselves to stand unyielding in the face of temptation, no matter the form it takes, and to always do the right thing.

You graduates are about to embark on a career that is filled with so many great and unique possibilities for you to serve your communities with honor and distinction. Cherish this time, make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead of you. Commit yourselves, as I am sure most of you already have, to make a positive difference in your agencies and the communities you will be serving.

I can assure you, the experience will pass all too quickly, and when you get to the end of this road, you are sure to find, as Walt Whitman wrote, “Nothing endures but personal qualities.” Let it then be said of you collectively that you were people of quality with abiding character who walked the path less traveled and served in a manner commanding the respect of the public.

To this class, I would entreat that you take to heart the lessons of survival you were given during your many hours of instruction and add to those my heartfelt desire that for all your tours of duty, you return home safely and whole in body each and every night. And, that your spirit remain pure and dedicated to the noble values that now guide your course.

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  1. Thanks to Chief Thomas for his insight, for emphasizing the importance of character and for allowing me to post his speech here.

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