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Not Just a Job

Written by Derek Osborne

I recently came across an old photo of me taken when I was one year old. Halloween was the occasion. Along with a big smile, I wore the garb of a wild-west sheriff. I pondered on the thoughts that immediately came to mind. Was this photo documented proof of predestination? Was it possible for a person to be selected from birth to take on a certain career path? Did something or someone already have in store for me a career in law enforcement?

Thinking back over my childhood I recalled the admiration I felt for the lawmen depicted in western reruns and went on to fall in love with such shows as “Adam 12” and “CHiPS.” Because such shows are popular in our culture, they are numerous and continually reinvented. Every one of you could most likely produce similar photos or remember idolizing such shows.

In fact, it is from this common experience that I would ask you to recall your earliest thoughts. In our innocence, we believed in simple truths. Right was right, wrong was wrong, good trumped evil, and the law was the law. We dreamed of being on the good side, and in childhood play experienced for the first time what it felt like in our hearts.

Since becoming a captain, I began to question more this idea of predestination and began to notice that not all my subordinates shared what I felt about law enforcement. Sure, even the best of us get sidetracked from time to time. The world has a way of interfering with our natural black-or-white mindset, melding it into one large gray abyss within which we are led into mediocrity. For the best of us, a gentle reminder or nudge serves to get us back on track.

But sadly, there are those in our command who will never experience our passion. After all, everyone has enjoyed dressing up for Halloween and watching cop shows. This does not mean everyone is cut out for law enforcement. We all have people in our agencies who are benefiting from nepotism, who slipped through the cracks due to poor hiring practices or downright anomalies that we just can’t explain. Leadership experts will tell you that these people know who they are just as much as we do.

These people are the ones who refer to police work as “just a job,” those who fly under the radar while maintaining embarrassingly low stats, those who lie when the truth sounds better, and those who point the finger at everyone else and blame outside factors to justify their own shortcomings. These people flourish on drama and somehow infiltrate even the highest ranks.

For those predestined for law enforcement, the negativity of such people is painful to bear and challenges our own leadership ability. Standing up to such forces and holding ourselves to a higher standard is lonely and takes great courage. But if we are to be true leaders, this is something we must do.

Whenever I question my leadership ability or wonder if my efforts are worthwhile, I look at my old picture and immediately obtain reassurance. Our work is of the utmost importance. Law enforcement isn’t “just a job” for those meant to do it. As for you, only you know what’s in your heart. Does your uniform represent your life calling, or are you simply wearing a costume? An honest answer will either help you stay strong (as it has me), or guide you to consider a career change.

Derek R. Osborne is a captain with the Tompkins, N.Y., Sheriff’s Office and may be reached at dosborne@tompkins-co.org.

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2010

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