We have a lot in common, you know. We both had a calling. For some of us, it was a whisper in the night that told us our lives should be spent in the service of others. For others, it was an apocalyptic moment of understanding that someone had given so much to us and it was our duty to pay that forward. We serve without the expectation of thanks, working days and nights, weekends, holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. We come home spent, sometimes barely able to care for those who care for us. We’ve watched babies be born and people die far too young. We celebrate small moments of joy in a world that can sometimes seem like it’s out to crush us. We put ourselves at risk for others. Like I said, we have a lot in common.
And, like you, most of my colleagues inspire my awe and gratitude. I have been led by some of the most amazing leaders and taught by those both above and below me in rank. I owe much of who I am to my fellow physicians, and I expect that you probably feel the same about your fellow officers. We stand side-by-side in the worst of situations, and I know without a doubt that my colleagues have my back.
Now, you’re under attack. Not just one or two of you, but the collective law enforcement profession. Your ethics, morals, and motivation have been called into question. You’ve been accused of horrendous behavior, both in acts that have been committed and acts that have been ignored. Maybe the worst part is watching the attacks on others like you. We’re used to being disliked, but somehow watching those around us become the target of such hatred is more painful. I want you to know that we’ve been there too. I’ve been accused of injecting poison into babies for money. Lots of people in our country believe that I do what I do for profit, not in the spirit of service. I’ve left the side of a dying person only to be yelled at for being late to my next appointment. The moral injury of our chosen professions is one more thing we have in common. And when you’re being peppered with criticism from every direction, it’s easy to find yourself in a protective stance about everything you do.
Here’s the thing. You are amazing people. And, your system is as broken as mine. Both are true and both can exist in the same world and even within a single person. I spent a lot of my professional life justifying my existence, absolute in my certainty that “I’m one of the good ones.” Truthfully, I probably am. I make far less money than I could so that I can spend more time with my patients. I follow the rules. I sacrifice. I understand the height and depth of the calling that’s chosen me. But, that’s not enough.
Physicians are beginning to understand that, and our system is changing slowly because of it. We’re starting to realize that integrity in our own actions is not enough. We are responsible for monitoring and correcting each other when we stray. And we do stray. Even the best of us have moments of poor decision-making. That doesn’t make us bad people; it makes us human. But it’s part of our job to pull our colleagues back on track, before bad things happen. I’ve watched the footage of George Floyd’s death over and over. What strikes me is not only the actions of Officer Chauvin, but the inaction of his partners. At least one of them must have recognized that this interaction wasn’t going well. But nobody acted. None of those men protected George Floyd from Officer Chauvin and none of them protected Officer Chauvin from himself. They failed at their very basic responsibility to protect their own. Because of it, lives have been destroyed.
From one professional to another, you need to do better. Elevating your profession is the responsibility of each one of you. Being “one of the good ones” does nothing if you continue to stand by your fellow officers who aren’t. We’re calling on each of you to lift each other up. Love each other enough to call each other out when someone crosses the line. Remember that the call-out isn’t an insult, it’s an attempt to save you from yourself. Look inside yourself and be honest about your biases and your fears, and commit to do better. And remember that you can be a good person and a good law enforcement officer and also have flaws and biases. The two can co-exist in the same person.
Change and reform are possible, but only if your community itself is part of the solution. It’s going to take some soul searching and some inspection of parts of yourselves and your friends that may not be very pretty. And it will take courage. But I know you have that in you.
Sarah Zate, MD