The Badge of Trust
By John L. Gray
Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my office on a beautiful, calm Friday afternoon. Like all good chiefs and sheriffs, I was trying to come up with a plausible excuse to skate out of the office and start the weekend a little early. But, my scheming was interrupted when a secretary buzzed the intercom and said that the academy director was on line three. My first reaction was to chuckle and say, “OK—who is it really?” To my horror, she replied, “I’m serious. It’s the director of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), and she wants to speak with you.”
Now, I do not care how long you have been in law enforcement in Iowa or what position you hold in your agency. If you are a graduate of ILEA and suddenly learn that the director is on the line, well, it can certainly give you pause. I would describe my reaction like that of a parolee who hears the warden unexpectedly knocking at the front door.
I have two officers in the 222nd basic class, so I thought that maybe one of them had been hurt. That has happened before. Or, maybe they both were in some kind of trouble. Maybe they were together on the driving course and lost control, and the car crashed through the wall of the administrative wing of the academy. Are they all sitting together in the director’s office—my two guys, the director, and the car? And, maybe it is really dusty and smoky in there with a funny smell in the air. Well, whatever was going on, I had no choice; I had to take the call.
As it turned out, Director Westfall simply wanted to invite me to speak at your graduation ceremony. So, thank you Director Westfall; members of the academy staff; the academy council; and the 222nd basic class for allowing me to be here today. I will try to make the next few minutes very simple as I direct my remarks to Iowa’s newest fleet of peace officers. I will quote one scripture from the Bible, read one sentence from a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and tell one story.
Ecclesiastes, chapter one, verse nine reads, “What has been is what will be; and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” There is nothing new under the sun. You will see the accuracy of that scripture today because whatever thoughts I share with you here will be things that you already know. But, I hope to help you remember and prioritize some of those things, move them around to, perhaps, a more prominent place in your mind because keeping ideals, principles, and goals foremost in your thoughts will guide you to become the peace officers you want to be and the peace officers we want you to be.
First, I will remind you that life is lived minute by minute, and it changes at that same pace. Unexpected illness, shocking news of the death of a loved one or someone you know, tornados, flooding—who could have imagined several weeks ago that a little town called Parkersburg would suffer such awful devastation from a tornado strike? Or, that shortly thereafter, so many of Iowa’s cities and towns would be under inches and, eventually, feet of water? Places like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Oakville, Mason City, Waterloo, Elkader, and the list goes on. Some of you probably are from these places or have family or friends there. Whether we have direct ties to these communities or not, we all mourn the loss of life, property, businesses, and, most of all, normalcy because of a life that happens minute by minute.
Chief Gray of the Altoona, Iowa Police Department, delivered this commencement speech to the 222nd basic training class of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy on July 11, 2008.
Now, good things happen minute by minute as well. Maybe you just bought a new car or a new house. Falling in love, getting married, having babies—these can be minute-by-minute changes in our lives. So, we take the good with the bad, and life goes on with nothing new under the sun. Of course, one new thing will happen to you today. In just a few minutes, a friend, family member, or loved one will affix a badge to your chest, a badge of public trust. And, it will represent an awesome responsibility that today and in this minute, you willingly accept. It will be bright, shiny, and new, and all of us here will be so proud of you for carrying its weight. It actually will seem pretty impressive at first. Then, you will get used to it and hardly notice it at all. I assure you that there will be days when that badge weighs 100 pounds, and it will feel like it is pinned to your heart, rather than on your chest.
Trust and Accountability
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger stated, “It is often overlooked that no public official in the entire range of modern government is given wider discretion on matters dealing with the daily lives of citizens as is the peace officer.” The badge represents not only public trust but also public accountability. You already know where and how you receive your authority. It comes directly from those who give it to you freely and believe you will use it wisely—the people allow you your powers. The public willingly puts this work into your hands, and they trust you will use all the authority and might that badge represents to take care of them in the proper manner. They do not want this responsibility for themselves; they want to give it to you. But, they also want you to get it right.
My charge to you today is to do just that—get it right. Do not bring shame upon yourself or your chosen profession. We all have heard and read the stories of peace officers in Iowa and elsewhere who have gotten it all wrong. Some let their authority or influence go to their head, others forgot everything they learned at the academy, and a few forgot what they already knew about what is right and wrong. Do not let yourself fall into their category of disgrace. Do not shame the academy, fellow officers in this hall today, family members, and friends. Do not shame the people who hired you, and do not shame me. You have been called to a high duty. You will, without question, be held accountable for your every action as a peace officer. But, you also will win the respect and admiration of good people everywhere when you are true to your calling.
A few years ago, my officers and detectives served a search warrant on a house in Altoona where an illegal tattoo parlor operated. The house was located near an elementary school, and young people well-known in the community lived there. School was out for the summer, and, on the morning the warrant was served, many people quickly became aware of all the squad cars and unmarked vehicles surrounding the home. Obviously, from the number of officers going in and out, something major was happening. Officers carried furniture and equipment from the porch of the home into the yard. They searched the entire house, and the police activity soon became the main topic of discussion in town.
My city administrator called me at home the night of the search warrant and asked if he could know what was going on. His little girls were so excited and upset that they could not relax, eat, or even talk about anything else. They had been riding their bikes and witnessed much of the activity at the house. Now, I admit that I did not understand at first. I asked the administrator why his daughters felt such distress. He said, “Don’t you understand? For my daughters, at the ages of 8 and 10, this is the biggest thing that has ever happened in their lives!” Well, of course, he was right. These little kids never had seen the police in action, serving a warrant. They never had seen a house surrounded by more police cars than they even knew existed nor seen someone’s possessions pulled out into the yard by the police and eventually taken away from the house. They did not understand, and they were afraid.
So, there really is nothing new under the sun unless you never have seen or experienced it yourself. Then, it is new, and you might feel just a little confused or upset. I learned a lesson that day, one that you already may know: never take your power and authority for granted. Remember that not everyone will automatically understand what you are doing as a peace officer or why you make certain decisions. Realize that there will be times when your actions will be the biggest and most important thing that ever has happened in someone’s life. There will be times when you have to be the sledgehammer or the battering ram to protect yourself and others or to accomplish your task. But, there will be many more times when, instead of being the sledgehammer, you can be a feather—times when you can make your point, accomplish your goals, get the job done, and still be a feather. Temper the strength of your badge with humility and patience, and be willing to help the public recognize why you take certain actions.
Credibility and Honor
My final charge to you is to conduct yourself with honor, and remember that your personal credibility constitutes the most important asset you possess. If you lose your credibility, if people cannot trust or believe you, if you ever give them reason to think that you are deceitful or will engage in illegal activity if you believe you can get away with it, then you will have lost everything. Remember that you create your own reputation each day with every action and word. Protect your credibility and maintain your honor. It really is all you have.
In closing, I welcome you to this profession and urge you to wholeheartedly join those who have served before you. Your entire law enforcement family wishes you only the best, and we are glad to have you with us. We have been taking care of you and your family and friends for a very long time. Now, it is your turn to join us in this work. Congratulations.