Chesterfield County has twelve new police officers and my nephew, Jared, is one of them. Striking in their crisp olive drab uniforms and shaven heads, these young men were sworn in last Friday afternoon. It is hard to hold the tears back as my sister, Laura, and my brother-in-law, Michael, pin the shiny badge on their son’s chest. Hard not to look back on the goofy, happy-go-lucky little kid that he was; to realize that his plastic squirt gun has been replaced with a Glock.
Harder still, not to think about what lies ahead for him.
These men began the physical fitness portion of their training in the intense heat of Virginia summer—in full uniform, Kevlar vest included—sweating through sprints, obstacle courses, push-ups and sit-ups.
They’ve been out on the driving course, learning to execute those stunts we’ve only seen on television (“That was really cool, Aunt Linda,” Jared said. “Those V-8 engines are powerful!”) They’ve spent days on the shooting range, honing their accuracy with weapons. They’ve endured pepper spray and tear gas. They’ve had to drink and monitor their blood alcohol level. They’ve wrestled each other in marital arts training.
The world is a different place now than it was when I was growing up. Unemployment still drives people to drink, and people still drink and drive. But now they also drive and talk on the phone or text. No longer rare are the drug cartels, the gang wars, home invasions, meth labs, acts of domestic violence against the general population. School shootings, mall shootings, workplace shootings. Today’s criminals are often better armed than our law enforcement officers.
And to think. In Jared’s previous job at the glass company, we used to worry that he’d cut himself.
These rookie policemen spent the last six months in school. Now they’ll spend the next few months getting schooled out in the real world where these things actually occur. Where fires destroy and storms ravage. Where cars crash and teenagers bleed. Where adults abuse children and spouses batter one another. Where girls go missing, and kids screw up. Where the bad guys break and enter, steal and murder.
How will they deal with all this? In addition to their weapons and defensive tactics training, they’ll face it all with a dose of compassion.
“Much of this will become routine for us, but we always have to remember that when someone calls the police, very often it is the worst day of their life,” Jared explains to me. “How we respond can make that better or worse. What we do can make a big difference.”
After the family celebration at my sister’s house, after the cake has been eaten and the guests have departed, we talk more about the day’s ceremony and the weeks ahead. Laura tries on Jared’s jacket for size and looks like a little kid playing dress-up in her father’s clothes. The rookies have been issued their cars, but they’ll each spend the next few weeks riding with a seasoned officer before they’re sent out to patrol their beats alone. Jared looks forward to all of this with awe and excitement.
He sits on the floor and leans back against the couch. “I can’t believe it,” he says, his voice filled with wonder. “I’ve got my own police car.”
For a moment, no one speaks. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to rejoice or despair. Jared’s got his own police car.