It’s a sad reality that police officers don’t usually make the headlines until they’re accused of doing something wrong.
If everything goes right, they’re either nameless or known only by the number on their badge.
If something goes haywire, their name is everywhere – and all too often convicted in the court of public opinion before all the facts are even known.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it isn’t easy to be a cop these days, if it ever was.
U.S. law enforcement officials are the umpires of American life. According to recent statistics, there are nearly 18,000 police agencies across the country. From major city departments to one-sheriff towns, close to 700,000 brave men and women wear a badge of some sort, vowing to put their lives on the line in order to protect your life and mine.
Up until this past Monday, Steve Pugsley was one of these heroes on the thin blue line. A 29-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Police Department, Steve joined the force in 1991 after serving six years as an officer back in his hometown of Chicago.
But after being shot at five times in the last 2½ years in Colorado, Steve decided enough was enough.
“I didn’t think pushing my luck any further was smart,” he texted me. “I’ve pushed the limit long enough.”
Steve and I have been friends for over 20 years, and I’ve long admired him as a police officer straight from Central Casting.
With a cool and calm demeanor, Steve is the guy you want in the middle of a crisis. A member of the bomb squad, as well as a beat cop for years, he’s unflappable – and indefatigable.
During two separate Olympic games in 2002 and 2004, Steve served as a “runner guard” for the Olympic torch relays, which covered thousands of miles. There were some days when he ran more than 30 miles – and would then get up the next day and do it all over again.
But the curtain falls on even the most storied career, and this past Monday Steve found himself in the community room of the Falcon substation, a modest outpost that sits just south of the U.S. Air Force Academy. A normal retirement ceremony usually attracts about 50 people – but there were over 150 jammed inside, every seat taken and others ringing the walls, overflowing out into the lobby.
“To you it is a call for service,” Steve told his fellow officers, referencing the dozens of emergencies each day. “But for those we’re calling on, it might be the moment that changes their life, potentially forever.”
After the tributes and gifts, Steve stepped up to the lectern and bid farewell in his typical low-key fashion, lauding his fellow officers, but also sharing some lessons from a highly decorated career:
1. Try to learn something new every day. All the world is a classroom. Listen more than you talk. Ask questions. Steve patrolled a gritty part of town and got to know many of the more challenging people on a first-name basis, even learning from some along the way.
2. Beware of ruts. Nothing in life is routine. “To you it is a call for service,” he told his fellow officers, referencing the dozens of emergencies each day. “But for those we’re calling on, it might be the moment that changes their life, potentially forever.”
3. Be brave – but be humble. “Instead of being a badge in front of a person,” he reminded them, “be a person worthy of wearing the badge.” Humility keeps us grounded – and teachable. Steve never considered himself superior to anybody, but felt great empathy for everybody. He kept his patrol car trunk filled with hats and gloves for those living on the streets. “Nobody freezes to death on my watch,” he said.
4. Stay active – but activate the right things. “You can pump all the iron you want, but if you don’t take care of your heart (emotional health) you’re wasting your time,” Steve said. In subtle and sober terms he alluded to the rise in police suicides and the stress and pressures of the role. “Don’t let the job eat you alive. Find your outlet. Talk it out. Look out for your buddy.”
5. Endure. We can often do more than we think we’re capable of doing. An ultra-marathoner, Steve mentioned competing in the grueling Leadville 100 mountain race in 2000 and carrying with him this reminder on a card: “You’ll never know how far you can go until you’ve gone too far.” He carried that card in his “go-bag” for the last 19 years of his career.
Steve likened his tenure to the parable of the starfish – the ancient story of the old man who scoffed at a young boy for throwing the beached creatures back into the sea.
“Son,” the man snickered, “there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
Smiling, the boy picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the roaring surf.
“I made a difference to that one,” the little guy said softly.
“We can’t save them all,” Steve remarked in closing, referencing all the cases and all the people of the city. “But don’t miss the opportunity to save the one in front of you.”
I’m grateful for Steve and all his fellow police officers near and far, America’s brave guardians who keep watch so that we can live in peace.