Calls to 9-1-1 are unpredictable, and calls to the “non-emergency” line at the police station allow for even more variables.
Sometimes the calls are not really related to law enforcement, and such was the case with this particular call. She was a single mom who was at her wit’s end dealing with her son’s behavior, and she was reaching out for help.
As luck would have it, she got me. In the State of Washington, police officers are commissioned as “Peace Officers” and it’s a job description I take to heart.
I asked this woman (let’s call her “Sue”) what was going on. Sue told me her pre-teen son (let’s call him “Steve”) was acting out in his classes and his grades were dropping. She said he was starting to become a bit of a bully both at school and at home, and she didn’t want him to continue down the wrong path with his behavior.
Sue had already tried everything she could think of to get through to Steve, but nothing seemed to be working. She wasn’t sure what I could do, but she knew she needed some help.
This was clearly not a standard police call, and it would have been very easy for me to just tell her to get Steve to a counselor and move on with my day. It’s not really a cop’s job to help raise someone else’s kid, right? Also, since the call had come in toward the end of my shift, nobody would have given me any grief for letting the next squad handle it, but I knew these wouldn’t have been the right things to do.
I told Sue I’d meet her at Steve’s elementary school in about 30 minutes so I could talk to him before school let out. I had a plan, and I asked Sue to trust me. She said she would leave work and meet me at the school.
I arrived and went to the office, where I spoke to the Principal. He was familiar with Steve’s recent behavior problems but was concerned about having a police officer talk to him. He feared it would send the wrong signal, and Steve might shut down because he would feel like he was in trouble. I assured the Principal I wouldn’t let that happen, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. When Sue arrived, I explained my plan to her.
I’d start as the “bad cop” and then change to the “good cop” as Steve and I talked. Sue was nervous, because she’d just met me, but again I asked her to trust me. I told her I’d want to talk to Steve one-to-one, but I wanted to have her just outside so she could join us after a few minutes.
The Principal went to Steve’s classroom and got him while Sue and I waited in the hallway. We walked to a vacant office in silence, and when we got there, I held the door for Steve then followed him in and closed it behind me. The tension in the room was tangible, but that’s what I wanted. It allowed me to give a brief stern lecture about Steve’s recent behavior and how it was completely unacceptable.
The conversation began to shift, though, when I asked him why he was misbehaving.
“That’s not who you really are. I know you’re so much better,” I said. At this point I was no longer the stoic authority figure. Now I was becoming more like a coach.
Steve started talking to me, and I did what so many adults don’t do when they’re dealing with kids. I shut up and started listening. I even took notes. Steve has trouble with impulse control. He likes attention. He likes playing practical jokes on his friends. Steve wants to be an Astronaut.
In short, Steve is just like every kid his age.
He’s smart, too. I told him he reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age, and I gave him some advice for keeping himself out of trouble. We talked about different things I’d done as a kid to keep myself out of trouble and asked if he could do them. Now I’d shifted from being a coach to being a mentor, and Steve knew he wasn’t in any trouble at all. In fact, he was getting help.
Here was the turning point in our discussion. I got up and went to the door. I brought Sue in to join us and when I went back to the table, I moved my chair to the side. The dynamic of the room was completely different now.
There was no tension. It was two adults helping a boy figure out how to get his behavior back on track. We were a team. I made sure Steve got to hear me tell his mother how smart he was and how I had no doubt he would be able to get himself turned around, both at school and at home.
We talked for a while, and both Steve and Sue were feeling energized when we parted ways. They both knew they weren’t in it alone, and help was available. I shook Steve’s hand and sent him back to class (after he promised to give me a ride on his spaceship when he’s older). Sue gave me a big hug. It had taken about 40 minutes of my day to meet with Steve and Sue, but the impact was incredible.
The other day I was going through my old e-mails and I found one Sue had sent to my Chief thanking me for what I’d done. I contacted her to check up on Steve and see how he’s been doing. She told me he has never been better. He’s started helping around the house instead of misbehaving and he’s got a wonderfully positive attitude. Sue told me she’s even overheard Steve passing on my advice to his younger sister!
I can’t condense 18 years of experience as a police officer into one short article, but I can sum up the advice I gave to Steve: “Everything you say begins as a thought, so before you say what you’re thinking make sure it’s really something you should say.”
Often it’s what we say which gets us into trouble and I think that’s good advice for all of us to remember. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, and if you’re in a position to help someone please don’t be afraid to do so.
It doesn’t take much effort to get people’s lives turned around. We really are all in this together.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Rob Kearney
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Stuart Richards/Flickr