Looking into my rear-view mirror
By Tom Rataj
By Tom Rataj
Well, here I am, retired! Thirty-five years of policing behind me and I’m ready for big changes.
Fortunately, I think I’ve survived the journey, more or less unscathed, physically, mentally and spiritually. I had the good fortune to spend a large part of my career away from the three-shift grind, something that I believe helped greatly and I highly recommend.
I also know that my commitment to a positive attitude, physical fitness and a healthy diet, and interests outside of my work also made positive contributions to my survival.
We all know that policing can be a very stressful career, but I suspect that for some of us, much of the stress is self-inflicted.
Over-investing in your careers and under-investing in yourselves and your families causes a lot of stress. It’s that investment in yourself, your family and non-career activities that provides balance and a safer arrival to retirement and beyond.
I believe that PTSD is more prevalent in policing than many of us suspect, and I’m happy that it’s recently been getting some of the attention it so desperately requires. It still needs to be tackled with much greater vigour and a real cultural change.
Instead of one or two major stressful events, I strongly suspect that it’s more often the case that repeated exposure to a variety of stressful events eventually contributes to the disorder manifesting itself to varying degrees. Counteracting stress effectively, especially through physical fitness, and a life outside of your career, can go a long way towards coping.
Free confidential and professional help is available for everyone, so no one should be coping alone. Please, if you suspect that a colleague is suffering, offer an ear, a shoulder, any help you can, and if it’s you that’s suffering, please reach out, don’t be embarrassed, because your life may depend on it.
The police will always be the default clean-up team for all of society’s messes, many of which have been years in the making.
We often encounter people at their worst and I think we often expect too much from them. Having those unrealistic expectation repeatedly broken can lead to a lot of frustration, stress and eventually unprofessional behaviour. Lowering your expectations will result in fewer disappointments and a more professional response to challenges.
Maintaining your focus on professional purpose and retaining compassion and empathy for others are important survival tools too.
I had the good fortune to spend 5 years working in youth services, a place where the universal policing ambition of “I want to help others” really came into sharp focus. I often worked closely with families in crisis, many of them single-parent families that struggled to survive.
Parenting at its best is a 2-person task that helps to develop caring, responsible, productive adults, something that I think many officers have had the good fortune to be the products of. If you are a parent, please roll-up your sleeves and dedicate yourself to this important task.
I’ve witnessed many changes in policing since my early days. Uniforms, equipment and training have progressed immensely, but there is still much work to do, especially with the finer skills of effective, professional and civil interaction with the public.
Use of force, whether legally justified or not, never looks good, and never will. With video-recording everywhere today, use-of-force is much more likely to be captured and publicised than ever before.
It is a great source of tension between the community and the police. It can be greatly reduced through patience and learning and practicing more effective dialogue.
The pending widespread adoption of body-worn video-cameras will also bring with it a wholesale change in the way policing is done – probably much of it for the better. Officers will really need to embrace this technology as a great tool to further the purpose of their work.
I also see traffic enforcement – that often once-in-a-lifetime interaction many law-abiding citizens have with the police – as another great source of tension between the community and police. Predatory, self-serving and obsessive numbers-driven traffic enforcement, that doesn’t value quality or the objective of traffic safety, is a corrosive practice that really needs to stop.
I wish you all luck, pray for your safety, and hope that you can all maintain the focus on your professional purpose while investing in your personal wellbeing so that you can all join me safely in retirement.