I Was A Police Officer For 20 Years. Here's What I Learned About Myself & Humanity
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a police officer. It wasn’t a “calling” I had. Rather, it was a chance for a good job with benefits and a good retirement. I had no expectations going into police work, other than wanting to be a good police officer. Until the police academy, I had never even shot a gun.
When I first started working as a patrol officer at age 23, I was challenged in so many ways. For one, I was female in a male-dominated profession. At that time in the early 1990s, women made up only about 5 percent of the police department in Arizona I worked for. When I was brand-new on the job, I was told by a male officer, "You don't belong here, you need to be home in the kitchen." It was shocking — but it made me work that much harder to prove that I belonged.
I drove alone in a police car working 10-hour shifts. I worked every type of shift during my career: graveyards, days, and swing shifts. Sometimes the shifts seemed endless, but that was all part of the job.
There were aspects of police work in which I felt I made a difference. I remember helping an elderly woman who was mugged. After the incident she sent a nice note thanking me for helping her. Plus, I always enjoyed being a positive role model for small children.
But after several years, I started to become jaded about the job. I believed that no matter what I did, I wasn't making a difference.
Citizens would call and say they didn't know what to do with their out-of-control child, and they wanted me to somehow fix it. I had to fight males who were trying to resist arrest who were stronger and bigger than me. Just because I was a small female, they wanted to see what they could get away with.
I’d talk about tragedies with other officers and friends, and it became like we were talking about the weather.
I'd get called to the same domestic disturbances with the same people over and over again. Taking someone to jail repeatedly and trying to convince the spouse that they deserve better is difficult. I realized that my hands were tied in what I could do to help. If the victim doesn't get a restraining order, or pack up and leave, what else could I do?
This is the part of the job that made me feel helpless because, as a police officer, I could only do so much. It was a vicious cycle that I saw over and over again.
I talked to a normal-looking teenager who had stomped a kitten to death. I saw a young man who shot himself in the head because he had broken up with his girlfriend. I saw an elderly woman hit in the head with a hammer by her grandson because he was on drugs. I've given CPR to infants who ultimately didn't make it.
I’d talk about these events with other officers and friends, and it became like we were talking about the weather. It was a new normal — but it shouldn't have been normal. These are tragedies; these are people's lives. I'd drive away and go about my day. Looking back, I realize it's impossible to believe those things weren’t affecting me.
I had to turn off the emotional part of myself to be able to deal with the everyday suffering I saw people go through. But the problem with turning off a part of myself is that it wasn’t sustainable, and I became someone I didn't like.
After about 13 years of being an officer, a difficult divorce from another officer, and feeling like my life was falling apart, I attended a yoga class. I had tried yoga while training for a marathon a few years earlier, but I looked at it as stretching and nothing more.
I went to the hot yoga class because I knew I needed something different. I didn’t want to go back to the gym and do what I'd been doing for years. My first yoga class, the mirrors all over the room sent me into a panic from the very start. I remember the instructor saying to look at yourself in the mirror. I couldn't do it. I looked at my feet the entire class. Luckily with hot yoga you sweat like crazy, because I was standing there crying, and I don't think anyone else could tell I was falling apart.
I didn't understand what I'd just experienced in that yoga class. I was emotionally and physically spent. But I knew I needed to go back, so I did. I cried almost every class, but I kept going.
It took probably three months before I was able to look myself in the eyes during a class. For so long I didn't like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I didn't like who I had become, and I started to reconnect with my emotions and feelings.
I'm extremely grateful for that first yoga class and for the journey to discover that I can serve and give back in a different way.
After a few months of doing yoga, I noticed I was nicer to the people I was dealing with every day. I'd take more time when dealing with a parent who didn't know how to discipline their child. I was more empathetic to the parent who was trying to help their child who was addicted to drugs. I started to share more of myself with them.
As an officer, you're supposed to go in and do your job, handle the call, and leave. But I took more time and tried to give the people more options and more help. I remember one family dealing with their son who was on drugs. The father wanted to keep the son out of the house, but the mom was struggling with knowing her son would be on the street. I sat down with the mom and shared that my brother was also a drug addict. I remember touching the mom’s hand and telling her it wasn’t her fault, and she sobbed. I sat there with her for a long time assuring her that she was making the right decision for herself and her family.
I retired after 20 years in law enforcement in 2012. One month later I started yoga teacher training. I obtained my 500-hour master-level yoga teacher certification and also trained in meditation.
I taught yoga and meditation for more than two years at an alcohol and drug recovery center. I've taught at the Army National Guard and with various veterans groups.
Transitioning away from police work was more challenging than I thought it would be. It's an identity, and when that identity was no longer who I was, I had to learn to define who I am now. I'm extremely grateful for that first yoga class and for the journey that I've been on to heal myself and rediscover that I can serve and give back in a different way.
What I learned after my time in law enforcement is that there's evil in this world. I’ve looked at evil in the face. I’ve seen more death than I care to remember. What I learned from yoga and meditation is that I had to heal me, and in doing so, I can encourage others to rebuild what gets lost in life. I’m one person who is hoping to create change in myself and to help others create change in their lives for the better.