Ego: Our Most Dangerous Force

15Apr13

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This essay was published recently in Law Enforcement Today.

http://lawenforcementtoday.com/2013/04/08/the-most-dangerous-force-%e2%80%93-ego/

Of all the destructive forces cops face, probably none is more dangerous than our own ego. When I think of the more egregious mistakes and lapses in judgment I’ve made, I can’t think of many that didn’t involve ego. Some of us, if we’re lucky, had good trainers who warned us about letting ego drive our actions. The rest of us, like me, had to learn through bad experience.

We easily recognize when a suspect or violator is letting his ego talk him into handcuffs. We’ve responded to minor disturbances at bars, problems that could be easily handled if the involved parties would just leave. Almost invariably, one of the antagonists declares, “I’m not going anywhere.” We warn them that they’ll be arrested if they refuse to leave. Their friends beg them to leave. They stand their ground, proclaim that they don’t care, that they’d rather go to jail than back down. When the cuffs come out they change their minds, but by then it’s often too late.

We marvel at those guys, sometimes laugh at them, and make snide comments about their stupidity. Then a car runs from us, or a suspect yells insults from his doorway. And we fall under the spell of ego without realizing it.

A few years back I was on a run-of-the-mill traffic stop in a wealthy area during night shift. We were in the parking lot of a drug store. My overheads were on, visible for hundreds of yards in the dark. As I was checking the driver’s record, I heard screeching tires. I looked up to see a nice, new, shiny red sports car flying down the street past the drug store at over 100 mph.

The minor traffic stop suddenly became a lot less interesting. I ran to the violator, tossed his license back, and sprinted to my patrol car. By the time I tore out of the parking lot, the sports car was blocks away. I hit the overheads seconds before the sports car blew a red light to make a turn.

I punched it. The time was about 4 a.m. and the roads were empty. I sped to the light, slid onto the side street, and searched for the car. The street ahead was clear and silent.

The intersecting roads were residential, full of multi-million dollar mansions. I did the stutter-step, speeding to each street but trying not to go so fast that I’d drive past the car if I saw it. On the third street I saw the car, rolling up a driveway several houses away. Behind it an automatic gate was swinging closed. I jammed on the brakes and, of course, slid past the street.

By the time I backed up and made the turn, the car had disappeared into a garage. I reached the automatic gate as it latched. Through the wrought-iron bars I saw the back end of the sports car, just before the garage door closed.

I ran from my car to the front door of the house. I was pissed. The mansion had a huge plate-glass window and lights were on inside. I furiously rang the doorbell and banged on the door as I looked into the house.

A middle-aged man walked across the back of the living room. I didn’t see his face. He paid no attention to the doorbell, frenzied pounding on the door or flashing red and blue strobes outside. He disappeared into another part of the house.

I stopped ringing and knocking. I was even more pissed now. This jerk, not just a regular jerk but a rich jerk, had intentionally raced past a cop on a traffic stop. He had driven over 100 mph with me behind him and blew through a red light. He ignored me at the door. He needed to go to jail for all that.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I stepped back from the door, started to walk to my car, walked back to the door, changed my mind and went to my car, turned the spotlight on, pointed it through the window, and sat there for a minute. A truth was staring me in the face, but I was so angry I didn’t want to see it.

I had nothing. Nothing. I didn’t have a plate. I couldn’t ID the man I saw inside the house, and couldn’t say he was the driver. How could I be sure he wasn’t a passenger, that the driver wasn’t still sitting in the car waiting for me to leave? And I couldn’t even be sure what the car’s make and model were. All I knew was that it was a red, new sports car, maybe a Camaro. Maybe.

I could have gotten on the radio and called for more units. I could have called a sergeant. I could have kept banging on the door, for hours if need be, until someone answered. I could have made a big deal about this guy who had disrespected me so badly. And I knew that would have accomplished nothing. I would be wasting everyone’s time.

More importantly, for one of the first times in my career, I recognized that ego was driving my actions. I wanted to see the man punished, but just for what he had done to me. The man hadn’t hurt anyone. There had been no wreck. There were literally no cars between the spot I first saw him and his house; he hadn’t run anyone off the road. And no calls had popped up about a red sports car being involved in a crime. Most likely it was just a rich guy showing off his new car.

I took a few breaths to get my anger under control, then grudgingly turned the spotlight and overhead strobes off. I slowly backed out, took a last look at the house, and wrote down the address. “123 Sycamore Street”.

I drove away, and didn’t tell anyone about the incident. It wouldn’t have mattered, and I wasn’t eager to share that experience with my coworkers anyway. I stayed angry about it for a day or so, then forced myself to let it go.

A few months later, another officer and I were patrolling a different part of town. This was in an area with a lot of clubs and bars. Right after the bars closed, we saw two cars racing each other down the street.

We picked one and took off. As soon as we got behind it and hit the overheads, the driver made a quick turn and pulled over. The other driver wisely kept going. As we got out of our car, a large vehicle full of rowdy club-goers passed, yelling insults, and flipping us off.

I yelled back at them to shut the hell up. They kept going. They didn’t make me mad, but they annoyed me. I carried that annoyance to the drag racer we had just stopped.

The drag racer was just a kid. He was completely polite and respectful, and apologized profusely for racing. He wasn’t doing anything really bad, just showing off his expensive luxury car. My partner got his license and ran him. Nothing serious, but he had a small problem with his license that meant he shouldn’t be driving. We could arrest him and tow the car, but that seemed way too severe.

My partner and I had to make a quick discussion. We decided to let the kid call a family member to get him. My partner handed me the kid’s license and went to talk to him. I took a quick look at the license, started to put it down. Then my eyes snapped back when I realized what was on it.

“123 Sycamore Street”. The same address the guy with the red sports car had driven to.

I walked to the kid. He was on the phone. As soon as he hung up and confirmed that someone was coming for him, I asked him, “You live at 123 Sycamore?”

“Yes sir.”

“Who do you live with?”

“My father.”

“No kidding. What kind of car does he drive?”

“He’s got a couple of cars sir. He has a big silver Chevy SUV, and recently bought a really nice red Camaro.”

I nodded, pursed my lips. “Uh huh. Is your father coming to get you?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good,” I said. “Good.”

I went back to our car and waited. My mind raced. Revenge was at hand.

Several minutes later a big silver Chevy SUV pulled up. A man got out, and I mentally compared him to the guy I had seen walked through the mansion. He fit the same general description.

He was very polite. My partner explained the situation with his son. He thanked us for not arresting him. I then asked the man, “Do you drive a new red Camaro?”

The man seemed puzzled at the question. He answered hesitantly, “Yes sir, I do.”

“Do you remember a couple months back, you blew past a police officer on a traffic stop at First and Center, then ran a red light and took off to your house?”

The man froze. His eyes widened, mouth dropped open a bit. And he surprised me by saying, “Yes sir, I do.”

“Yeah. That was me. You saw me behind you, didn’t you?”

He looked away for a moment. Then he looked back and answered quietly, “Yes, I saw you.”

“And now we’ve got your son,” I said. “And you want us to give him a break instead of arresting him. How about that.”

I gave him a hard stare for a moment, then turned away. Behind me, my partner told the man, “Hey, at least you were honest.” I walked back to our car, sat down and thought it out.

My ego was creeping up again. If I arrested the kid, it would be strictly as a punishment to his father. And even though the kid had done something wrong, he didn’t need to go to jail for it. I had given plenty of people a break for the same thing. Any official action I took wouldn’t be driven by morals or justice or even law. It would just be from spite, borne of ego.

I walked back to the kid and gave him his license. His father sheepishly shook our hands and thanked us. We went to our car and left. I was still pissed at the father, but I felt like I had done the right thing.

I’m human. I’ve made stupid mistakes, for stupid reasons. My badge hasn’t infused me with perfect judgment or the wisdom of a Tibetan monk. At my worst I’ve had to learn through bad experience, at my best I listened to others and didn’t repeat the same mistakes they had.

No matter how many laws and policies exist to guide our actions, at the end of the day we cops are just regular people, subject to all the failings regular people have. If we’d control our egos, I don’t think we’d make half our mistakes. And we’d probably get twice the support from the public.

Controlling ego is easier said than done. It takes years for anyone, not just cops, to learn how to do it. It can’t be taught as a formula in the academy. It has to be a product of real-life highs and lows, of forcing yourself to think straight and do the right thing even when you want to lash out. None of us can claim we’ve never fallen prey to ego. Nobody can expect new officers to hit the street on day one and not have an egotistical chip on their shoulder.

But we can talk about it. And that’s a start.

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Chris Hernandez is a 22 year police officer, former Marine and recently retired National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published three military fiction novels, Proof of Our ResolveLine in the Valley and Safe From the War through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).

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24 Responses to “Ego: Our Most Dangerous Force”

  1. 1 prospector0980

    The difference between good cop and bad cop.

  2. 3 Justin

    I’ve got to say I really like this post a lot. I have very recently been pondering the origins of and how to address this issue in my own character. You’ve put things in a very mature and plain light.

    You’re also right that, in line with the responsibilities they bear, police officers need to be more self-aware in this area than an average citizen. I won’t delve into criticisms, but I thank and applaud you for raising the topic for discussion within your professional community.

    I had read your samples and already knew you were a good writer. Now that I see additionally how thoughtful and insightful you are – you, sir, just sold yourself another book. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    Cheers.

    • Thanks for that, Justin. This essay hasn’t sparked a lot of discussion on Law Enforcement Today, but maybe it will here. Thanks for buying the book and I hope you enjoy it.

  3. 5 6B45N

    Softy…

  4. 7 Just a Guy

    Amazing story, and incredible insight into your own actions and feelings. If only more people in positions of authority could find this insight in themselves. Hopefully your restraint and uprightness made some small impact on this man, and his son, that they will be more upright as a result.

    • Thanks, Guy. This is one of those times where I’ll never know how it affected them. And in the end, it was really about me making the right decision whether it had any effect on them or not. Heck, maybe they’ll be less upright now, since they both got away with stuff.

  5. 9 spemack

    Good read, Chirs. I swear, your cop stories are like an everyman version of LawDog. Great insight.

  6. 11 JimP

    While I agree that letting one’s ego into LE matters is a bad thing, the fact is that the kid was drag racing …… gosh, I can’t imagine where he picked that up ….. there are laws against that, and for good reason: As a volunteer FF/EMT, I have pried more than one stupid kid out of a mangled automobile that had more horsepower than the operator had sense……

    I’d rather have you enforce that law than have you need to go to 123 Sycamore Street and and explain to Mr. Speeddemon that Speedy Jr. won’t be home tonight, or ever, because Jr. wrapped his shiny sportscar around a thick tree or some such ……. I’ll wager you’d find the firm, even enforcement of that law easier, too ……

    It could be worse than that, even: you may have to go to someone else’s house to tell them that Mr. Speedy (Jr. or Senior) has ended the life of one or more of the residents of that home …… they were just minding their own, coming home from work or whatever, and because of the Speedy family’s addiction to driving 3X the speed limit, they are not coming home.

    The Speedy’s WILL keep doing this, until something happens to convince them that drag racing is foolish. I certainly hope that that event involves LE instead of EMS.

    • Jim,

      No argument about racers causing tragedies. I’ve seen a few dead racers myself. However, I also had a fast car when I was 18 (1976 280Z) and did my share of stupid driving. I grew out of it pretty quick, as I think most kids do. I don’t think every racer kid we catch needs to get jammed with a charge. Sometimes discretion works better than legal action. That’s just my opinion, and I understand that you disagree for good reasons.

  7. 13 JimP

    It’s not the racers themselves I worry about (stupid SHOULD hurt …… their actions affect others. Look at Speedy Sr.- Not exactly a role model parent, and enabling Jr. to do stupid stuff, too (you don’t suppose Jr. bought that fast car all by himself, do you?) …….. Sometimes, I think that having to take a few dozen ride-a-longs in the back the squad would be appropraite “Community Service” for getting caught doing Stupid Kid Tricks …..

    Putting drag racing to the “That which neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg” test …… yeah, getting T-boned by a sports car running red lights at 100+ mph will do a lot more than break my leg. If he wants to go fast, he can build himself a track.

    • Jim,

      Again, not disagreeing with you in principle. But on that scene, I didn’t feel like that kid needed to go to jail. I don’t think that would have helped him or society. It was my call, and if it winds up being wrong, it winds up being wrong. I have sons, I’m sure someday one of them will do something stupid, and I hope any involved officers won’t react solely based on law.

      • 15 JimP

        I have a son, and 4 daughters as well….. and I KNOW they will do stupid stuff…..and I would surely rather pick them up at the County LE Center than at the morgue.

        I doubt calling Speedy Sr. about his boy will do any good-kids do what they see, and preaching hypocrisy will not work.

        We all make decisions, and have to live with the consequences….here’s hoping that one works out…..

        • Who wouldn’t rather pick their kid up at jail than the morgue? But those aren’t the only options. I’d guess that the vast majority of us who have done stupid things in our youth grew out of them without legal intervention. Putting a criminal record on a kid isn’t always the best thing for their future.

          Again, I’m not saying you’re wrong. What I’m saying is that I wasn’t going to hold the dad’s actions against the kid, and I didn’t feel the kid needed to get the full ride. And yeah, I hope it worked out. Hopefully I’ll never see that kid in the paper after a wreck.

  8. Mr. Hernandez,

    Great Essay. You have an excellent grip on who you are as a man. I wish I had half the insight. I just bought your book and can’t wait to read it tonight.

    Ed L.

  9. 19 Bob Updike

    Chris, I didn’t read your essay until this morning. I really like the way that you write and think. I’ve never been a police officer, and don’t envy your career choice. I was Air Force for many years. I also appreciate your military service. As a father and grandfather, I can really understand your points of us being our own worst enemy. All too often, I also have let my ego interfere with good judgment when dealing with my children. I guess that I didn’t harm them too much. They seem to be pretty well adjusted, stable young adults.
    I enjoy your insights and know that you are a busy person, but I would like to hear your input on the Boston Marathon Bombing and apparent bombers.

  10. 21 Wraith

    The great Christian thinker CS Lewis (yes, that CS Lewis) maintained that pride is the worst of all sins, because–directly or otherwise–every other sin follows from it. He had a point.

    Wonderful essay, Officer. There’s a lot of cops out there who should take a lesson on introspection from you, especially when they find themselves jaded by their experiences.

  11. 22 Nate

    Chris, thanks for this. Although not a LEO myself, we’ve tread some of the same ground in the military. I would argue that being able to put the ego in check is important in all walks of life, but mission critical in “sheepdog” professions like ours…your candid self analysis is hugely helpful in reminding us of that. Thanks again, and stay safe, brother.

    • Nate,

      Controlling ego is important for everyone, but it’s much more important for those of us who have weapons and legal authority. If we keep ourselves in check, we get way more support from the public, which is who we really need it from.

      You stay safe too, Nate. The last ten + years have been pretty rough for us in the military, and I’m sure you’ve done your time downrange. Thanks for your service.


  1. 1 The indirect confiscations are starting, but in Texas really?

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