Dan Hazen: What we got wrong about ‘first responders’

We’ve allowed police and others to be defined by our emergencies, the things we’ve allowed to fail.

Dan Hazen

Dan Hazen

By Dan Hazen / Herald Forum

To be fair, he was pretty drunk when he opened the door. He looked me over and exclaimed, “It’s never good when you show up is it?” He wasn’t wrong. As a crisis support officer (chaplain) for Marysville Fire and Police, I get called when something has gone badly. No one calls us to celebrate a birthday or attend a barbecue.

This gives the CSO a unique perspective. Like the firefighters, paramedics and the police officers we serve, we tend to encounter people on the worst days of their lives. This can become the lens through which we view the world. A landscape designer tends to see her world through the lens of lawns, hedges and flower beds. A teacher sees homes and institutions that support (or do not support) students. A law enforcement officer tends to see threats.

This viewpoint, when amplified by un-processed trauma and external pressures, can lead to a condition called hyper-vigilance. It is a state of heightened awareness and anxiety; an alertness to hidden danger. Imagine the feeling of walking alone on a dark street in the worst part of town. Now imagine feeling like that in the grocery store, at church, or your kid’s soccer game. This is not to say that all police officers experience this all the time. It is to say that this is a response to the job they do, not a condition they bring with them into the job. It is a condition shared by victims of abuse and oppression. It is not a character trait; it was done to them. It is a response.

Think about the term “first responder.” Not first producer. Not first initiator. They respond to something that happens first. It’s not like a cop-cabal met in a secret lair back in the 1980s and agreed, “Let’s start a war (on drugs), wear ballistic armor all day, become proficient in armed combat and learn to subdue violent, mentally ill criminals!” Law enforcement just responded to the society we built.

Why do fire fighters in Marysville, for example, respond in a medic unit instead of a fire truck over 80 percent of the time? Is it because they just don’t like putting out fires any more, but prefer dispensing Narcan to heroin addicts and transporting to the hospital people who refuse to take their prescription medication?

No. It is because this is what we have collectively asked of them.

The responsibility (note the compound word, “response – ability”) is ours: the citizens. We are the true first responders. Cops, firefighters and paramedics should be a second or third response, but we use them as our first response to things like parenting crises, neighborhood disputes, moral degradation, addiction, irresponsibility, mental illness, and domestic conflict, even loneliness.

This misunderstanding of roles (along with myriad other issues) have certainly created faults that we are only now addressing. But good law enforcement leaders are the first to acknowledge this because they operate in the darkness and dangers of these faults every day. So, as we continue the much-needed dialogue around police reforms, we must remember that “they” are “us.” Some of the rhetoric I read smacks of bigotry. “Cop” has become a type of person; an almost-racial epithet, as if “they” are a different category of human, a different class or type. If there is to be hope for change on issues like homelessness, mental health, racial inequity and criminal justice, it must begin in unity with law enforcement not in misguided enmity.

It was said long ago that a house divided against itself cannot stand. If we mistakenly see cops as part of some other house, we are divided and thus, defeated before we begin. Our “law enforcement community” is just part of “our community.”

Dan Hazen is community pastor at Allen Creek Community Church in Marysville.

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