The Shells We Wear

Nobody leaves police work the same person they were when they entered it

By Joseph Padilla   |   Oct 19, 2015
The author in his patrol car in the early 1990s.

[Publisher’s Note: This is the first in a series in which Joseph Padilla, a decorated and recently retired captain from Colorado, reflects on his storied career. His personal experience is, as you will see, remarkable. But more remarkable is his compassion and desire to improve this profession. Enjoy!]

Nobody leaves police work the same person as when they entered it. Moreover, being a law enforcement officer can either be the best or worse job you’ve ever had.

Like the rest of you, I’ve watched with interest the latest assaults and criticisms of police officers. After reflecting back on 38 years of police work, it now seems public sentiment is supportive of those who are seeking to restrict the ability of many police officers to protect society. The general public has little or no concept of the experiences or emotions that police officers contend with throughout their careers.

I started in law enforcement in 1977 with the Northglenn (Colo.) Police Department and this was an exciting time to be a police officer. Paperwork was minimal, the public supported us and we were encouraged to go out and do police work. My indoctrination into the difficulties of being a police officer occurred shortly after I was hired. I hadn’t attended the police academy but I rode with a senior officer for a couple of weeks before I was assigned to work solo. I’d like to think this was because of my abilities but the truth is we were shorthanded.

Five weeks after starting as a police officer I answered a silent alarm at a local jewelry and collectables store. As a cover officer and I entered the store, we didn’t know an armed suspect was holding two hostages and was waiting to ambush us. When the bad guy emerged from a hiding spot he pointed a gun at me, but I was able to fatally shoot him before he could get off a shot. I was so new to police work that I never thought of this as a critical incident. I just assumed this was what cops do.

Law enforcement officers frequently start to experience emotional trauma dealing with the tragedies and crimes they encounter on a routine basis. We’re told that police officers become hardened by the harshness of the streets and become uncaring after experiencing years of verbal and physical abuse. Cops deal with the aftermath of society’s hatred and violence and see people at their worst. In my experiences, I tried to forget the tragedies I encountered as fast as I could. But the memories never faded.

I eventually joined the Denver Police Department in 1984 and found that working in a big city was very different. It seemed more impersonal and violent. As a patrolman and narcotics detective I became involved in several more gun situations and a couple more shootings. Every critical incident I was involved in caused me think about the effect similar incidents had on other officers. This was especially the case when it was an officer we knew who had been killed.

I was fortunate to have risen through the ranks to captain and while assigned to Denver’s Gang Bureau I was involved in my last fatal shooting. This occurred in the parking lot of our police station in 2003.

An elderly gentleman had been kidnapped by a younger woman he was having a relationship with and they wound up at the building I worked out of. We were forced to shoot her and end her life, but not until after she shot one of our officers and killed the kidnap victim. Watching an officer get shot, having a hostage killed and then shooting a female was extremely difficult—especially because it all happened in our sanctuary, our station.

This had a much more personal effect on me than the previous shootings I had been involved in. I believe the buildup of physiological trauma grows the longer we are on the job, at least it did for me.

The reason I’ve shared these stories is because I wanted to illustrate to police officers, their families and the public that a career in law enforcement carries many risks. Experiencing years of tragedies has a cumulative effect that we have rarely considered or anticipated when choosing to begin a career in law enforcement. Year after year of experiencing the dark underside of life and having to justify your every action to a critical public can have an increasingly negative impact on cops and their emotional and physical wellbeing. It has to be the goal of cops to not let stress, negativity and trauma dominate their lives.

Cops do not become harder. I believe the longer they are on the job they become softer inside. They just put on a harder shell to protect themselves.