Character: It Makes All the Difference

Yes, skills matter; but they won't define you, & your service, like your character will

By Sue Rahr  |   Dec 19, 2016

[Publisher’s Note: Following is a commencement speech delivered to the most recent graduating class of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, but its lesson applies equally to seasoned veterans.]

Congratulations! You have achieved the second major milestone in your journey to become a peace officer in the State of Washington. Your first milestone, and not an easy one, was getting hired. In some agencies, as few as one in a hundred applicants get through that process. That you were hired is a testament to the way you conducted your life before entering law enforcement—a testament of the character you bring to this profession.

Today, you’ve reached the second major milestone: successfully completing your basic training—a testament of your skills and abilities. While the past five months have certainly not been easy, I can assure you that the greatest challenges lie ahead. You’re going to be tested for real on your ability to apply what you’ve learned in this safe, controlled environment. Not only will your skills be tested, but so will your character.

Plato’s philosophy about character and power touch the very soul of this noble profession: “In a Republic that honors the core ideas of democracy, the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility for protecting the democracy.”

You were chosen by your Chief or Sheriff because of your impeccable character. For the last five months, we’ve been teaching you how to properly use the power that will be given to you by the people you’ll serve.

That power will now become the greatest test of your character. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all people can stand adversity—but if you want to test a person’s character, give them power.”

You’ve learned the constitutional principles that decree how and when you can use that power. Though many have tried no one has been able to create enough rules and policies to cover the variety of situations you’ll face. The rules we do have are there to guide your judgment. At the end of the day most of your actions will require that you make a judgment call in line with constitutional principles.

In essence, you have to consider what you can do as well as what you should do. Not only must your action be legal, but it must also be the right thing to do. The way you make that call demonstrates your true character.

Looking ahead, when you get out to the street, and have to deal every day with tragedy, temptation and cynicism—how are you going to sustain the impeccable character you’ve brought to this profession? I believe that will depend on how you define your purpose and your role. That’s why we stress the importance of defining your role as a noble and honorable guardian.

This role has many dimensions. The guardian understands the whole community, understands all the factors that contribute to a citizen’s sense of safety, security, and trust. The guardian sees beyond the moment and with every citizen interaction, whether service or enforcement, makes an investment in building both a sense of safety and trust. When we make mistakes—and we will, because we’re human—we need draw on that investment in trust. When we are act as guardians, even while taking enforcement action, we build up that bank.

With that said, it’s critically important that you recognize the role of a guardian is not one-dimensional. It does NOT preclude you from also being a warrior. One of the most important dimensions of the guardian’s role is the ability to fight and persevere as a brave warrior. When it’s necessary to do battle, you must embrace that challenge without hesitation or apology, and with great courage.

But don’t let your warrior skills define your role. Your community wants guardians that understand that distinction. They want guardians with the courage and wisdom to both fight and protect.

Please accept my heartfelt congratulations! Now go out and serve your community with the courage and tenacity of a warrior, and the heart of a Guardian.