Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chief Dotson's BackStoppers Annual Membership Dinner Remarks

Welcome, and thanks for coming this evening

I’m honored to be here…BackStoppers and the work they do is such an important part of what we as first responders do. It was a little scary to be asked to speak this evening…there have been many great speakers that have shared their thoughts with you over the years…sports figures, media personalities, political types….

When I was preparing this speech, I thought to myself, what I could do to make this conversation interesting, something that was a little different, perhaps a little more personal. 

But before I begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the reason we are here tonight, it is to support the men and women in law enforcement, the fire service, and EMTs – but, more importantly, it is about making sure that we have the resources to take care of the families that need our help…

Special thanks should go to all involved for putting this together today.  I’d like to thank you for your belief in this great organization, and your enduring commitment to it.

You know, one way that officers step up to help BackStoppers is by boxing in the annual Guns & Hoses fundraiser.

Every year, the night before Thanksgiving, dozens of police and firefighters set aside their similarities and fight it out to give thousands of spectators a display of physical strength, courage and boxing prowess.

Guns and Hoses is part of everyone’s annual tradition.

And like everyone here, I’ve always wanted to help and support BackStoppers.  When I was a young officer…not that I’m old now…just, you know…

When I was a new officer I wanted to do my part for BackStoppers, so I went to see Jerry Leyshock about training for a fight. 

For anyone who doesn’t know him, Jerry is a frequent competitor in Guns & Hoses and for years he’s been a leader when it comes to recruiting and training new fighters for the event.  Think…Mick from the Rocky movies, or maybe Clint Eastwood from Million Dollar Baby.  Except compared to those guys Jerry might be a bit more grizzled and bit less politically correct.

So I went down to the gym, to see Jerry and find what he could do for me.  I did a little shadow boxing, jumped some rope…nothing too complicated.  After about half an hour I asked him “What do you think, coach?  Can you make a fighter out of me?”

It was an immediate “No”.  Not just “No”…but “HECK NO!”  For those who don’t know Jerry…”heck” is a four-letter word.

I think he just wanted me to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.

I remember Jerry said “Sam, we’re each called upon to help BackStoppers in different ways.  Boxing isn’t for you.  Maybe you could try making speeches or something.”

So now you know the truth: my career as a charity prize-fighter was both short and disappointing.  But my commitment to public safety is enduring and strong.  And so is my respect for BackStoppers...which has only grown over the years…because of events like this, and because of supporters like you.

So here’s the deal.  I can’t promise this speech will be perfect.  But I can promise it will be a lot better than any boxing match you would ever get out of me. 

You know my other mentor - besides Jerry Leyshock, who did me a favor by not letting me fight -was Franklin Roosevelt.  Tonight I’ll stay very close to his three rules for public speaking: be sincere, be brief, and…be seated.

The work we do as first responders is like no other kind of work.  I spent a little time in the corporate world, and while I enjoyed my experiences there, I’ve spent most of my life in public service, and for me…nothing even comes close to the satisfaction I receive from public service.

Growing up, my parents told me to go into business, to go out and make as much money as possible, but I kept hearing a different calling. I wanted to do something more meaningful.  In the end, it was an easy choice for me.  Around my junior year in college, I become strong enough or…maybe just rebellious enough, to start moving in a different direction.  I decided my heart belonged here, in public service.

It’s funny, because the last thing I considered before starting my police career was the idea of becoming an economist…not in the sense concerned with money and markets, but in the sense concerned with how people make decisions and choices. 

If you think about it, those career paths – being an economist versus a police officer - are not so far apart.  As an economist I would’ve studied human behavior. As a police officer, I‘ve learned more than anyone should know about the way humans misbehave. 

We all make our living by meeting some need for people or for society – this is true for officers, and it’s true for everyone else.  In the end I just felt that the public’s need for safety was so important, so fundamental, so basic…I wouldn’t feel right doing anything else.

In previous years at this dinner, you’ve heard from political leaders, sports figures, actors, generals, CEOs. I hope tonight I’ll be able to share with you a slightly different perspective…a view of the world seen through the eyes of a police officer and a police chief. 

There are two separate and distinct audiences here tonight.  The first responders and their families will already know a lot of what I’m talking about.  But I want to share their experience as much as possible with the second audience…those who don’t wear a uniform.

As a police officer or firefighter or EMT, you see so much.  You see more than your share of tragedy, loss, anxiety, stress, and suffering.  But you also see almost super-human displays of heroism, love, compassion, and kindness…sometimes, all at the same time.

We’re not here tonight because this is easy.  We’re here because this is life and death.  If anyone was looking for me to tell a few jokes, or be funny well…this might be a good time to visit the bar.  Some of what I have to say reflects a harsher reality…which can’t be expressed in humor.

Many in the audience already understand what I mean.  To borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan: “Most people spend their lives wondering if they’ve made a difference.  First responders don’t have that problem.”

Well, there’s still another group that doesn’t have to wonder if they’ve made a difference….and those are the families of police officers, firefighters and EMTs. 

To everyone else, let me tell you exactly what I mean.  Standing beside every man or woman who takes the risks of public service, there are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons.  It is they who make our service possible, and they who share in our risks, and know them far too well.

Even the simple act of getting dressed for work – as a police officer or a firefighter or an EMT – symbolizes that risk.  The officers and their loved ones here will already know what I mean by that, but for everyone else let me explain the ritual.

As a police officer, you put on your Kevlar vest – and there’s a certain surrealism about it, because you know it’s there to protect your vital organs.  The weight of it, the sound of the Velcro straps, it gets your attention immediately. 

You put on your duty belt, which is there to accommodate your many tools of survival.  You put on your handcuffs, which are there to restrain those who would do harm to the community.  You grab your radio, which is there to summon your brothers and sisters when you need them most.  You grab your TASER, which is there so you can use the least amount of force necessary, because even those who would harm you are still yours to protect.  You holster your gun, which is there in case all else fails.  You put on your blue shirt, your badge, and your cap…and in that very act, you are making a visible pledge to the community.  You’re saying: I am on duty and I am here to protect you.

Most of the time we avoid the worst, but it can’t always be avoided. I will never forget August 8th, 2000.  On that day, I drove Michelle Stanze to the hospital. 

Her husband Bob was a fellow officer.  We went to the Academy together. We started the same day. We graduated together on Valentine’s Day 1994.  Michelle and Bob were my neighbors.  That was the moment when I fully understood the meaning of the words “police family”.

You know, there are many things to keep a police officer awake at night.  There are many things to keep a Police Chief awake too. You spend your days thinking about budgets, crime statistics, news headlines, staff allocations, equipment purchases, all those things. 

But these past five months I’ve noticed it’s always the same thing that wakes me up at night: It’s not thought, but emotion.  It’s the nightmare of getting that call, driving to the hospital, talking to another family torn by tragedy, standing at another gravesite…because one more is too many, in a world where one is always too many. Nothing can adequately prepare you for the emotion of it. 

Some things about this job are routine and forgettable.  But the names of our fallen we know and always remember.  Names like Merriweather, Strehl, Stanze, Barwick, Sloan, Branson, Kowalski, Jerabek, Brown, Moore, Haynes, and Hall.  And all those officers died in the performance of duty since I began my career. That goes to show just how personal this is.  We’re here because we knew them, and because we loved them.

That’s who BackStoppers is really for…that’s what it’s really about.  And these are not abstractions.  They are people made of flesh and blood.

In Ireland, adorning a gravesite with no name, there is a stone carved with these words: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Just look around tonight and you can see how people come together to help others who they may never meet, face to face.

Margaret Meade said it better than I could: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

I think the group here tonight stands in proof of that idea. First responders are a family. The community itself is our extended family, and you are here tonight as its leaders.

You know, I mentioned earlier that I had an interest in economics.  We’ll let me apply some concepts from behavioral economics to help explain just what BackStoppers means to the first responder on the street.

Have you ever asked yourself: What makes someone walk into a burning building?  What makes someone pursue an armed robber down a gangway?  What makes police officers and firefighters and EMTs willing to enter the Stephens Institute – to enter a school where a gunman is stalking the halls - at precisely the moment when everyone else is trying to get out? 

Most people spend their lives avoiding and minimizing risk.  In economic terms, that means most people place the highest possible price on safety. So what makes first responders put a higher price on the safety of others than they do their own?  What makes them both willing and able to take such great risks?

What makes them able to say “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me”?

Well, the answer includes a lot of different things. 

It begins with courage, and we all know we have that.  But another common element is…first responders need to believe that their work matters, they need to know others understand and appreciate the risks they’re taking. They need to believe that – even if they are called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice – they need to KNOW their families WILL be taken care of.

It’s hard to imagine one organization could do all of those things, and yet, that’s exactly what BackStoppers does. 

It sends a message saying: “Thank you.  Your work matters.  We understand.  We appreciate what you’re doing.” 
 It also backs up that message with action.  It honors and respects the police officers, the firefighters, the EMTs who protect OUR loved ones, by providing real, material security to THEIR loved ones.  It both salutes our courage and helps to make it possible.

As a Police Chief my goal is very simple…I want to support BackStoppers more, and I want to need it less.  As a society, I believe we can and must do better.  In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to talk about what happens when public servants make the ultimate sacrifice.

But in the world we live in, BackStoppers is simply indispensible.  And so that means your support for the organization is also indispensible. 

The chain of causes is very simple: Without your support, BackStoppers couldn’t exist.  Without BackStoppers, we first responders couldn’t be confident about the security of our families.  Without that sense of security, we couldn’t do our jobs.  Without us doing our jobs, the city couldn’t remain safe.  And without that, you couldn’t feel safe…in knowing your families are secure.

Each one of you should be proud of the part you play in this tonight. 

On behalf of everyone who lives and works in the comfort of knowing BackStoppers will be there for them, please let me say just one thing……thank you.

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