Larry Wallace was the first person I met when I moved to town. I was slated to start my duties as the new chief the next morning, but my new city manager was insistent that I join him and a “special guest” for dinner that night. Though I didn’t see what the big deal was at the time, he was almost giddy with pride that he’d been able to secure the arrangement. I’d later come to find out why.
Larry is a legend in Tennessee law enforcement. He’s the only man, dead or alive, to have served as the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the colonel of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The TBI’s massive, state-of-the-art headquarters in Nashville became a reality during the two terms he served as director of the organization. Before all that, he also served as the sheriff of McMinn County. He got his start as a patrolman at the department I now serve at. He attended the second class of the Tennessee Law Enforcement Academy after it started.
If Larry is a legend in Tennessee, he’s an outright icon in our town. He was born and raised here, literally down by the train tracks. After dragging himself up by his bootstraps and making his mark on the state, he retired and came back home to work at our local college. He founded the criminal justice program there and even has a gathering place on the campus named after him.
He’s well known both near and far in Tennessee as a lawman, leader and educator. To me, though, he simply became a friend. He’s someone I constantly rely on for advice and information. He’s a person I can count on to tell the truth (whether I want to hear it or not), based on his years of experience. There are times when I honestly don’t know what to do or which way to go. During these times, Larry can give me the benefit of stories about similar situations he’s worked through. Sometimes, I already have a plan of action figured out. Even then, I’ve found that there’s value in simply running my plans by him. Leadership can be a high-stakes game. The stress and emotion that accompany big decisions can make it difficult to make wise choices and truly appreciate the consequences of different courses of action. There’s real value in having someone outside the stress of the moment to offer their take on the situation.
As I reflect on my career, I find that the different phases were marked by people who have played this role. Tony Drzwiecki was one of my early sergeants who went out of his way to help me plot the course of my career. Rob Swearingen was my captain when I was a young detective. He went out of his way to make sure I had the training and opportunities necessary to advance in my career. EE Eunice was the director of my law enforcement academy class who had served as chief in several towns during his career before retiring. Years after the academy (by then a young chief myself), I still sought him out for advice. I spent many a night on the phone, pacing around my front porch, seeking out his advice from across the country. Many men and women have taken a personal interest in my career and helped me along the way.
Why we need mentors
Whether a young officer working the street, a middle-manager running a shift or the chief executive making decisions for an entire department, we all need mentors. Why? Because we’re all human.
The reality is that no matter how smart or experienced we are, we are still bound by the limitations inherent to our species. Some of those limitations are simply due to a lack of knowledge. I’m middle-aged now, and I’m blown away at how quickly time has passed. Every year of life experience has made me wiser, but each passing day has also taught me just how much more I have to learn. I’m convinced that by the time I really have it figured out, it will be time to retire (or maybe worse). Experience (whether in life or a particular profession) can’t be jammed into classroom training or even a well-written book. It is purchased at the cost of the very limited years on this earth that our fragile bodies afford us. We need people in our lives who possess the experience we don’t have. They can provide input and insight on situations that we’re facing. No matter how good we may be at our job, an older, more seasoned mentor can usually provide additional insight into a situation based on the benefit of their experience.
Our humanity also limits us by our emotions and mental capacity. We aren’t robots. Emotions (and general stress) make it very difficult to make proper decisions in the heat of the moment. I often read newspaper articles or case studies about high-profile lawsuits or scandals at government agencies or other organizations. It’s easy to sit in my comfortable armchair and shake my head at the bone-headed move some leader made that landed their whole organization in hot water. These silly moves are often made by very qualified people. Why? Because they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when they were making the decision. They were in the heat of the moment, being acted upon by fear, anger or perhaps a simple inability to see the situation the way that outsiders were bound to view it when it went public. Emotions and stress do that to us. It’s part of our human nature. A good mentor has the benefit of not being in the midst of the same high-pressure situation. They can give honest advice about how different courses of action are likely to affect the situation. Most importantly, they can give that advice without the constraint of the bias that someone involved in the situation will struggle with.
Finally, a mentor is simply a kindred spirit. Cops are a notoriously thick-skinned bunch. They have to be. They routinely see the worst of humanity and endure constant criticism. You have to have a little John Wayne in you to survive that type of environment. As admirable as many of these traits can be, we’re learning as a profession just how important it is to acknowledge our humanity. The ever-growing emphasis on officer well-being and mental health comes from an increasing understanding that the old way of burying stress and trauma doesn’t make for a long and healthy career. Even when a willingness to discuss stressors exists, it’s still difficult for people in the law enforcement profession to communicate adequately. Many people who have never walked in the boots of an officer simply don’t (or can’t) understand the unique nature of the job. There’s something inherently different about working an insane, ever-changing shift where terms like “weekend” are irrelevant. People who have a more traditional schedule may not be able to relate to the way this affects things as simple as making it to your kid’s baseball game. It’s hard to understand what it’s like to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with an abuser, only to have to calm yourself, change your demeanor and then go help their distraught child and wife make it through the worst day of their life. Someone who’s never held a dying child can not adequately relate to the trauma that comes with the action, no matter how good their intentions. A mentor, though, can relate. They’ve trodden those same paths. It’s not uncommon for me to reach out to my friend Larry just to run a situation by him. His vast experience and his detachment from the situation put him in a unique situation to give unbiased advice. That same experience also means that we speak the same language when I need someone who can relate to whatever stressor I’m experiencing at the time. If I’m being asked to do something at work that is unethical, I might have to give a primer on law enforcement ethics before a friend or family member can even begin to give their opinion or offer support. Not so with someone like Larry. He already speaks the same language. He can understand the issue and begin relating to my problem before I even finish the story.
In the same way that the profession is overcoming the stigma of trauma and other mental health issues, we need to become more comfortable with asking for aid and developing relationships that can provide that support. I’m thankful for the relationships I’ve had over the years that helped me grow and develop as a law enforcement officer. I need all the help I can get.