Making the best of the beat

My America is in the image of my 94-year-old Mexican American grandmother waking up every morning and raising the American flag on her front porch. It is the Land of opportunities, fundamentally good people, and hope.”

“What the hell,” thought Jon Coleman, a rookie police officer, as he watched a naked, white man in his 20s make a spider-man-like jump onto Fiat, and from there to the dock of a yacht on the sunny California morning.

He watched as a woman who just woke up on the bottom level of the same yacht walked out of the cabin to meet the new day and screamed hysterically as she saw the naked man jump to her yacht.

Nobody warned Coleman about situations like this or instructed him on how to deal with the “crazy naked calls,” which usually came in every few weeks throughout the next six years of his time on the job for the enforcement agency.

“Unfortunately, it’s never people you want to see naked,” laughed Coleman.

California has no laws that prohibit people from walking around naked, said Coleman. Some cities have ordinances clarifying the matter, but the city of Oxnard, where Coleman lived and worked, wasn’t one of them.

Coleman, 22 then, a week out of police academy, and his colleague-supervisor, who Colman was attached to for the next six months as a part of his training, jogged after the naked guy for some time at that point.

As the woman screamed, the naked guy turned and saw the officers. He stood at attention like a diver, his hands and feet together, and made a swan dive off the top of the yacht. But he didn’t land in the water. Instead, he landed at the bottom deck of the boat.

“Get him, get him!” screamed the lady, while the naked guy fish flopped into the water and fell with a splash.

“For some reason, I thought I was gonna jump after him,” said Coleman recalling his confusion on how to approach the situation. He thought he needed to be a hero and jump into the water to save the guy.

For situations like this, new policemen have partners to guide them through the challenges. Coleman’s partner warned him off jumping after the naked guy. It probably saved Coleman from drowning, because his 30-40 pounds of police gear would likely have dragged him right to the bottom of the sea.

The naked guy got out by himself, and the officers handcuffed him. Because of the man’s medical symptoms and bizarre behavior, officers chose to call for an ambulance instead of taking the man to jail.

There is a synthetic drug called “Spice,” explained Coleman. When used in large amounts, the drug can cause a dramatic increase in the internal temperature of the human body and induce a condition called “excited delirium”. People experiencing this manic state will sometimes take off their clothes, run around screaming, and exhibit incredibly bizarre behavior. Coleman assumed the naked man was probably using Spice.

“His heart rate was through the roof, and his pupils were blown. The guy just wasn’t having a very good day.”

Coleman always liked that police work presented a challenge. There is no method that works every time. Style matters, and throughout a career, each officer develops his or her own style.

“It’s an art, really. It’s not a science. There is no equation. There is no one tactic that works every time because every call is different. Sometimes, you are confronted with a crazy family that wants to fight. Sometimes, you are called out to speak with a 12-year-old that refuses to go to school. Sometimes you are at the beach; sometimes you are in a field. Drugs and alcohol also throw a curveball into the mix. There are so many different variables to take into account.”

Coleman applied to become a police officer soon after getting his B.A. in history from the University of California in Santa Barbara. The law enforcement career always interested Coleman because he felt it was a career that would allow him to look in the mirror every morning and feel a sense of satisfaction.

It’s not easy to join the police. First, Coleman went through six to eight months of a nerve-wracking application process while also working a part-time job and putting in hours in the gym to stay fit. He had to complete all kinds of testing: written and physical evaluations, interviews, background checks, physiological evaluations, and a lie-detector test.

Once Coleman was hired, he started a 26-week training program at the police academy, where he learned the basics on how to be a police officer – from California laws to tactics and communication skills.

“It’s a very rigid academy setting. It is run like a boot camp with drill instructors, marching yelling. It’s extremely strict.” said Coleman.

There was a certain way of doing everything, and the supervisors expected nothing less than perfection from recruits, starting with their behavior and ending with the way the uniform looked. Coleman spent thousands of dollars at the dry cleaners because he took his uniform there almost every day.

One of the practices aimed to measure recruits’ integrity was a “fitness detail” assignment in which they had to write down everything they ate in a day. If someone lied in their fitness details and the staff found out, he or she would be fired, and that happened to at least one person during Coleman’s time at the academy.

“We were pretty paranoid. We thought the staff had eyes everywhere,” said Coleman.

“It sounds strict, but I think it’s important. There are certain people who shouldn’t be police officers, and if you lie about stupid things like that, you shouldn’t be a police officer.”

The police academy is when some people drop after not being able to deal with the pressure or realizing it’s not really for them. Coleman never doubted his choice.

“The best thing they teach you at the police academy is that the biggest obstacles we face to success are the ones that we place on ourselves. Mindset is everything. We are capable of so much more than we think,” he said.

After graduating from the academy, Coleman had three weeks of training at Oxnard police department and then five months of work with a partner who was constantly assessing him. That was when he encountered the crazy naked guy and was basically a bystander while his partner called the shots.

“For a long time, you really don’t know what you are doing. You get out of the academy and you think you are a cop, everything is great, and you look really good in uniform,” Coleman recalled. “But you don’t know what you are doing.”

Oxnard, a town of about 210,000 people with a Hispanic majority, has extensive gang activity. Even though the police had to deal with a lot of violent conflicts, most of the time he spent working with the quality-of-life issues.

With time, Coleman developed a grip on things and started enjoying the task of being a good police officer. A policeman is expected to wear a lot of hats to serve the community well, said Coleman. On top of writing tickets and performing the regular duties of law enforcement officers, they spent up to 80 percent of the time resolving conflicts of all kinds.

“Most of the people in the city are not gang members, and they don’t abuse drugs. Most citizen concerns revolved around problems with disrespectful neighbors, parking issues, or motorists speeding through neighborhoods,” said Coleman.

To communicate with the community he served better, Coleman picked up online courses and learned Spanish. Despite having a Hispanic grandmother who immigrated from Mexico as a child, Coleman’s Spanish prior to starting his career as a police officer was limited.

When Coleman started working as an officer, there wasn’t much negative coverage of police on news, he said. On the contrary, most of the people he met during his shifts liked having police around and wanted them to come by more often.

Oxnard Police Department had a policy to answer every call they received, which meant that if someone called about the tree blocking their driveway – someone went to that scene. If someone called and said they were feeling sad and wanted to talk to a police officer about it – they responded. It helped in establishing good relationships with the community.

“If you treat people with respect… it really goes a long way,” said Coleman.

“Contentious contacts are part of police work. People don’t enjoy going to jail or having the police tell them that their actions broke the law. That being said, I generally found that if I took the time to explain myself in a respectful manner and allowed people the time to vent at me and voice their grievances, that we could usually reach an understanding.”

Even though movie-like fights and chases make up for a very small percentage of the job, Coleman had his share of dramatic calls. Every now and then, he dealt with the aftermath of shootings or stabbings. Once, he held a dying man in his hands. Seeing how sudden other people’s lives ended sometimes taught him to appreciate his life more.

“In the police world, you get to see the full spectrum of human behavior. You get to see really courageous people doing pretty heroic things, but then you also get to see really bad people doing very evil things to each other,” said Coleman.

People don’t call the police just to share their positive emotions; they call because someone is doing something bad. Dealing with bad people full-time and seeing violent and cruel things every day can take a toll on how a police officer sees people in general. Coleman chose to concentrate his attention on the good people and deeds rather than bad.

“I’ve noticed that most of the people are fundamentally good. They want to help their neighbors, they want people to succeed. For every time I was given the finger on the street, I was given a coffee or water 10 times more. Good people outweigh bad ones.”

Coleman’s America is a country of good people who want to live a happy, peaceful life with their families. And if someone wants to take a risk and change their life, he or she can create an opportunity to do so.

After five years at the job, Coleman pulled together enough courage to leave behind his career in law enforcement and move to the D.C. area following his dream of becoming a diplomat. He enrolled in Security Policy Studies master’s program at George Washington University and spent a summer month before the first semester in Mexico, improving his Spanish.

The inspiration behind making the change was his great-grandmother and grandmother, who crossed the border from Mexico to build a new life for themselves in the U.S. They chased their American dream, and Coleman decided to chase his.

America allows people to take a leap and create a change for themselves. It doesn’t matter where they are coming from – Texas or Finland, California or Iran. It doesn’t matter what culture or talent they bring with them – they would have an opportunity to do well.