Carleen Gonder, who works as a law enforcement officer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, says that law enforcement and Dharma are compatible.
Ever since I was a small child, I wanted to work in the natural environment, but I thought about myself more as a protector for wild things, for those things that can’t speak, rather than a research biologist. I was a sporadic university student, taking extended time-out, especially after my first trip to Nepal in 1984. During my second trip in 1986 I attended the spring Kopan short meditation retreat, and my third trip in 1987 introduced me to Lawudo Monastery. The Montana USA FPMT Dharma center was conceived in my head during that brief stay at Lawudo and was born that following November. For several years my life was given full time to the Dharma center in Montana and the political issue of Tibet. After I resigned from the center and spent a brief stint as Mandala’s editor, I left the “cave” and returned to society.
In 1997 I felt ready to pursue my childhood wish by preparing for a career in natural resource law enforcement. I felt a need to discuss this with a senior Western practitioner and called Ven. Thubten Kunsel. Her response was, “Wonderful! We need Dharma practitioners in law enforcement.” I went to an academy in 1997 and now I am a federal officer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. For me, the sequence was crucial: meeting the Dharma and my root teachers, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, before becoming a law enforcement officer.
In the US we have a myriad of constitutional and legislative imperatives that provide the legal framework for law enforcement agencies. But it’s the more subtle levels that provide the greatest challenges for individual officers and brings home to me the reality that being in law enforcement is Dharma practice. We need only to look at two recent mind-numbing events to understand the seriousness of those challenges.
In New York four police officers fired 41 shots, killing an unarmed man, and in Los Angeles, California investigations are continuing into a division of that city’s police department that fabricated cases resulting in falsely charging and imprisoning numerous innocent people. As with any facet of our existence, the greatest challenges in law enforcement are our own mental attitudes. These two events are prime examples.
A friend recently wrote to me that with law enforcement and the Dharma, “There’s a bit of a conflict, in a way. The motivations are different.” I disagree. I believe that the motivation is the same. Paramount in our training and makeup as officers are ethics integrity and morality. Much of our Code of Ethics reads like teachings I’ve heard from our precious lamas, such as: “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others.”
I can add that how we view others can dictate how we respond to them, which can be crucial in a crisis situation. Since that shooting in New York, newscasts have been saturated with commentaries. One that was particularly striking to me was an interview with William Geller, author of Deadly Force: What We Know. Mr. Geller has been researching police shootings for over 20 years. When asked how police can “serve and protect in an environment where there are hostilities,” a part of his response really struck a chord: “If the police put themselves in the shoes of the people that they are policing and ask, ‘Suppose this was my brother, suppose this was my cousin, suppose this was my wife,’ what would I do to be sure that we have the most positive contact we can have here? Everything flows from that.”
As our teachers have told us countless times, we have been caught up in cyclic existence since beginningless time, therefore every being has been our mother. This provides me with a context should I need it in guiding a tactical response to a situation.
In police work, actual law enforcement accounts for only a small part of our activity. Since the ramifications of a law enforcement action can be huge, we must give those actions serious consideration. I, for one, give extensive thought to this, always attempting to view it from a Dharma perspective. The 45th of the 46 auxiliary bodhisattva vows states that one should “abandon not preventing those who are committing harmful actions in general, and specifically those who are a menace to the Dharma, from continuing their harm by whatever means are deemed necessary by circumstances.”
I am attempting to articulate what many people feel is the real issue behind law enforcement: the use of force. Too many have the mistaken belief that officers are trained to kill. We are not. We are trained to use whatever means necessary to stop a threat. In the words of His Holiness [from The Art of Happiness]: “Sometimes, you may encounter situations that require strong countermeasures. I believe, however, that you can take a strong stand and even take strong countermeasures out of a feeling of compassion, or a sense of concern for the other, rather than out of anger. One of the reasons why there is a need to adopt a very strong countermeasure against someone is that if you let it pass – whatever the harm or crime that is being perpetrated against you – then there is a danger of that person’s habituating in a very negative way, which in reality will cause that individual’s own downfall and is very destructive in the long run for the individual himself or herself. Therefore a strong countermeasure is necessary, but with this thought in mind, you can do it out of compassion and concern for the individual.”
With the use of countermeasures, we must guard against delusional thinking. Always. Officers are at times in situations where a split-second decision must be made in the midst of an adrenaline rush. That decision must be made with the purest of intentions.
I had my own taste of this a few months ago in a training scenario. I was alone against two assailants. We were using real weapons reconfigured to fire paintballs. I usually have a difficult time with role-play but this time it felt remarkably real. I had just spent the past several months in real life wondering how I would respond if a hunter were to react violently, which is always a very real possibility. And there it was, brought to life. The decision was instantaneous on my part; I drew my weapon and fired one shot, dropping the hunter who had intended to shoot me. I didn’t “kill” him but my shot did “incapacitate” him and I verbally controlled the other hunter. I received a great deal of praise for how I handled the situation from the instructors, observers and the fellows who played the role of the hunters. I am sure this was because I had done only what was necessary to remove the threat. But what has stayed with me the most was the feeling I had as I fired. It was almost overpowering sadness, maybe compassion, for the hunter.
I can’t begin to claim any great control over my mind. But it is imperative in this work to be as vigilant with what is going on in my head as in my external surroundings. My buttons do get pushed and I have to be more than mindful of this. I must use strong countermeasures against my own thoughts and emotions, so graciously taught to us by our teachers.
I do hope to hear from others in similar fields. We do need to discuss law enforcement issues from the Dharma perspective, to network and form fellowship.Tags: vajra brothers and sisters have a say