by Donnell Ann Bell

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in my local sheriff’s office citizens’ academy. After sitting through six weeks of law enforcement demonstration and opinion, I believe the experience brought realism to my writing. Out of all the personnel I met during this time, there was one sergeant who impressed me above anyone else. Her words still resonate with me to this day.

Just be professional, it’s not that hard.

Sadly, I can’t remember her name, but I took note of her words. She was a beautiful Hispanic woman and when she stood before the class and explained that she worked in the jail—unarmed—among male inmates, I thought, Holy cow, this lady won’t live long. Silly me. She’d worked among them for years. What’s more, she was required to turn her back on this criminal element— often.

For anyone who’s been in a jail, you know there’s intense security and surveillance, and the deputies can call upon immediate assistance. But knowing this didn’t make me feel better. I kept thinking she could be injured or dead before help could arrive.

Turns out she hadn’t made sergeant for nothing and understood the risks. What’s more, she carried herself with amazing grace and an even more amazing sense of who she was. She didn’t look tough on the outside, but as she called one six-foot naysayer to the front and brought him down with such ease, she filled me with a whole new appreciation and respect for who she was and what she did for a living.

After she dropped my classmate to his knees, she modestly helped him up and shook his hand. Then she turned to the class and said, “Just be professional, it’s not that hard.”

She also went on to explain that as a Hispanic female charged with watching over incarcerated inmates, it oftentimes presented problems. Particularly, when many of those inmates were Hispanic and grew up in households in which men did not take orders from women. So not only did the sergeant face an authority issue, she encountered a cultural barrier.

How did she handle it? By treating everyone with respect. “Those men don’t know me,” she said. “Their slurs and insults can’t reach me. When my shift ends I go home to my family whose opinions do count.”

So why do I tell you this story? Because today I’m seeing exactly what she talked about — a reduction in professionalism. Worse, we are not inmates. I’m seeing dry wit replaced by so-called snarkiness (I have another term for it). What’s more, this type of behavior is applauded. In an on-line society, where we are faceless individuals behind a computer screen, it’s so easy to react and push send and forget there’s a real live, flesh and blood human being on the other side.

I recently listened to a radio ad in which two actors portrayed school-aged girls, one of whom said the most horrible things to her peer. I sat back stunned, thinking what on earth? Then at the end of the message, the voice over said, “You wouldn’t say it to their face, why would you say it on line?”

I don’t know about you, but for anyone to even feel the need to air such a public service announcement made me incredibly sad. As for me, I think I’ll follow the sergeant’s example. I’ll take her words to heart. I’ll strive for professionalism. I learned from the very best that it’s not that hard.