A crack in the armour

On Nov. 19, 2017, the country watched as emergency responders from across the world marched together in support of a fractured family.

At the memorial service for Abbotsford Police Const. John Davidson, Sgt. Judy Bird cried.

Davidson was shot and killed in the line of duty Nov. 6.

"The fact that people saw me crying on TV was hard because my kids have never seen me cry," says Bird.

It's not easy for police officers to show that level of vulnerability, she explains. 

"We constantly see people in pain and distress, and we need to control our emotions when we see these things because people come to us as their rock."

Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich said at the service that a long-standing attitude in policing must come to an end. "Suck it up is not part of what we do. If you get hurt because you've responded heroically on behalf of this community, doing your job, then I want you to take a knee."

Police officers have learned to shield themselves, to not allow the human side to show. 

"You were tough," says Bird. "I remember being called to a really bad fatal accident. My supervisor at the time said you need to go see one of the police psychologists. And I was embarrassed. I was appalled. I thought I was weak. I went because I had to go ...Taking a knee historically has not been OK." 

Bird remembers the days when officers didn't talk about mental health; days when no matter what an officer experienced, they did not seek help. 

"We have excellent resources for our membership, and slowly but surely we are acknowledging it's OK to use those resources."

She no longer cares the public witnessed her cry. It was a necessary crack in the armour. 

"I only have five years left. I want to go out and be able to enjoy my family and not suffer."

Bird laughs when asked about the start of her career. 

"I think the only reason I was hired is that I was an athlete," she says.

Bird compares policing to a bell-curve.

At the bottom of the curve, you go to work. At the top of the curve, you're at work. 

"By the time you get home, you are in the negative and you have nothing left." 

She adds, "somehow, police officers have to come into more of a balance, to make that curve not so high and not so low. I'll give my time to my work, but when I get home I need to give my time to my family and look after me."

In the early years of her career, Bird says divorce and alcoholism rates were high. It wasn't uncommon for officers to allow work to consume them.

"Your shift could be from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and you had a file at 3 in the morning; you've got some people in custody. You don't go home until that file is done, and that could be 10, 11, 12 o'clock in the day."

The effects of shift work have been well documented, one study even stated: "Shift work is definitely among one of the most serious occupational health problems of our time.”

While an organization has a responsibility to its members, Bird says as individuals, officers have to share in that responsibility, and that is knowing when to go home. 

We are asking normal people to do an abnormal job.

Bird developed a persona a long time ago that she refers to as "police Judy." That's the person who wears the uniform. 

The mask is necessary to protect "regular Judy" from the realities of the job.

Law enforcement rarely gets a pass.

"We constantly feel like people don't call us to come to a barbecue," she says. "Every day, there are people threatening you or your family."

"So you put on your armour, and it doesn't matter.... You deal with that long enough, why would you even bother taking the armour off even a tiny little bit?"

When the public paints all law enforcement with the same brush, it affects Bird to her ethical core. 

"People calling me corrupt, I don't think there's a swear word that you could call me that would come close to that ... When you talk about bad cops, we all get very defensive because we live our lives every single day having to be role models."

"I can honestly tell you that was not 'police Judy' (at Davidson's memorial) ... My armour was broken, but you know what? Somebody needed to stand and talk. And I'm fine standing and talking. And here I am."

Bird says police sometimes have to take the armour off and check and see if there's any damage. 

"I don't think before we ever checked ... we just sort of went off and dealt with it," she said. "But, I think now we actually have to come forward and say 'I need a second. I'm a little bit broken.'"

In part six of Front-line Frequencies, we speak with the only first responders in our series who are completely volunteer-based, Vernon Search and Rescue.

*Sgt. Bird was speaking from personal experience and does not speak for all members of law enforcement. And, even though her armour has changed, she is doing OK. 

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