The cop and the hero's journey:

A life of sacrifice and service

with no guarantee of a tidy, happy ending

Part 2 in a Special Series for Command magazine
June 2020

By Ed Wojcicki

In the December 2019 issue of Command, I introduced the concept of the hero’s journey and how it applies to a cop’s career. As I go into greater depth, I remain concerned that cops might call bullshit on it because popular heroic characters often seem too super, almost perfect, and without serious flaws.

That is precisely why I’m trying to follow Joseph Campbell’s lead into describing why the hero’s journey is a universal journey available to anyone. Cops might benefit from knowing that their personal sacrifices and lives of service follow a script familiar in every culture and every period of history. I won’t convince everyone, perhaps not many at first, but I know I am right about this.

Cops shun the "hero" label, but they proudly wear a badge, 
and they can benefit from learning how their careers, 
driven by service and sacrifice, 
follow an astonishing resemblance to the classic hero’s journey 
as it unfolds in every culture and every genre.

Take your cue from Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Simba, or other characters in popular movies. Campbell first described the hero’s journey in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Then Hollywood producer Christopher Vogler popularized it with a seven-page memo in 1985 that propelled the hero’s journey to become a staple of Hollywood producers. Both Campbell and Vogler saw this as mostly a circular journey in which the hero leaves his ordinary world, endures a period of trials and struggles, learns a lot from those struggles, and returns as a better person capable of sharing what he has learned. Here are the twelve stages of the hero’s journey as Vogler described them:

  1. The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD.
    2. The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
    3. The hero is encouraged by a MENTOR (often a Wise Old Man or Woman)
    4. The hero passes the first threshold. (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
    5. The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
    6. The hero reaches the innermost cave. (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)
    7. The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
    8. The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)

You see this pattern again and again in myths, movies, and classic literature.

As you think of movies and classics of literature, you might begin to think: Oh yes, now I see. Consider The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is in her ordinary world in Kansas, she goes through a threshold into the Land of Oz, she encounters serious troubles with the Wicked Witch of the West, she finds allies and makes enemies, and eventually she prevails and discovers there is no place like home.

Applying this to cops’ careers

It might be not obvious at first why I apply the same universal journey to sworn officers. So here it is, and I take the liberty of combining a few of Vogler’s stages to describe a police officer’s career in the stages of a hero’s journey:

    That gets them into the academy and their first job.


    … into the world where evil happens, where people hurt each other, and where people feel afraid for their safety. Cops routinely enter scenes from which everybody else is relieved to run. Cops find mentors in the academy, among their peers, or in other departments.

  3. Makes ALLIES and ENEMIES and endures a variety of TESTS and STRUGGLES.

    They develop strong bonds with other officers. They find that many people in the communities they serve are grateful that they are there, and if they look, they would find such support in Gallup and Pew national surveys. Almost none of the bad guys think they deserve to be arrested, and so there are fights and a lot of cursing and yelling. They feel the department doesn’t always have their back, and they complain that the state’s attorneys and judges don’t always put the bad guys in jail.

They also feel largely unappreciated by the media, many politicians, and community groups whose purpose is to bash the police. They feel powerless to respond to this, and it weighs on them.

4. Wins the big ordeal (hopefully), enjoys some personal TRANSFORMATION and takes the ROAD BACK to the ordinary world, the department and their home.

One or two major events always seem to stand out as they go through their careers. They grow with experience and gradually understand that they are different and not at all the same person who came out of the academy. This can be both negative and positive. Some become disillusioned and go off the rails in their personal lives, too. If they pay attention to their physical and psychological health, they can emerge as highly confident and effective individuals and as strong leaders in their departments and in their communities.

5. Becomes MASTER OF TWO WORLDS. One is the ordinary world where they begin and end their days, and the other is a special world(s) that includes all those places where police respond to calls for service.

As Kent Williams, retired chief of the Bartlett Police Department, says in his Breach Point presentations, the police do what they do so that the rest of society can pretend the evils don’t exist.

Officers become experts on the street, and some accept promotions to sergeant and higher as their careers advance. They continue to grow, and they get more and more training. They learn how to re-enter the “ordinary world” with their newfound skills and wealth of experiences. They know how to go back and forth and how to thrive in the department and in their communities.
This process repeats itself many times, because the cop goes daily from home to work, into the dark world, and back again. The master of two worlds learns to navigate these transitions and thresholds.

The process never ends. It is important to note that cops go back to the “struggles” stage regularly at work and at home, and it should be seen as okay to acknowledge the bumps in the road. In nearly every fictional story where the hero’s journey can be tracked, that middle period of struggles and challenges and dealing with internal and external adversaries is more than twice as long as the beginning stage and final stage combined.


Officers deliver psychological or physical rewards to individuals and to their communities and families. They stabilize many, many situations just by showing up and taking charge of the scene. They are trained to do that with the unlikely mix of firmness and compassion. They might return a stolen item or a lost child or provide comfort and security to victims of domestic violence. They provide guidance at accident scenes. As a result, people feel safer, and their communities are safer. Meanwhile, the cop thrives primarily because of an inner satisfaction that his or her personal sacrifice has been a service to civilized society.

Campbell says that this hero figuratively has “a thousand faces,” because he found the same hero in many cultures on most continents in every period of history. Decades later, he watched the first three movies in the Star Wars trilogy with filmmaker George Lucas and was thrilled to find the major themes of the hero’s journey in those movies.

Endings are not always happy

One issue I have with the classic hero’s journey is that in real life, heroes don’t always enjoy happy endings, as fairy tales and a lot of movies do. In Hoosiers, Rocky, and Bad News Bears, once-ordinary individuals and teams overcome great odds and win championships. They rise from obscurity, face great challenges, and overcome arrogant, higher-society challengers. Those triumphs are mostly for personal gain, not for the betterment of society.

In real life, real “heroes” don’t always get to the podium after enduring great struggles. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they are cast out and have to leave and never come back. They are no longer welcome. Sometimes they fail and fade away, disappearing into the oblivion of ordinary life.

Hamlet, a tragic heo, died. Serpico did not die, but he was shot and then ostracized and was said to be living in Switzerland. Huckleberry Finn felt he could not go back to the slave-owning world; he headed west instead. Lt. Dunbar – renamed “Dances With Wolves” – becomes a Sioux and doesn’t go back to the army.

Those heroes did not return to their familiar ordinary worlds. Vogler wrote a great book in which he recognizes that there are numerous alternatives to “happily ever after.” He says that a more open-ended approach to a story’s conclusion would see the world “as an ambiguous, imperfect place,” which is exactly what cops could tell anyone. Maybe that’s a major difference between a hero’s movie and real life. A movie has to end with some resolution, but real life goes on with all of its complexities and uncertainties, full of resets, new opportunities, and new obstacles.

Life is not as tidy as the classic hero’s journey. Neither is it circular or straight-line linear. Many analysts diagram the hero’s journey in a neat circle, with the hero moving from stage to stage and eventually circling back to where he came from after the challenges and the great ordeal. I don’t see it that way.

I see it as a crooked trajectory down and up. I see it as a grotesquely crooked line with barricades and plunges and ascents and plateaus. It is as uncertain as a maze, with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Sacrifice and service

Whether it’s tidy or circular or twisted, the universal journey, traveled well, is always about personal sacrifice and service. Officers on the hero’s journey endure daily personal sacrifices and rarely talk about them, all in the service of their communities and their brothers and sisters who also wear the badge.

That’s because the object of the service, the purpose of the sacrifice, is ultimately not about the hero’s destiny. No, their service and sacrifices allow all others opportunities for a better, safer path in life. The object of their service is the other, not oneself.

Cops know this.

That’s what attracts me to the “hero’s journey” and why I apply it to police officers. The self-help industry encourages us to follow our passions and follow our dreams – to discern what we’re good at and then to go after it. Follow your bliss, Campbell summarizes.

It’s not that I disagree, but I think there is a higher calling than figuring out your purpose and going after it. The higher calling is other-focused. The higher calling is to serve and care for others and to make great and small personal sacrifices, almost all unknown to others, as you make your humble mark in a specific time and place in history. It is by giving of yourself that you find meaning in life, and only in sacrifice and service are you the ultimate master of two worlds.

Ed Wojcicki is the Executive Director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.