Tracy Nelson, like all law enforcement officers, knows the job is more than just wearing a badge — it means living each day understanding that it may be your last.
In 2019, 47 officers were killed by gunfire while on duty, and more than 220 others took their own life with their own gun, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Seven of those on-duty deaths were Alabama officers. And, for Alabama State Trooper Capt. Tracy Nelson and hundreds of men and women across the state who put their lives on the line daily to protect and serve, one death of a fellow officer is too many.
“Law enforcement is something someone has to be called to do, and sometimes someone called to do it can’t do it,” said Nelson. “Law enforcement is a stressful career.
“Besides a soldier battling in war, how many other people wear a bulletproof vest to work? Let’s face it: People either love us or they hate us, and those that love us at some time may hate us if we enforce the law where they are concerned. But, that’s our job.”
Nelson, who is part of the patrol’s Troop B overseeing 10 counties in southern Alabama, is a third-generation lawman, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps when he became a state trooper at age 26. For Nelson, whose son also is a state trooper, it was a decision he has never regretted.
Nelson said a law enforcement career is one many people don’t realize what it takes to go to work every day.
“A law enforcement officer typically retires around the age of 56,” he said as he recently sat in his office on U.S. Highway 231 north of Dothan. “Some say that’s an early age for retirement, and it would be for someone who has a less-high-risk career.
“But law enforcement doesn’t fall in that category. Not only does an officer have a high-risk career, that career comes with a high risk of having health issues such as high blood pressure.”
Many of the health issues an officer can face are related to the physical aspects at work and real-life experiences while on the job.
“When someone outside law enforcement has a nightmare, they wake up and are thankful it was just a nightmare, and they can go back to bed,” Nelson said.
“When an officer has a nightmare, most of the time they wake up knowing they had a nightmare because of what they saw at a crash scene or so forth. Their nightmare is reality.”
However, the 23-year veteran trooper loves his job and can’t see doing anything else, although he does confess there has been a lot of on-the-job learning while patrolling Alabama roadways.
“I realized we not only enforce the law, but we have to be counselors, pastors, etc.,” Nelson said. “Years ago when I was in the academy, it never crossed my mind I would ever have to tell someone their wife, husband or child was dead.
“No matter how many death notifications an officer gives, it never gets easy and it’s something an officer can’t prepare for. I have never met anyone where notifying the next of kin did not bother them. Notifying the next of kin bothers the hardest of the hard.”
Nelson said that when an officer arrives at a fatal accident, a dead person is more than a number.
“As you investigate the wreck, you look through that person’s personal belongings and you get to know that person,” he said. “You also know you have to go deliver the news to their next of kin. Each person who is killed in a crash you investigate becomes a piece of you, and you become a piece of their family. You never forget them.
“I remember the walk I took to meet this father, and I remember shaking his hand to introduce myself. ... I will never forget how his hand felt that day or his emotions,” Nelson said, recalling his first death notification.
It’s part of the job that can affect officers in a negative manner.
“Not only did I tell a father his child was not coming home, I had to tell him his child was never coming home. I delivered news that day that changed his life forever.”
During his career, Nelson, who graduated from Dothan High School in 1987, has encountered hundreds of people, whether responding to a wreck or performing a driver’s license check, and he believes if more people looked beyond the law enforcement uniform, maybe they could see that being an officer truly is a calling.
“Law enforcement is not something you choose as a career for the pay,” Nelson said. “It’s a career you choose to make a difference, and to help those who need your help.”