While still in grammar school I have a memory of playing baseball behind a neighborhood schoolhouse in North Adams Massachusetts with some friends. The memory picks up like so many others. I have my dukes up because yet another kid wants to rearrange my face. The face for which I was fond of the current configuration. I must have been doing a pretty good job of avoiding the eventual bloody nose because enough time had elapsed for a neighbor to call the police. Suddenly a police cruiser comes down the driveway and breaks us up. This was the ultimate good news- bad news scenario for me. I maintain my youthful good looks yet in my mostly uncharted brain I thought that I was dead. Surely I would be arrested and put in jail. Yet despite my future as a convict the incarceration would be a blessing as long as my father couldn’t get to me in the joint!
The cop who pulled himself from the cruiser was larger than life and awe inspiring to me. Rather than sending me to the big house he was both kind and fatherly. The officer counseled us as to the inappropriateness of our actions and then he simply said goodbye and drove off. This was a seemingly insignificant event in that cops career but it was greatly significant to my life. It was after all another piece of the puzzle that is me. While in hindsight it is unlikely I would have done hard time in state prison for my misdeeds that day he could have made my life miserable indeed. Instead he used wisdom and discretion in his treatment of me and my fellow combatant. He dealt with us on the scene and provided me with a life lesson in an incident he likely wouldn’t have personally remembered just a short while later.
For reasons that would take me years to understand I worshiped that cop from that day forward. I wish that I had the ability today to tell him that he greatly influenced me during sixteen years of law enforcement. I wish that I could tell him that he taught me that there were many ways of reaching a positive outcome to a criminal situation that did not involve further violence and detention. Even though I was as yet clueless as to my future vocation he had taught me by example. He had shown me that in an event of immense importance to the participants a single officer can reshape and redirect the destiny of a person.
Fast forward about thirty years to the front lawn of residence hall and I am a University cop. I am standing there when a student comes up to me and asks if he can speak with me. I know the kid because a few weeks before I caught him with drugs in his possession and after a search I found drugs in his dorm room as well. As a University cop I had the ability to arrest him, refer him to the University for judicial action or do both. In this case I had chosen not to arrest him but rather seize the drugs and report him to the University. Instead of a lifelong criminal record drug possession the kid was simply removed from housing for three days.
The kid and I go to a bench in front of the building and his eyes start to tear up. He tells me that he wants to apologize to me for his actions that night and he thanks me for mine. He says that after my interaction with him he had cause to evaluate his life and his actions. The self introspection had led him to see that he was going down a winding and self destructive path. He said that after I dealt with him he had gone home and asked his parents if he could talk with them. He said that he laid out upon the kitchen table before them all of the drugs and paraphernalia that he had accumulated and hidden at his home. His parents, like so many others, had not had a clue. He confessed to his to his parents what he felt his failings had been and spoke of his desire to get his young life back on track. He told me that his parents had embraced him and been far more understanding and supportive than he could ever have dreamed. The kid sincerely thanked me and told me that if it had not been for me he would not likely have come to such a life altering moment.
That night- that kid- made it all worthwhile for me. If I had retired right then and there I would have gone out on top of my game. Just the fact that this young man had proactively sought me out to speak with demonstrated remarkable courage and maturity on his part. Surely that was a positive sign that he was indeed starting a walk down a right path. Many of my waking dreams revolve around this kid and so many others that I may have helped rather than hurt based upon my use of discretion; based upon my judgment. While I will likely never see that kid again I hope that maybe, just maybe he remembers me and that lesson just like I remember the cop who broke up that silly kid fight so many years ago and the lessons he taught me.
As a sad epilogue to the story of my hero cop I have to share this. Sometime after my experience with him I read in the paper that he had been killed in an off duty car accident in a neighboring town. I was still very much a kid but I do remember that I cried greatly when I heard the news. I also remember strangely enough as a kid crying when I heard that Louis Armstrong had died. To this day I had no clue why I had cried over Louis Armstrong’s death but I certainly understood, if as yet incompletely, why so for the death of this police officer.