I was somewhat surprised at the national attention given a New York City police officer who gave a pair of boots to a homeless man. This act resulted in three days of national headlines, as if it were an aberration. Yes, it was kind and, yes, I always like to see my beloved police profession get favorable press. However, acts of kindness are multiplied a thousand times a day, every day, by cops on the beat.
The bad press that the law enforcement profession gets is blown out of proportion when compared to the good they do as a matter of routine. Yes, there are “bad cops,” but they are a minute fraction of the nearly 1 million local, state and federal “good cops.” Yes, a cop gave a homeless man a pair of boots, but I’ve seen this type of loving gesture multiplied many times without recognition or fanfare by our own Morro Bay police officers. Most consider it just part of the job.
Cops are often perceived as aloof, but as they say, “Cops wake up every morning different than the rest of us. Our worst nightmare is simply their Wednesday.”
This is their defense mechanism separating them from the horror and injustice they see every day.
Cops hold folks and keep them from collapsing when they tenderly deliver the news that a loved one has died. Most have helped an old woman back to her feet, an old man back into bed and a terrified motorist on a desolate highway to safety. Many have given comfort and reassurance to someone just before they take their final breath. And all are ready to run toward gunfire when everyone else is running away from it.
Yes, cops give boots and other necessities of life, but most give a piece of themselves in return for being part of the “sacred public trust.” And, they don’t keep score. All they desire is to not be taken for granted, and to be seen as they truly are — dedicated protectors of life and property.
In 2012, the on-duty death toll for our nation’s police officers reached 126. That was down from the 2011 total of 174, but intolerable nonetheless.
I sometimes think about a deceased officer’s last day.
Did he — and please note, I use the masculine gender for convenience, not to take away from the sacrifices made by female police officers — peer back at himself in the mirror while shaving, looking forward to another day at work? Did his eyes reflect the commitment he had to his profession? Did he dream about an upcoming vacation, or worry about an unpaid bill? Did he put on his uniform and give himself a final look of pride just before he kissed his wife, not knowing that it would be the last time they would touch?
Did he feel the rush of excitement and anticipation as he conducted a pre-duty safety check of his patrol car, while the police radio chattered nonstop in the background? Did he have the same elated feeling I always had when I rolled out of the parking lot at the beginning of my shift, knowing that I was prepared for another day, doing what I loved to do? Did he get a rush of excitement when the “hot call” came out and he activated his emergency lights and siren, rushing for another chance to perform the “sacred trust?” What were his thoughts when he was confronted with the ultimate challenge and fate prevailed, and his world suddenly went dark?
Now, there is another uniform at another door, this time it’s at the door of a police officer’s home. The news is hard to give, but much harder to receive. The uniform holds back tears and helps the wife to a chair where she sinks in disbelief. The world respectfully becomes quiet as the room is engulfed in a mist of grief.
This scenario, or one just like it, happened 126 times last year. It just happened again with the shooting death of Galt, Calif., Police Officer Kevin Tonn. Did he have any clue when he looked in the mirror that morning that this was his last day in the service of others — that these would be the last moments he would experience the love and comfort of his home?
Cops are conditioned to think they are invincible and such thoughts are quickly dismissed. Dismissed, that is, until the bagpipes blow, the helicopters fly the aerial tribute of “the missing man” formation, and a long procession of red and blue lights slowly deliver another officer to rest.
Yes, indeed, cops do give more than boots to strangers.
Richard Hannibal is a retired police sergeant from Los Angeles County and a recent police reserve with the Morro Bay Police Department. He now lives on the Central Coast.