By Jefferson Weaver
The boy had to stretch a little to make it atop the vinyl-covered stool, and he had to stretch to reach the scarred Formica counter top. Like most diners of the era, cigarette smoke and the smell of the lunch special dominated the air.
The boy had about a dollar, and he knew he could get a Coke on ice and have some change left. He was hot, his feet hurt from his cowboy boots, and the restaurant was busy. The waitress was in the middle of the mill lunch period, and didn’t have time for a dusty boy. The boy waited patiently. He wasn’t scared, because he knew who to ask for help as soon as the man came through the door.
The cadaverously thin police sergeant with white Elvis hair sat down beside him. “Hot, ain’t it?”
“Yessir. Can you call my dad?”
The cop looked at him sideways. “You run away from home, boy?”
“No, sir,” the boy said. “My daddy always said, if I ever need help, find a policeman.”
He went on to explain that he had caught a ride to a friend’s house on the edge of town, but no one was home. He lived in the next town over, so he walked to the diner, the only other place he knew was open, since the barbershop was closed on a Wednesday.
More than 20 years later, that officer still reminded me of how we first met. A couple times, he reminded me that he knew my parents had raised me better than to be doing what I was doing, and he didn’t expect to have to have the same conversation again. I think he was one of the reasons I have disproportionately more friends who are LEOs than I do “regular” people.
I have known some bad cops. One or two rebuilt their lives after their misdeeds came to light. Some went to jail. At least one, maybe two, were likely victims of politics, rather than malpractice. A few even skirted being fired or charged with crimes, and were able to retire.
Yes, I have known some bad cops—as a reporter, it’s inevitable that you occasionally run across them. But the bad apples make up only the tiniest percentage of the officers I have known and occasionally called friends in the three decades I’ve been in the news business.
I do not have the courage, patience or selflessness to be a policeman; I doubt most of us do. Every officer out there is faced with the reality that he or she might someday have to stand between danger and someone who not only doesn’t appreciate the police, but actively dislikes anyone with a badge.
By no means would I try to excuse the bad behavior – or in most cases, alleged bad behavior—of a crooked law enforcement officer. They take an oath to be held to a higher standard, and that standard should always be met and exceeded. Indeed, people often get angry over their child’s arrest, when it was the result not of the policeman’s actions, but poor parenting. That’s when a law enforcement officer has to be his or her most professional.
I cannot comprehend why it’s cool to write songs and make movies glamorizing the murder of police officers, any more than I can understand why there is an immediate assumption of guilt on the part of the cop when someone is hurt by a law enforcement officers. Common sense tells me that if the officer with the authority to question my actions gives me a legal reasonable instruction, I need to be polite and respectful, even if I disagree with him. Most officers I know and have known practice a lot of on-the-spot discretion; if it weren’t for that good judgment, the jails would be a dozen times as full as they are right now. Good manners go a long way.
Something that really confuses me is why, if someone is physically threatening a police officer or another person with a weapon (be it their hands or a machine gun) that suspect or his family is surprised or offended that the suspect’s quite likely to be injured, if not killed.
If I insist on touching a hot stove, despite being told not to do so, I’ll get burned, and it’s my own fault. If I were to refuse to put down a weapon when told to do so by a policeman, there’s a better than average chance that the one with the best training, who did everything right, and should have the law his side, is likely the one going home. Folks who can’t understand that actions have consequences don’t need to be killed, unless there’s no other alternative, but they don’t need to be coddled and allowed to hurt and kill others, either.
The officer’s number one job is to protect the public, then himself. Last on the list is protecting the life and health of someone who has decided to break the laws designed to protect him and the rest of the general public. That’s how it should be, in my opinion.
Yet we have a new culture, one where the officer making the split-second decision has to put aside the distractions that he or she can quickly become a national enemy, unemployed or even charged with murder for killin’ someone who quite possibly needed or at least deserved killin’. Even if the officer is cleared for a shooting or other injury, the vulturine nature of the civil process means he or she can still be sued and financially destroyed – even if the officer was right, and the suspect wrong.
I have to wonder where we would be if all the police officers, Highway Patrol troopers, deputies, Wildlife officers, state and federal drug agents, detectives, and local officers decided at one time that it just ain’t worth it, and walked out. So many of the same people who scream about police brutality and abuse and militarization are the same ones who are incapable or unwilling to stand up and defend even their own homes, much less their communities. They regularly kick the sheepdogs who guard them.
Yet—professional law enforcement officers just shrug and drive on. I doubt my skin is thick enough to accept the abuse many of them receive, both on the national and personal scale.
Last week, folks gathered in Washington City to remember those sheep dogs who were kicked by their flocks. There were far too many children without mothers and fathers, far too many husbands and wives. Some of them were local to most of you reading these words.
Some of those officers honored changed flat tires for strangers on a busy roadside. Some gave rambunctious teenagers a lecture and a second chance. Some likely helped little kids whose parents told them that if they were lost in the land of the wolves, to find a sheepdog.
It’s sad that among all the memorials in our nation’s capital, the one that continues to grow is the wall of fallen peace officers. There will be other wars, and likely more memorials to honor those who die, but wars eventually cease, and enemies are eventually defeated.
The longest-running war is still that struggle against law enforcement officers. And every day, even when they’ve been cussed, beaten and insulted by the flock they serve, those sheepdogs still stand up to defend the sheep in the land of the wolves.