That's how a chaplain described the role of the police at yesterday's funeral for slain Chicago Police Officer Richard Francis.
"The barbed wire between the sheep and the wolves."
I like that.
I think most of us cops, when things are difficult, when we feel worn down, can remind ourselves of the role we are meant to play--to protect good people from predators, to provide comfort and assistance to victims, and to do what we can to hopefully make our communities safer places.
Unfortunately, like barbed wire, we're prickly. We're not always as courteous or polite as we should be, and we can seem a little hostile to people who don't know us. While barbed wire keeps the wolves at bay, the sheep don't like getting too close to it either.
Every job, I suppose, places its mark on people who do it, but I think policing marks you more than most other professions. 21 years ago I was working as a campus security officer at Loyola University, on the lake shore campus. Another guard and I were escorting a creepy guy who'd been causing a disturbance out of the library, and he started to fight with us. My partner, an older man, suffered a broken ankle, and the Chicago Police came and arrested the bad guy, who it turns out was batshit crazy.
A few weeks later I had to go to court at Belmont & Western. I looked around at all the cops that were there, and my first thought was how tired and world-weary they all looked. Years of working rotating shifts or strange hours, lack of sleep, going to court on days off, working side jobs. All that fast food eaten too fast in the front seat of a car, all that coffee to stay alert, and occasionally (or, unfortunately for some, frequently) too much booze to take the edge off. The constant suspicion and vigilance. Being reminded of your own mortality every day when you go to work and the first thing you do is put on a vest that's meant to stop bullets. After a while your skin doesn't look so good, your eyes look kind of baggy or puffy, and god knows we put on some weight and we're not even sure how it happens. We tend to drink more than we should and talk and laugh a little too loudly and harshly when we're in groups.
But we are loyal, and even though we bitch and moan more than any other group of people I've ever encountered, we love each other like brothers and sisters even when we don't really know each other. I can go anywhere in the United States, meet a brother or sister officer, and know that we have had common experiences and hours worth of stuff to talk about.
On Sunday, after cleaning up a little around the house, I put on a suit and tie and went to Cooney Funeral Home to pay my respects. My plan was to get there at the beginning of the wake, at noon, before the crowds came.
I got there at 12:10 and the line was already down the block. It took me an hour to get inside. There were officers there from all over Illinois, in uniforms and dress uniforms. Officers in plainclothes who were on duty, and guys like me who threw on a suit and tie and came from home. As I walked up to the chapel, a group of about 20 high-ranking Chicago Fire Department brass came out, heads bowed. Two friends of mine got there before me and passed me on their way out, so I stood in line by myself, thinking. And listening--there were great conversations going in the rope line. I heard old friends catching up on family news, people asking after each other's health, former partners talking about their new assignments. Life-affirming conversations being held in defiance of the grief everyone felt at the loss of Officer Francis.
And some of the conversations were fairly amusing:
"Hey, where you drinking at nowadays?"
"You're not? You quit?"
"Yeah, well, I couldn't afford to drive to the tavern any more."
"No shit? You don't go out any more? What about at home?"
"Ah, the wife doesn't like it when I drink at home, so, you know..."
"Good for you."
There was one guy behind me who had 11 days left until his retirement. I heard parts of a few other retirement conversations. Some younger guys were talking about babies and child care.
Once I got inside I was faced with a collection of photos of Officer Francis. Pictures of him with his dogs, a goofy picture of him in a long dark wig, pictures of him barbecuing. Someone had placed a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the coffin with him. God forbid it ever happened, but my family, and the families of the guys I work with, could all find plenty of pictures like that. I started smiling as I looked at them all, and then choked up. I got through the rest of it without embarrassing myself and made my way back out into the sun, where the line of mourners had doubled.
The diversity of the mourners was amazing. I'd say a good number of the officers I saw there were probably not on the job in 2002, the last year a Chicago officer was killed in the line of duty. The Chicago Police Department is a much younger and more diverse agency than it was when I was growing up. The city now has probably the best-educated, most diverse and best-trained department it's ever had. Really, this is generally true everywhere across the nation.
Back to the barbed wire.
Officer Francis was killed by a 45 year old woman, Robin Johnson. Somehow she gained control of his gun during a struggle and shot him. Johnson was described in some stories as being "known" to officers in the 19th District, and occasionally slept in the building. She had a history of mental illness and had once pulled a knife on a family member.
The last CPD officer shot and killed in the line of duty before this, Officer Donald Marquez, was killed by a 77 year old man as he tried to serve court papers at the old man's residence. The gunman was killed by backup officers who returned fire.
Encountering a 77 year old man, or a 45 year old woman, are not what would generally be thought of as "high risk" situations for police, and yet each of those encounters ended with dead officers.
How would you walk the line between treating everyone decently and fairly while still maintaining your own safety? Go too far on one side, and you become a walking target, a victim waiting to be victimized. Go too far on the other and you become an angry cop with a file full of citizen complaints resulting from your rough treatment of them.
Nearly everyone has a bad cop story. For a long time I wouldn't tell anyone what I did for a living when I met them, and I'd go nuts when I'd get introduced as a cop at parties. I got tired of hearing all the rude cop encounter stories, and about all the undeserved parking and traffic tickets. I got really tired of being asked to comment on every news item about every brutal or corrupt cop.
Anymore, though, I don't mind so much. Now I try and explain why we do what we do, and I wish police departments around the country did more of it. Here's something I'd like you to remember next time you encounter one of us and we seem fat, lazy, rude or indifferent. All those cops you've ever encountered who you thought were mean, stupid, bigoted or whatever? I'd bet you that any one of them would take a bullet for you or your family, or risk his or her life chasing down someone who harmed you.
If you have a moment, please take a look around at these websites:
The Officer Down Memorial Page
The Chicago Police Memorial Page