Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The barbed wire between the sheep and the wolves

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?"

"I'm not"

"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


Some Guy said...

Thanks, Bubs, for doing what you do. This was a wonderful post.

FranIAm said...

I am sitting here crying Bubs. You have reframed something important here- your humanity, the humanity of so many cops.

There is more I would like to say but I have no words right now... just thank you.

(one day I must tell you a story... when I have time I will email you.)

Grant Miller said...

Excellent post, bubs.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have two uncles who were in law enforcement. One was a regular guy who just did his job, the other was the type that gives cops a bad name.

Dino aka Katy said...

i keep hearing about bad cop stories but I can't say I ever saw it. All the cops I have encountered in the US have been super nice, polite and help full. Be it the guy that wrote me a speeding ticket and at the same time told me how driving class will lower my insurance back down, the cop that escorted me to my hotel when i took the bike to DC and got lost ending up at the pentagon, to the cop that does the safety class for my au pairs, the cop that tried to console my au pair just last month when she found out all her stuff was thrown out by the crazy host father or the cops that read me my rights after someone falsely accused me of hitting their car and leaving the scene of an accident (I nearly fainted when they read me my rights in order to question me so they ended up having to calm me down and assure me they are just doing their job but they knew I didn't do anything)

I think cops, fireman and EMTs are a special kind of people and while there can be a bad seed anywhere I have never encountered one in either group.

Distributorcap said...

oh wow

there are bad eggs everywhere (see the white house) -- and there are lots of mensches..

you are a mensch

SkylersDad said...

Thanks for being there when we need you, and giving so much of yourself. Outstanding post Bubs.

lulu said...

You know, if there is a cop in the room at a party, you can generally find me next to him (or her) because the stories are always so good, and because absolutely nothing shocks them.

Thank yuo for this post, and for the work that you do.

Marni said...

Thank you, Bubs. I've never said it on my blog but my hubby is one of your brothers. This really hit me hard... I want to go home and give him a big ol' hug.

You and everyone else that performs this duty deserves the utmost respect.

And I want to tell people to stop the crap about donuts. They don't hang out at donut shops! Hell, Carl doesn't even like them!!!! :)

Bubs said...

To everyone: thanks for your kind words and comments. I didn't mean this to be a sympathy ploy, and it's kind of embarrassing being thanked by all of you. I appreciate it, but no one needs to thank me for doing anything. Any more most of what I do is sit in an office, make calls and shuffle papers.

Marni, you do that, I'm sure he'll appreciate it! For the first few years I was on the job, working in uniform, I wouldn't allow myself to be seen eating donuts in public. and I like donuts. Tell your hub to stay safe.

Lulu, I know what you mean. ER nurses are good for that too.

Skylersdad, DC, thanks.

Dino, I'm really glad and a little surprised to hear that. Because even I have a rude cop story or two.

Kirby, when you think about the fact that there are something like 700 or 800,000 cops in the USA, it's remarkable that we don't have even more bad actors than we do.

Grant Miller, thanks.

Fran, thanks for the email. I'd like to hear more about that some time.

Johnny Yen said...

The 19th Police District, which Officer Francis worked, is the district I live in. We've seen the crime rate here plummet in the last fifteen years-- we're now one of the lowest crime districts in Chicago-- due in part to the efforts of Francis and the other cops in the 19th.

There's never a routine day for a cop. No one calls the police because they're having a great day. A cop never knows what's on the other side of a door or around a corner. Friends who are policemen tell me that domestic calls are the worst for them.

A couple of our regulars at the restaurant are retired policemen. Both knew Richard Francis and said that you couldn't have found a nicer guy or a better cop.

On Sunday, I had to work, so Kim drove Adam to his mother's house. They passed the funeral home on Irving Park Road that was having Officer Francis' funeral. They said that there was a line of people, including a lot of cops, around the block to pay their respects.

You probably know this already, but Alderman Ed Burke, who is a former cop, published a great book a couple of years ago, "End of Watch--Chicago Police Killed in the Line of Duty, 1853-2006." It's a really remarkable book-- it documents every Chicago policeman who was killed in the line of duty from 1853 to 2006. One that really stands out in my mind was Officer Irma Ruiz. Like Officer, she was killed by a mentally ill person, in 1992. It was during my first year of teaching. She and her partner were responding to a call at Montefiore School, a Chicago Public School on Ashland Avenue. Unbeknowest to she and her partner, a guy was walking down Ashland Avenue, walking into businesses and shooting people to death. He walked into the school and by the grace of god, Ruiz and her partner were there to pick up a kid who'd gotten in a fight. Ruiz didn't have a chance to get her weapon out and was shot to death. Her partner was badly wounded, but still managed to find the gunman and shoot him to death. Not one kid was hurt. The barbed wire betweeen the sheep and the wolves.

There's now a school named after Irma Ruiz.

DivaJood said...

Bubs, I've been lurking here for a little while since Johnny Yen told me about your site. Then FranIAm linked to this post, and I'm hooked. You are a member of an elite group, which, like any group, will have its share of bad apples. But for the most part, you are members of a group who step forward on a daily basis into harms way, trying to get people to do the right thing.

So when an officer is shot and killed by a mentally deranged woman, we all suffer. All of us. When an officer is shot and killed by a senior citizen, we all suffer.

Many years ago, when my daughter was in jr. high school, she and two friends were witness to a shooting near Pine Grove and Grace - they wound up at Belmont & Western, where they were interrogated by the police - and given hot chocolate, and fussed over, because these were very frightened young girls. The Chicago Police Officers at that station could not have taken better care of my daughter and her friends.

I am truly sorry for your loss.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

This post contains some of the best writing the English language has ever known. You honor your slain colleague and your profession by writing so eloquently.

Ever since we became friends through our blogs I have a deeper respect for police officers and I look at them as human beings now. Until I read your blog I had no idea there were officers like you, progressive, honest cops who make a positive difference. Thanks for all you do.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.