Ask anyone who has ever had cops for friends, and they will tell you the reason they all stick together is because so few understand or appreciate what they do, what they see, how they cope.
I worked city desk of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch for several years before I begged off and went to features. Hard news is where you can meet, date and marry either a cop, firefighter, lawyer, doctor or judge — the people you run into when there’s a fire, homicide, major court case, or you’re cited for contempt for not surrendering notes at trial.
They also become “reliable sources” who provide off-the-record information that makes the difference between Page 1, and being buried inside, among ads for used cars and vacuum cleaners.
I learned this when I was assigned to cover a general alarm fire at a senior complex where firefighters brought out so many charred bodies they had to take turns going in. One guy threw up on the grass, walked away a few feet and just stared into space, while another sat down on the curb and sobbed.
I scribbled frantically in my reporter’s notebook, capturing the scene until I could no longer stand it. I remembered how my mother cautioned years ago to always wear clean underwear and take Kleenex in case there’s no toilet paper wherever.
Mother’s first admonition didn’t seem relevant at the fire, but I could offer the guy something to blow his nose on other than his shirt sleeve. I sat down beside him and probably said something stupid, like “Are you okay?” as I handed him the last of my tissues.
We dated a few times and just drifted apart, but in that time, I learned about what firefighters have to endure, including people more concerned about saving their stash than their partners; the neighbors who want to save their house next door and try to commandeer the hose; scantily clad women who offer to show their appreciation later.
The homicide guy was pretty darned special. At 6’6” he towered over my 5’1”. Our paths crossed at a triple homicide. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. Two men and a woman had been shot in a flat above a store.
The building was old and the floor slanted so that blood from the two male victims trailed from the kitchen into a narrow hallway. Blood-spattered scales sat still where the deceased had been measuring and bagging heroin.
“Our paths crossed at a triple homicide. It doesn’t get more romantic than that.”
At the other end of the hallway was a bedroom where the third victim, a woman who had been nursing her newborn, lay. She had been shot in the face at close range. When a cop pulled back the covers to see if there were other wounds, the baby woke up bawling. It scared the daylights out of everyone.
It was then that everyone seemed to notice me and handed me the swaddled infant, thinking I was a social worker. At that point I had to own up to being a reporter.
The lead homicide detective was apoplectic. He chewed me out. He yelled, he cursed, he threatened me with arrest for impeding an investigation. I let him vent, at which point he made the mistake of asking me who the hell did I think I was.
I looked up into his very red face and replied, “A working stiff, just like you, trying to do my job.” He was so angry he couldn’t decide which was worse: my quiet response or the fact that I called him a “working stiff.” He escorted me down and out of the crime scene, by which time the actual social worker was arriving. He escorted her up, completely ignoring me. That, I thought, was that.
But no. He called the next day to apologize for his street-cop language and offered to take me to dinner. The story ran above the fold in page 1. The next year or so was exciting and informative.
Some time after that romance ran its course, I got another assignment that drew me into a relationship with a command rank lieutenant, who in the course of our four years together, became a captain.
He was an extraordinary man. We liked the same music; we did museums, dinner parties, and concerts. We took walks along the riverfront and just plain enjoyed each other. Even my friends liked him, once they recovered from the fact that I lived with a cop.
Upon his promotion, he was assigned to one of the city’s more problematic districts— half black, half white, half wealthy. A quarter were upwardly mobile blacks and whites, and a quarter were poor blacks. He also got the uniformed cops nobody else knew what to do with.
Day after day we swapped horror stories. It was easy for me to move on to a less stressful job, and I did. All I really cared about was raising my daughter who, until I met him, was my responsibility. She was bused to and from school. The bus dropped her at the police station where she napped in his office until one of us brought her home.
The men and women under the captain’s command flourished. He promoted based on merit, not political connection. He insisted that officers who needed therapy get it, with the understanding they had a job waiting once they made it through.
He organized community fish fries with spaghetti, slaw, and cornbread. The guys let kids sit in squad cars and turn on lights and sirens. Kids could do homework at the station. Crime plummeted. Community policing worked.
I write all this because I know what cops go through. They see and experience stuff I don’t ever want to see again. Only the men and women in blue know what it’s like.
Some make it through just fine. My homicide guy who was white (and probably still is) was extraordinary. He was tough if he had to be, but not if he didn’t. He was smart, decent, and kind. We talked honestly and openly about race and about some of the bone-chilling cases he had to handle.
The lieutenant who became a captain was only the fourth or fifth black captain in the St. Louis Police Department. The pressure on them all was horrendous. They couldn’t afford to make a mistake. In turn they had to manage uniformed officers who did.
I am delighted that the massive demonstrations over the summer resulted in a long, hard look at how law enforcement works — or sadly, how it often fails to work.
With a new administration we’re possibly closer than we’ve been in my lifetime to getting something akin to positive change in policing. I know my limited experience with men and women in blue is not representative of anything other than my personal experience. I also know the impact of what bad cops do too often outweighs the good.
If we can just get the good ones to speak out against the bad ones — and get the bad ones out altogether, the light at the end of the tunnel will no longer look like an oncoming train.
How providential that a courageous young woman with a cell phone camera made change happen.
How fortuitous that eight minutes and forty-six seconds can change the world.