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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Once and for Always

Readers local to me are probably all very well aware of Sgt. Joseph Bergeron's death in the line of duty last Saturday, and of his funeral and burial today. I haven't said anything about it here on the blog, but just as everyone else, it has left me horrified. Although I was not able to attend the funeral, KARE11 live streamed it so I was able to catch parts from my desk at work, and many times had to blink back not just tears, but sobs.

No, I didn't know him, but I do know grief, and like his daughters, I, too, lost my father, although not through such violence. I sorrow for and with Sgt. Bergeron's family, if from afar, and as an ex-officer, I sorrow with Police Officers everywhere, especially those in Maplewood.  

I'm going to re-post a tribute I wrote many years ago, but first I need to provide a little explanation.

My cousin George, who died a year ago, was a cop for several years. He taught me how to shoot, he helped me make connections and as his wife told me at his own funeral, I was "always really special to him", but he was clearly always very special to me, too.  I'm sure my leaving Law Enforcement was a bit of a mystery to him, but he never asked, understanding that I really didn't want to talk about it very much.  I had called him after I resigned, and he said something to me I questioned at the time, given that my career was so short. But he understood something I couldn't grasp at the time:  the Job changes you.

When my cousin learned that I had no plans to pursue another law enforcement position, he simply said to me, "Once a cop...always a cop."  Over my protests, he went on to explain what he meant. He told me that I didn't see the world in the same way any more, I wasn't going to react to things like other people do, and I was going to find in many ways that even though I had left the Job, it wasn't going to leave me.

I found that he was right. The first cop to be murdered by a suspect was Tim Bowe, a State Trooper who was ambushed when he responded to a domestic violence call. Even though I hadn't been a cop for months by then, his death really rattled me. So has every cop's death since then.  Although the "once a cop always a cop" syndrome has hit me in many other ways over the years, I wrote the following essay/tribute while trying to grasp the reality of what had happened, out of my own brief experience and "inside" understanding of law enforcement.

Please understand that the following tribute is fictionalized; some of the experiences were mine, but I was writing from the perspective of "Everycop". The first paragraphs are my experience of training and why I got into law enforcement, but the rest is a generalized mix.

Don't Call My Name

I decided a long time ago to become a police officer. My family was shocked and most of them decided that I was insane. They spoke to me as if I were an irrational child, and everyone, EVERYONE, asked me "WHY!?"  I neither defended nor explained my choice. The simple reason was this: there was no rational or logical reason in the world for my desire to become a police officer. I knew the risks I'd be taking and I understood my family's concern.

So I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

I went through the training where they made us run miles and hold the push-up position for what seemed like hours while we listened to our instructor give us his life story. They made us take our turns at leading calisthenics and if we didn't give it our all, they made us do extra. They stuck us in the "gas chamber" and gave us tear gas, CS gas, and pepper spray just to be sure we got our "money's worth" of education. They twisted our joints and shot at us, and throughout the training, they impressed upon us that no matter what happened, no matter how serious the injury, how intense the fear, or how close the panic, we were always to be in control of ourselves and the situation. They taught us the mentality necessary for survival on the streets. And they told us story after story of heroes fallen in the line of duty. They taught us to learn from their mistakes as well as our own and how to not make the same mistake twice. We may never get a second chance.

Throughout it all, I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

When I was finally hired, I raised my right hand to give my oath to God, my Country, my State, City and Department, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, enforce the laws, to Serve and to Protect. In a room full of collegues, family, and superiors, I gave my oath and silently prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

I wore my brand-new uniform with pride, pinned on my badge, strapped on my vest, and holstered my loaded gun for the first time. As I did so, the full weight of my responsibility settled upon my soul. I experienced for the first time the taste of the knowledge that accompanies fear; sometimes "serving and protecting" means taking a life or risking my I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

I rode in a squad car, patrolled the strets, stopped offenders, served warrants, subpoenas, and took reports. I turned in documents upon which I had written, "status/inactive", knowing that someone's home, life, and rights were somehow violated, but I was unable to provide the solution they needed me to offer. I realized that although I was young and inexperienced, I was suddenly "Authority", and I supposedly had "the answer" the people I served were seeking. I comforted the grieving, warned the disorderly, and stopped the assault. I restored safety, referred people to other agencies for problems I couldn't fix, and I tracked down runaways and returned them to their parents, caring or otherwise. I held the hands of children trapped in twisted metal and I helped to save the life of someone's family member. Each and every day I saw both the best and the worst of human nature.

However, I always knew that I was not immune to the tragedies that strike unprovoked, so I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

I learned early that because I wore a uniform and a badge, I was no longer my own person. My life was not mine; it belonged to the public and my reputation was relegated to the same. I became the target of hatred, unforgiving glares, and pointing fingers. Likewise I was seen as an expert in the law and the solution to life gone somehow awry. And I felt incredibly inept.

So I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

I attended the funeral of a fellow officer who had fallen in the line of duty. I gave my condolences to his family and friends and I shared in their grief. As I paid my respects and said my goodbyes to the officer in the casket, I realized that his death was not personal. He was killed because he wore a uniform and a badge. He died for what he represented, not for who he really was. I knew that it could just as easily be any one of the thousands of officers who do the same job lying in that casket. I also knew that no matter who it was, the death would not be any easier to accept. And as the tears came to my eyes I understood the full impact of the identity I shared with this individual. And I prayed, "God, please don't call my name."

When I flipped on the lights, switched on the siren and screamed through crowded intersections en route to a call of a "man with a gun," and as I risked my life to reach an unknown situation, I knew that I couldn't spend my career, and thus my life, fearing that my name would be called. So I put my life into the hands of the Lord and I did the job that no one else would.

I stood by the closed door, drawing my weapon as, from the other side, came the unmistakable sound of a live round striking the empty chamber of an unidentified gun. I didn't need to see the frightened eyes of the victim to know that I was living someone else's desperate prayer. I knew why I was there.

"God, you already called my name."

** (originally written winter of 1997, published to my blog April 16, 2007) **

Thank you, Sgt. Bergeron, for answering the call.
May you rest in peace

Réquiem ætérnam dona ei Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat ei. Requiéscat (Requiéscant) in pace.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he and all the Holy Souls rest in peace.

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