From July 11, 2008: an officer of the law

On the John

An officer of the law

Originally completed July 11, 2008

Police have a difficult job. Do we make it easier?
Police have a difficult job. Do we make it easier?

About two months back, four hours deep in a six-hour writing session, I decided to head out to the nearby 7-11 for a Pepsi. I grabbed a buck and a half off the table, hooked out the back door, and trudged up the block through the alley. When I arrived, two beat officers were in the store. One was having a polite conversation with the clerk, the other was checking the drink selection. It was 1:18 in the morning.

As I know it, there are few people in America who look forward to walking into a 7-11 in the early morning hours to find two police officers as the store’s only customers. You start to panic, thinking in quick bursts: Wait a moment…am I guilty of anything? Do I have any unpaid parking tickets hanging? Are my taxes paid? Library books? Do I look drunk? Wake up man! Stay alert! Make swift decisions!

I nodded to the drink officer as I secured my Pepsi, an unmemorablely polite nod just as I’d hoped, and as I walked to the counter I noticed a copy of “today’s” Sun-Times, now 78 minutes obsolete and counting. Nevertheless, the headline was a rarity: a broad focus that placed the short story into the long one, the first of the Times’ STOP THE KILLING campaign. This was a paper to purchase, even 78 minutes late.

Sadly, my buck and a half did not encompass both a Pepsi and a paper. I was shy 17 cents. I rifled through my pockets, hoping something would turn up. There wasn’t even enough change in the change dish. I did not want to make the walk twice in a night, not over a Pepsi, so it would be just the paper for now…

…but then, without even asking, the clerk-conversation officer took a look at the register. He asked me: “What are you short?”

“17 cents,” I told him.

“I got it,” he said to the clerk, and I got my Pepsi. His name was Officer Garcia, and he was as kind a man as I met all week. I thanked him greatly for the boost, and went upon my way.

It is always a bit of a shock when a police officer proves himself an ally. Even as a white kid from the suburbs, I was tuned in to their presence. Police seem to have been placed on this Earth as part of the Great Blockade, stunting our progress as best they can…

But we know this to be a stereotype, or at least an oversimplification, because most people have met an Officer Garcia-type, an officer who is kind and helpful and exemplifies the “serve and protect” motto, and when you meet one you wonder why all of your encounters with police can’t be as civilized and trusting as that one, and you try to figure just what it is that’s always missing.

And then you read a story about Richard “Buzz” Francis, a 60-year-old Chicago officer who was killed in the line of duty a week ago when a woman grabbed his service weapon and shot him in the head, and you realize that there are actual people inside those blue uniforms, men and women with spouses and parents and children, many of whom really do wish to serve and protect.

In the case of Francis, here was a man who could have retired after injuring his back in a fight with a drunk, but didn’t, choosing instead to stay on duty because of his love for the job and, I presume, a feeling of responsibility. We rag on cops for being uncaring bastards who impede upon our natural, American rights to do whatever we want whenever we want, yet there was Francis responding to a CTA disturbance call damn near 2 a.m., with the woman who caused the disturbance ultimately murdering him with his own gun. Perhaps it feels to us that police view the citizenry as an enemy that must be subdued, but how often must that really be the case?

These are people after all, people with prejudices, the same prejudices that you and I exhibit every day, only it is not our responsibility to corral speeders who view ticket-writing cops as tattle-tales, or drunks at bars who may or may not be packing, or even that woman causing the disturbance at the CTA. And these are the people (speeders too), who put police so on-guard that they end up seeing all of us as the problem, so that we end up seeing all of them as the problem, and round and round we go until all of the trust is sapped, so that one day it’s a shock when one of those blue-uniformed bastards who seems out to get me sets 17 cents on the counter so a stranger can drink a Pepsi while reading the daily news. And I think that’s where it has to start: two citizens in a 7-11 at 1:18 in the morning, figuring a way to make it all work.

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein


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