Saturday, December 6, 2014

When I grow up...

I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning as I began my shift.  My seat was in the back of the room, facing the front door.  Customers walking in immediately saw me, probably because I'm on duty and in my uniform.  Some stared, some glared, some looked the other way, and some gave me a reassuring nod that they saw me.  A quiet approval if you will.  And some people, smiled.  This ritual happens everywhere I go when I'm on duty.  It has for the last 16 years.

I saw a child standing in line with his mother.  He was maybe four years old, dressed in a red jacket, blue jeans and Converse sneakers.  I noticed he was hiding behind his mothers leg and exchanging glances with me.  I saw that familiar unsure, curious look that children give when they see a stranger, especially one in a police uniform.  As we exchanged repeated glances, he looked up at his mother and pointed at me, whispering, "Look mommy, police man, hi Mr. Police Man."  He waved.  I smiled and waved back.  Almost immediately, his mother looked at me and leaned down, whispering something to the boy.  His bright eyes looked away from me, and immediately focused on the ground as if he had done something wrong.  I glanced up again and noticed they sat down a few empty tables away from me.  As they took their seats, he took one last glance at me, I winked, he smiled. Mission accomplished. 

As I sat there, I thought about the events over the last week since the grand jury decision regarding the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Eric Garner incident in New York City.  On the television, Al Sharpton is preaching his usual banter of anti-law enforcement hate rhetoric, and one of the "experts" on the panel talks about a conversation he had to have with his 6 year-old son.  Now I'm not a parent, but I keep hearing about these "conversations" parents are having with their kids about police officers, and the conversations are troubling.  And I'm wondering what that mother said to her child that caused him to look down to the ground and not at me.  Whatever she said to him, I hope it was good.  It might not have been.  Sad, but true. I hope she told him we are the good guys.

When I was four years-old, I idolized cops. 

To me, they were living superheroes.  I remember seeing them as larger than life men and women, who drove these black and white turbo charged cars with big bright red and blue lights on top of them that blared sirens that were music to my ears.  When people would ask me, 'what do you want to be when you grow up?'  It was simple, 'A Police Man,' I would say.  Like most kids, that was followed with dreams of being an 'Astronaut, a firefighter, a doctor and a stunt man,' in no particular order. 

My mom had a "conversation" with me when I was young too.  Every time I saw a police officer, she would lean down and say "those police officers are heroes.  If you're ever in trouble, you call them, understand?"  See, I was that four year-old in line at a coffee shop once.  I was that little boy hiding behind Mom's leg, trying not to stare at the police officer, but still staring.  To me, he was a hero.  And he still is.

So I pursued my dream and that dream became a reality in 1998 when I was hired as a police officer in San Diego.  My mom was there to pin on my badge.  My friends were there to pat me on the back.  It was a great day.  She was so proud, and so was I.  I wanted to make a difference in my community.  I wanted to inspire kids to do what I do, because in my mind-there was no other profession as honorable then that of a police officer.  I wanted to someday have a son who would follow in my footsteps, and tell me, "When I grow up, I want to be a police man." 

Now, I'm not so sure I would want that for him. 

I'm not so sure I would want him to be subjected to the unfair label of a racist, militarized tyrant, hell bent on murder and lawlessness.  I don't know if I would want him to work in a community where people celebrate street crime over hard work, dedication, and achievement.  I don't know if I want him to protect people who advocate looting a store and label it as a "call to action," instead of labeling it as an act of domestic terrorism by cowardly street thugs.  I don't know if I want that for him. 

We live in a country where police officers are no longer portrayed as the good guys. 

It troubles me that some parents now tell their kids not to trust a police officer, and maybe even worse, to hate a police officer.  It breaks my heart to see comments on social media saying things like "Kill the Pigs" from a Facebook user where the profile picture is of a father and son.  A father who probably has the luxury of going to work and not worrying about getting shot, stabbed, spit at and second guessed for doing his job.  A father who is now spreading that hate rhetoric to his son and calling himself a good parent.  These are not the "conversations" parents should have with their children.

I am constantly asking myself, how is it that someone with 30 arrests dating back to the 80's, on charges including assault and grand larceny, is labeled a "hero" because he died resisting arrest and fighting police officers?  How is that someone who swears by an oath where his "fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder" is labeled the "enemy"? 

I asked these questions to myself as I finished my coffee-uncertain of what the day will bring.  And I ask the daily questions too.  Will I interrupt a burglary?  Another false alarm call?  Will I be forced to make a split second decision to protect my life, or the life of someone else?  Will that decision lead to my termination, riots and death threats?  Or perhaps, will nothing happen?  I don't know-but whatever happens, I have to be ready.  And I will be.

Sitting there, I looked down at my hands.  I looked at the scars above my knuckles from an incident 14 years ago, where my partner and I fought for our lives on the ground trying to subdue a career criminal. As I stood up to leave and I felt the ache in my lower back, which was earned by wearing 28 pounds of gear around my waist over the last 16 years.  Or maybe it was earned rescuing a suicidal jumper over the I-8 freeway, or subduing people larger than me because that's what our public demands that we do.  I've grown used to the pain.  Whatever it's from, doesn't matter now.  It's part of my life now.

Every police officer, whether here at home or miles away, has scars, aches and pains.  We are human too.  We're not superheroes.  We're just men and women who proudly patrol our communities because we believe in what we do and we took an oath to do it.  Sure, we have some bad apples in our profession.  So do others.  And now those scars, aches and pains are internally inflicted every time we turn on the "news". 

As I left the coffee shop, I once again saw the looks from the customers-some of which looked at me with disgust because at the moment, they only knew what they think they know.  Right before exiting the coffee shop, I saw that four year old boy again, and he looked back at me and I smiled, hoping his parents would tell him that we are still, and will always be, the good guys. 

We were all children once.  We all had dreams.  And maybe we had parents who supported those dreams. 

If I have a son, and his dream is to join this honorable profession, I'll have a "conversation" with him as well.  I'll tell him, it's worth it.