It's easy to pick bad role models.
Worse still, it can be pretty damn tempting.
Picking Walt as one of mine was probably one of the dumber things I'd done in my law enforcement career—which is saying something.
But then, something about Walt always intrigued me. Having been voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school, and chosen as honor cadet of his academy class, this Vietnam War veteran proceeded to work patrol for over 30 years, a vast majority of that time spent as a traffic deputy. Today, it is not unusual for deputies working his alma mater to encounter three and four generations of family members that have been issued citations by Walt.
Still, when it came time for Walt to be feted by his coworkers on the eve of his retirement, the dedication column in the department's rag sheet—while filling up quite a bit of column space—didn't offer any particular insight about the maverick. Indeed, the author of the piece seemed almost self-conscious in the lack of encomia that he heaped upon the retiree.
Twenty five years before, it would have been counter-intuitive to see such faint praise forthcoming.
For Walt had always enjoyed the reputation of being a man's man, an individual of independent thought who was never shy to offer his opinion. Few who met Walt were ever left in the dark about how he felt about things in general, or about them in particular. It was one of the things that I respected about him.
But in a realm where promotions are dictated by political tact, Walt's charismatic personality confined him to a black and white.
This isn't to say that Walt was a failure, not by any stretch. To many of his peers, Walt was a hero, the guy who could be counted upon to tell the emperor that he was stark naked. And there is no doubt in my mind that countless area children reached maturity due in part to Walt's vehicular vigilance. For if it is possible for traffic enforcement to mitigate the potential for vehicle accidents, then you could be sure Walt accomplished it.
He reminded me of Col. Grossman's sheep dog, always on watch for those who would harm the innocent, and few were the number of locals willing to run the risk of speeding through school zones and incurring the wrath of Walt.
But Walt's all-consuming dedication to his job and the attendant aggravations that came with it were such that his family life suffered. His marriage dissolved and he lost an alienated son to suicide.
Not that Walt didn't have qualities worthy of emulating. Unfortunately, I was more enamored with Walt's disposition than his work ethic, so I didn't even get that right.
Walt wasn't the only cop whose larger than life personality appealed to others like me. The irascible and taciturn Dickie was another.
To this day, Dickie is regarded by many as the greatest dispatcher ever employed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Like Walt, Dickie wasn't one to hesitate when it came to the prospect of telling another where to go and how to get there, an otherwise desirable quality given his position.
But whereas he'd initially seemed to be playing the role of a lovable grouch, he eventually became it, with the "lovable" part becoming something of a collateral casualty.
Like Walt, Dickie was given a grand send-off upon his retirement. Unlike Walt, he didn't suffer the loss of a son to suicide. No, within a year of pulling the pin, it was Dickie that did himself in. Like Hemingway, he was macho right up to the end. And like Hemingway, he wasn't exactly charitable in leaving it to his wife to find the body.
Whatever admiration I had for Walt and Dickie, I was saddened to see how things turned out for them—even more so for their families. Part of my sympathy was self-serving, perhaps, because I'd romanticized myself as a maverick, too, and I couldn't help but wonder what the cards held for an onery bastard like me.
I fear I'm not alone.
For I subscribe to the belief that many cops, consciously or not, have some archetype in mind when they're doing their jobs. Someone who's left a deep and abiding impression on them on what it's like to be a cop. Perhaps, it was a training officer, or a sergeant, or some character from a TV series.
As a result, I've been backed up by John Wayne, counseled by Joe Friday, trained by gunnery sergeant Emil Foley, and ridden shotgun with his cousin Axel. My ass has been rescued a time or two by Clint Eastwood, I've broken bread with the Blue Knight, and kicked back with more than a few Beetle Baileys. And, yes, I worked alongside more than one Walt and Dickie.
Throughout, I've been curious about what makes people choose certain models, particularly when it's at the expense of other, perhaps better, choices.
Just what romantic qualities trump others? I don't know. To each his own, I guess.
In my case, I saw that Walt and Dickie placed a greater premium on being respected than liked, and that was good enough for me.
So it is with the voice of disagreeable experience that I caution you on your choice of role models and mentors. For, once embraced, their ghost will be there forever, offering counsel that may not be in your best interests but in keeping with their fatal character flaws—flaws that may well become your own.
How will you know if you've chosen well when it comes to allowing another's personality to influence your own?
Look at their end game.