A young friend working patrol in a Midwest city called to tell me about a "strange cover situation" he'd just experienced. He lit up a traffic violator, and after a brief failure-to-yield chase, got him stopped. The lone occupant, a parole violator, became instantly belligerent. The officer didn't notice that two other cars had pulled up until he heard a voice booming, "Officer! Watch your six! Comin' up behind you!"
He whirled to see two men closing on him. The first was a dirtbag buddy of the parolee, who had obviously planned to creep up and clock the cop. The trailer was a middle-aged guy in suit and tie who halted, took a quartering stance, and moved his right hand back to his hip, under his coat. "You Code 4?" he asked the cop.
Assuming they were now covered by two armed officers, the wind went out of the sails of the S.S. Scumbag. The parolee was popped for "various & sundry," and his pal went down for assorted warrants. Only then did the officer learn that his "cover" wasn't a fellow cop. Not anymore, anyway.
He had served three years with the same PD 20 years before. He'd enjoyed the work, he said, but graveyard shifts didn't agree with him. Now he owns an appliance store. And when he reached back to his hip, convincing the crooks he was a packin' cop? That was his cell phone.
"I thought, maybe all I'm good for here is punchin' it out or calling 911, but I'll be in it for all I've got!" he said. They parted as new-found friends.
Four times over the years I've had nick-of-time backup from former peace officers. On one occasion, I was busting four car prowlers who graduated to armed robbery when a pair of victims confronted them. They had beaten the couple badly, hospitalizing and almost killing one. I cornered them in a parking lot at a crowded public beach amid throngs of people. One had a tire iron; another was armed with a steering wheel lock. They weren't going to go peacefully. It was a bad, bad situation for shooting.
Then I heard a voice behind me announce, "You idiots do what the officer says or we'll skewer you like hot dogs!" It was four scuba divers who had just exited the surf, and they were pointing their cocked-and-locked spearguns at my suspects. Their leader, a wiry, muscular, spade-bearded guy in his late fifties, seemed quite anxious for the opportunity to make a shish kebab. My suspects picked up on this and the atmosphere became downright breezily cooperative.
The scuba diver had been a deputy sheriff many years before. His then-wife, he said, mounted a multi-year campaign to get him to quit, asserting that his job was ruining their marriage. He resigned, got a partnership in a dive shop-and that wife left him anyway. Meantime, he picked up a neck injury that kept him from rejoining the S.O.
"But still," he said, "I get that tug, that pull, whenever I see a cop doing the job. I hear a siren, and think, they're playing my song!"
I've got to wonder, how often does this happen? Too, I wonder how often an ex-cop sees an officer somewhere, teetering between The Rock and The Hard Place, and simply watches, unnoticed, waiting to jump in if that stuff hits the fan? Beyond that, how many former peace officers still feel that tug, hear "their song" being played, and it pulls on them like the tide? How many were altered forever by the blue sea-change?
To a degree, we honor our retired officers. We honor military combat veterans, regardless of whether they served one brief tour or made it a career. We honor our armed forces reserves and our police and sheriff's reserves.
On the other hand, ex-cops have nothing. And I do not remember ever hearing of an occasion on which former peace officers were saluted. But have they given less than others? Think about the toughest, most challenging two or five or 10 years of your career and ask if that service deserved zero recognition.
Law enforcement works a profound sea-change in the blood of men and women who have worn the badge. It makes them more informed voters, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It makes them better citizens.
I wonder what would happen if we advertised and invited former peace officers to attend an event held to honor and thank them; to relive some old memories, to see the many changes in our profession since they served?
Maybe it's time to find out.
John MacKenzie is the pseudonym of a longtime police officer, now retired.