Friday, May 14, 2010

Appreciating a police officer, and a cousin

This is National Law Enforcement Appreciation Week. There's pretty much an appreciation month, week or day for every profession - with the possible exception of copy editor - and they can border on the ridiculous. But some of them actually deserve it. Police officers qualify.

President Obama spoke today at a ceremony honoring several TOP COPS. Among his comments:

"But that's exactly what makes these officers - and all of our men and women in uniform - real heroes. It's the ability to put on a badge and go to work knowing that danger could be waiting right around the corner. It's the understanding that the next call could be the one that changes everything. And it's the knowledge that, at any moment, they could be called upon to stop a robbery, to participate in a high-speed chase, or to save a life."

I read things like that and think of my cousin, Matt Brake. Matt's nine years younger than me but already has several years of service with the Roseville police department, a Twin Cities suburb. Unfortunately, I also think about him when reading stories like the one nearly two weeks ago, when a Minnesota police officer was shot in cold blood by two men who were being sought in connection with a carjacking. Joseph Bergeron of Maplewood was killed while sitting in his car, still wearing his seat belt. He never had a chance. Any officer who had been in that same car at that same time would have met the same fate. One of the men in the carjacking later attacked another officer, who shot and killed the man. For several hours, officers from numerous cities searched for the second suspect. Matt was one of those scouring backyards and homes for the man, who police eventually apprehended.

When I read stories like that or ones about high-speed chases near Minneapolis and St. Paul I always wonder if Matt's involved. I always hope he's not, the same thought his mom must have as well. But at the same time, I've heard some of his stories and know that if he is on duty when something goes down - whether it's mundane or tragic - he'll be ready. In addition to his patrol duties, Matt's also on a SWAT team, a unit that suffered injuries in 2008 when a man fired on them as they entered a house. Matt, fortunately, wasn't hurt.

Matt grew up on a farm and went to a small high school and I grew up in a town of 2,000. In small towns, police officers aren't always treated with the most respect. They're not exactly looked at as Barney Fife's, but the respect level isn't much higher. Most people think they spend their time cruising around aimlessly, or setting up speed traps on the outskirts of town to snare unsuspecting outsiders or locals who forgot that you'd better not be going 36 when the speed limit changes to 35 miles per hour. And when they're not battling the scourge of low-speed offenders, they're handing out minors to kids at parties. It's not a fair portrayal, of course. Usually.

And having lived in New York for six years, I know many people resent big-city officers. Many of the criticisms are legitimate. They can be heavy-handed - like the cop in NYC who bullied a bicyclist. People get arrested and harassed for having the wrong skin color in the wrong neighborhood. Innocent people get killed.

But then I'll see a story on the news, whether it's in New York or somewhere else. A story about a madman with a gun shooting up a crowd. Or a guy in a mask holding up a bank and taking a hostage. Or a story about a home invasion. And I always think, some police officer is going into that situation and there's no guarantee they'll come out of it alive. It's like what they said about firefighters after 9-11: they run in while others run out. Same thing with police officers.

When a doctor at Fort Hood in Texas killed fellow soldiers last year, a pair of cops took him down. On a military base filled with highly trained soldiers, it was still the police officers who were called to end the killing spree.

Do some bad people sign up to be officers? I'm sure. Are some power hungry? Of course. Do some abuse the authority that comes with the uniform? Absolutely. But for the rest - for the majority - they do what they can to keep people safe. They perform their jobs with courage and skill.

When we were kids, Matt admired me. He was a cousin but for the first years of his life he was like a little brother. When I played college basketball and our team ran a camp for kids, Matt was thrilled that I'd be one of the guys instructing the youngsters. We didn't see each other as much once I graduated from school and entered the real world. I attended his high school graduation party in 2002. That was the last time I saw him until the fall of 2007, when he took a trip to New York with a friend. I met them at Columbus Circle. I recognized them right away but that's only because Matt's face hadn't changed. In every other way, he'd grown. Instead of a skinny, somewhat quiet, high school senior - which is what he was the last time I saw him - he was a muscular, fit, confident 23-year-old. This was the same kid who tagged along with me as a little kid?

He was a man. And he was a police officer. He's always been mature and cool-headed, attributes that are probably more important to his job than physical abilities. He told stories about his job that left me shaking my head or laughing. Two years later I saw him again at our grandma's funeral. He again had more stories that left me shaking my head and laughing. We didn't talk quite as much about those stories that are more frightening, the tales his mom doesn't want to hear about. The dangers are real and he must confront them every day, while learning to never dwell on them.

I've talked with Matt about riding along with him on one of his shifts. Stories like officer Bergeron's death might make me think twice about it. I want to experience and be with Matt on a typical day of work. He'll pull over some drivers, issue a few citations, respond to a break-in. But a police officer never knows when a boring day at work will become an extraordinary one. Bergeron had a typical day of work that day, right up until the moment the killers approached his car.

I want to know about Matt's work life, the good and the bad, the strange and the normal. Police officers tell fascinating stories - they see people at their worst but occasionally at their best. I want to know about it all but I'm not sure how close I want to get. There's a difference between documenting the life of officers and living it.

He's a big-city police officer. There are always dangers, just as there are surely always rewards. I appreciate his work, this week and every other one. Sometimes I worry about him. I respect him for becoming an officer in the first place. But mostly I admire him. He's not just my little cousin anymore - he's one of the guys that runs in when everyone else runs out.

1 comment:

mary said...

Nice tribute, Shawn from the Mom who doesn't want to hear about the bad stuff. Days like that when Officer Bergeron got shot are hard on us, but we are so proud of Matt and what he does. Somedays I wonder why Matt would want to be a cop, and Steve always says "someone has to do it, and it takes people like Matt to keep us safe.