I had wanted to be an astronaut and then a pilot. I quickly realized that my math skills were challenged by the number of fingers and toes I was provided at birth. The stark reality hit home that I was not suitable for the friendly skies.
Joseph Wambaugh and Jack Webb became my heroes. I was enamored with watching Jack Webb’s Adam-12 and Joseph Wambaugh’s Police Story and his trail of semi-fictional accounts of police work. As I watched each episode and read each chapter, the excitement coursed through my veins. I made the pronouncement to my family that I wanted to be a cop! The first in the family.
I had pictured myself working for NYPD or another nearby department. Budget cuts and veterans preference would be an obstacle. Layoffs and hiring freezes were the norm. I headed south and watched New York disappear in the rearview mirror. Through college, I worked at a drugstore and attached myself like Velcro to the off-duty cops working security at the inner-city store. I listened to their war stories and my desire to join the Thin Blue Line became an obsession.
Although it has been three decades of sunrises, I still remember with vivid clarity the application process, testing, training, and finally the swearing in ceremony at the chief’s office of the Little Rock Police Department. I was a now a real life cop! I was a real life Reed and Malloy or Bumper Morgan. I was like a Labrador puppy full of excitement only to be restrained by my FTO’s leash. I was gushing with pride. I could not imagine that I was being paid to do this job and forced to take two days off. Then the first reality hit with my first paycheck of $901 per month.
The excitement did wear off. My FTO was awesome, but I was eventually saddled with an older partner in a slow district with plenty of coffee shops. There were always bureaucratic and political hurdles. I remember when the citizens voted down a pay raise, and I realized that perhaps not everyone loved us.
The family disturbances in roach infested and filthy apartments provided a new insight into family dynamics. How quickly two sparring partners could unite at the sight of the badge arresting their mate. Those poor kids. What chance did they have in life?
I read a book written by Mark Baker titled Cops, a collection of stories shared by folks on the job from around the country. I never laughed so hard at a book. Police work was similar no matter where you patrolled. There were always pranks or lighter moments. I was a co-conspirator in coiling a dead snake near the roll call door. That one almost backfired when a frantic officer almost fired at the carcass. Using spare keys to steal someone’s patrol car while they ate did not sit well with the sergeant. There was dark humor that only cops would understand. Like singing happy birthday to a bad guy killed on his birthday.
The fabric and color blue weaves through us all binding us as one. When that call that a brother or sister needs help, we are not identified by race or gender. We are identified by wearing a badge. We may not have liked each other but when that distress call went out, no one blinked. Everyone was coming to help. What a comfort when you were the one fighting for your life.
I became a federal agent. The job was different and the comradeship was not as strong. We were too dispersed and always being transferred. I had the opportunity to travel to places without postcards and souvenir t-shirts, which provided a deeper appreciation of our country. My heart always remained in blue polyester pushing a patrol car. That time was the most rewarding and in hindsight the most fun. I lived in a reality TV show. The bond that was shared with cop friends has survived thirty years. We depended on each other. We laughed, and cried, and socialized together.
Not every day ended well. I lost count of the names of friends etched in the granite over the years. Too many. Too many flag draped coffins. Too many families being consoled. Too many 21 gun salutes. Too many bugles blowing taps and too many of those 10-7 end of watch calls on the radio. After the funeral, everyone went back to work. The citizens were nicer for a period of time, but that quickly dissipated. I am left with the fond memories of my friends, the laughs and good times. Despite the pain of their deaths, their memory brings a smile to my face.
The job has changed over the years. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Technology has brought better equipment, crime fighting tactics, and training. I’ve heard a common complaint from older officers that the younger officers are not the same. I’m sure the same was said about the veterans when they started. Citizen journalists, in-car dash cams, cellphone cameras and CCTV record every enforcement action. Administration is less tolerant of bad behavior, especially when digital evidence exists.
We have been exposed to the worst of evil. What kind of God allows this depravity to be exacted on innocent victims, especially the children? I read Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. The author, Rabbi Kushner, explains that there is no explanation. “All we can do is try to rise beyond the question ‘Why did it happen?’ and ask the question ‘What do I do now that it has happened?'” The darkness of questioning “why” can become gripping.
When I was digging through the rubble of Ground Zero and later sifting through dust at the Fresh Kills Landfill, I had no time to question why. I prayed each day to allow me to find closure for the families. I had often witnessed the fragility of life, but I now realized how quickly our life could end. I take more time to enjoy the beauty around me.
In a PTSD retreat program that I work in for first responders at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, we share a YouTube video from Brother David Steindl-Rast called Gratitude, produced by Louie Schwartzberg and Moving Art. Brother David says that if we live everyday as our last and everyday as our first, then we will have truly lived a good life. Each day is a gift.
When I submitted my retirement papers, they were rejected because I failed to fill in the box providing my reason for retiring. Bureaucracy! I completed the answer, “To enjoy and share the sunsets and sunrises and everything in between with my best friend, my wife.” Regardless of all the arrests and crimes that I prevented on humanity, I was now going to be judged by my family and the relationships I had with them. They too had made many sacrifices over my thirty years. I would be quickly replaced by the next man up in the Thin Blue Line.
What a ride it has been. I wish I had a Disney fast-pass to jump back on the ride for another go around. I lived a noble life. My family is proud of my accomplishments. Along the way, I put a few very bad people in prison, and along the way, I saved a few people from death. Most of my mementos are tucked away in the closet. I don’t need the reminders; I know what I accomplished and I live with a satisfactory legacy. God watched over me and brought me across the finish line. Life is a gift. To those who did not make it across the finish line, I smile towards the heavens at the good memories.
Mike Roche has spent over three decades in law enforcement. He retired in 2012 from the U.S. Secret Service after 22 years. He is an adjunct instructor at St. Leo University and the author of three works of fiction and two non-fiction books, Face 2 Face: Observation, Interviewing and Rapport Building Skills: an ex-Secret Service Agents Guide as well as Mass Killers: How You Can Identify Workplace, School and Public Killers Before They Strike.