“HAS ANYONE CALLED YOU about Jon? It’s all over the news.” My father’s voice trembled over the uncertain cell phone connection.
Was this the call, the one all families of police officers fear?
Everything stopped. That stunning sense of clarity descended as it does when life hangs in those life-altering moments between before and after. My knees left me, my breath too. I tried to speak, but choked instead, “Is he OK?”
My father was simply overcome with pride, not grief. My little brother, who now soared well over me in his State Police-issued boots, had stopped a man who was robbing a pharmacy with a box cutter. That day, my brother pulled his service weapon on the man, who then jumped the counter. In that split second when a cop’s training determines life or death — his, the suspect’s — Jon put away his gun and reached for his pepper spray instead. It took two blasts before he was able to subdue the man.
Two of my brothers and a cousin are cops. This is what it is to love a police officer: Much like a cop’s work, it is the push-pull between extended periods of mundane days and bursts of unexpected terror — though it’s not entirely unexpected when the job requires a gun and bulletproof vest.
In recent months, four Massachusetts police officers have been shot in three separate incidents. Two have died, leaving family, friends, and their brothers and sisters in blue shattered.
We talk about the bad cops a lot. It’s essential. When people are charged with the power to take away someone’s freedom or even life, we as a society must hold them to a higher standard. America has bad cops, some bad departments, and a justice system weighted against people of color. Some police bristle at Black Lives Matter, assuming it means blue lives don’t. Others recognize that it is a plea to society, to law enforcement, to the courts, for the same civil rights afforded other Americans. That black lives matter too.
Lately it seems even the decent police officers are no longer considered the good guys, but the ones deserving of our scorn. Yet we often fail to acknowledge that, at least in Massachusetts, where police receive some of the most sophisticated and frequent training, it is often other cops who hold their suspect colleagues to account. That’s the case in the current State Police probe of overtime abuse and special treatment. It was the case when a former Cohasset police chief was accused of abusing his position, and of forgery and physical abuse. And more recently, in Quincy, when more than a dozen police officers testified against one of their own lieutenants in a federal trial that resulted in his being sentenced for double dipping.
What people don’t read about are the calls where an officer responds to their own neighbor pacing the street, out of his mind because he woke to find his young son had died unexpectedly in his sleep. Or how a cop has to press clean towels to a new mother hemorrhaging into a toilet as her newborn lies nearby, take her pulse, keep her calm — himself too — as the ambulance races from the other side of town. There’s no training to prepare a police officer to knock on a parent’s door at 3 a.m. and tell them their child is dead.
Each of us has a tragic story from our lives, one in which we bore witness or were involved in some horrifying event. They’ve imprinted themselves onto our psyches, changed us — for better or worse — altered our perception of the world and the people in it.
That’s a cop’s job. Yet we expect that every time they don that uniform, they will pack away the cascading traumas they’ve witnessed and perform perfectly. Every time.
Police don’t require or expect an outpouring of gratitude for doing their jobs. But for their families, it is gratifying to see communities turning out in support of our loved ones following the recent police shootings. The good cops, the ones who try to fulfill our impossible expectations to be always courteous, always exercise impeccable judgment, to always run toward danger as the rest of us run away, deserve our support.
But it would be more meaningful if that support came spontaneously, before the next family of a police officer gets the call.
Amy MacKinnon is a freelance writer.