Another April has brought another Last Call.
It was Patriot’s Day last year when law enforcement officers converged from around the country for the service of a small town’s police chief. He was killed in the line of duty while drug task force officers tried to serve a search warrant in a small house on the central residential street in a tiny town near New Hampshire’s sliver of seacoast.
Today’s service was for a campus security officer in the City of Cambridge.
“Do it right,” was a lesson that MIT Police Officer Sean Collier‘s Chief took from the way the young officer lived his life on the job.
On the job.
The phrase itself seems meant to be read in that staccato police cadence: one syllable words. An economy of breath. No wasted time.
Brevity is, in my experience, a police hallmark. (And after all, police are well-acquainted with the criminal law truism that you tend to create fewer issues by not talking.)
Among the legendary stories which circulate around the local courthouse is that of a former member of our State Police Unit once tracked down a guy who had jumped bail years ago and was living under another name in another state. He is said to have identified himself as Mass. State Police and put the guy in his cruiser to begin the long drive back to Massachusetts. The guy–who, as an experienced criminal, presumably knew as well as anyone the wisdom of keeping his mouth shut–finally couldn’t take the silence anymore: “I just gotta know. How did you find me?”
The answer: “I told you. We’re the Mass. State Police.”
The City of Boston has a not entirely comfortable history between law enforcement and some of the communities it serves. And believe me, I know something about bad cops–the small percentage unworthy of wearing the uniform and badge. I spent the better part of the last decade working as a special prosecutor in Massachusetts, trying felony cases against policemen who included a department chief.
Ordinarily during jury selection a trial judge will ask potential jurors if they are more inclined to believe the testimony of a police officer than a civilian witness. Ordinarily, of course, the police witnesses are testifying for the Commonwealth against a defendant. But picking juries in these cases was quite an exercise in going from the gut, because although we were prosecuting some of the worst of them, we also necessarily relied on some of the best of them: officers who did not hesitate to testify against those in a position to do them very real harm, any more than officers hesitate to step into the line of fire as they protect and serve.
In those cases and in recent events in and around Boston lie a parallel message: the overwhelming majority of law enforcement personnel are doing it right. The lion’s share of response to the carnage which may have been caused by just two young men showed us all legions of good people–compassionate, generous, skilled, brave people–whether they were doing their jobs or not. Nurses and surgeons and law enforcement personnel did their jobs under unimaginable stress. Civilians cleared barriers and tore their shirts into makeshift tourniquets and opened their homes to strangers.
Countless other people are doing it right, from lending their voices to a memorial service or pouring new concrete where bombs left craters and making that public space physically whole again.
Some ugly incidents arose as well, including a reported assault in Boston on a Palestinian woman by a man hurling invective about the then unnamed bombing suspects. Hateful and ignorant statements have been expressed by a small segment of people, and some of those words have hurtled around the internet. Mistaken reports have haunted innocent people.
But most are doing it right.