Saturday, December 31, 2011

With the Old Breed*

"John Wayne said the hardest thing about wearing a badge is knowing when to give it up."

With those words, my friend said good bye to us, and to a police career spanning almost forty years. He was one of the old breed, retiring yesterday with seven others. It was a bittersweet moment.

The old breed walked beats, worked alone and came of age under tumultuous circumstances. When they were young, beginning their careers, law enforcement struggled to become a profession, to shrug off the deserved criticism of racism, favoritism, intolerance. Many had come home from war in the Sixties and early Seventies, only to be thrown onto battle lines at home with little training, rudimentary tactics and uneven support from society. Most of them were determined to serve, to give everything to they had.

There wasn't a lot of money in the job then, perhaps five or six hundred dollars a month. Free coffee, half-priced meals, the bottle at Christmas - gratuities - stretched the family budget. The practice was easily corrupted, and fell into disfavor among progressive organizations trying to weed out dishonesty. Today, the veterans fondly remember the generosity, decades removed from the tiny gift.

Some officers walked beats alone, communicating with their department through a system of call boxes, not radios. If the light on the call box was on, it meant that a citizen needed police service. The phone inside connected the cop to their headquarters. Paychecks, memos.... dropped off at the call box.

Police officers, then as now, learn their craft by watching and listening to the "jurassics," the men and women tempered by experience. The war stories, peppered with invective and profanity, don't just tell amusing, often self-deprecating tales. They are cautionary, instructive. Teaching moments, over coffee at work, or beers after. Sitting beside them, we learned from the old breed.

Years ago, two of us went to a house, to secure it while detectives (my friend among them) obtained a search warrant. The sole occupant, a middle-aged woman, waited impatiently with us, sipping from a glass of water. At least, it looked like water.

It was gin. As the evening wore on she lost her sense of humor about the delay (search warrants often take hours, even under ideal circumstances). Finally, the detectives arrived, court order in hand. Our cranky host focused on my friend, drew herself unsteadily to her feet and blurted, "I'm gonna kick your ass."

"Well," he chuckled. "I guess it's a good thing I brought it with me, huh?"

The woman laughed out loud. My friend's retort - non-confrontational, funny but uncompromising - proved the perfect way to break the tension. There is no text book, no verbal judo class, nothing but experience and well-honed people skills that teaches that kind of dexterity.

Legend has it that one of yesterday's retirees, a burly guy who cuts wood as a side job, had had enough of a local "character" known for goading officers mercilessly, protected by his constitutional right to be obnoxious. Pushed to the limit, the officer removed his badge and let his gunbelt fall. "All right, it's just us boys here. Let's go."

I can't imagine the apoplexy of a modern police administrator, hearing that an officer had done something similar. To say that such bravado is "frowned upon" is to stifle the life out of language. Yet.... There was no fight. No one was hurt. The fabric of society remained unsullied as a bully was put in his place.

It's a different environment, today. Urban police officers maintain incessant, unrelenting contact with their highly-computerized dispatch center. GPS vehicle locators tell dispatch - and wary supervisors - where everyone is, all of the time. Mobile data terminals in the cars, text messages on smart phones, iPads, multi-channel portable radios. Within seconds of a citizen's frantic call for help officers are alerted. All to the good - these enhancements save lives and enhance service.

Modern police executives talk consensus decision-making, three-sixty evaluations, bottom-up innovation, transparency. Consultants swarm overhead, offering (at a price) tools for everything from scheduling efficiency to avoiding being run over by a car. Constant, perpetual scrutiny keeps us honest, even though the best of us don't really need it.

The job itself hasn't changed at all. It's still people serving people, doing our best when they are at their worst. Solving problems, stopping the bad stuff...helping. The old breed knew that in their hearts, demonstrating through deeds that being called to serve is an honor, but serving in the company of your best friends is a blessing. That we accepted their lessons unevenly is our fault, not theirs.

One of the retiring officers, a tough, plain-spoken man, looked around and said, "The best thing has been the people who...." He couldn't finish the sentence.

I hope those of us who take their place as the old breed are worthy of their memory. Thank you for your service. Godspeed.

*With the Old Breed, Sledge, E. B., Presidio Press, 1981.


  1. What a beautiful tribute, Jim. It's police officers like you, and those you speak of, that keep our faith in law enforcement.


  2. Thank you, Marci. That is high praise indeed. These are my friends - men and women I've known for almost 31 years. They deserve long, happy years in retirement.

  3. It's people like you who do it for the right reasons and keep everyone else safe while putting yourself in danger over and over and over. First responders earn far more respect than their given by the general public and the people who "pay your salaries" that seem to think it's okay to tell you how to do your job.