If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street
Editor’s Note: Brian Willis is the editor and author of If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street, a collection of real-life short stories written by police officers. Willis, who was recently named Law Officer’s 2011 Trainer of the Year, has committed to donating $10,000 to the ILEETA scholarship fund. Help support his efforts! If you enjoy this chapter, please consider purchasing the book—for yourself or a friend—at www.warriorspiritbooks.com. Enjoy and be safe.
I was a 25-year-old kid fresh out of college when I was hired as a police officer for a small municipality about 30 miles outside of Chicago. The job wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I took it anyways. The town was home to numerous professional athletes that hadn’t yet landed a life-changing contract. There were small pockets of trouble that provided young officers a little excitement from the mundane. Overall, the town was a nice middle-class community, populated with law-abiding people. It wasn’t long after my departure from this department that I realized what a solid foundation in law enforcement my short tenure there provided.
Lieutenant’s Good Advice
I had graduated at the top of my academy class and was ready to hit the street. I was initially assigned to the day shift to learn the jurisdictional geography of the town and the departmental paperwork process. When I walked into the office for roll call, I met my lieutenant and upon first impression, he looked like an average guy. But what really stood out was his uniform. It was flawless. I’d later find out he was a former U.S. Army honor guard member, and that he’d served in that capacity at President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.
After roll call, my lieutenant gestured to me to stay afterward for a few minutes. After he asked a couple questions about my motivation for becoming a police officer, he offered advice from his years of experience and suggested I keep a journal throughout my career. I asked him why since it didn’t appear that anything very exciting happened in this average middle-class community. He mentioned I would be surprised at the things that take place every day in communities such as this, and that a 20-year career would go by much quicker than I thought. A journal would memorialize much of what transpired and would serve to jog my memory when recalling incidents from the past. I shrugged it off, and introduced myself to the officer that had been assigned as my FTO. I will call him Ken.
Ken was at the tail end of his career, and had a reputation for moving slowly and handling things in his own way. Ken was adequate at paperwork and appeared, at least to the newer officers, to have little interest in chasing bad guys. He was soft spoken, told corny jokes, smoked a lot and talked a lot about nothing—he was somewhat boring. He didn’t have much of a home life, so he spent much of his off duty time at a local diner talking to the patrons. This couldn’t have been further from the testosterone-filled environment I was used to, or the adrenaline-packed world I was in search of.
After completion of the FTO period, I was handed the keys to a cruiser and sent out on my own. We were given daily shift assignments and I crossed my fingers in the hopes of drawing the south district. If anything was going to happen, the south district was where it’d be. Ken graciously accepted the north district because he knew there would be fewer calls. That way he could spend more time socializing in the diner. As I gravitated toward the officers with reputations for being aggressive, we’d talk about Ken and others, and poke fun about the way they handled things. We often wondered why anyone would seek a career in law enforcement if they shied away from everything that defined the job—from the duties those in the warrior culture lived for. It didn’t make sense.
After several years of working in this small community, developing a solid reputation and good working relationships with the command staff, my co-workers and the local politicians, it seemed that I had a pretty bright future in this town. But, deep inside, I felt unchallenged. I needed to do more than this town could offer. So, I went off in search of the elusive real police work. After almost five years, I decided to leave the police department and accept an appointment to a federal law enforcement agency. It wasn’t until then that I would find out what Ken was all about.
The Truth about Ken
One of the last assignments I worked on before leaving the police department was a decoy detail in search of a serial rapist. I worked very closely with the other detail members including an officer I’ll call Sarah, who acted as the decoy. We became close friends during my time at the department, and it was an unfortunate event that involved her that would shift my perspective about Ken—and change my life.
One night at approximately 12:39 a.m., Sarah activated her overhead emergency lights and pulled her cruiser into the median of a major thoroughfare to remove an injured animal from the roadway. She opened the trunk to retrieve a pair of protective gloves, unaware that the trunk lid completely blocked the bar lights from the rear of the cruiser. As Sarah bent over into the car’s trunk, a limousine rear-ended the cruiser, which instantly amputated one of her legs and severely injured the other. Her condition was life threatening.
The first officer on the scene was another officer I had worked very closely with on the decoy detail, and a good friend of Sarah’s. He was one of the hard chargers who talked frequently about his desire to find real police work, and about the passive nature of officers like Ken. When he exited his cruiser and saw Sarah lying in the middle of the roadway—one leg amputated and bleeding profusely—and in dire need of immediate assistance, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. Not only was this his chance to do real police work, but his friend needed his help immediately or she would die.
The next officer to arrive on the scene was none other than Ken. Without hesitation, Ken took charge. He called for paramedics and immediately began treating Sarah’s injuries as best he could. He directed other officers so they could assist and he kept Sarah alive.
Sarah survived her crippling injuries. She endured intense pain and a lengthy rehabilitation, but would never walk again. But she was alive for one reason: Ken had saved her life.
Ken was a decorated U.S. Marine who had done his real work on the battlefields of Vietnam. He had already saved lives, taken lives and cheated death more times than most could imagine—all before he was old enough to drink. He had nothing to prove. He joined the police department because it was an obvious transition from the military; one that many veterans pursued and had camaraderie similar to the military. He didn’t care about writing tickets, car chases or foot pursuits. He had left a big part of his soul on the battlefields of Southeast Asia. The young bulls couldn’t figure him out. We were too egotistical or too engrossed in the perceived sensationalism of law enforcement. But, when it came time to take action, there was one clear hero in the bunch: Ken, the quiet warrior.
Sarah’s accident not only changed her life, it changed the lives of her family and friends. I was only four weeks into training at the federal academy at the time of the accident, and living on the sixth floor of the dormitory. After hearing of Sarah’s accident, I refused to take an elevator again during training out of respect for her. I couldn’t help but think that she would give anything to have those few minutes before the accident back, to be able to walk six flights of stairs on her own or chase her kids.
It has been over 18 years since Sarah’s accident, and to this day, I rarely take an elevator; just a small gesture of respect for my friend, and a way to savor the gift of being able to walk. I have often reflected on Sarah’s accident and wondered how many quiet warriors there are in this world. There are undoubtedly many more just like Ken—standing humbly and silently in the shadows until needed.
I have been in law enforcement for over 20 years, and I’m just over a year away from being eligible to retire. It’s hard to believe that I am now the dinosaur I once ridiculed. Time has flown by. How right that lieutenant was. I’ve kept some notes on my career, but it’s certainly not a journal. I have worked all over the U.S. and in numerous foreign countries, and have undoubtedly forgotten many of the finer points of my career that would’ve made for interesting conversation or a nice historical keepsake for my children.
Finding Your Call
Despite all my many travels and assignments from that small suburban Chicago community to Europe, Africa and the jungles of South America, I have determined that real police work is not elusive. It’s what every law enforcement officer encounters every time they strap on their gun and badge and walk out their door. They never know if they will return, or what condition they might be in when they do. I appreciate what Ken taught me more now. No matter where you work, if you stay in this line of work long enough, you will get your call. It’s up to you whether you will be ready.
In honor of Ken, Sarah and my lieutenant.
Chuck Soltys is a 23-year law enforcement veteran. He’s currently a federal agent and Tactical Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-B). He’s been assigned to specialized enforcement groups and served three tours of duty on a jungle operations team in South and Central America. Soltys holds numerous instructor certifications, and has instructed extensively in the U.S., South America, Central America, Africa and Europe. Soltys is a member of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association (ITOA) Board of Directors and TEMS Committee Co-Chair, International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) Advisory Board, National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI), as well as numerous other professional organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com.