It ain't easy, wearing blue ...
"I am the Officer"
I have been where you fear to be,
I have seen what you fear to see,
I have done what you fear to do -
All these things I have done for you.
I am the person you lean upon,
The one you cast your scorn upon,
The one you bring your troubles to -
All these people I've been for you.
The one you ask to stand apart,
The one you feel should have no heart,
The one you call "The Officer in Blue,"
But I'm just a person, just like you.
And through the years I've come to see,
That I am not always what you ask of me;
So, take this badge ... take this gun ...
Will you take it ... will anyone?
And when you watch a person die
And hear a battered baby cry,
Then do you think that you can be
All these things you ask of me?
The following appeared in the Long Beach Press Telegram, April
Police officers are always on the job
By Tom Hennessy
At the time it happened, police officer Jim Smith was walking
through a shopping mall near his home. Suddenly, he found himself
face to face with a man he had arrested just two weeks earlier.
"I looked at him. He looked at me. I could see that he knew me."
There were other factors.
For one thing, the man was much bigger than Smith, who was off-duty
at the time. "If I'd had to fight him without my tools (baton,
handcuffs, pepper spray), he'd have won."
For another thing, Smith was carrying his son, then 18 months
old. Looking back on the incident, Smith refers to it as his "awakening."
Deciding it would not do to raise children in the same community
in which he arrested people for a living, Smith moved his family
to Orange County, putting distance between them and Long Beach,
where he has been an officer for more than a decade.
Jim Smith, as you may have guessed, is a pseudonym, used here
for the officer's protection. Over the years, I've come to know
some police officers never closely, but well enough to realize
that when their shift is over and they leave the problems of police
work behind, a whole new set of problems kicks in. Simply put,
W.S. Gilbert's observation that "a policeman's lot is not a happy
one" applies around the clock.
Recently, Officer Smith agreed to talk to me about the off-duty
life of officers. He did so with the blessing of the police chief's
office. And he shared anecdotes from other officers as well as
He tells, for example, of a fellow officer who, arriving home
in a Long Beach suburb after work, stopped at a shopping mall
only to be confronted by a man, perhaps demented, perhaps not.
The man screamed a stream of invective that made it clear he knew
the officer was a member of the Long Beach Police Department.
Obviously, he had followed the policeman home.
The man produced a shotgun from the trunk of his car. Noting that
there were children nearby, the officer wisely chose not to use
his service revolver. He defused the situation simply by driving
off. From his car, he called local police, who then handled the
"He did not recognize the guy," says Smith. "He couldn't put the
guy's face to any cases he had been working. But the incident
freaked him out."
There are cases of bad guys tracing officers virtually to their
front doors. "A guy who will find out where you live may be the
kind of guy who will follow out a threat, too."
How much protection does the Police Department give an officer
in such a situation? Quite a bit, says Smith. "They'll go as far
as putting a black and white (patrol car) outside your home."
Never a break
Smith finds there is never a time when he is not a police officer.
His neighbors know he is a policeman. The fact that he is one
in another community makes no difference to them when things get
sticky in the neighborhood.
"They may have a problem in which they need to call the police,
but they'll call me instead."
One neighbor enlisted Smith to serve an eviction notice on a tenant.
Doing it proved easier than saying no. Fortunately, the tenant
offered no resistance.
Smith believes that cops who get involved in neighborhood situations
like that are putting themselves at greater risk than if they
were on duty.
For one thing, they are usually without the tools of their trade,
as Smith was in the mall incident. The missing tools can include
their service weapon. (Contrary to popular belief, officers are
not required to carry their firearms off duty.)
In a sense, Smith is always working even when off duty.
" You see things that civilians don't see. I'll be driving
with my wife and say, 'There's a drug deal going down.' There's
nothing I can do about it. I could call it in, but they'll be
gone in 15 seconds."
Off duty, his service revolver also poses problems. There is no
such thing as hiding it from his three children.
"We have to teach our kids about guns. Eventually, they're going
to see it. (Maybe) the kid is just hugging you, and he sees the
gun in your jacket."
On a family outing once, one of Smith's children noticed a man
wearing a kind of purse around his waist. The child went up to
the man and said: "Do you have a gun in there? My daddy has a
Smith later told the boy, "You can't tell strangers I have a gun
or that Daddy is a police officer."
Would he use the gun off duty?
"Sure. If somebody is going to do something to hurt my family
or to a civilian and I can stop it, I will do so." During an out-of-state
trip, he says, he drew his gun when his wife appeared to be under
threat from a stranger.
Same old same old
Most people find it a novelty to have a friend who is a police
officer. They are apt to introduce him not as Jim Smith, but as
"My friend, Jim. He's a cop."
"What follows can be unpleasant for the officer," says Smith.
"Inevitably, you're going to hear about every rude cop they ever
met and every ticket they got that wasn't deserved. Then comes
the usual question: 'Have you ever shot anybody?' "
Other difficulties arise from the public's perception of police.
"Most people learn about law enforcement from the media. In the
entertainment industry, law enforcement is the No. 1 topic. People
look at shows like 'Sunset Beach' and think that's real."
Smith points to the old "CHiPs" television show to illustrate
how divorced from reality such programs can be.
"In CHiPs, they never drew their guns because they wanted it to
be a nonviolent show. Ridiculous. My gun is out of my holster
at least once a week."
He also finds that news stories often identify a bad guy as the
son of a police officer.
"But you'll never see a bad guy identified as the son of, say,
an aerospace worker."
A different life
The off-day problems of police could fill a page of this newspaper.
Officers will be called to court on days off, only to arrive there
and find they are not needed. Their spouses are alone much of
Of his wife, Smith says, "She is basically a single mother of
three children four nights a week."
The officer who does wrong or is suspected of doing wrong may
be doubly penalized by the court system and by his department's
internal affairs unit. For these and myriad other reasons, Smith
admits that "a lot of cops are hard to live with."
Once, in a gathering of six officers, they counted nine divorces
among them. "The group included me, and I've never been divorced,"
In a column written two years ago after the fatal shooting of
Long Beach Officer Daryle Black, I wrote this: "Try as we may
to fathom what being a police officer is like, most of us cannot
do it. We cannot measure all those lesser sacrifices that go with
the job: the missed anniversaries and birthdays, the family dinners
with one chair vacant, the Little League games when Officer Dad
or Officer Mom is not there, the times when the family creeps
around the house as the officer parent sleeps off a night shift."
Interviewing Officer Smith confirmed all that and more. Yet for
all the problems of being an officer on duty and off Smith considers
himself a lucky man.
"It's the greatest job in the world," he says. "I wouldn't trade
it for anything."
Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday
and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270, or via e-mail