Friday, June 01, 2007

Life and Death Lessons

Tuesday's Lincoln Journal Star had a story about the Lincoln Police Citizen Academy and that took me back to 1994, when I was a member of the first-ever Citizen Police Academy with the Redondo Beach (Calif.) Police Department.

Even for a cops and courts/city reporter, it was (and still is) one of the high points of my nearly 10-year reporting career. Now that I'm retired (or recovering...) from reporting, I look back on my time with cops, both on the beat and during the academy, and many of the life (and death) lessons I learned from the officers during the 90s are still with me:
  • Eat More. Talk Less. I tend to talk. Especially over a meal. When you have a dinner break with cops, it's 30 min. if you don't get a call. That includes parking, ordering, finding a table, getting the time you pick up your fork you're down to 15 min. My first ride-along taught me that if you talk all through dinner you get really hungry when you're stuck in a parking garage at midnight looking for bullet casings for two hours.

  • I've been shot, where are we? One ride-along found me with an officer who could chat up a storm and keep up with my questions as we patrolled neighborhoods that were somewhat familiar. On a quiet street, the cop stopped the car, looked at me and calmly said, "I've been shot, where are we?" I didn't know. I could see house numbers but we were in the middle of the block and there were no street signs. I looked at him and he said nothing. I knew I had failed the test. For the rest of that night and to this day, I usually know where I am. He never asked me the question again during the 8-hour shift, but he didn't have to.

  • Watch the sunset. I worked at the beach in one of the most beautiful, postcard perfect areas of the country. The cops reminded me that when you're patrolling along Pacific Coast Highway, sometimes you have to stop and take in the sunset over the Pacific.

  • It's a dangerous job. Our first night at the academy, our instructor opened his lecture on tactics with a slide of four dead cops, saying, "this class is dedicated to them." The sobering truth is that cops are killed in the course of their work too often. In 1993, I had covered the murder of a Manhattan Beach police officer, Martin Ganz. While in DC two weeks ago, I visited the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. It had been a long time since thinking about Ganz, who was murdered while on duty two days after Christmas, 1993. His pre-teen nephew was with him on a ride-along and Marty was shot during a traffic stop. The boy wasn't physically harmed. The murder shook the postcard perfect beach cities like nothing else.

I still have great respect for cops. If you ever have the opportunity to go through a citizen academy, take it. You can learn a lot from cops about life and a lot more than you want to know about death. But learn the lesson I didn't: say thanks. I remember saying goodbye to Marty after his funeral, but I had forgotten to say thank you until I was looking at his engraved name on panel 42, west side, more than 13 years after his last end-of-watch, holding a rectangular piece of plain paper and rubbing a blue crayon across his name.

To remind me.



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