Thursday, April 19, 2018

Innocence tarnished for police officers left behind

The headlines, so prominent a week ago, have already faded in impact and memory.

The funeral of a Lakeland police officer, like the funerals of three St. Petersburg police officers a year ago and the funerals of two Tampa police officers before that, has imperceptibly, and maybe inevitably, been nudged from our thoughts.

And to be honest, it is neither disturbing nor heartless on our part. It just is. We mourn, we empathize and we move on.

But what of the officers left behind? How could their lives ever be the same? How long before they can look at a traffic stop, an attic or a patdown without apprehension or dread?

"A year ago, when the dispatcher was calling someone on the radio and they didn't answer, you assumed they were in the bathroom or getting some information from someone, and they had just tuned the radio out.

"But now, every time you hear a dispatcher call a person a second time, your heart skips a beat. Because I'll never forget the day when they were calling ... when they were calling on the radio and people weren't answering. And you know in your heart that they're not answering because they can't answer.

"So, yeah, I don't think any of us around here looks at things the way we once did."

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Patrice Hubbard

For some, the changes are professional. A loss of innocence, one officer calls it.

The bulletproof vest that used to be left in a locker during the blistering summer months is now worn no matter how bright the sun may shine. Veteran officers who routinely declined help in the past now wait around a corner until backup can arrive.

Dispatchers are on edge. Street officers are hypervigilant. Routines that were once taken for granted are not approached with the same level of complacency.

For others, the changes are more personal. And mostly hidden.

In the station, a squad door is closed, and an officer spills his or her heart about the spouse or parent who is begging him or her to resign. At the funeral, an officer tells his boss he will stay outside working traffic control for as long as necessary because he cannot bear to walk inside that church and watch those children grieve.

There are the chairs of fallen officers that may go untouched. The parking spot left empty. The bracelets with the names of lost friends that are worn at all times.

And there is that extra two seconds before leaving the house when a hug becomes something more than just a casual way to say goodbye.

"The day the first two officers got shot, my (9-year-old) son's class had a field trip to the Mahaffey. He didn't know anything about what was going on, and was riding in a car with a friend and the friend's mom.

"Without thinking about it, the mom said, 'Oh, they've got the roads blocked because of the officers that were killed,' and it just sent my son into a panic. … They had to console him all day because he was so panicked.

"Before last year, my son and my husband never worried about me. Never. I can honestly say that. Now my son worries every day. He's even said to me, 'Why don't you quit and find a job where no one wants to kill you?' "

St. Petersburg police Sgt. Pati Houston

They went to work one day, and they never came home.

This is a familiar refrain among officers. They may say it in frustration. Or incredulity. Or anger. Or, more and more, in resignation.

The number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed by gunfire in 2011 increased 15 percent from the year before. For the first time since the mid 1990s, there were more officers killed by guns than in traffic-related incidents.

Officers will tell you this is not an aberration. That there is a noticeable difference on the streets. That, somehow, life has lost its value among the young and disenfranchised.

"The vast majority of the public is … appreciative of law enforcement. But until you walk in these shoes, I don't think you can really understand.

"I may step out of a car and see somebody in the shadows and shout, 'Hey, show me your hands!' Now, after the fact, it turns out to be fine. But the person is maybe a little upset because they felt I was being rude yelling at them. It's like, 'Yeah, well I was ready for you to pull a gun and start shooting at me, frankly.' But of course I can't say that.

"I took this job knowing there were risks involved, but when it gets to the point where you have to have that type of attitude or mind-set, I think it's unfortunate. It's sad."

St. Petersburg police Officer David Gerardo

Danger has long been a part of the job, but it always seemed more abstract.

Not anymore. Not around here.

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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