This is an iconic Norman Rockwell painting that is a treasured part of my life, and my history. Rockwell painted it in 1958, and I’ve recently learned that the Massachusetts State Trooper who is depicted in it, Richard Clemens, Jr, died in 2012. I’ve owned a copy of this print for many years. For me, as for many folks, it has always epitomized the meaning behind law enforcement – the real reason for which the institution of law enforcement exists.It isn’t about driving fast, wearing a buzz cut & cool sunglasses, shooting it out with bad guys, crashing through doorways, writing tickets, siccing a hyperactive dog on someone, or styling for the ladies. No. The real meaning of law enforcement is trading a normal life, holidays, a rational work schedule, and, sometimes, blood, pain, and suffering, for the welfare of the weak and those in need. It is for providing strength to those in need, even when they don’t know that they need your strength, or want it.
But there’s a depth to this message that is most often not visible to the public — to those folks who have not experienced the culture of law enforcement. The “strength” we provide in times of need is often an illusion. I remember, in the fall of 2005, a friend and coworker of mine who was going through a tough divorce. His wife at the time, frankly, had gone nuts, and was putting him through hell. And I recall, specifically, assisting him on a domestic call during that time and marveling to myself at his demeanor and restraint while dealing with a situation that was not unlike the one in which he was trying to cope with himself. I thought then, that I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself. Then, two months later, my wife left me. And I found myself having to provide that same illusion of strength for others, even as my world crumbled around me.
It’s tough. And it never got easier. But we do what we do out of a sense of civic virtue, and oftentimes because there’s no one else out there to do it; to do what needs to be done for the greater good.Cops aren’t saints. Most of them aren’t sinners, either. We are just men and women who do an often difficult job for the sake of helping others. I used to refer to myself as a “professional stick in the mud” — someone whose job it was to tell other people that they couldn’t do what they wanted to do. And there’s a lot of that in there. But my most treasured moments during my time in law enforcement, the ones I’ll cherish and carry with me throughout my life, were those in which I was able to make a meaningful difference in someone’s life. Not by putting them in jail, but by helping them, offering a bit of advice, sometimes even giving them some money when they needed it.
Like the kid who, on Christmas day in 2005, had had it with his dad. At 17, he was tired of rules and restrictions, and of his father. The two started arguing, and the argument escalated until his mother called 911. The weather was bad that day, and everyone on my shift was tied up on other calls, so, contrary to policy, I was sent on the domestic disturbance solo. I separated the two and commenced a “diplomacy mission” for more an hour…shuttling back and forth between father and son, offering point and counterpoint, concessions and demands, until each was able to shake hands with and embrace the other, accepting that, yes, 17 years old is a tough age to be, but yes, living at home for free should indeed entitle the provider of one’s home to the right to set some boundaries. Months later, the kid approached me and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” As usual, when confronted with such a question, I turned slightly to my right, casually covering my name plate with my right hand, and said, “Uh, no. I’m sorry. Should I?” He reminded me of the call and told me that I had really made a difference in his life and that he was preparing to start college, majoring in Criminal Justice, in part because of his encounter with me months before.
Over the course of a decade and a half, I’ve garnered many similar stories as well as many that are not so nice. Sometimes, I bore my friends to death with them, I admit. But that’s the nature of the job. You get to experience people at their worst and people at their best, though it seems much more often the former. It tends to affect your outlook on life and humanity — and can pull you into an abyss of despair and prejudice if you aren’t careful. I tried to focus on the latter as much as I could, which, I think, helped spare me from the fate that so often overcomes good cops.
That Christmas Day in 2005 was the sort of experience that made me feel akin to Trooper Clemens, to feel that I had earned the right to sit next to the kid at the soda fountain and offer counsel as he prepared to strike out on his own, woefully unprepared to cope with the world he was preparing to enter. That is what Rockwell’s painting means to me. What law enforcement meant to me. And much of the reason that I still, sometimes, miss it. Others are carrying the flag now. Some with greater faith to its true meaning than others. As always. But in my heart, I will always appreciate them and treasure the time during which I was able to proudly shoulder the burden, and, occasionally, make a real difference in other peoples’ lives.