County Attorney's View: Remembering is so important in a world in need of repair
May 9-15 is National Police Week, a time to express our gratitude to all of our law enforcement officers who protect and serve their fellow citizens. May 15 is also annually set aside as a recognition of Peace Officer Memorial Day, recognizing the lives of officers lost in the line of duty.
It was the night of April 9, 1990. I will always remember. I was the on-call prosecutor. I received a call at home. There had been a shooting. Seven Duluth police officers, including Sgt. Gary Wilson, had gone to the Seaway Hotel in pursuit of a man who had been involved in an altercation in a bar. The suspect opened fire on the officers. Sgt. Wilson was struck twice. Sgt. John Hartley was wounded. Officers subdued and apprehended the shooter.
By the time I got there, the scene had been secured, the suspect taken to jail, and Gary and John taken to the hospital. I saw the blood, Gary’s blood, on the floor. Gary and I had worked together for almost nine years. He was a colleague and a friend.
I drove to the hospital. There was nothing the doctors could do. A heartbreaking vigil allowed people to say goodbye. There, gathered at the hospital in Gary’s room and in the hallway were officers, friends, the chaplain, and Gary’s family. Through tears we shared more than just handshakes with each other. We embraced as we tried to console each other — and tried to make sense of what had happened.
Sitting in the church pew on some Sunday mornings since, that is my silent plea to the person in the pulpit, to help me make sense of things.
I wish I still had the card a friend sent me 20 years ago when my father died. What I can recall is that it said that though he died he and our memory of his life will enable him to live forever through the way that we treat each other — how we live, laugh, console, and love each other, long after the pain of loss. Not unlike my memory of Gary’s life, the memory of my father’s life remains close.
Nice sentiment. But really, how do we do this?
I read an article a number of years ago titled, “What if Jesus Meant All That Stuff?” The author was of the opinion that often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians who have so much to say with their mouths and so little to show with their lives. The message of Jesus, to love your neighbor as yourself, seems so simple, doesn’t it? After all, it is a paraphrase of the Golden Rule.
To say that these are challenging times for law enforcement is an understatement.
When peace officers make the decision to choose a career in law enforcement, I am certain that when they are sworn in as new officers, they have a vision of what it will be like. They often are filled with the spirit of wanting to, and being ready to, serve their friends, family, community — their fellow citizens. They probably don’t realize that they are embarking on an often heartbreaking venture, a career that really amounts to repairing brokenness. They carry out their purpose as law-enforcement officers, living out the Hebrew concept of the purpose of life. This is known as Tikkun Olam: to “repair a broken world.”
My own path with the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office began in 1978. It was one I hoped would allow me to have a job, career, and opportunity to make the world a better place. I loved the idea of working for justice. I had not yet heard of the concept of Tikkun Olam.
What happens along the way? Peace officers see people at their worst, and they see people who do some of the worst things, often to people they purport to care about. Through it all, peace officers are called to treat each and every person with respect and dignity. I do not know how they do it, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I do know that it helps if they know that we can all be there for each other, to offer support and strength — and to express our appreciation to them for their service on our behalf.
Which brings me back to Sgt. Gary Wilson. Shortly after he died, I saw him, or thought I did, on the first floor of the courthouse. And then he was gone. It was an experience that shook me but made me feel grateful. Gary truly was one of the good guys. The way he did his job reflected that he believed that Jesus “meant all that stuff.” Gary was all about “repairing this broken world.”
I also noticed an interesting phenomena amongst my colleagues in law enforcement. From the night of his death, and for the next week, we shared our true feelings more easily with each other. We told each other how much we meant to each other. We even slipped occasionally and used the “L” word.
Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago Tribune columnist, said it best in 1979 upon the death of his wife of a brain aneurysm: “If there’s someone you love but haven’t said so in a while, say it now.”
The law enforcement profession — or calling, as many describe it — probably has never been more dangerous or more underappreciated. It is important for every one of our peace officers to know how much we appreciate what they do for all of us, their fellow citizens. Their dedication and the challenges they face on a daily basis do not go unnoticed.
We are in this together. We are in the business of ensuring that our communities are safe, that offenders will be held accountable, and that the rights of all — even those who hurt the most vulnerable in society and those who flagrantly violate our laws with disturbing attitudes — are still protected. It is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort. It is our job and it is the right thing to do.
Please join me in thanking our peace officers for their service and also recognizing those who have paid the ultimate price on our behalf. They will not have died in vain.
Mark S. Rubin is St. Louis County attorney.