“ FIFTEEN MINUTES AND COUNTING ”
They say that everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame. What those of us in law enforcement tend to get more often is a sort of collective infamy - usually in the form of another blaring indictment
on the evening news. Some citizen armed with a video camera has captured the latest episode of police brutality, or cops on the take, or cops in the act of shaming their office and their profession. The
actions of a very few mean we all get painted with the same brush. We’re the professional bad guys, the authority figures folks love to hate, a necessary evil called upon to clean up the garbage but reviled
as we do it. As a police captain informed our rookie class on Orientation Day at the Training Academy, “If you wanted to be heroes, you should’ve joined the Fire Department.
Cops don’t win popularity contests.”
Anyone on the job long enough to get your shoes scuffed and your Sam Browns worn enough so the leather stops squeaking knows that’s the truth. The public’s perception of cops is tinged with
disturbing images: we’re the ones sworn to serve and protect, but we have to kick ass and take names while we’re doing it. Easier for John Q. Public to think of us more as baton-wielding thugs behind
badges than the good guys who don’t get to wear the white hats. By now we’re used to it. How many times during each duty tour have we been asked, “But how can you do this job every day? How can you stand it?”
Most of the time that’s a rhetorical question that doesn’t require an answer. But if we were to give one, how many people would understand where we’ve been, who we are, and why we continue to do what we do?
If I were to respond to their questions, I’d start by saying I never intended to be a cop. I come from a police family, - father, uncles and cousins have all worn the badge before me. In spite of that, or maybe
because of it, I never planned to follow their example. I was certain I couldn’t take the heartbreak or stand the constant pressure that comes from straddling the tenuous line between order and chaos, love
and hate, life and death. More than that, I was like every other citizen who doesn’t understand ...not just why, but how.
But when I strapped on my gunbelt and pinned on my badge, I learned that I’d been wrong on all counts. Policing is an affinity, an addiction and an exchange of energy that continues to feed off what
we experience every time we hit the streets. There’s a rhythm there, a siren’s song that beckons, calling us back each night. There are no clear-cut distinctions in a cop’s world, no black and white that
makes it easy to separate sinners from saints. We see them all - the whores, pushers, pimps, murderers and everyone in between- and they’ve all got a story, - the gospel according to the street..
Cops know how to read between the lines, the unspoken words that tell the real story while everyone’s talking in tongues.
Kicking ass is easy; it’s the listening that’s hard, especially when the stories we hear are without voice, told only in someone’s eyes, or in their breaking hearts. Like the old lady who just got stabbed
for three subway tokens. The life is seeping out of her in spreading pools of red, and we’re the last faces she’ll see in this world - cops who stand over her, seeing the horror, disbelief, and
finally.....resignation in her eyes. We didn’t get there in time, not nearly enough to save her and prevent that look and that death. But we’ll see her eyes, her anguished face in our dreams that
night,....and again in the faces of other victims like her.
We hear the terror in a parents’ voice: his child is missing, and please, Officer, please, find him! We’re the professionals, the ones who are supposed to find the kids, right the wrongs, keep everybody safe
and protected. So we maintain our game faces that cover our own fear while we wonder if this is one of those times when we can’t. We know what’s out there, know how easy the streets can suck up a
young life, deliver death and damnation in a single senseless act. And while we search for that lost child, it’s our own we’re seeing, and the urgency increases along with our knotted guts. If we’re lucky
enough to find that missing kid, there’s no greater affirmation of what our job is about. If not, we swear that next time we’ll do better, try harder, cheat the demons who wait there in the darkness for
Mayhem, Act 2.
Cops know better than anyone that this is Fate’s world, and we’re just living in it. In spite of our best efforts, there’ll always be danger, and continuing acts of the seven deadlies that tip a sane man into
madness. Each night on the street teaches us that a single act can wreak havoc, end lives, shatter everything we hold to be right and safe. Our job is a struggle. There are no easy answers, few
resolutions, little satisfaction. So why do we keep on keeping on?
Sometimes between the chaos and mayhem, the lost kids and helpless victims and all the crazed characters who populate our professional lives, there descends a moment of clarity, an understanding
that this is what we’re meant to do. In a world where you can’t tell the bad guys without a scorecard (and even then, it’s iffy), we’re the ones who hold it all together. Heroes? Not us. We’re just out there
doing our jobs. After a few weeks or months or years on the street, we’re not cops anymore as much as trained reflexes set on auto-response. At the first sign that something’s hitting the fan, we jump in,
geared for whatever’s necessary, help or protection or another battle and the consequences that come with it. It’s a simple cop equation that defines what we do: acts that require instinctive actions,
without glory or fanfare or fifteen minutes of fame.
The tragic irony is that following the horrendous events of September 11, the world got some insight into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of what we do. The unthinkable had happened. We as a nation learned that
no soil was too sacred to escape the madness of terrorism. When the World Trade Center was attacked, cops and firefighters rushed forward to help. It was instinct and reflexes again. And this
time, while the whole world watched, citizens jumped in right along with us, prepared to do whatever was necessary to rescue victims, save lives and quell the pandemonium. On that day, people realized
our instincts are all the same: the preservation and safety of life. On September 11, everyone was a hero. And on that day, people finally understood what we’ve always known. Cops do what we do
because we’re needed. We’re fueled by the small victories, the times we know we’ve made a difference. And three months after the worst tragedy on American soil, cops are finally the good guys
for doing what we’ve done all along. Fifteen minutes of fame that came late, and at a horrific price. Fifteen minutes that may help the healing and bridge the gap in public awareness. Fifteen minutes that
chronicle the brotherhood and love our country shares. Fifteen minutes....and counting.
Copyright 2001 by Gina Gallo
Gina Gallo is a duty disabled Chicago Police Officer. After a 16 year career on Chicago’s inner-city
streets, she now writes professionally, and is currently completing her fourth book. Her memoir, ARMED AND DANGEROUS, has been optioned for a CBS-TV series.
Gina may be contacted at email@example.com
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