A Cop's Life: True Stories from the Heart Behind the Badgeby Randy Sutton
After September 11, 2001 Las Vegas Police Sergeant Randy Sutton began soliciting writing from law enforcement officers-his goal being to bridge the gap between the police and those they serve, with a book that offers a broad and thoughtful look at the many facets of police life. Hundreds of active and former officers responded from all over the United States: men… See more details below
After September 11, 2001 Las Vegas Police Sergeant Randy Sutton began soliciting writing from law enforcement officers-his goal being to bridge the gap between the police and those they serve, with a book that offers a broad and thoughtful look at the many facets of police life. Hundreds of active and former officers responded from all over the United States: men and women from big cities and small towns, some who had written professionally, but most for the first time. Sutton culled the selections into five categories: The Beat, Line of Duty, War Stories, Officer Down, and Ground Zero.
The result is True Blue, a collection of funny, charming, exciting, haunting stories about murder investigations, missing children, bungling burglars, car chases, lonely and desperate shut-ins, routine traffic stops, officers killed in the line of duty, and the life-changing events of September 11. Here, officers reveal their emotions-fear and pride, joy and disgust, shame and love-as they recount the defining moments of their careers. In these stories, the heart and soul behind the badge shines through in unexpected ways. True Blue will change the way we think about the deeply human realm of police service.
Joseph Wambaugh, author of The Onion Field and Fire Lover
- St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt
Johnny’s Last Day
My life as a cop began with a death on a muddy locker room floor. As I look back on that moment now, nearly three decades later, I wonder if that tragic event was a portent of my future, if my fate, my career, had been irrevocably bound to trauma and anguish and grief. It was not an auspicious beginning but an ironic one, and now, as I trace my life in uniform back to its earliest days, as I wend my way emotionally and spiritually past so many ghosts—of cops and criminals and victims and bystanders alike—back to those earliest days, the first face I see is that of Patrolman Johnny Rogerson.
Johnny Rogerson was a crusty veteran cop approaching the magical twenty-fifth year of service, the year when the brass ring of retirement would be within his grasp. He was the desk officer at the small-town police department where I, at nineteen, was a police cadet. Like a lot of guys who became police officers after World War II, he had joined the police department straight out of the army. After more than two decades, he still had the military bearing and wore his steel gray hair in a military-style brush cut. His face was crisscrossed with deep lines, and he had the look of a rugged, albeit retired, Marlboro Man, which was fitting since he was almost never without that brand of cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Johnny’s job was to answer the phone, to greet citizens who stormed the desk with questions and complaints, and to dispatch officers on calls. All the patrol officers rotated between patrol and working the desk—all except Johnny. Unlike everybody else on the force, he preferred, or so I thought, to be behind the desk instead of in a patrol car. To me, he was like a giant spider in the center of its web, alert to everything and everybody who wandered into his reach, as quick to criticize as he was to console.
How did he take to me? He tended to regard me with one raised eyebrow and a lot of skepticism.
“You’re too young to be here, kid,” he’d say whenever I came through the door in my cadet’s uniform. “What are they doing putting babies in men’s boots?” he’d mutter and shake his head. “You better be fully grown before you pin a badge on your chest. Nobody’s gonna hold your hand out there, boy.”
So it went for most of my first year. I figured he was taunting me in a good-natured way, but I also figured that being a man, much less a police officer, involved absorbing taunts with placid indifference. Johnny Rogerson became my testing ground for handling brusque personalities. I’d respond to his jesting by smiling and shaking my head as if he’d just told a great joke. After a few weeks, I discovered we were getting along just fine.
My job, after all, was to help him at the desk. I was the only cadet in the station, a holdover from a high school internship program. When my classmates made a running leap for the wide open summer and either packed for college, left to travel through Europe on a Eurailpass, or sought a summer job that would provide gas and beer money, I put on my uniform and walked straight back to the police station. I also worked a security job during the day and took some college classes at night, but I knew, with absolute conviction, what I wanted to do with my life. It was just a matter of time.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up, boy?” Johnny would chide me as I’d sit down at my desk behind the bulletproofed, glass-walled dispatch console that separated city hall from the police station.
“A cop,” I’d say, since this had become a ritual greeting between us. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I don’t want to be anything but a cop.”
“Hey,” Johnny would say to a group of cops coming in from patrol. “Got some career advice for this kid? Seems he’s got his heart set on being one of us.”
“This job sucks!”
“Go be a banker or something.”
“Go someplace where you can make some goddamned money!”
They all would laugh, and I would laugh, too, because anyone who wanted to be a cop knew it wasn’t a practical choice and maybe not even a choice at all but a calling. I believed I was one of the lucky ones because I’d known what I wanted to do with my life while still in high school; becoming a cop was my sole aim. The age of majority had recently changed from twenty-one to eighteen, so it was actually possible to be a cop while still a teenager. I was intent on doing just that, even though I knew that openings didn’t come up very often in a small town; usually one new recruit was hired every two years. I wasn’t dissuaded; I had taken an extra load of courses in high school so that I could graduate six months early and be able to test for the department while still a cadet.
I had tested when the last opening came up a year before and had done well—just not well enough. I was number two. When the results were posted, Johnny had chuckled and clapped me on the back.
“That’s just the department’s way of saying, ‘We like you, kid, but you’re just too goddamned young.’”
The other cops were a bit more encouraging. When they passed by the front desk, they’d offer, “Hey, kid, hang in there and keep trying, you’ll get somewhere.”
But, God, I was frustrated. The list was only good for a year, and there wasn’t going to be another cop hired until after Johnny retired, which would be after the list expired. I had tested with other departments as job announcements came out, but I really wanted to stay at my hometown department. I knew all the guys working there from the chief on down, and I felt comfortable with them. And, despite my initial reservations, I found myself looking forward to my half-shift at the desk with Johnny Rogerson.
Johnny was the “open for business” desk sergeant; he unlocked the doors to the street, ran the flag up the flagpole, made coffee, and perused the blotter, all before 6.00 a.m. No matter how early I came jogging up the steps, he would already be standing at the floor-to-ceiling window reveling in the sight of the sunrise, his gone fishin’ coffee mug steaming in his hand, his Marlboro cigarette at the corner of his mouth.
“Never miss a sunrise, boy,” he’d say when I pushed through the double doors. “A sunrise is God’s way of saying ‘Praise be to Jesus, you lucky sonovabitch, you get to live another day.’” He’d smile and hand me my own mug, with rookie stenciled hopefully on the side, and we’d settle down to police business.
“What the hell are you doing with slime like that?” he’d bellow to a tearful young woman who had come in to bail out the boyfriend who had slapped her around and blackened her eye. “You’re better than that, missy! There’s a nice young man out there who will treat you with the respect you deserve. Do yourself a favor and leave this piece of shit in jail where he belongs.”
He’d listen patiently to an old lady’s tearful tale of her lost cat and dispatch a patrol car to help find it. He’d lecture the twelve-year-old who had thrown water balloons off Carnegie Bridge; he’d excoriate the purse-snatcher who had dislocated a woman’s arm; he’d console the elderly man whose senile wife had wandered away in Palmer Square. Whoever walked through the front door, whoever called the station, was subjected to the wisdom, advice, and judgment of desk patrolman Johnny Rogerson. It was, for me, the most entertaining show in town.
Whenever there was a lull in foot traffic and police business, Johnny would regale me with stories of his life as a cop—his life “on the road,” as he called it. He told me rousing tales of foot chases and shootouts, of rescues from burning buildings, of brawls and barricaded hostage incidents. Whenever he told me of a particularly harrowing caper, he would get a faraway look in his eyes as if he were reliving his time as a young cop on the street and savoring the memory. Whenever he told me about a particularly tragic call, his eyes would fill with tears and his voice would fade to a whisper. Dead babies, injured children, fallen officers—I was nearly moved to tears, too. This is what it will be like, I thought, and I was captivated by the idea of such an amazing, adventurous life. I would listen, mesmerized, and then later, when I was alone, I would project myself into his stories and become the valiant hero cop. I’d be Johnny or I’d be his partner, and his adventures and experiences became the objects of my envy. I even told him that once.
“Nothing to envy, son. You’ll have your own ‘adventures’ one day—God help you.” He’d smiled. I was coming to learn that behind that gruff exterior there was a gentle and uncomplicated man. In my head, I’d always known I wanted to be a cop, but listening to Johnny Rogerson made my dream a desire from the heart.
I was sitting in the study lounge of my college campus one day, so lost in the fantasy that I, too, was a veteran cop and that Johnny Rogerson and I were trading war stories like a pair of battle-weary warriors, that I missed the bell for class. Envy again, I thought. Or maybe simple admiration. I wondered if he had ever thought to write his memoirs, to write down his amazing stories. Since I had missed my class anyway, I went into the campus bookstore and bought one of those soft-cover notebooks with the black-and-white pebbly design. The next morning I brought it to him. He took a long drag on his cigarette and looked at it with squinty eyes.
“There’s an idea, kid. There’s an idea,” he said, and he thanked me with an odd smile on his face. As he dropped the notebook in the bottom drawer of his desk, I wondered if I had offended him somehow.
One day when we were logging reports I thought to ask the obvious.
“Hey, Johnny, why’d you come inside anyway? You could still be out working the streets, right? You could rotate from the front desk to patrol if you wanted, couldn’t you?”
He looked up at me, cocked an eyebrow, and grinned. “Come with me,” he said.
I followed him back into the locker room, where he opened his gun locker and showed me a big calendar with all the days until his retirement listed and numbered in countdown form. Big red X’s marked the days that had passed. He pulled out a small metal box and opened it up for me to see. It was chock-full of brochures and photographs cut out from magazines: deep sea fishing off the coast of Baja California; trout fishing in the Pacific Northwest; an Alaskan cruise; mountain cabins for sale in the Ozarks; bus tours of New England; dude ranches in Montana; even paragliding in Venezuela. There were also pictures and cards from his two grandchildren in Arizona enjoining him to come for a visit.
“Two hundred and sixty-one days, kid, and the world is my oyster. It’s just a matter of deciding what to do first.”
I don’t know where it came from, but I felt anger flooding through my gut. All I wanted was to get on the force; all he wanted, apparently, was to leave it. He knew how badly I wanted this job. He’d put in his full twenty-five; it would cost him nothing to move up his retirement date so that I would be eligible to take his place.
But my irrational anger quickly dissipated in the face of his unabashed joy. My future was not dependent on what Johnny did, and I knew that and so found myself taking pleasure in hearing about his ever-changing future plans in much the same way I’d enjoyed his never-ending war stories.
“Two hundred and forty days, kid,” he’d say as I set his coffee mug in front of him on the desk: black with two sugars, just the way he liked it.
At 180 days, he starting taking the calendar out of his locker each morning and bringing it up to the desk, where we could both contemplate those rows of red X’s. Maybe that’s what a life consists of, I thought idly, an endless series of days that have been simply and succinctly eliminated. I was very young then and didn’t yet feel the bitter nostalgia that is too often tethered to the passage of time.
It was late fall when I found myself sitting next to Patrolman Robert Simms in the anteroom outside the chief’s office. I had an appointment with the chief to see if I could retain my list status at number one rather than retest, even though I knew that rollover was not allowed. If I slipped to number two again, I would end up waiting another year or more. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Simms was in there to talk about vacation time. He studied the toes of his polished boots while I studied the ceiling.
“How do you like old Rogerson?” he asked me.
“He took some getting used to,” I said, and he laughed.
“Yeah, but if you get the old bastard on your side, you’ve got a friend for life. And you won’t find a better friend or a better cop anywhere.”
“You worked with Rogerson on the street?”
“Six years—hell of a street cop.”
“Everybody says that,” I acknowledged. “Makes me wonder why he hung it up.”
Simms turned to me. “Wasn’t his choice. He didn’t tell you? Johnny had a heart attack a couple of years ago. A mild one, sure, but the chief pulled him inside and made him permanent desk man. You’ve gotta be young and healthy to work the streets.”
I was dumbfounded—I had never thought of Johnny as anything but robust. The rigors of the street would be nothing to him, I’d believed. I wondered why he hadn’t told me; I couldn’t imagine any two cops working closer together than we had those last months. It dawned on me that though I wasn’t even a rookie yet, he was my partner.
As I walked into the police station the next morning, Johnny was standing at the floor-to-ceiling window watching the sunrise with his usual rapt appreciation through the tendrils of smoke from his ever-present Marlboro cigarette. It was the sixth day on Johnny’s seven-day shift—in those days cops worked seven days in a row before getting a couple of days off—and for the first time I noticed that he looked tired. The skin beneath his eyes was puffy, almost bruised looking, but he greeted me with a wide grin.
“Gonna rain like a sonovabitch tomorrow, kid.”
I looked at the rosy pink horizon, and I’ll be damned if I saw anything other than the start of a brilliant autumn day. “Not a chance, Johnny. You’ve been looking at the wrong page in the Farmers’ Almanac.”
“Nope,” he said. “It’s gonna rain.”
When I came back from getting our coffees, I found him standing in front of his days-to-retirement calendar with his red marker in his hand.
“My time’s approaching,” he said as he took his gone fishin’ mug from my hands. We both stood there staring at the most recent X. In an odd bit of fanciful thinking, I realized that the X bore the shape of an hourglass, and it almost seemed as if I could actually see the minute granules of sand slipping through that pinched portal where the two lines met.
“Son,” he said softly, and I turned to look at him. He’d never called me anything but “kid” or “boy” before, so it took me by surprise. “It’s too bad that stupid list expires before I go. There’s nobody I’d rather see take my spot than you. You’re going to make a good cop someday.”
As he walked past me, he brushed his hand along my shoulder. I remember being deeply touched by that simple gesture and by what he had said. I also remember feeling a sharp pang of guilt for having wished that his retirement date would come up before the list expired.
The rest of the morning was quiet and uneventful. When it was time for me to head to my security job, I just waved to Johnny as I stepped outside; if I remember correctly, he was on the phone with a frantic mother whose nine-year-old son had accidentally dropped his iguana in the toilet.
By late afternoon the clouds had started to roll in, and the State Emergency Bureau began issuing storm warnings. By early evening it had started raining pretty hard, and the forecast was saying that a severe tropical storm, even a hurricane, was headed our way. Johnny called it, I acknowledged, grinning to myself. I wasn’t too concerned with the dire forecast; we hadn’t seen hard weather in a very long time, so I thought it was just typical weatherman’s hype.
The next morning, however, I awoke to the sounds of a howling wind and a driving rain battering my bedroom window. I looked out into the gray deluge and saw the wind whipping the trees, even snapping the trunks of the saplings planted last spring, and saw torrents of water rushing down the street, making parked cars look as if they were lodged in the middle of a fast-moving river. I turned on the TV and saw that the storm was about to be reclassified as a hurricane. The mayor was calling for everybody who could stay home and wait the storm out to do so.
It was my one day off during the whole week, but I knew they would need help down at the police station, so that’s where I wanted to be. The short drive was surreal: Uprooted vegetation littered the sidewalk, and the road was aswirl in mud. As I drove along at ten mph, hurtling tree branches slammed into my windshield and pounded into the roof of my car. I got completely soaked as I ran from my car up the steps to the police station, so I stood just in front of the double doors to shake myself off. That’s how I happened to be looking out toward the horizon much as Johnny did every day to watch the sunrise. This time there was no rosy hue of a burgeoning dawn: The horizon was matte black and ominous with tendrils of threatening gunmetal gray clouds swirling upward. It looks, I thought, like the end of the world.
Inside, it was controlled pandemonium.
“I’m glad you’re here,” the sergeant said as I walked through the door. “Take the desk. We’re swamped.”
“Where’s Johnny?” I asked, surprised that he wasn’t sitting in his usual place.
“Didn’t make it in. Hell, look at what’s happening out there. I’m surprised you even made it through that shit.”
I wasn’t wearing my uniform, but I didn’t bother going to the locker room to change; I sat down and started answering the phones. Patrolman Dave Johnson came in, and together we dispatched the patrol cars. For the next few hours we witnessed the storm growing in intensity and the call volume swell in proportion to the floodwaters. It was nerve-racking, and neither of us moved from our places at the console for the entire morning.
Finally, toward 3:00 p.m., as it was nearing the time for the shift to change, there was a lull in the storm and, unbelievably, a lull in the incoming calls. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere until the storm had completely abated, so while Dave made coffee I ran downstairs to the locker room to splash cold water on my face and to change into my uniform.
I went charging through the locker room door, slipping and nearly falling in the mud that had been tracked in by the officers working the night shift. As I veered around the corner toward my locker, I felt the breath catch in my throat: There was a body lying on its side next to the wooden bench separating the rows of lockers. Its shirt was the familiar midnight blue color of the department’s uniform. I stepped forward like a sleepwalker, not sure on this most unreal of days whether I was imagining it. As I knelt down I saw that it was Johnny.
He was curled up in an almost fetal position with his face turned toward the wall of lockers, his hands balled into fists against his chest. I pulled him over on his back and saw that his half-opened eyes were rheumy and staring. His face was ashen, and vomit leaked out of the corner of his mouth and down the front of his uniform shirt. What I didn’t comprehend then, but I remember vividly now, was that he was ice cold to the touch, his limbs stiff and his lips blue. I had never seen death before; I didn’t know where hope receded and finality began.
“Help me! Help me!” I screamed up the stairs. “Johnny’s had a heart attack! Call the rescue squad!”
My training kicked in. I pulled his rigid body into a more open area on the muddy locker room floor and reached in between his teeth with my fingers to clear out the vomit. Then I began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation simultaneously with chest compressions.
“One one thousand . . . two one thousand . . . three one thousand . . . Somebody help me!”
His lips felt like frozen ribs of ice against mine, but when I felt his chest swell slightly with my exhalations I kept at it.
Then the locker room was filled with cops. Uniformed legs surrounded me, but no one knelt down to help.
“Take over!” I screamed, wanting someone to continue the chest compressions while I concentrated on filling his lungs with air. There was only silence.
I felt hands pulling me up, pulling me away from Johnny, and I found myself looking into the sergeant’s kindly face.
“Randy, Johnny’s dead. There’s nothing you can do for him, son. Look at him. Go on.”
And I did; I looked down at that still and pitiful form on the muddy floor, and I knew it was true. He had been dead for hours, probably since he’d come into the station early that morning. My legs seemed to give out under me, and I found myself sitting on the locker room bench while the other cops made way for the rescue squad. While they loaded up his body and took it away, I just listened to all the voices around me.
“Jesus Christ! Right in the fucking police station!”
“Didn’t anybody think to look for him?”
“This isn’t fucking fair.”
“Who’s going to call his family?”
“Will somebody answer that goddamned phone?!”
“Randy? Randy, are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”
I stumbled into the bathroom and bolted the door. For the next twenty minutes I rinsed my mouth out with cold water, trying to get rid of the taste of death and decay. I rubbed at my lips so hard with my thumb that I made them bleed. Yet I could still taste it. I looked at myself in the mirror, and for a moment I saw Johnny’s image, his face ashen, his lips blue. I closed my eyes, took a ragged breath, swallowed the bile that was rising in the back of my throat, and opened the door into the locker room.
It was empty. Johnny’s body was gone, and so were all the other cops. Where he’d been lying on the floor there was just a muddy smear. I stood motionless for a moment, looking down, and then realized Johnny’s locker was ajar. He must have just opened it when he was stricken, I thought.
I found an empty box in the trash, and for the next half hour I carefully emptied out his locker. I wrapped his gone fishin’ mug in newspaper, stacked his travel destination brochures and pictures, folded up his street clothes, collected his Marlboro cigarettes, and took down the photographs of his two grandchildren from where they were taped to the inside of his locker door. I wanted to make sure his family got these things, that they weren’t forgotten or merely discarded. For a long time I looked at the calendar with the big red X’s until, almost without realizing what I was doing, I crumpled it up and flung it in the trash can. I was about to shut the locker when I noticed something that had been shoved to the back of the top shelf: It was the pebbly black-and-white notebook I’d given Johnny the summer before.
I opened it and saw his familiar handwriting at the top of the first page. In red ink he’d written “A Cop’s Life.” That was all he’d written; there was nothing else.
I set the box of Johnny’s belongings next to the console at the front desk and told the sergeant that I was going home.
“You did everything you could, Randy,” he said to me. “It was just his time.”
I nodded dumbly and walked toward the double doors, that bad taste of death and vomit still burning in my mouth.
Patrolman Simms was standing in front of the station smoking a cigarette while watching the afternoon sun valiantly attempt to break through the residue of the storm. When he saw me he nodded, an acknowledgment of our shared loss, of futility, of life just going on, all in that single simple gesture. I stood beside him, watching the clouds, and we didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he turned to me and grinned.
“I guess congratulations are in order, kid.”
“What?” I said, confused.
“You’re going to be one of us now, aren’t you?”
Yes, I suddenly realized, I am.
Copyright © 2005 by Randy Sutton. All rights reserved.
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