On this January 9 National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day (L.E.A.D.), “we show our support for our nation’s approximately 780,000 police officers.” What it means to lead was poignantly demonstrated by first-City-of-Lakewood-Police-Chief Larry Saunders whose life of leadership was cut short too soon with his untimely and unexpected death just this past January 6th.
As president of a neighborhood association, when I first met Saunders it was under far less than pleasant circumstances.
In actual fact I never even met him. Not then anyway. Not face-to-face. But what would happen that fateful night would set in motion a decade of wouldn’t-hardly-trade-it-now-for-the-world memories.
I hesitate a bit initially to share what follows but only just briefly because of what ultimately the incident reveals about Saunders in particular and, conversely, humanity in general.
As Chief of Police for Lakewood early on in the city’s infancy, Saunders had been involved in an indiscretion the circumstances these many years later being neither here nor there.
But at the time it mattered.
It mattered because given his position, power, prestige and all that accompanies being police chief, I felt that the youth I worked with in our poor community – who very likely would never attain such status as Saunders’ – had very possibly been disappointed to the extent that their hero in blue, if that’s how they perceived him, was decidedly less so.
It mattered enough for me to stand up there in the second row at city hall and, in no uncertain terms, declare – if not demand – that Saunders should speak to those youth, to do whatever it should take to win back – if it were even possible – their respect.
I had no sooner sat down than there was a tap on my shoulder and a piece of paper handed to me on which were written two words:
And it was signed, Larry Saunders.
Later by phone we agreed on a time and place and in the interim I invited every youth possible such that when Saunders strode into the room, all chairs were taken, kids sitting on the floor just below the microphone, standing against the wall.
In full uniform Saunders shared who he was, why he was there, what had happened, entertained questions.
And then he said this.
“I was wrong. I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”
You could have heard a pin drop. You could have that is except for the sound of his footsteps as Saunders left the room.
What does it take for someone, anyone, but especially such a one as a police chief to utter those 10 words to just a bunch of kids?
Honesty. Humility. Integrity.
Because they weren’t just a bunch of kids. Not to Saunders. They were, are, the future. And such qualities of character should be, Saunders believed, demanded of him, expected of them.
That was Saunders’ MO.
Admit when you’re wrong. Set it right. Start again.
And so it began, and continued.
On one occasion when I walked out on Saunders, in a huff over a misunderstanding, I hollered back over my shoulder right there in the restaurant “And you can pick up the tab for the coffee!”
At that point I didn’t care. But Saunders did.
With or without me, Saunders had always in mind the community.
That’s why in the spring of 2007, Chief of Police Larry Saunders wrote out a personal check for the kids in our community to play baseball. Saunders then encouraged Wal-Mart to join the team and $2,000 later a dozen seven-and-eight-year-olds took the field.
To Saunders our community was then Ground Zero, the number one priority, the chief concern of the police chief to illustrate what it practically meant to him that prevention – through positive structured activities for kids – was far more valuable an emphasis of his department than after-the-fact detention of kids for whatever misdeeds they might otherwise have committed.
A corollary to Saunders’ closely held philosophy of community was that once kids were positively occupied, their community being restored, they – and the place they called home – would never, ever, be allowed to regress to what it – and they – had been before.
That’s Larry Saunders’ legacy: Community. It matters.