Submitted by Mike Zaro, Lakewood Chief of Police.
We’ve heard more than a little criticism of police over the past year. The criticism, some deserved and some not, was often part of larger conversations about what policing is or should be. Conversations rooted in false assumptions and opinions replete with hyperbole declaring officers either heroes or villains, depending on your social or political perspective. The truth, however, is difficult to accurately define or describe, even for those of us actually in law enforcement. To provide at least a glimpse, I want to tell you about one day in January that exemplifies the typically unseen and unheralded work of our officers.
Before talking about the events of January 7th it’s important to understand the environment the officers were working in. Like everyone, they were enduring a year-long pandemic that upended all our lives. They also saw politicians, sports figures, entertainers and other “leaders” across the country spend the last year portraying them as a social ill in need of a cure. All of this, and any personal tribulations they may have been dealing with, created the environment in which our officers would then come to work.
As for January 7th, for the officers working in Lakewood, they would respond to over 90 calls for service. Calls that included the usual array of domestic assaults, collisions, and people in crisis. Of those 90 calls there were two particularly notable incidents that stood out. The first was a homicide in which a juvenile teenager shot and killed his father after a heated argument. The officers and detectives who responded had the responsibility of managing an extremely violent scene and trying to piece together what happened while at the same time consoling a devastated family. This incident, alone, would be hard for most people to deal with but as tragic as that incident was there was a second incident, equally traumatic and incomprehensible.
Officers were later called to a local hospital where a two month old baby was admitted with more than 20 broken bones. The officers’ and detectives’ investigation revealed the injuries were the result of abuse by a parent. Here was a tiny, two month old baby who suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of a parent. The only saving grace is that the baby will recover and likely won’t have a memory of it. As parents and human beings, it’s hard to make sense of either of these situations but our officers handled both incidents with tremendous courage, professionalism and compassion.
What’s important to remember, too, is that the officers who responded to these two incidents were the same people responding to the other 90 calls for service that day. They don’t get to take a time out and they have to take each call just as seriously as the last, even when the last involved a homicide or the brutal assault of a young child.
As much as the events of January 7th demonstrate what police may face on any given day, what happened the next day is what really defines policing. You know what those officers did after responding to all those calls and after absorbing all of the criticism, chaos, and trauma? They showed up to do it all over again. They didn’t quit or call in sick, they simply showed up. Not for fame or fortune, but out of a sense of duty and need to serve. Because that’s what it means to be an officer. You show up when people are at their worst and put yourself in harm’s way for the sake of others, even in the face of unimaginable trauma and unrelenting criticism.
None of this is meant to make our officers out to be heroes. They are neither sinners nor saints. They are simply the fallible human beings willing to show up when called to make sense of the unthinkable. Maybe someday there won’t be a need for police departments. People will peacefully resolve disputes, respect each other, and find help before they reach a breaking point. Until that day comes, the Lakewood Police Department will be here for you, and with you. Because that’s what it means to wear our badge and because that’s what policing is.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.