The Quiet Kind of Heroism

The everyday heroism of showing up and steadfastly doing what is right escapes renown, but that is the foundation of building a legacy you will be proud of.

They say law enforcement changes a person. Maybe, but that sure sounded a lot like the Rodney I knew so many years before.

There are a lot of cops who excel on the job but lead lackluster, sometimes even failing, personal lives. There are great men and women of first-rate character and talent who, for one reason or another, would founder in law enforcement. Our job is simply not for everyone and that's okay. A legacy of success can be in any area, and need not cross all aspects of a life. For those who can excel as both cop and citizen, imagine the possibilities of building, nurturing, and leaving a legacy to be truly proud of. The fact is, personal and professional success together is probably the norm for most officers but their stories will rarely be told.

We started this series on legacies with the story of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his fall and conviction on federal obstruction of justice and perjury charges earlier this year (Our Fragile Legacies linked below). His is a name that will forever define a period in Chicago police history and that creates a visceral image for millions of people who have never even met him personally.

Scandal sticks while memories of heroism soon fade, and the everyday heroism of showing up and steadfastly doing what is right escapes renown altogether. Worse, a momentary lapse may be all it takes to topple the legacy you are building. Cops live life in the public eye but our daily successes, whether at work or home, are usually hidden from the public that thinks they really see us; all the more reason to jealously care for and guard our honor.

Not all scandal is big, either. Most can be quite small. A callous word to a citizen - or even a suspect - can mar the image of every cop. Like it or not, you represent me, and I you, on every citizen encounter. I can honestly say that I have used unnecessarily sharp words, or shown impatience or indifference in moments of weakness, and unfairly hurt people. I am sorry I have done that - for who I have acted that way toward, and for the brothers and sisters whose image I might have tarnished just a little. Being more self-aware and patient is something I always need to work toward.

2010 has been a sad year for American law enforcement with an unusually high number of line of duty assaults and deaths, and the Chicago Police Department has already lost four officers whose fine legacies were revealed in the tragedy of their deaths:

Sgt Alan Haymaker died responding to an in-progress burglary when his squad slid on icy roads and crashed. He was a third generation Chicago cop, but had policing had been a career move; he was first an associate pastor of an evangelical church. He continued to use his ministerial gifts as a cop, especially as a mentor to younger officers and meeting with a community of other officers of faith.

Ofc Thomas Wortham IV had stopped by his parents' house to show them his new motorcycle, a gift to himself after just returning from his second tour of duty in Iraq. As he was leaving, four thugs attempted to rob him of his new bike, he identified himself as a police officer, and gunfire was exchanged. Wortham was fatally struck, as was one of the gunmen when Wortham's father, a retired CPD sergeant, entered the fight.

Ofc Thor Odin Soderberg was leaving his shift when a mentally ill man with a history of violence ambushed, disarmed, and shot him with his own weapon. Other officers quickly shot and wounded the offender. Soderberg was a long-time academy instructor, an Army veteran, and tri-athlete. He spent much time with a close friend, a blind DePaul University Professor, whom he coached and guided in triathlons.

For Ofc Michael Bailey police work was a second career. He joined the CPD after retiring from twenty years as a Glenview, IL firefighter and was a month away from retiring again when he was the victim of an attempted carjacking. He was known as "Big Mike" in his neighborhood, not for his size - he was not very big physically - but for his influence as a neighbor and friend, and was an accomplished martial artist.

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