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Photo credit: Peace Officers Ministries, Inc.
A Christmas story (with apologies to Frank Capra) by Chaplain Steve Lee, Founder of POM. Prologue & Post-Script (and some editing) by Chaplain Frank Ruffatto, Executive Director of POM
A young George Sanchez, worn down by family obligations and a sense of responsibility toward his community, feels confined in the driver’s seat of his patrol car. He wonders where the dreams and possibilities he so enthusiastically clung to coming out of the academy went. Unknown to George, the old salt Senior Corporal on his squad has been looking out and praying for him. Michael Clarence Duncan had ‘been-there-done-that’ in all the right and wrong ways. He wanted George to not only survive in this most noble vocation but to thrive. And more, he knew the One who was the ultimate Peace Officer who said, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The Squad Room
Officer Michael Clarence Duncan shook his head. “What goes around, comes around,” he groused good-naturedly. “That’ll teach me to mess with the Maestro. That kid is good - reminds me of me.” With that thought, his smile darkened into something else.
George Sanchez, a.k.a. “The Maestro,” had only been on the department three years, but he already had a reputation. He loved to one up his District Four co-workers, both on and off the street. Like a modern Nathan Bedford Forrest in blue, he always tried to “git thar fustest with the mostest.” It didn’t matter if it was a call or a choir practice; he always seemed to be first on-scene and first in the thick of it. He was also a remorseless practical joker. He never surrendered. The only thing that kept his partners from routinely stuffing him into the nearest dumpster was their eye watering laughter at his wonderfully inappropriate humor - and their fear of what they might find in their vehicles or lockers.
Duncan had a habit of calling Sanchez by various nicknames, and Sanchez had just retaliated at briefing by calling him Clarence. The Clarence moniker was the rewarding result, Mike was sure, of an improper records check on his name. Duncan hated his middle name worse than his “Dunk ‘Em” handle, and had managed to keep it under wraps until the Maestro posted it on a billboard for all to mock. “Thank you, Uncle Clarence, for being Mom’s favorite,” he reflected ironically.
As Duncan headed to his cruiser, the radio on his hip crackled. “1 John 4.” ... “4, go ahead.” ... “911 hang-up. 10302 Old Fort Road. Sounded like a drunk adult male and female yelling. Address history advises you know the subjects. Respond priority, John 5 to back – units copy?” ... “4 copies.” ... “5 copies.”
“Merry Christmas to you too,” Duncan added silently. “Deck the halls with boughs of folly.” As he U-turned his squad and gunned it up a side street shortcut, he ran a quick records check in his head and came up with a hit. “Potter’s place,” he grumped. “Exchanging presents with his wife, no doubt.” Potter was big, strong, and dangerous when drunk. Never mind that it was Christmas Eve.
Duncan picked up the mike again. “4, 5, go to ‘b-mode.’” Dean Rogers’ voice came back on the car-to-car mode. “Go ahead.” “Remember this one?” Yeah, Mike, I know. 12 gauge in the closet. .44 mag under the mattress – who knows what all. We oughtta have Judge Markham handle the next call with Potter, since they’re such good friends and our courtroom Santa Klutz keeps giving him his guns back. What say, Kimosabe?” Duncan acknowledged by keying his mike twice, and then added, “Just watch your tail feathers, Tonto.” After years of working together, he and Rogers could read each other’s minds.
Two minutes later Duncan turned onto Old Fort, and muttered, “What the . . .?”
Sanchez was already there. His patrol car, driver’s door ajar and lights still flashing, was sitting high on the curb in front of Potter’s house, but Sanchez himself was nowhere in sight. Duncan caught a whiff of burned rubber and frowned. Just then Rogers rounded the corner, and Duncan quickly radioed dispatch that all three officers were on scene. He and Rogers piled out of their units just in time to hear Potter yell from inside the house, “I’m gonna blow your &%*$ off, you dago wop cop!” Spurred on, the officers charged up the walkway and blew through the front door. Stumbling into a trashed living room, they found Sanchez fighting desperately to find the handle on a drunk and angry Potter. Potter’s wife, having started the whole fire drill with her 911 call, had since reconsidered her loyalties, and was beating on Sanchez’ back with a Christmas present. Without further ado, Rogers grabbed for the woman, and Duncan jumped over an upended Christmas tree to assist Sanchez.
Potter was grabbing at Sanchez’ gun in its holster. Sanchez, figuring the suspect’s intent, had a death grip on Potter’s arm so he couldn’t reach it. Potter, in turn, had Sanchez in a vise with his other arm. After several unsuccessful tries to pull the drunk away from his partner, Duncan grunted, “Enough of this . . .!” and wrapped an arm around Potter’s neck. The more Potter fought, the more Duncan tightened down, like a boa constrictor. And, just as Duncan hoped, Potter forgot all about Sanchez’ gun and instead took a growing interest in his own state of affairs. He reached up to pull Duncan’s arm away. It didn’t work.
“Good night, Gracie, and Merry Christmas . . .” Mike whispered into Potter’s ear, as the man relaxed and drifted off into a brief alcoholic nap. Easing him to the floor with George’s help, Mike rolled him over, and his partner cuffed him just as he woke up, now too disoriented to struggle further. Sanchez leaned against the wall and took a moment to catch his breath, and then looked at the subdued suspect. “If you’re gonna insult me, ‘mano, at least do it sober. You gotta be a point two zero at least.”
Duncan, also recovering his breath, cast a critical eye at Sanchez. “You caught ‘em, you clean ‘em, amigo.” Sanchez sighed and got on the radio, “1 John 3, 10-15 with a male subject, mileage ...”
Cops, Coffee, and Compassion
A couple of hours later Duncan was sitting in his favorite booth at his favorite coffee shop, The Happy Days Diner, writing reports, when the bell over the front door rang. In walked Sanchez with his typical cocky smile.
“Hey, Clarence, mind if I join you in this dive?” Duncan didn’t look up from his paperwork. “I don’t mind if you don’t mind, Jorge.” Sanchez sat down. “Loved the choke you put on Potter.” “It wasn’t a choke – I never touched his windpipe.” Duncan took a gulp of his coffee, “It was a carotid restraint – properly administered. That’s the problem with you young people today. You don’t know upper body control holds. You rookies just stand back and tee off on folks and criticize real cops who do it right.”
“Still, your move was not exactly policy – not that I care.”
“Wrong again, lawyer boy. I protected you, and me, and him, from a deadly force situation. Or would you prefer I let him perform what in your case would have been minor surgery on your precious parts with your own gun? Or maybe I should have stood back and hosed you both with pepper spray or beat you both with my stick? And speaking of policy, you should do some homework yourself, Ace.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You got something on your chest – get it off. I don’t need the evil eye.”
“I don’t like wasting my breath on people that don’t listen, and you ain’t gonna listen. I know, because you remind me of me. Let it go.” Mike still hadn’t looked up from the investigative notes he was finishing.
But Sanchez was curious now and didn’t want to drop it. “You afraid to tell me?”
Speaking the Truth in Love
Duncan shoved his notes aside and looked up. “OK, no more jokin’ and smokin’. You want it straight, you get it straight. You’re a good cop and I like you, George, but you’ve been messing up lately. Big time. That stunt tonight, rolling in on Potter. You jumped my call, which is OK by me – less work – but then you never called in. You walked in like John Wayne, without backup, on a guy you know is dangerous. Rogers and I covered for you and the Sarge won’t know, but you’re gonna get hurt if you don’t change – and you won’t.”
“Look, Pops, don’t do me any favors - and I don’t need the lecture. I do things my way.”
Duncan sighed. “Like I said. You’re wasting my time.”
Sanchez leaned forward. “What do you mean, ‘You remind me of me?’”
“Look, I’m gonna try this one more time, and either you listen or you don’t bother me again, because I can’t play guardian angel to a man who won’t be guarded. So, let me ask you a question and you tell me straight. You’re having trouble with Maria, right?”
Sanchez blinked. “How did you know?”
“Like I said, you remind me of me. Let me tell you something else. You’ve been riding high, but you’re finding out that you can fall off your tall horse. You’re frustrated ‘cause you can’t fix the world, and things aren’t the way they should be. You’re mad at the brass because you got reamed unfairly a while back. You got problems with bills, and Maria’s not paying attention to you like before because of the baby, but that Denny’s waitress sure is, so you don’t want to go home, especially to a crying baby and a cranky wife. You would rather hang out with the troops after work and play your tricks and tell your jokes and war stories and elevate your blood alcohol level with the boys. Your world has shrunk down to the size of your job, and you don’t even have any friends anymore who don’t wear a badge and gun. Your wife is tired of you not coming home and tired of the way you are when you do come home, but you really don’t care anymore. You want to prove me right, or you want me to go on?”
“Go on . . .”
“You have no patience anymore. You’re a funny guy on the outside, but inside you feel like the cork is coming out. You know now that stuff can happen to you, but you don’t care about that either, even though you’re about to lose everything. You’re gonna lose your family. You’re gonna lose your faith – if you got any left. You got no life outside of the work, kid, and the work is getting to you. You may even lose that.”
Suicide by ...
“How do you know all this stuff?”
Duncan checked out a customer coming through the door and then looked back at Sanchez. “You ever hear of suicide by cop?” “Sure. We just had an in-service on it.”
“You ever hear of suicide by crook?” Sanchez smiled. “No. Okay . . . I’ll bite. What’s that?”
“That is what you tried to do tonight, George. I’ve been watching you lately, and I recognize the signs. I recognize the signs because I’ve been there. I got a history to be real proud of. Over the years I’ve tried suicide by crook, suicide by booze, suicide by sex, suicide by work, suicide by play, suicide by divorce – I’m not boring you, am I?”
“There are other ways to do yourself than eating your gun, and people will never know. They’ll even treat you like a hero if you do it right. But the truth is that suicide is suicide. You only got three years on, George, but you’re already dying and you don’t even know it – don’t want to know it. I died a bunch of times in my life. I just didn’t go through the formality of funerals. I was a hotdog on the street, but off the street I was too blind and stupid to see Dr. Death coming until it was too late. Just like you. So, have I insulted you enough?”
“But you survived, Mike. You came out OK.”
“I almost died – for real. And I left a trail of bodies behind me. My first wife. My kids from my first marriage. Other people. I screwed up a lot of folks – myself included. God forgave me, but I still live with a lot of ghosts.”
George shook his head. “I got a lot on my mind. Lots of stuff like you said. A lot of it’s not fair – not right - and I’m just trying to get through the day . . .”
“. . . by makin’ it worse,” Mike interrupted. “Look, if you want fair we’d all be in hell. You got a chance here - a chance I blew. I wish I could do my life over, but I can’t. Thank God he’s picked up the pieces and given me another opportunity to live, but don’t think that undoes all the damage. Don’t make my mistake, George. Trust me - what you got is good, real good. You won’t do better.”
Sanchez sagged down into his seat. “All I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter what I do - nothing makes a difference. It wouldn’t matter if I’d never been born. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. I don’t feel worth much. Fact is, with my insurance, I’m worth more dead than alive.”
“Why did you get into this line of work, Sanchez?”
“Same as every cop, I suppose. I wanted to help people, but I found out they don’t want to be helped."
“You got into this job to protect and serve, but if you die tomorrow society will never miss you, even though you’ve done more for society than they or you will ever remember – remember that little girl you pulled from the water and gave back alive to her mom? But if you quit on God and the folks who actually give a rip about you and who need you to protect and serve them as husband and father and family and friend, then you will truly be missed in more ways than you will ever know. You will rob them of the one thing they can never replace – you. The only problem with you is that you need someone big enough to get your attention about how much you have and how much you’re worth, someone who can lift you high enough to see over your problems. Let God pick you up, and the rest will come. Back away from the TV and think, kid. You’ve got so much going for you, and you do make a difference, a big difference, but you need God to get it right – to get the peace you need.”
The Ultimate Peace Officer Comes
A light snow started outside, the radio in the diner crackled, “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’”
The two sat quietly. Finally Sanchez spoke. “I want to live again, Mike, but I don’t know how . . .”
“Nobody on earth knows how - that’s why we have Christmas.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what a little kid once told me. You know – my boy Tim. He said, ‘That’s why Jesus came.’ Jesus gave me a second shot at life. He’ll do the same for you. Your call, Maestro. Prove me wrong about you.” Duncan laid some money on the table and slowly got up to leave. Then, pausing and smiling, he picked up his coffee cup and raised it in a toast. “To my friend George – the richest man in town . . .”
George stayed lost in thought, and then sat straight,
Then stood up tall, and shoved aside fate.
He called to his friend as he stepped out the door,
“Wait up, Mike, I want to know more . . .”
His words faded into a Christmas made new,
But the bell on the door rang strong, and true.
What officer hasn’t started out his career ready to save the world and feeling ten feet tall and bullet proof only to discover that the world doesn’t care or want him around? And more, the holiday season only seems to make it worse, not better. I can remember working a moonlighting job at a major toy store during the holidays. Watching people scramble and scrabble with each other over things that would be forgotten only helped to callous my spirit toward others. Like George, I sometimes thought, ‘it just isn’t worth it.’
Thankfully, I had folks around me like Duncan who helped me to see the bigger picture and reminded me that being a peace officer is a divine vocation; that we are the sheepdogs sent to protect and serve the most vulnerable in our communities.
So, be encouraged in the hustle-and-bustle of this holiday season with the Good News of what it is really all about: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11) This Christ says to you, “Are you a peacemaker? Then you are in good shape as you will be called the sons of God.” (cf. Matthew 5:9)
Blessings and Peace to you on your Christmas season ... stay safe and watch your six!
Rev. Frank C. Ruffatto
Executive Director, Peace Officer Ministries, Inc.