HAVE YOU HUGGED A COP TODAY?

May 8th to the 15th is designated as Police Appreciation Week. This article is dedicated to my comrades in law enforcement, and their families.

Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.”

We are constantly barraged with death numbers. Plane crashes, earthquakes, war. But numbers obscure the story of individual suffering. This is about some of those numbers.

2007 will go down as the deadliest in history for the sentries of law and order with 181 police officers killed in the line of duty. That doesn’t even mention the 65,000 more that were wounded and seriously injured fighting battles in the streets so that you and I can rest easier and feel safer in our communities.

Last year was unusually high. On average, 162 police officers are killed annually in this nation. That’s 162 families wrecked, hundreds of kids stripped of a mother or father, shattered dreams, lost friends, eulogies and graves. All for one reason. The badge.

Each harbored feelings of love and hope, and of commitment to their profession. Each left for work like any other day kissing loved ones, unaware it would be their final embrace. Each knew the hazards of the badge. But there was something alluring about the job. It’s worth the risk.

Or is it?

One never knows when it will strike next. Or who. Or where. It happens in urban jungles like Chicago and Miami or in remote suburbia. But, it will strike 162 officers a year. After thirty years on the job, I could tell a hundred stories from a personal perspective. Here’s one of them.

April Fool’s Day, 1976. Seven detectives were assigned to the Auto Theft Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. By the end of the day, there were only four.

Clark Curlette, 28, seven years on the job, married, no kids, veteran of Viet Nam.

Frank D’Azevedo, 31, ten years a cop, two weeks from his wedding day, U.S. Army veteran.

Tom Hodges, 32, seven years a cop, married, three kids under six, U.S. Air Force veteran.

All left for work that afternoon filled with dreams. Each became a statistic. They were my friends.

The detectives were checking an area of Miami Beach when they spotted a suspicious Lincoln Mark IV parked at a one-story motel. It had been a popular model for stolen cars. Hodges and Curlette questioned the motel manager about its owner. By the time they ambled down to the suspect’s room, the word was out. Curlette got it first. Ambushed through a window with a 12 gauge shotgun before he knocked on the door. Hodges was next. Neither had time to unholster their weapons. From across the street, D’Azevedo heard shots and knew the circumstances were dire. He gave chase on foot as the suspect fled, firing wildly with his revolver. The suspect stopped and turned. D’Azevedo got hit in the gut.

The suspect was a fugitive who swore he would never go back to a prison cell. And so he didn’t. He was found in a clump of seagrape, killed by his own bullet.

Senseless. Pathetic. All because they were cops. No other reason.

Many more of my friends within the Miami-Dade Police Department — of all racial, ethnic and genders — have gone to an early grave. Cop killers don’t discriminate. I knew young Officer William Cook, whose bullet-proof vest couldn’t save him in 1979. A lunatic shot him through the side opening where the bullet passed though his aorta. Black officer, Detective Harrison Crenshaw, shot by a crazed gunman in 1974. Officer Cheryl Seiden, shot and killed by an armed robber in 1982. Officer Jose Gonzalez, killed in 1989. And Officer Joe Martin, son of a career cop, shot and killed in 1990. The beat goes on.

Some are more fortunate, like the young detective who served an arrest warrant at a Miami apartment only to take a bullet in the leg by an over-protective girl friend. Talk about luck. Had the muzzle of that rifle been aimed one centimeter higher, he would be just another statistic. That detective was me.

In the last two centuries, more than 17,000 officers have been killed in the line of duty, 1,635 in the past decade. That’s 1,635 funerals in ten years. That’s 1,635 broken families.

Stalin was right. We hear numbers but lose sight of the human factor. Cops are a staple of urban warfare, a common dot in suburbia, a fixture in the streets, same purpose, same name: Officer. Every one of them, no matter what city of town, face peril. All because they are cops.

They are the prey of America’s media who will scrutinize them to the nth degree. They are the subject of arm-chair judges and Monday morning quarterbacks. They are the ones actually walking in the shoes of danger every day, their lives — and the lives of others — dependent upon split second decisions. Sometimes, they go wrong. To err is human.

I’ve known police officers who served honorably for twenty years, protecting people, saving lives, apprehending robbers and killers, then find themselves facing the wrath of society for a single mistake…unforgiven…prosecuted…castigated, as though the twenty years of service and valor never existed.

Every cop’s life is on the line every second he or she wears that uniform. Think about that the time you see one or two sitting at a counter eating donuts. Think of that when you might complain about a speeding ticket. Think about that when you hear about an officer accused of misconduct and give him/her the benefits of the doubt afforded others. And when you see those blue light flashing in the rear view and your heart pounds through your chest, remember this: You may know who he is, but he doesn’t know who you are.

Folks who visit Washington D.C. should be aware of a lesser known attraction on Judiciary Square where the names of 17,000 cops are inscribed on marble walls. The National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial honors those fallen warriors who have given their lives for no less a reason of soldiers who died in Viet Nam or Iwo Jima. Only their war was right here, in our streets. Your streets.

Perhaps some of you who knew a fallen officer, or the family of one, might visit and search for their name on the marble walls and pay homage in your own way. Or, you can look for the names of Clark Curlette, Tom Hodges, Frank D’Azevedo, William Cook, Harrison Crenshaw, Cheryl Seiden or Joseph Martin and remember this little tribute.

Then ask yourself a silly question.

Have you hugged a cop today?