July 26th, 1960. It was exactly 51 years ago this date that I started my police career. There was no color television. The Russians were winning the space race. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the last year of his presidency, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were clouting homers for the Yankees and a new Cuban dictator named Fidel Castro would change the cultural landscape of South Florida for all time.
Twenty-one years old, I reported to the old Dade County Jail at the 19th floor of the courthouse as a gofer, assigned to sweep floors, work the manual elevator, run errands and handle some prisoners. This would be my job for two weeks until the police academy started.
The atmosphere was a pall of misery. Inmates are never a happy bunch and they all stunk from perspiration. The jail had no air conditioning, just open windows. The cops were not a happy bunch either, relegated to depressing environments day after day. I remember the first sounds when I got off the elevator; keys rattling, steel doors slamming, prisoners screaming.
I was ordered to report to Captain Noah Scott, a tall grandfatherly man who saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil. The indoctrination speech was short and sweet. “Watch your back, here,” he said. I didn’t know if he was referring to the bad guys or the good guys. “You’ll work with Deputy Wes Harmon. Do what he tells you.”
Moments later, a beer-gutted redneck in a sheriff’s uniform lumbered into the office, looked me over once, and motioned, “Let’s go, Boah.”
As we walked from the captain’s office to the booking room, I could feel Harmon’s eyes peering into mine. Finally, he asked, “You been in the service, Boah?”
“Damn, you a jarhead?”
“Uh. I was…”
“Well, why didn’t you say something? When did you go to P.I.?” (Parris Island boot camp)
“I was in Korea. Did P.I. in ‘51.”
Wes Harmon had a distinct southern drawl, a flat top hair style and a fat face. He personified the stereotypical adjective; Redneck.
It wasn’t more than an hour of orientation time that Harmon had me process a prisoner. He had already taught me how to roll a fingerprint and (ugh) strip search an inmate, to and including the most private of parts. That was not a pleasant experience for a young guy who was supposed to have been a concert violinist.
An inebriated fellow, about twenty-one, shirtless, was ushered into the room by two unformed cops. He had been charged with Public Drunk and Vagrancy, two catch-all charges that were eliminated from the statute books a decade later. He was white, tall, blonde-haired and skinny. Probably a decent fellow, I thought, when sober. I knew Wes Harmon was evaluating me up, down, right and left. I felt awkward. I was not accustomed to this element.
“Get undressed,” he ordered the boy. Moments later, the lanky youngster stood completely nude, head bobbing, eyes drooping, slow to react. Harmon told me to give him an order to bend over and spread. I felt like quitting right there. I complied. “Uh, please bend over…”
The boy acted slowly. Harmon got angry and began shouting at the boy, calling him names. Within a few seconds, he had the boy’s head rammed against the wall, then began punching him in the body, then kicking him when he was down.
I was stunned. Trapped. I couldn’t participate. I couldn’t run. I dared not intervene, or go against the deputy. I couldn’t report him to superiors, not with one hour on the job. My reputation as a rat fink would be sealed forever. As the boy lay groaning, Harmon looked at me with a proud grin, as if to say, “See that, Boah? That’s how you take care of an inmate who don’t follow orders.”
Only one hour into my career, I contemplated walking out the door and into that same elevator I rode up in. I wondered why the other officers and supervisors, who were just around the corner, didn’t respond to help or check out the problem. It was obvious that a noisy scuffle had taken place, but no one seemed to care.
I felt myself shaking inside but dared not be seen as a wimp, or that I couldn’t handle it. As much as I wished, there would be no walking out. I had a pregnant wife at home, no other job and I had obligations to fulfill. But I did let Harmon know that whomping on inmates was, well, just not my thing.
Harmon avoided me from that time on and I figured my days (or hours) might be numbered. But no one said a word. Fortunately, I didn’t have to work with Harmon for the next two weeks, and the jail assignment turned out to be a good learning experience. No other officer acted like Wes Harmon or mistreated inmates. I wondered if I hadn’t been tested.
I had my share of fights and scuffles, like any officer. I was even shot in 1965. But as my career rolled along for thirty years, I’m happy to report that unnecessary brutality, while it may have occurred from time to time, was not something that took place in my presence. That could be because it was just not prevalent, or no one trusted me.
But it left an indelible image in my mind, fifty-one years to the day.
No one in America is more powerful than your local police officer. He or she can take your freedom away on the spot. Not even the president, has that power. Some cops handle authority well, and do everything they can not to abuse, no matter the myriad of stressful situation they are thrust into. A relative few have been known to overact, because the badge emboldens them into feeling like King Kong.
I am proud to have served with the largest police agency in the southeastern United States with some of the finest men and women who every wore a police uniform. Yes, one out of a thousand did stain the agency now and then, but 99.9% were honorable, dedicated and able police who put their lives on the line day and night, to protect people like you and me.
Fortunately, the Wes Harmon’s will slip through the cracks sometimes, but they are far and few between. But they sure can leave a lasting impression, even fifty-one years later.
p.s. No. Wes Harmon was not his real name.