Christine Flowers, 5/20/2016 [Archive]

Show Police the Respect They Deserve

By Christine Flowers

Twenty-nine years ago this week, I graduated from law school. It's been almost three decades since I've been able to officially call myself an "officer of the court," a title I wear with a great deal of pride. But while I will always be extremely proud of my pedigree and of the work it involves, I do not equate it with the profound physical courage demanded of other "officers."

On Monday, President Obama awarded the Medal of Valor to 13 public safety officers who "have exhibited exceptional courage, regardless of personal safety." The honor, created by Congress in 2001, recognizes the type of bravery that requires both mental and physical acuity, the symbiosis of mind, body, and most especially, heart. Twelve of the men who received their medals were able to take them from the hands of a clearly moved commander in chief. One, tragically, surely surveyed the ceremony from heaven, as his grandmother accepted the award in his name.

Sgt. Robert Wilson III earned that medal on March 5, 2015. He was at a GameStop store in North Philly, buying a present for his son, when two brothers entered the store and announced a robbery. They brandished semi-automatic handguns, Wilson drew his weapon and engaged the robbers, two on one. He is credited with having distracted the robbers from other customers in the store, and didn't stop shooting, even though he himself had been wounded. He was stopped only by a fatal bullet to the head. There were no other casualties that day.

I remember reading about Wilson last year, and I could barely make it through the reports without stopping to wipe my eyes. That man's courage is too big for words, too deep for normal understanding, too painful for dispassionate discussion. He, and his brothers and sisters in uniform, stand alone. They form an island of honor we can observe, but cannot hope to inhabit.

The other officers honored this week had similar stories, and, while they escaped with the precious rest of their lives, their acts are no less heroic than Wilson's. One rescued a toddler from a knife-wielding predator. One, off duty, rescued a man from a burning car and suffered serious injuries. One engaged in gunfire with a young man who had shot and wounded his parents and was threatening to go on a rampage near an elementary school.

I know police officers have been the target of negative publicity in the past few years. Some of it is justified, I suppose, although I do think there has been far too much negativity and far too little context given to the stories in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. Hashtags about racial divides are newsworthy, and make for juicy headlines, but they have a tendency to demonize one side and canonize the other.

Neither posture advances the truth.

What I do know is that the bad cops, that bread and butter of investigative journalists, are in the minority. And even the bad ones are still, on occasion, noble creatures who have willingly enlisted in a profession that places them on a collision course with danger, every blessed day.

The vast majority court that danger with pure hearts, and the souls of giants. I remember that period of 18 so months about 10 years ago, when it seemed as if Philadelphia police officers had targets on their backs. I remember the names: Officer Gary Skerski, Officer Chuck Cassidy, Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski, Officer Isabel Nazario, Sgt. Patrick McDonald, Sgt. Timothy Simpson, Officer John Pawlowski. It was a continuous chain of pain. It still is.

A month or so ago, a police officer I knew who was a very good man took his own life. There were the complications of a troubled life, but, in the end, he was an honorable man and served this city up to his final moments. The shadows surrounding the circumstances of his death do not change the importance of that service.

All of this is to say we owe this profession a higher level of deference and respect than we do almost any other, except perhaps the firefighters who run toward the flames and the soldiers to who run toward the gunfire. Their flaws come from their humanity, and we are all susceptible to that. But their heroism reaches heights that we will never touch, and that should be remembered.

I'm grateful to the president, for remembering Philly's brave son.

——-

©2016 Christine Flowers. Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at cflowers1961@gmail.com.

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