When I was the supervisor of the State Division of Family Services in Barrow back in the early 80s, it was a rule of thumb that social workers did not respond to after hour calls without a police officer escorting them. So I was fairly unsympathetic when one of my social workers got punched in the nose while responding to a call. She had knocked on the door, a drunken parent had opened the door and the next thing the social worker knew, she was on the ground counting stars.
I believe my response to her cry for sympathy was, “Why bother to take a cop along if you’re going to be the one standing in the doorway.”
The unspoken assumption was that the cop was there to take the blow for the social worker – he was her protection. His job was to make sure she wasn’t hurt no matter what the cost to him.
I’ve been thinking about this since the death of police officer Justin Wollam. I was on the road as the vehicles bringing his body to his funeral service passed by. The vehicles moved slowly, as though the burden was almost too much to bear. The lead police car had its lights flashing but its siren was eerily silent.
As an amateur student of history, I�ve read a lot about the world as it used to be – a world of every man for himself; a world in which women and children were not safe even behind heavily locked doors; a world in which going out into the night meant being rich enough to provide your own protection or risking your life.
I realize that we don’t yet live in a perfect world and that for some, the conditions described above still describe the world they inhabit. But for most of us, the night is a safe place. We go to sleep knowing that help is a phone call away.
We sometimes take this feeling of safety for granted. We forget how tenuous our hold is on this thing we call civilization. We forget how much we owe to people who are willing to spend each day making sure that our trip to K Mart is uneventful, our children’s playgrounds safe.
A few years ago I was at the Barrow Court building waiting for a hearing to begin. A young man was sitting outside the courtroom waiting to testify at the hearing. He looked to be all of 16 years old at best. In reality, he was old enough to be a cop.
I remember talking to a friend after the hearing and describing this officer to her. I told her that if there was ever an emergency in which he was trying to protect me, I honestly didn’t know if I could resist the impulse to throw my body in front of his while yelling, “Kill me but don’t hurt the kid”.
Officer Wollam wasn’t really much past being a kid. Twenty-eight isn’t old enough to have lived long enough to be really all that grown up. He may have had a wife and child and he may have had an adult’s job, but he really was just starting in life. Just making his plans, starting his family, beginning a career he loved, and realizing that his dreams were within his grasp.
And now he’s gone and all his dreams are gone with him. And I think about how he chose to live his life in such a way as to make mine safe. And I feel an overwhelming need to just say, “Thank you”.