I opened the car door and ran after the suspect. My boots, which I had carefully shined with black polish, cotton balls, and a whole lot of water, squeaked along with my footfall. My Field Training Officer (FTO) was somewhere behind, which at the moment didn’t concern me at all. The goal was to catch the figure who fled into the darkness of an alley, and I wasn’t going to allow noisy boots or a slow FTO to get in my way.
I should probably back up a bit.
If you’ve read this blog in the past, you might already know I’m in the field of education. What I haven’t mentioned is that prior to becoming a teacher, I did a small stint as a police officer for the City of Santa Clara. When some people find out I was once in law enforcement, they say something like, “Yeah, you look like you could be a cop.” Most of the time, however, they’re shocked that I ever wore a uniform.
“Really,” they say, “but aren’t you a little too, um, nice to be a cop?”
Of course, there are a lot of nice police officers out there. My dad was a captain for the San Jose Police Department, and this is probably one of the main factors as to why I tried my hand at being a “peace officer” (as he used to call it). It’s a noble job, and every society needs men and women of integrity who wear blue so the innocent can be protected from injustice.
I guess this is why, after six and a half months in the academy, I found myself working my first night as a real cop. Over the radio was a call from the dispatcher saying that two suspects had stolen a large quantity of Shark Tales DVDs from the Safeway near Santa Clara University. Since it was my first night, and the beginning of my first week, my FTO was driving as I sat in the passenger seat and became acquainted with the streets of the city. It probably wasn’t a minute or two after the call went out that we saw two individuals running with their arms crossed as if they were carrying something. My FTO stepped on the gas and turned right and then stopped the vehicle near the alley where the runners were dashing. I opened the car door and sprinted after them.
As I entered the alley, I realized that I had quickly gained a lot of ground on them. They were no more than thirty feet away, and I made up the distance as they turned right and encountered a chain length fence. As they both began their ascent, I grabbed them by their hoodies and pulled them to the ground. One of them ran back down the alley toward my FTO, the other stood and let me grab him. The stolen DVDS were scattered all over the ground.
I don’t know how you’re visualizing this scene, but what you must understand is how awkwardly I handled the situation from this point on. I didn’t know if I should handcuff the suspect or make him sit on the ground as I waited for my FTO to arrive. I didn’t even really know what to say on the radio to dispatch. So I just held onto the person for a while, and that’s when I realized something I hadn’t before. This Shark Tales stealer was just a kid–no more than thirteen-year-old.
He was scared, and his eyes frantically darted around the alley. I eventually walked him toward the police car when my FTO came toward me with the other suspect, who was also young. When my FTO saw I was OK, we put the kids in the back of our vehicle and drove them to the police station.
When we arrived at the booking cell, my FTO called the mom of one of the suspects. I’ll never know what the mother said to the police officer, but when he hung up the phone, he told me we shouldn’t file charges and instead take both boys to the mother. So we loaded the boys back in the patrol car and drove them home.
It was probably 1:00 AM when we pulled to the curb of a rundown duplex. The mother was already standing on the lawn, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders in the cold February morning. We each opened a back door and let the boys out. They scurried past the mother and through the front door of the house. This is when she began to cry, telling us how difficult it was to raise a son and a nephew by herself. She told us about how they weren’t going to school, and she was having difficulty making them do anything at all since she worked most of the day. At night she fell asleep, and the boys would leave. This was the first time cops had brought them home, and she was afraid next time they wouldn’t be so lucky to receive a Get Out of Jail Free Card.
My FTO spoke as any good police officer does in these situations, offering advice and consoling her in a professional way. As we left, she stayed outside, probably wondering how the hell she was going to attempt to discipline the boys.
As we began our patrol once again, I thought of that mom and the boys she was raising. It was sometime during that night that I came to the realization that I was on the wrong side of the equation–my line of work wasn’t aligned with my temperament nor the way I wanted to help the world. I wondered if the boys had people they could rely on, besides the mother they were taking advantage of.
This is when I knew I needed to be at the moment in kids’ lives that occurred prior to crime. Instead of arresting young people, I wanted to influence them before they made mistakes–before they ruined their futures.
I guess you could say that’s when I knew I was going to become a teacher.
Ten years later, I have a lot more experience. I more fully understand the harshness and complexity of the world. There are some situations that are so horrible for young people, it baffles the mind. But this doesn’t mean we don’t try to make things better for them. That’s what I find so valuable about public education. Our society has created an infrastructure that saves kids every day. Good teachers change lives and send students in a direction where they can become happy and productive adults who will, in turn, help others. Of course, we need people–such as police officers–who deal with crime when it occurs. But as for me and my career, I am so thankful I have the opportunity to help my community by playing a small part in the education of young people