CLEF Newsletter - December 2019
“Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you, and He waits on high to have compassion upon you. For the Lord is a God of justice; how blessed are all those who long for Him” (Isaiah 30:18)
Seeing and experiencing what first responders see and experience most every day they’re on the job creates a host of physical, emotional and psychological issues which must be managed and kept in, as much as possible, a manageable framework. Coping with the vicarious impacts of human tragedy, injustice, danger and pressing responsibility all wrapped up in the relentless highs and lows of unpredictable human behavior and what seems like insurmountable challenges at times, makes the job one a relative few in the general population can adapt and live with. The highs are superlative; the lows at times what nightmares are made of. Yet for those who stay with it, day in and out, because God has given them a warrior’s heart of a sheepdog that can do no other, they must cling to the hope God gives them in moments where God says Bless you… well done, good and faithful servant. You have kept my sheep.
Sgt. Wes Albers retired last month after 30 years with the department. That’s a lot of highs and lows. But what I’ve seen in Wes in the years I’ve been around and worked with him is that he kept his heart for humanity all the way through. Few have done more to advance the means, methods and merit of the volunteer Emergency Negotiations Team, which he did for many years in addition to his investigations position, than Wes, who was huge in defining the heart of what we do. How does a first responder not lose heart through 30 years of serving broken and needy humankind? By cultivating a heart of kindness to humans. One such story written by Wes half way through his career gives insight into the treasures which must be mined in what we do to remind ourselves that the sacrifice is a worthy one, and worthwhile…
For nearly seventeen years I’ve patrolled the streets of San Diego. I began in the late 1980’s when the rock cocaine epidemic was at its peak, crystal methamphetamine was exploding onto the scene and gangs openly wore colors and engaged in drug-fueled battles over territory. I’ve worked in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with working-class everyday folk; ultra-wealthy gated communities with high-walled homes; and border communities where the only thing that separates have and want is a piece of corrugated steel fence. I’ve made my career on the streets. I’ve been in car chases and brawls. I’ve been hit, bit, kicked and spit on more times than I can count. I’ve captured bank robbers, rapists and murderers. I’ve investigated nearly every type of vile act a human can perpetuate on another. I’ve taken my share of guns and knives out of the hands of those who would use them to do harm. I’ve seen friends lose their career to injuries, poor judgment and bad acts. I’ve seen that which most people get little more than a momentary glimpse of.
Yet when I think back, such are rarely the moments that bring the greatest sense of satisfaction. I cannot remember the year for certain, only that it was the latter part of the 90’s. The SDPD had opened a small Community Center in a strip mall in one of its residential neighborhoods. I was working on assignment as a Community Relations Officer. The center contained a police storefront which allowed folks in that area to access general police services without having to go out of their area to a division station. It was also part of an effort to get cops more personally connected to their area neighborhoods where they could more easily interact with their community and partner with them to work collectively to resolve issues in ways other than just law enforcement. Though much of my area was single family homes, there were also a substantial amount of apartment complexes, known as the “blue roofs.” The blue roofs were home to hundreds of mostly low income of subsidized residents and often where either single or both parents worked. This left a lot of kids without supervision during afternoon hours and where petty crimes and graffiti were rampant, and the complex in a general state of disorder.
We tried to help by setting up a recreational center in a donated two-bedroom apartment near the playground and got it supplied with a staff-worker and outfitted with things the kids could safely and constructively occupy themselves with until their parents returned. It helped a lot and the disorder was greatly reduced. This is where I met Jimmy each time I showed up at the center for my monthly meeting with the staff and supporters of the project. He was perhaps ten or twelve, much older than his mental age of six. He was frail with a gaunt face, and had difficulty speaking, standing to maybe half my height. Talking to him was difficult and there were times he would act out, but under it all, through all the disability, there was simply a great kid who loved cops. And he was always there, even when I came by unexpectedly. All of the kids the center served were usually thrilled to see me because they were still of the age where a cop in a uniform was a grand thing to behold. But the glow in Jimmy’s eyes was larger than most, and he would rarely leave my side.
Each Christmas season the media ran stories about the department and its fund-driving efforts to collect food, clothing and toys for those less fortunate. Sometimes the reporters showed up when presents were being distributed and the event became one of those warm, happy moments you would expect to see on the seasonal broadcasts. This time, however, was not one of those events where a news station was notified to watch what occurred.
The storefront had collected a number of items to be given out and, since my position was community relations, I was tasked with finding three families in need that we could provide assistance to. I quickly and easily came up with them, and one of them was Jimmy’s.
I didn’t know much about Jimmy’s family, just that he had a sister and lived near the rec-center. I knew nothing of their situation, but guessed that living where they did, times were probably tough with a disabled child. I could have never imagined how tough. I recruited another officer to help me pass out the gifts. He also enjoyed working the streets and was a SWAT officer. Neither of us were drawn to the social, emotional end of the job; just the more adventurous aspects. LE’s operate in a world of raw emotion. Volunteering for something that might force you to feel more of such is sometimes difficult for cops to do. Typically we avoided emotional situations, and doing the Christmas detail often garnered a good ribbing from other officers. It’s easier to make jokes about that sort of thing than actually do it.
The first two homes we visited were comprised of a single mother with a history of hard drug use who’d gotten herself cleaned up. She was genuinely touched when we brought her stuff and I want to say she’d felt that this was the first time anyone proactively ever went out of their way just to do something kind for her. My recollection of the other house was a single father with multiple kids. He had married a woman, adopted her kids, and then she took off with another man. He stayed and did the right thing by the children, sacrificing and doing what he could to raise them on his own. He was grateful, but the pain of it is that it never seems hardly enough. His life will be rewarded for sure.
Jimmy’s house was the last stop. I had a toy police car for him and a teddy bear for his sister. I also had a gift cash card from the local grocery store. We walked up to the door and I knocked. Jimmy quickly answered. His eyes beamed when he saw us. I asked him if his mother was there and he told me she was. When I asked him to get her he scampered down the hall to retrieve her. A few moments later he returned and told me she was busy. I asked Jimmy to go back and tell her it was the police and that we needed to talk to her. He disappeared again. We pushed the door to the apartment open and stepped into the entryway. As we stood there, I could see everything I needed to know. The kitchen was nearly barren, though clean. The furniture was old, worn and threadbare. In the corner stood a half-dead Christmas tree that looked like it belonged in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Underneath the sparse, browning tree were two presents wrapped in newspaper. I have no idea what was in those packages, but it looked like maybe a coloring book. It was clear this family was very poor. This is precisely the type of moment cops want to avoid. It’s hard not to get emotional when someone has so little and works so hard – and it never feels like one could ever do nearly enough to alleviate such circumstances.
After what seemed like a very long time – probably not more than a minute – Jimmy’s mother opened her bedroom door and came out to meet us. With only a glance, the difficult nature of her life was clearly visible on her face; but there was also a look of concern. She greeted us and asked if everything was okay, if her children were alright. I told her they were fine and then asked her to step out to our police car as I had something for her. Yet her fear didn’t lessen, despite my repeated statements that there was nothing wrong. She was still troubled and not able to grasp that a visit by the police didn’t have to mean something wasn’t right. As we walked to the car, I explained that I knew Jimmy from the rec-center. I told her I thought he was a good kid and that we wanted to do something to help for the holidays. When I opened the trunk to reveal the presents for them, tears burst from her eyes. I also gave her the gift card and told her I hoped they would have a Merry Christmas. When she collected herself enough to speak, she began to say why she didn’t immediately respond to the door, not knowing who was there at first. With eyes wet with tears and a choke in her voice, she explained to us that she had been unwilling to leave her bedroom because she was on her knees, in tears, praying to God at that moment that He would provide a way to give her children a better Christmas.
What makes this memory so powerful to me is that regardless of how it happened, or what my beliefs might be, or even what my parents beliefs might be – there was a woman so distraught over her inability to provide for her children that she wept on her knees and pleaded for a miracle… even as the answer to her prayers was knocking on her door.
I will never be able to forget that for someone my actions were nothing less than an answered prayer from above. And, more importantly, that that moment had little to do with me, as there is no way an individual person could ever execute something like that.
Bless you Wes, and all of you who stay the course… well done, good and faithful servants. You have kept God’s sheep.
“For from of old they have not heard nor perceived by ear, neither has the eye seen a God besides Thee, Who acts in behalf of the one who waits upon Him.” (64:4).
A truly joyous Christmas to you all.