Late one night, while I was in the living room watching television, my wife came out from the bedroom whispering excitedly that someone was in the alley. There’s a sick feeling that comes over you when you think there’s an intruder, a weird chill that envelops you. Simply put, it’s called fear.
I opened a window and looked down into the alley. We have security lights and it was well lit, but I didn’t see anyone. Then a man came walking out slowly from behind the building.
I called out in as firm a voice as I could muster, and asked him what he was doing. My voice had startled him and he looked up, but was blinded by the lights.
He kept walking and disappeared from view and was gone. What could we do? It didn’t seem like he had broken into the building, maybe he had just gone back there to relieve himself, so my wife went back to bed and I went back to my television.
Until he came back.
We called 911 and explained what was happening and I went down to the porch to wait for the cops. A car arrived in just a few minutes and two officers got out of the car, both of them so young. It’s funny how you suddenly notice how young an officer is when you’re calling him “sir.”
I explained what we knew, that there might be someone breaking into the building next door, and they nodded and walked down the narrow alley to investigate.
Now, the same security lights that were blinding the intruder were now blinding them. They were completely exposed with nowhere to hide, but they didn’t hesitate.
I will never forget how tense I felt, standing on the sidewalk watching them disappear down the alley. It’s moments like this that police officers here in Woodhaven, in Queens, in New York and across the nation experience on a regular basis.
A simple call and a walk down an alley can turn from routine to tragic in a flash. It takes a special type of person to live with that kind of pressure, that kind of possible outcome, every day, every shift, every call.
If a police officer makes a mistake, it can cost him or her their life. Or, as we’ve seen lately, it can cost a member of the public their life. A police officer lives day-in, day-out with the tremendous pressure of having to be 100 percent perfect.
But human beings are imperfect, and in a police force of over 35,000 people you are going to have a lot of imperfection and mistakes.
This is not to excuse or defend any actions in some of the more high-profile cases in recent months. I think we can all understand frustration with the justice system. It was not too long ago we were upset with a laughably light sentence handed down to a drunk driver who struck and killed a resident on Jamaica Avenue.
But the violent anger directed at the overwhelmingly good number of men and women of the NYPD from some quarters seems misdirected. They were not on those grand juries. “We the people” make up the juries of our justice system.
And what of the man in the alley? It turned out to be a drunk looking for a warm place to sleep it off. The officers offered him some help and gave him a ride somewhere where he could get it.
Nearly 100 percent of all interactions between the public and the police end this way, it’s unfortunate that the very few cases that don’t are all that some people see.