Wednesday, July 06, 2005

New Cops

Tonight is the graduation for the rookie policemen and women I had the pleasure to teach back when they began back in January 2005. I teach a 52 hour block over 13 nights on Constitutional Law; Arrest, Search and Seizure and North Carolina Elements of Criminal Offenses. I have been doing this stint twice a year since the fall of 2000, so this is my tenth class I have seen graduate. This is a grueling six month process to obtain a Basic Law Enforcement Certificate and I am always proud of the graduates who complete it and pass a four hour state exam for the privilege of working long hours for short pay at a job where none of your "clients" are ever happy to see you. I have been a fan of police officers since I first realized the demands of the job after I became a prosecutor. Before then I had no idea of the long hours, the weird, everchanging shifts, the low pay and the stress of maintaining the peace in a volatile and hostile environment. They are essentially the sole buffer between civil society and anarchy. I have close friends who are police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers and as a whole, you won't find a finer bunch. Sure there are bad apples in the bunch but generally they don't last long-once a cop loses his or her credibility with the court or the prosecutors who carry the case forward-they might as well turn in the badge and move on. To my thinking, there is nothing worse or more dangerous than a crooked cop (unless it's a crooked prosecutor). The plenary power to deprive a person of liberty is profound and the impulse to abuse that power is more than some can resist.

As I look forward to their graduation, I worry about what they face on the street. I still remember getting chills when a highway patrolman told me how he carefully touches the side or rear of every car he stops and approaches, as a way of leaving evidence should something go horribly wrong during the traffic stop. The fingerprints are a way of saying "I was Officer _____, and before I was killed, I was right here at this car." Blood on the badge is intolerable-no one is there to protect the protectors. Save for each other, they are on their own. Too many have given their lives to protect us and I have known some of these fallen heroes. I have told their stories to my classes, hoping like hell I would never have to attend a funeral for one of them. The three I tell them about made the ultimate sacrifice while trying to keep us safe-I knew all of them and worked with them and their deaths seemed almost surreal to me. Nothing is more sad or somber than laying to rest an officer felled in the line of duty.
Robert Buitraigo was fresh out of rookie school in 1994. A native of Cali, Columbia, he struggled through rookie school because his command of the English was stll marginal. He was tutored by a good ol' boy in his class whose King's English was also marginal but whose southern dialect was more than sufficient to help his friend through. He had recently been sworn in and was still being trained by another officer while on duty. The story of his struggle through rookie school and his bond with his fellow officer was picked up by the local paper and the TV news. I remember him at his graduation and his mock trial exercise because he was good looking, polite and stood ramrod straight-his military background clear just from observing him. One night after his shift ended, he left his one-bedroom apartment to by a bottle of screw-top wine for he and his girlfriend to drink while they watched a movie. He never came back. In line at the grocery store, wine bottle in hand, he was third in line when a four-time convicted armed robber stuck-up the clerk and loped out of the store with a money bag. Robert identified himself as a police officer, pushed ahead of the others in line and followed the robber into the parking lot, sneaking up on him. Raising the bottle of wine as a club, Robert swung at the robber and missed, the force of the swing carried him over the robber's back and onto the ground. He struggle with the robber who took out his cheap Lorcin handgun and managed to shoot Robert in the heart, killing him.
I sat in the church at his service. I had not been prosecuting very long at that point but had a gut feeling that I might have some role in it's prosecution. The case was actually assigned to a seasoned prosecutor but before the trial he took a job in the federal system and I took over his caseload, including this case. It was my first capital case and I sat "second-chair," handling half the case after my partner handled the jury selection and the pre-trial motions. The defendant was sentenced to die by lethal injection. That was 1995. He still roams his cell at Central prison. Nothing is left of Robert Buitraigo save a framed portrait, a bag of bloody clothes, a "dog-tag" and yes, his badge-Number 541. He was 23 years old.

Steve Amos was my friend-he was everyone's friend. He was good 'ol boy from northeast Forsyth County who loved being a cop. He had no airs or pretense and his word was as good as gold. If he told you he would do something or track down something for you on a case, you could be assured it would be done and done well. Steve and his partner were traveling to a training session when they heard a call for shots fired in a nearby apartment complex. Steve drove their patrol car onto the street when they encountered sniper fire. He positioned the patrol car to block traffic and got out to take cover. As Steve exited the patrol car, the sniper fired and the round went through the car and struck him. Other officers were able to move Officer Amos out of the line of fire and transport him to a local hospital where he succumbed from his wounds the next day. The suspect was sentenced to death and remains on death row. Badge 481 left behind a young wife and his parents. Rest in Peace buddy.

Sgt. Bobby Beane was a big, lovable teddy bear and a great cop. His squad absolutely adored him. I remember vividly watching the young, black, female officer with whom you would think he would have had nothing in common but the badge, literally weep uncontrollably as she testified about how he took a bullet in the head during a drug search warrant execution. She loved him as if he was family. He was the second person through the door that day-the first had seen the perpetrator with a gun and ducked. The bullet hit Bobby between the eyes. He died instantly, never knowing what hit him or who did it. He had served for 15 years. His memorial service was completely draining-this man had affected so many people of all ages and colors in a positive way and their stories of his service left not a dry eye in the house. He had no enemies, not even among those he had arrested. Big, gentle and beloved-the "end of watch" for Badge 21 came on April 23, 1993.
All heroes, all victims of fate's cruel hand. 18 more heroes graduate tonight-I wish them all happiness and safe careers.


Blogger shoe said...

congrats from me too...great story..

4:06 PM  
Anonymous rebecca timberlake said...

Makes me want more than ever to have that son-of-a bitch who pulled a gun on my husband put behind bars for a long time. I know Eric will give 'em hell!

11:09 PM  
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