It was a weird thought but there I was one afternoon, before I even interviewed him, sitting and thinking about what I’d do in case of an emergency. I thought about what would run through my mind if I had to run towards a disaster most would run away from. If I knew some act of heroism could end my life, what would I think about? Would the birthdays and barbecues I wouldn’t get to see flash through my mind? Would I still run towards what could take away my life, this thing that I instinctively protect, for someone else? For someone that’s likely a stranger? Would I stop in my tracks and shut down? Or would I run head-first towards danger? I thought a lot about that and to be honest, I don’t know what I would do.
He’s someone who’s known the answer to that question most people try not to think about since age 23 when he graduated the police academy and swore to serve his community. And his answer is one that doesn’t waiver: a resounding yes.
He wouldn’t say words like that, though. He’d say he’s just doing his job; he’d say he’s used to it; he’d say he’s got a great support group around him; he’d say he’s just doing his duty.
He’s the sort of person who treats everyone like a friend and thinks about ways to help other people, down to asking which Starbucks location would be most convenient for me. It’s a Friday in October when I cross my office parking lot and head to the Starbucks less than a mile from my job. Arriving before him, I flip open my laptop and review my questions. He arrives promptly, just a few minutes after the time we’d agreed on. I smile up at him when he approaches, tell him hello, and he leads the way to the coffee line. Despite long hours and late nights, he’s never been much of a coffee person whereas I feel at home in any Starbucks I walk into. I get my usual and he gets an iced mocha and we head back to the table, making casual small talk before I whip out my notebook and press record on my phone.
He was born in Virginia, he says, but spent the majority of his childhood in Chicago, his dad working as a pastor and church planter. His family relocated when he was in middle school to North Carolina where his dad was helping plant a church and then relocated again to South Carolina when he was in his last year of high school, though he still made the long commute to his school in North Carolina for his senior year. Once he graduated he went to a technical college for a couple years before transferring to a university where he graduated with a degree in criminal justice. This upcoming May, he tells me, will be the 5 year mark of him starting the last leg of the road to becoming a police officer, going through the police academy right after college and entering the force right after graduating from the academy. In that time he’s moved up the ranks to Deputy II and would like to work his way up to Sergeant, but also does plenty of side jobs on his days off.
We dig a bit into his childhood first, him telling me stories of playing baseball with his buddies, how he hated being homeschooled for two years, adventuring with his family, and hunting. He’s always had a love for baseball, playing in both high school and college. These days, he picks up a game now and then when he can but always keeps up with his teams. He’s a thinker, often going up to the mountains to think about things and drive around. Driving around? We’ve got something in common, I tell him.
“This is something that’s a hard question,” I tell him next, prepping him for the next topic, “but not a deep question.”
“Okay,” he agrees.
I ask him what his five favorite things on this planet are and he says immediately, “You already know the first one—baseball.”
“Baseball,” I repeat, jotting it down.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” he laughs, “I shouldn’t set baseball higher than anything. That’s horrible. I do love baseball though.” Family is his number one favorite thing, he says, and then baseball. His family, he explains later on, is his foundation. He loves spending time with his brothers and sisters, parents, and nieces and nephews. They’re supportive of each other, always laughing and having a good time when they’re together. Another one of his favorite things is working on cars, a hobby of his.
I tell him he’s got two more things to list. “I mean…women,” he laughs, “That makes me sound horrible.” We both start laughing, him murmuring, “I thank the Lord every day.”
At the look on my face he laughs harder, but I write it down anyway. “I don’t know how I’m going to word that in the article,” I say, shaking my head.
“I’m just being honest,” he chuckles, “You asked what my favorite things are,” adding, “That does sound really, really bad though.”
“If that’s what’s on your heart…” I tell him, laughing.
We both come from a similar background, growing up in the church. Growing up, he says, ministry was a big part of his life. I ask him what it was like growing up in a pastor’s home, what that experience was for him. Most people, he explains, expect the kids of pastors—PKs as he calls them— to either go off the deep-end or be a goody two-shoes, but he’s grateful for where he comes from. Though his home life was more sheltered than what’s normal, he says, he wouldn’t trade the way he grew up because it taught him a lot and gave him a solid base to grow from in his adult life, chuckling that he’d probably be off the deep-end without his upbringing and the way his parents raised him. He thanks them all the time for what they’ve done for him, saying,“I’m most definitely where I am today and who I am today because of them—I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
As a kid, he tells me he was like a little evangelist himself, always trying to get his friends to come to church with him and telling them about Jesus. He and his family were ones who wanted their ministry to be about showing people how much Jesus loved them, but moving south was an unusual transition for them.
“It’s funny—I’ll make this comment real quick to you,” he says, “And I’m not trying to diss anybody.”
“Oh no, no,” I motion for him to continue.
He tells me about the differences between going to church in a place like Chicago and moving south, explaining, “You know, up there, if you try to go out door-knocking or if you’re just talking to somebody or they come to church or whatever it may be, if we’re talking about that kind of thing, you know they would either be like, ‘Shut up,’ shut the door, they’re going to be straight-up. Down here everybody goes to church, everybody has a Bible, ‘don’t sit in my pew or I’m going to get mad,’ and they’ll stick you in the back quicker than anything they can. So that kind of environment was just weird to us because we’re not used to it. I mean, gossip’s always been a big thing, but it seems like it was bigger down here. It’s like, ‘If you don’t do things like we do, you don’t belong here,’ which is not even right.” It’s a subject he could go on about, he says, adding that it’s a shame that so many people don’t want to mess with church because some of their experiences have been so difficult.
We continue the interview, swapping stories and talking about the bigger issues. One thing you’d notice about him is he raps his knuckles on the table, always watching anything going on in the background, like he’s used to staying busy. He likes being able to see the front door and I notice him looking towards the front every now and then. When you talk, though, he looks directly at you through steady eyes, like he’s listening to everything you say and sorting through it before giving his reply. They’re eyes that are used to seeing everything most people can’t imagine seeing in their lifetime–from the unthinkable to the most nightmarish realities playing outright in front of him.
I start asking him about some of the hardest things he deals with, the things that he wishes he didn’t have to deal with, and he opens up a little about his work. South Carolina, he explains, is one of the worst states for domestic violence. While they’ve tried instilling better laws, it’s a battle it looks like they won’t be winning any time soon. He explains that domestic violence typically is something they see women being victims of, but he’s also seen women beating up on their husbands.
The worst thing he deals with that he wishes he didn’t have to deal with, he elaborates, is dealing with situations where kids are involved. “That always hits me every time,” he says, “No matter what age.” And while he never wants to see anything bad happen to anyone, it’s harder for him to see something involving a child because they’re innocent. It sounds awful, he says, but some of the things he sees is like watching a video game or a movie play out in front of you, since many of the things are difficult to process. “And your mind’s like no, this ain’t real, this ain’t real,” he says. I struggle for words after he tells me about some of the things he sees because there’s no way I could understand.
If he didn’t love the job he wouldn’t be able to do it, he explains. Despite the heavy things he sees, he believes his purpose is to help people the best he can and make the community he serves a better place. “I love talking to people. I love trying to help them out as best as I can,” he says, adding, “I tell people all the time if you’ve got a problem—especially with suicidal people—if you’ve got a problem, call us, request me. I’ll give them my card or whatever and say I’ll come out here and talk to you. I don’t care—we’re going to find you help somehow, one way or another. And a lot of times that help may be limited for me because I can only do so much how and what I do, but actually just being there and talking to them and figuring out what I can do, getting family members involved, telling them resources they can go to. Of course it’s up to them, but just kind of directing people like hey, this is what you need to do.”
Being an officer has changed his whole perspective, he tells me. He’s learned how to listen to people and really hear what they’re saying so they can reach an agreement. He’s learned how much stuff goes on behind the scenes that no one ever knows about. We can just grab a coffee, he explains, and not think about it but someone became a victim today. Looking at him, you can tell it weighs on him— the responsibility he has to his community. When I ask him where he feels safe, personally, he tells me with his parents, with friends and family he trusts, and with his platoon because he trusts them to take care of him if something were to happen.
“So, it sounds like you feel safe with people you trust,” I note out loud and he nods, “Yeah.”
We wind down the interview, talking lightly. I ask him my last question and my favorite: What would you want for your epitaph to say? His response surprises me.
“Enjoy life to the fullest,” he says, joking that some might take that as a go-ahead to go smoke crack or something but he means that you should enjoy your family, enjoy your friends, enjoy what you have. “What else is there besides loving people and hanging out with people in this world?” adding later, “If you were the only person on this earth, how would you enjoy life?”
“You wouldn’t,” I agree. He adds that by being around the people you love and building them up not only are you encouraging them, you’re also glorifying God because other people really are the whole point of why God put us here.
With that final thought, I turn off the recording but snippets of the interview stay with me. It’s fall festival that night and my sister’s wondering where I am. I invite him out with us, but he has to work. He’s not affected, though, just tells us to be careful and to let him know if we run into trouble. I assure him we will. I thank him again and we head to the parking lot, going separate directions.
It’s nearly Christmas now. There have been sirens in the distance on and off in the writing sessions I’ve had, patching this story together. I think about the chaos of the blue lights, the constant adrenaline while having to remain perfectly calm, and wonder how someone would have room to still be human amongst the demand to remain in control. But he’s out there, patrolling the streets among holiday festivities and people looking forward to time off for Christmas. He’s out there in the cold, the rain, dealing with the messes that most people would steer clear of, suiting up every day not knowing what lies in store.
So, reader, as you sit with your families this season, remember him. Remember all of those in public service who work day in and day out to keep us safe. Remember them because despite all the pressure, despite all the long nights, despite all the heartbreaking images they can’t forget, they’re still showing up. And they’re not showing up just for kicks—they’re showing up to be there when we need them.