Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t always want to be a police officer. Despite being raised in an Irish family in San Francisco, a town where a large portion of police officers also sported an “O-apostrophe” in their surnames, I fought the stereotype.
Back in those days the City, as the natives refer to it, was filled with sensational crime. Patty Hearst robbed the bank down the street, some lunatic was beheading joggers in Golden Gate Park and the Black Panthers were having regular gun battles with the police.
These disturbing events were, however, outside the bubble of a kid’s life. Then one day after school our former paper boy, Joe, showed up at the door dressed in his brand new police uniform and a handful of cop stories.
Joe was another Irish kid from the neighborhood and the son of a San Francisco cop. He was a few years older and, brother, could he tell a good story. It helped that he was working in one of the most exciting, chaotic and violent cities in America. Cop shows such as Michael Douglas’ “Streets of San Francisco” only added to my family’s excitement when Joe swung by in his black and white with a fresh story.
There were stories about streakers and pimps, drug dealers and corrupt politicians (sometimes the latter combined with the former). There were tragic stories reminiscent of literature’s foremost examples of man’s inhumanity to man. And there were tense dramas in which Joe played the central figure, including a gun battle with a criminal which ended in the surrender of the subject only after Joe’s abysmal shooting created a silhouette on the wall around the bad guy’s body. The comic epilogue to this fast-paced story was his renewed interest at the shooting range.
As the years passed the stories became more complex. Joe was promoted to the rank of Inspector just as Inspector Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, was running rampant through San Francisco’s underworld. The new topics were organized crime and the intricate world of auto theft. VIN swapping and chop shops were new and fascinating concepts, and it was easy to imagine Dirty Harry playing Joe’s role.
I was in college by this time where it was just dawning on me that English majors were not the most sought after college grads. So, in dire need of a fallback option, I tested for a position as a police recruit. Within a few short years my younger sister, who likewise had been entranced by Joe’s stories, joined the ranks of the SFPD.
I hadn’t thought about the cop stories for years, when I ran into Joe at a family gathering. Joe, an adopted member of our clan, shocked me with the news that he is only months away from the 30-year mark at SFPD. He did not want to talk about retirement, though. Instead, he launched into another story. I thought I’d share it.
Joe is now a lead investigator in SFPD’s sex crimes unit. He was recently assigned a rape case that, to his experienced mind, could be the work of a serial rapist. He contacted his colleagues at other agencies and discovered similarities in other sexual assaults. He located DNA evidence in one incident and discovered that, according to one victim, the rapist’s bellybutton was an “outy” (which occurs in males only 1 in 20 times). His investigators focused their search on a handful of suspects.
One suspect in particular caught Joe’s attention. Using a ruse, he convinced this suspect to expose his bellybutton, an “outy.” DNA testing was a match, and what followed was a textbook interview/ interrogation in which the suspect never realized he was confessing to multiple rapes. The arrest was one of Joe’s shining moments in an almost 30-year police career.
Over the years, Joe’s stories introduced me to the roller coaster ride that is police work. His storytelling encouraged me to share my own experiences, which have been heart-wrenching, boring and downright scary.
After so many years, he also reminded me that the job can also be fun – especially when the good guys win.