Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Law enforcement: a respectful hippie perspective

Funny thing about cops: I used to have a sort of reluctance to deal with them, an aversion probably based on my wild, misspent youth (umm, and er, middle age, and sort of...well, my whole life, actually). In the last two years some things have happened to shift my perspective, some ordinary, everyday things, and some dramatic, heroic things.

One of our neighbors is a young cop. He's a dedicated, hard-working guy. He's friendly, approachable, and like most cops and teachers, almost certainly underpaid. He has that hopeful, not-yet-cynical look of a young man beginning a career. Something about his view of himself as man, as a cop, as a young professional gives me hope. Come to think of it, it gives me the same feeling I have when I sing at a wedding, the just-about-to-cry feeling. People don't cry at weddings because weddings are beautiful, though they are, or because they're evocative of nostalgia, though they are. I believe people cry at weddings because they are profoundly moved by that unvarnished faith in the future you see on the faces of the marrying couple. I've stood in front of groups of wedding guests of less than 20 people, and crowds numbering in the hundreds. We've been together in churches, cathedrals, public spaces and back yards and even on the beautiful green of the Castillo San Marcos. Almost every wedding guest has at least a few seconds of misty sweetness, because of the power of that unvarnished faith. It is people saying to each other: "I believe. I believe in you; I believe in me; I believe in us. I believe we can make this commitment, for as far as I can see into the future." This is the face I see on our young neighbor, who takes his yet-to-become cynical self to work every day, being a cop, doing his best to protect us from ourselves.

Falling into the category of dramatic and heroic is a cop whose brother is one of the people I work most closely with at the office. The cop, Jared, is a guy who may have been born to be a cop; by all accounts he wears it well. He, too, is a dedicated, hard-working guy. My guess is that he's also underpaid, not for any personal reason but because, in my very humble opinion, our society undervalues the work done by teachers and cops and firefighters. We underpay them and cross our fingers that they'll find the work satisfying enough to be its own reward. Teachers often have to supplement their incomes with second jobs; so do cops. In Jared's case, he was providing security at a shopping mall when a shoplifting episode took a frightening turn. There was a foot chase, a horrifying encounter with a suspect in which shots were fired, and had Jared not been wearing a bullet-proof vest, he would have been killed by the mutiple shots fired at his chest. You can read the details, but the part of the story that remains in my memory is this: having taken several non-life-threatening shots, Jared awoke in the hospital, unable to speak because one of those shots hit his jaw. He still managed to ask two key questions: Were his wife and family okay, and had he conducted himself in the most professional manner? That feeling I talked about that makes people cry at weddings? That breathtaking faith in the future? This story makes something altogether new out of that impulse. There's a thread of dark humor here; I don't imagine cops ever see themselves even being tempted to cry at weddings. They almost certainly begin to see everybody as a potential dirt-bag because that's what the job prepares them for. But they get up and go to work every day. That says faith to me, even if it has dark overtones and more darkness lurking underneath.

In perhaps the most selfish example of Cops Making Life Better for Me Personally, I have to take you back to our much ballyhooed Guana Reserve. Because of Guana's geographic location (the Ponte Vedra-area beach geography, specifically; not the Matanzas area section which lies some miles to the south) and its access configuration, you park your car in one of 3 lots on the west side of A1A, and walk across the highway to access the beach. Because it's justifiably considered to be a somewhat under-utilized recreational facility, and because the parking areas are tucked a bit out of sight in the native scrub oak and palmetto brush...and perhaps because some of the well-to-do beach house residents might prefer their solitude to having people like Rodney and me walking up into what they consider their front yards, there is ever-increasing pressure on the state's law enforcement arm to ensure security. To this purpose we rely on the state's Department of Environmental Protection's law enforcement team. As Rodney and I are there virtually every weekend, and as often as weather and timing permit during the weekday evenings, we see this law enforcement first-hand. And it is very, very present.

As development continues in the delicate ecosystem of northeastern St. Johns County, I imagine those who are able to afford to live on the beach and enjoy the solitude offered by the proximity of Guana. I imagine they might be motivated to suggest that the 3 parking lots aren't safe, that cars are broken into and inappropriate sexual activity facilitated by the seclusion of the park, that crossing A1A isn't safe, that beach access should be restricted in the public interest. But I can tell you that more that one state cop, and many local deputies, are actively engaged in ensuring safety, preventing criminal behavior and actively enforcing the law, and ensuring the safety of those who take advantage of this beautiful, pristine spot. We've become friendly with one such DEP cop, John, whose presence puts us at ease every time we see him.

Like the other cops I've talked about, John is hard-working, personable, and believes in his work. His presence prevents the breaking of car windows and stealing of valuables, provides vigilance in a relatively remote park where some people feel safe doing things no one really wants to think about, and ensures the safety of residents like sea turtles and North Atlantic Right Whales, not to mention people. And in John's case, you have the sense that his territory really belongs to him: he can give you directions, information about the rules on everything from fishing to camping to whale-watching, because he knows every corner of the park and takes care of it like his own backyard. Which, come to think of it, it is. So thank you, J.J., and thank you, Jared, and thank you, John. It can't be easy to do what you do, and we are so often unappreciative.

Lest I leave you without your supper, here's a photo of the chicken enchiladas Rodney and I made this evening. They're from a sort of basic recipe Lis gave me, and now they get made at our house all the time, out of every sort of leftover. Start with shredded chicken or leftover roast pork or beef, or red, black or pinto beans you've already cooked. In your cast iron skillet, cook a chopped onion in some olive oil until tender, add the protein, a cup or so of prepared salsa and one of those little cans of chopped green chilies. Simmer until the flavors marry and adjust seasoning to your preference (I like cilantro, but if I add it I'm the only one who will eat it) may like cumin or red pepper, for instance: throw those in. When this has simmered to your liking, add 8 ounces of cream cheese (or the lower-fat variation, neufchatel) and cook until the cheese melts and the whole thing is creamy and delicious. Heat corn tortillas until they're flexible; fill the tortillas and place seam-side down in a casserole dish. Cover with salsa or enchilada sauce (or a mixture of both); top with grated cheese and bake at 325 for half an hour or so. Trust me on this.


  1. I am always wary of cops for the exact same reason you stated. As a kid we were always up to no good, so now even though I am never up to no good, I still get nervous around cops. I make enchiladas like that with spinach and mushrooms. No chicken.

  2. That's it exactly: I am never up to no-good now. I am as boring and ordinary as dirt, but I always have that slightly guilty feeling (have I done something bad? could I have doone something no one knows about, even me?) and the fluttery heart. But these guys are good guys; there's no denying that.
    Mmmm...spinach and mushrooms. Sounds wonderful. Do you use the cream cheese and salsa and stuff??


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