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Our Blue Knights

I have spent over twenty hours interviewing and riding along with our local law enforcement. This is their story.

‘Law enforcement officers are never ‘off duty.’ They are dedicated public servants who are sworn to protect public safety at any time and place that the peace is threatened. They need all the help that they can get.’ – Barbara Boxer

Public safety officers can be seen in the checkout lines at our local grocery stores, shopping for clothes for their children, attending our churches, pumping gas at the gas station, cheering for school teams at athletic events, or just having a leisurely meal at a restaurant. These men and women are our friends, neighbors, and relatives. In other words, they are just like you and me, with one major exception: their choice in life to protect and serve others even at the risk of their own life and safety. Like the knights of old who protected those around them, I call the local police our blue knights.

So, what drives these men and women to choose a career in law enforcement? The response to this question varied slightly, but in general the decision came from positive exposure at a young age to the police either through school, friends, or family. These experiences provided them with the opportunity to see first-hand what police officers are all about. By this, I mean the role model to these young people centered around serving, helping, and keeping the local communities and people safe. These thoughts can be best summed by the following quotes: Officer LaCarte of the Delta County Sheriff’ Department stated, ‘It is a calling; it is what you choose to do.’

Escanaba Public Safety Director LaMarche said, ‘We’re moms and dads and grandparents just trying to do what’ best for the community.’ Escanaba Public Safety Offficer Marchese stated, ‘Anything I am doing helping a person is rewarding to me.’

Schooling/Training

After choosing their career path in law enforcement, the next step is to attend an academy. Upon completion, an ongoing in-service training program is implemented. Education is twofold; one is for local law enforcement and the other for Michigan State Police.

Local law enforcement candidates often attend the police academy located at Northern Michigan University. The Academy consists of seventeen weeks of training. Pre-requisites include a two- to four-year college degree or previous military service. The Michigan State Police requirements are the following: Candidates must be 21 years old with a high school diploma, of good character, and a resident of State of Michigan, or, if they are a resident in another state, the Michigan residency is gained while attending the Michigan State Police Academy, located in Lansing, Michigan. The academy is 26 weeks long, and the cost is paid by the state.

Upon graduation, the officers’ training continues throughout the term of their employment in order to improve their skills in addressing a plethora of instances they may encounter. Some possible trainings and classes include: taser, firearms, defensive tactics, use of force/deadly force, restraint, baton, pepper spray, vehicular tactics, medical training, active shooter training with schools, evidence collection, legal updates, fire, search, and rescue. They are prepared to be in a constant state of readiness.

Since our county, like many rural counties, is limited in resources, sharing the expertise from one member of a police department to other departments is paramount. For example, an officer might attend a training on new techniques in gathering evidence. In turn, the officer will bring back this knowledge to other officers in the county through an in-service.

This concept is summed up by Michigan State Police Gladstone Post commander Lt. Cunningham, ‘By working together, we best serve our community.’

Major Problems

In serving our community and keeping us safe, the officers have identified two major problems that are affecting our communities; they are mental health and abuse of drugs.

Let us look at mental health first. I was informed that in the past the Upper Peninsula had a medical treatment center for mental illness located in Newberry. Since it was closed, many of the patients were brought back to the local communities, and for numerous reasons, have now ended up in the legal system.

According to Sheriff Oswald, our county jail, which legally holds 85 inmates, is filled beyond that and 60-68% of the inmates in jail include people who stopped taking their prescribed psychotropic medications. An enormous amount of time and manpower is spent in addressing this problem. The new jail will be able to house 160 inmates with padded cells for the mentally ill, but that is not the solution those with mental illness.

It was recommended by most departments that we need a regional facility for the Upper Peninsula to be able to specifically address the needs of the mentally ill.

Drug abuse is the other major concern. The officers are seeing problems with meth and other drugs amongst our local population; they affect not only the users, but also their friends and family.

This was really driven home for me when I was on a ride-along with one of our local officers. We stopped and observed an individual in a vehicle (who was reported as slumped behind the wheel). Through a thorough examination of dexterity, verbal questions, mental dexterity, and testing, it was clear that the individual did have a problem. With permission of the driver, meth was found and that person was arrested.

I was in the squad car when that person was arrested, and placed in the rear seat. I witnessed the person sobbing intensely and saying that they were so sorry, and ‘I am such a bad parent, it is my child’ birthday. Who is picking them up after school?’ These comments were repeated over and over. This had a huge impact on me to see first-hand how drugs shatter lives of persons all around the drug user.

Delta County Sheriff Oswald commented, ‘People do terrible things. Some turn their lives around, and so lead a good life.’

Technology

Upon entering the squad car, I observed so much technical equipment’o much so that there was little room for me in the front passenger seat. I observed the computer situated next to me along with dash cameras and body cameras with video and audio capabilities. These all aid in recording events that can substantiate what transpired. With the computer, information on people and vehicles can be almost instantly available, providing a valuable resource to aid officers in making decisions. Communication with central dispatch is crucial whether responding to a call for help or informing them what is developing or has transpired. On the topic of communication, Escanaba Public Safety Director LaMarche stated, ‘Response to crime is faster because local people are using their cell phones and reporting to police.’

Officers Involvement in Our Community

As previously stated, our law enforcement officers are not only a part of our community, they are also involved in it as well. They are in our schools having lunch or spending time with students, they patrol our schools and parking lots (keeping our students safe), serve as mentors and coaches to students, provide fire safety programs, and serve in community organizations and as city commissions, to name a few. While doing this, they always maintain a constant vigil to keep us safe. Escanaba Public Safety Officer Marchese stated, ‘We lead by example.’ I personally witnessed Officer Marchese stop the patrol car and spend some time with a young student who participated in the Hero program (designed to have a meal with an officer). There was such a caring and positive interaction shared between them.

Escanaba Public Safety Officer Marchese taking time with a student (Killian Rajala) demonstrating what the interior of a patrol car looks like and where the lights and siren are located.

Recruitment

Our blue knights are keeping us safe at the moment but what about the future? A major concern is the recruitment of great, competent officers. I was informed that twenty years ago the number of applicants for one law enforcement position would be around 100. Today that same position draws only five-eight applicants at best.

Our current officers are hoping that their role models and additional positive contact with students may act to spur students in pursuing a career in law enforcement.

Support (Family)

Recruitment is important, but family support is bar none the most crucial key to keeping current officers on patrol. Our officers receive a call when there is a problem’not when all is well. When they leave for work or are called in, the families never know what to expect.

So, how do the families cope with the stress that comes with their spouse’ job? Many of the officers’ families have gatherings where spouses and children may talk and share, and spend time in activities together. Spouses will sometimes seek out other spouses and talk about their concerns.

The officers’ response regarding how they deal with the stress concerning their own safety varied. Escanaba Public Safety Director LaMarche stated, ‘I cope with stress by thinking about how fortunate I am through all the tragedies I’ve seen.’ Gladstone Public Safety Director Robinson advised, ‘Don’t bring work home; get together with other families.’ These officers have learned to channel their stress in a positive way such as: getting away to recharge their psyche by riding their motorcycle, fishing, hunting, camping, or spending quality time with friends and family.

Hand in hand with family support comes with officers supporting each other. The officers are all friends and share the same common bond in serving and protecting all of us and themselves. When there is a call for help from an officer, all will respond. Gladstone Public Safety Detective Sergeant Quinlan stated, ‘Even though we wear different uniforms, we are of one family.’

Community Support

Our interview then moved from family support to community support. When asked if they felt our communities were supportive, unanimously they stated that our communities have been fantastic in their support. Here are a few of their quotes:

  • Delta County Sheriff Oswald – ‘Public support has never been better.’
  • Gladstone Public Safety Director Robinson – ‘We could not ask for better support.’
  • Escanaba Public Safety Director LaMarche – ‘Community support is phenomenal. We are very lucky to have ‘Back Our Blue’ signs’and this was formed by a community group.’
  • Michigan State Police Post Commander Lt. Cunningham – ‘There is lots of support by our communities; we have earned their support and trust.’

This is but a small snapshot of what our officers encounter every day. One of the officers stated that many of our troops return with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our police officers are exposed to similar conditions for years.

Imagine what our life would be like without our blue knights. Please take the time to brighten their day by showing our support with a smile, thank you, handshake, etc. Remember that they are just like you and I with one exception: They have chosen to keep us safe. Michigan State Police Trooper Polley stated, ‘We are doing this job for the right reasons.’

As May is the month of recognition of those officers who have fallen in the line of duty, are serving, or retired, I would like to thank all of the above officers for their service in keeping us safe.

Thanks to the following law enforcement departments for allowing me the privilege to be a witness to their noble profession:

City of Gladstone Department of Public Safety

City of Escanaba Department of Public Safety

Michigan State Police Gladstone Post

Office of Delta County Sheriff

By Daniel J. Paul

Daniel J. Paul is a retired school administrator. His articles focus on education, old-fashioned family values, relationships, and other topics. Go to his website at meaningfuldifferences.net, which features archived articles plus has a place to leave feedback.

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