In 1988 the Chief of Police, in Ottumwa, Iowa, wanted his officers and the news media to work more closely together. He thought the media could help law enforcement when they needed information distributed to the public. In turn, news reporters (with proper training) would be allowed to get closer to crime scenes. Most reporters agreed it was a good idea, while the officers were leery. As a member of the media, I wanted to participate.
Presentations were given to teach what each side is trying to learn at a crime scene. One presenter said research shows the reason cops become cops is very similar to why reporters become reporters. Both want to know what’s going on; they want to be in the loop and both want to have an impact – they want to make a difference.
Detectives taught members of the media to be aware at a crime scene; watch where you walk. Stepping on a bullet casing can push it down into soft soil; a footprint or tire track may be distorted if stepped on. Important evidence can easily be lost or destroyed. The training was good. After completing the course, each media member was given an ID card that would allow them behind police lines at crime scenes.
To this day I feel I have a better understanding of what a police officer’s job requires, in part because of that training. During my thirty-five-year career in radio broadcasting, I worked closely with city police, sheriff deputies and state troopers. I even got to work with detectives from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation a few times and in a couple of instances, with FBI agents. I got along well with most of the cops and would help them out whenever I could.
One time the city cops were looking for a suspect they thought might have jumped a coal train headed west, out of town. I happened to be at the airport and called the police department. “If you can send an officer out here, I’ll take them up in the airplane and fly over the train.” If the suspect was there, they’d see him. A cop came and we went up to fly over the train. The suspect wasn’t there; officers on the ground had caught him. But I’m glad we went up. I’ve always liked working with the police – even though I had my own little crime spree going on the side. Traffic violations!
In those days it wasn’t uncommon for me to tell my co-host on the morning show, “I met the nicest State Trooper on the road the other day.”
They’d reply, “Did you get pulled over again?”
“Yeah, I did. Let me tell you what happened…”
Although not nearly as often, it still happens once in a while. Now I get more warnings than citations; apparently, I’m not as adventurous as I once was. I find myself less impressed with a low ‘zero-to-sixty’ number and more impressed with high MPG digits. Once in a while my needle doesn’t drop as quick as the numbers posted in reduced speed zones. Whenever I see a squad car, I still look at my speedometer, instinctively moving my foot toward the brake pedal.
Just the other night, I was nearing Billings, Montana on I-90 from the west. I saw the patrol car sitting on the median. No problem, my cruise was set at 74. As I passed, the car pulled onto the highway. Not seeing a speed limit sign, I glanced at my GPS. Crap! I was already in the 65mph zone. His lights came on and I pulled over.
I pulled off pretty far to the right in case the officer was going to come to the driver’s window. I don’t like to see a cop standing outside my left window with their backside to traffic, so I give them as much room as possible…actually, I don’t particularly like seeing a cop standing outside the passenger window either, but in consideration of my speed, it was inevitable he was going to come to one or the other. I saw him approaching in my right rearview mirror, and lowered the window before he got there.
My dog, June, started barking, causing the officer to understandably stand back a couple extra feet until he was sure she was no danger to him. Because I was so far to the right, the cop was actually standing on the down slope to the ditch. Add to these factors, me driving a full-size Ford Van that sits fairly high. When I looked out the window all I saw was a head and a flashlight. I almost lost it and started to laugh. I told myself, “Stifle that laughter! Let him speak first to assess his demeanor. “
I assured him June did not bite. “She’s just happy to meet someone new.” The officer introduced himself and told me why he stopped me. He was very polite when he asked for my information. This is where I got nervous.
We just bought this van and I haven’t got any of the documents yet; no insurance card, no registration, just a dog that would narc me out in a minute and threaten to tell the cop I stole the van, if I didn’t give her some dog treats.
I handed him my license and explained, “We had just bought the van and I don’t have the registration or insurance card yet. I do have this expired insurance card from my truck and the van is on the same policy – uh, but it’s not an expired policy, it’s good through September of 2020.”
The officer laughed, “I think I can get everything I need from what you’ve given me.”
When he came back to the van, he gave me a written warning for the speed. “I’m also giving you a written warning for the insurance card – you have to have that in the vehicle with you.” Again, he was very polite.
Now one could conclude I’m saying he was nice because he gave me a warning – not a citation. That’s not the case. He was one of those cops who could give you a ticket and make you feel good about getting it.
We chatted for a few minutes. He looked pretty young and I asked him how long he’d been a cop. He said a little over a year. I asked him, “Why would you want to be a cop in this day and age? People are getting crazier – they don’t respect authority like they used to.” He didn’t answer me, just brushed off the question.
He looked distracted, like someone was talking to him; maybe in his ear bud. “I have to get going. I have another call to respond to. Slow it down a little, okay?”
“I will.” I said and gave him my card. “If you get bored, look me up on Facebook. You might like some of the stories I post.” He walked back to his car, talking into his shoulder. Ear pieces, mics on their shoulders – all modern gadgetry. When I was his age, cops had to go to their car to talk on the radio.
As he walked away, I recalled a time when I was his age. All the cops I knew were older than me. Then, they were about the same age – and now, they’re all younger than me. A lot younger. This guy couldn’t have been any older than my youngest daughter.
I pulled off the shoulder onto the highway, using my turn signal of course, since there was a cop right behind me. I set the cruise at 65 in the 65 zone. (there was still a cop right behind me.) As soon as the squad car passed me, I kicked it up to 69 miles-per-hour. June and I continued east on I-94, about one hundred-fifty miles farther down the road, until we got to Miles City, Montana, where we stopped for the night.
The next morning, I went to get coffee. I thought I would check Facebook, then write for a bit. I had been working on a story about pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I had a message request from Casey Graff. I had no idea who this person was, but I opened the message and started reading it. His message read:
“Mr. Palen, I stopped you tonight and was rushed due to the busy life of being a Trooper. I had another call pending but did not want to be rude. I felt I gave you a shorter than normal answer when you asked why I would ever want to be a cop. I wrote this a few months back and wanted to share. Sorry it’s so late.” He attached his story:
I constantly get asked, “Do you like your job?” That question can mean so many things, especially in my chosen career. Usually the question is genuine. I give a vague but genuine answer. “There are good days and there are bad days, but yes – I love my job.”
Occasionally the question is asked with disgust and hatred. My answer remains vague but genuine. “There are good days and there are bad days, but yes – I love my job.” How do you answer a question like that with a job like mine?
I might follow with the fact that I was in the military and I’ve seen a couple other countries, therefore I’m grateful for our constitution and I believe in protecting it. I’d follow with the fact that I love helping people, if I can put a smile on someone’s face, I’ve had a good day.
I’ve got multiple opportunities to make people smile in this career.
Some examples: Changing a tire for an elderly man, woman, or someone with a child. Giving someone a ride, whose vehicle just broke down on the way to an important family function. Giving someone a warning and explaining the infraction and the reason it’s been made a law or how it’s unsafe. Locating stolen vehicles, school bus inspections, giving someone directions, giving someone spare change, the list is endless.
I love this job because I have multiple opportunities to share kindness, respect, love and compassion with everyday people. One small act of kindness can go a long way. I know first-hand. If it weren’t for the individuals who showed me kindness through my life I would not be where I am today.
If we were all kind to one another, it would build and build like the kindness I’ve been treated with. It’s given me hope and I believe it would bring hope to others. Therefore, I chose a career that I could reach out to people on their worst days and try to show them kindness in hope they might pass the action along to someone else. – Casey
Wow. I didn’t expect such a response. He is young – one year older than my youngest daughter. He served in the U.S. Navy, then went on to become a Montana State Trooper. He has a beautiful family – a wife and children. Still, every day Casey goes out on the road to serve and protect; to help people; to make a difference. He never knows what danger may be in store that day – but he goes out anyway.
I thought back to 1988, when the Ottumwa Police Chief wanted his officers and media to work more closely together. Specifically, the speaker who said the reasons cops become cops is very similar to why reporters become reporters. Both want to know what’s going on; they want to be in the loop and both want to have an impact – they want to make a difference. All these years later, those are pretty much the same reasons this young guy gave me, as to why he wanted to be a cop.
My pumpkin pie story can wait. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for Casey Graff and all the police, troopers and deputies. While we’re sitting down to eat this year, let’s remember the officers who will wait to celebrate with their families, because on Thanksgiving Day, they will be out chasing the bad guys; patrolling the city streets, county roads and highways, keeping us safe; looking for people who need help and making a difference.
Thank you, officer. Wishing each of you peace. Be safe.