By Mark Savalla
“Oh my God, it’s the police.” The first time I heard those words spoken from inside a house, I knew that someone inside had done something wrong or that the problem I was summoned for was at this location. I was wrong. The dispatcher had been given the wrong address.
Those same words have been spoken by every segment of society. From the unbelievably rich to the wino in the back of some urine-saturated alley. People in this country are not comfortable around the police. They want them and need them but they have this encapsulated pocket of fear and uneasiness in the back of their minds.
I heard those words more than 16 (47 now) years ago, the first week of my assignment at the police department. After ensuring that everyone at the residence was in fact safe, (we had to check each room to ensure that some crazed man with a knife was not in hiding) I explained to the lady and the children that we received a call at the location regarding a dispute and that a man was threatening the family with a knife.
The faces and body language of those individuals screamed with fear and anxiety. My mere presence caused tension and alarm. The children were wide-eyed and clinging to their mother. After the explanation there was a cessation of tension but that was quickly replaced by cautious anger. The woman then wanted to know what right we had to search the house.
While I explained that the search was necessary to ensure that she and the children were safe and that she was not lying out of fear, my partner had ascertained that the call was in another part of the city. Now the woman’s tone was that of self-righteous indignation. I had accused her of lying, right in front of her children. We apologized and left listening to “You should be ashamed of yourselves, you should be out arresting criminals instead of upsetting women and children. What do you think I pay my taxes for?”
Over the years that scene has been replayed hundreds of times. On duty my sole purpose for approaching anyone has been to enforce the law, assist when possible or to stop some type of behavior that is unsafe, causing a problem or crime. Most of the time I was directed by a radio call or citizen who had pointed out a situation that might necessitate the police.
Initially that type of response to my presence was mildly confusing. I thought I was the good guy. I was the person they spent thousands of dollars screening, training and equipping in order to provide aid and assistance and believe it or not, to risk my life to protect their lives and property.
When I chose this job, I did not expect to be cursed for stopping someone to tell them that their car was on fire. I did not expect women to lock themselves in bathrooms while I was trying to evacuate them because the house next door was burning. I did not expect to be called a racist because I was giving someone a citation in a minority neighborhood. I did not expect people protesting a national concern to take out their frustrations in the form of a thrown bottle directed at my prematurely balding heard. I did not expect my teen-age daughter to tell me that it wasn’t a good idea to let everyone at school know that her father was a police officer.
I did expect something else. I expected people to smile when they saw the police. I expected to be welcomed into their homes and have the children jump with glee and ask me about all the bad guys I arrested. I expected people to feel safe and comfortable around me. I expected people to be proud of the type of person they had for a police officer. I expected people of every race or background to know that the one thing they could count on was their police officer. I expected the news media to accurately report the great heroic deeds of their men in blue.
Like I said, initially that reaction was mildly confusing. I went on to the next call and the next and the next. In 16 (33) years nothing has changed my confusion. I have accepted that fact that people want and need and support the police but an officer’s mere presence causes fear, tension and erratic behavior.
I’ve gone to work tired, hung over and sick, but I’ve always gone to work. I love my job I guess I love being confused. Nothing makes sense on the street. You put on your uniform and get out there and do the best job you can do. Some people are going to thank you and some aren’t. Some people will say “Oh my God it’s the police”. But sometimes people say “Thank God, it’s the police.” That makes it exciting and that makes it all worth it.
Editor’s Note, Mr. Savalla submitted this op-ed which ran on March 12, 1989 in response to Mr. Vazquez’s editorial : Why We Distrust and Fear the Cops in Oxnard and Throughout the Nation
*Originally published in The Daily News
Mark Savalla is a retired LAPD officer