Florida officer’s good deeds define his compassionate approach
By Dan Campana
As a young cop in Texas 23 years ago, Tampa Master Police Officer Bart Wester admits to being wide-eyed with a save-the-world mentality.
Wester credits his early mentors with the Medina County Sheriff’s Department – Sheriff Wesley Scott and Chief Deputy Jerry Bailey – for centering his approach on the idea of asking “why” on every call to get a deeper understanding of the reason someone is in a particular situation.
“As police officers, we sometimes become jaded and take a call as if we were building something by a set of plans. When you stop and ask the ‘why,’ you might have a better understanding as to why someone is doing what they are doing at that moment,” Wester, who has worked patrol in Tampa for 12 years, explained.
That approach resonated with Wester in ways he likely couldn’t have foreseen. And, what he’s done with it goes beyond basic policing to provide examples of the human spirit and compassion that have gone under the radar in Wester’s career.
There was the time he filled up the gas tank of a young emergency department nurse who sat in her car at a gas station crying because she was struggling to make ends meet. When she inquired about repaying him, Wester asked only that she continue to save lives and pay the gesture forward.
Wester then tells the story about Mr. Johnnie, an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia who repeatedly wandered away from his daughter’s home. Each time the call would go out about Johnnie, Wester and his partner dropped what they were doing to pick him up and return Johnnie to safety. Wester knew Johnnie needed something more.
“I sat down with Mr. Johnnie and we talked for a long bit as to what would make him happy. He said to me that he did not know how long he had left, but all he wanted was to go home,” Wester recalled, adding that “home” was a place Johnnie hadn’t lived at in many years.
Wester learned Johnnie was a veteran, a fact which set in motion a chain of events that spurred him to help Johnnie obtain Veteran’s Affairs benefits and eventually get Johnnie “home” after local elderly affairs officials determined the residence was suitable to be lived in again.
“We fixed what we could and a short time later he was living back at his house with people to come in and clean, cook and take care of him. Mr. Johnnie was happy to be home,” Wester shared. “I would stop by and see him every month or so and talk with him, listening to his stories and laughing at his jokes.”
Johnnie passed away about 18 months later. Wester helped with the funeral arrangements and – because the military paid for the headstone, but not placement – he and his partner covered the cost of placing the stone to properly honor Johnnie.
“We are in a position as law enforcement officers to not only enforce the law, but to also help our fellow man. We did not have to do this for Mr. Johnnie, but he was a kind soul who fought a war for our country. Mr. Johnnie did not know when he would die. If I could spend minutes of my life to make the last times of his better, that is what I decided to do,” Wester said.
That compassionate side extended to a colleague and strangers when fire struck a squad mate’s apartment, Wester immediately began reaching out to friends, fellow officers and dispatch for help and raised $500 to give to his co-worker before the fire trucks even left the scene. Wester also salvaged some belongings and stored them in his garage until the fellow officer had a new place to live. Wester even reached out to local businesses to help another fire victim, a single mother of two, with furniture and other household items she needed after the fire.
“I am not a wealthy man, but I do believe in the ‘protect and serve.’ I will do what I can and, if I can’t afford it, I will figure something out,” Wester explained.
More recently, Wester gained attention after encountering a homeless man, “Mike,” who was soliciting money to pay for medical treatment his dog needed. After asking about Mike’s situation, Wester told Mike to meet him at the veterinarian’s office a short time later.
“The vet checked out (the dog), I paid the bill and returned to my duties,” Wester said. “I have helped people when I can because I ask the ‘why’ – and I have probably been there or can imagine how hard it could be.”
Wester is blunt about his own struggles. The dark side of the job – seeing inexplicable horrors and burying it deep inside; co-workers dying in the line of duty – and the loss of family members took a toll on him.
“I lost my compassion for the job for a while,” he offered, explaining that his father, his brother and an uncle all died within a five-month span two years ago. “Work was dragging; I just did not care to put the uniform on anymore. My sergeant sent me to a law enforcement retreat with counselors that help people with PTSD. It helped me find the parts of me I had lost.”
Wester recently lost a close friend, Hillsborough County Sgt. Jonathan Black, to cancer. Wester said that experience brought together many different thoughts about what police officers endure and how public misconceptions make it a challenge to wear a badge.
“We are still human. We are no different than anyone else – we mourn, we cry, we have feelings. We have to hide a lot so we can do our jobs,” he offered. “We see the bad and good of society and really just wish to be understood. We try and fix what we can fix and control what we cannot.
“I know of several officers like myself who glide through careers doing stuff for people that is what most would consider being above and beyond. I don’t consider what I do as above and beyond compared to most. It might be that we work in today’s society where the general consensus of police is not that grand,” Wester added.
Although the meaningfulness of the badge hasn’t changed to Wester, he understands what law enforcement in general is up against. He believes society has lost focus on the basic concepts of compassion for one another, yet he remains undeterred in his mission.
“If I can go to work and protect the ones that need protection and serve the ones that just need a hand (then) it’s a good day. We go unrecognized because we do what needs to be done and go on with our lives knowing we did the right thing,” Wester said. “I cannot change the way society sees us as police. If I can change one person’s opinion (and) then they go out and tell a story, then the people they tell might look us on differently and so on.”
Wester mentions poignant words Black wrote and shared with him, words that appeared on Black’s memorial card and ring true to Wester’s journey.
Life is fragile and can be taken from us anytime without expectation.
We are but one heartbeat away from Heaven’s reservation.
With Christ as our life coach and our guide there is no need to fear.
Fear is a liar cast out by love.
As God’s love draws us nearer.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s not about me.
It’s about what I can do for others.
From this day forward, I challenge you to pay it forward to another.
What I desire most through this journey we’ve shared is it to be a positive reflection.
If just one word can touch a life then I believe I have left a legend.
Read the entire 50 Badges series here.