Series features first-person essays written by police officers about their work and their dedication
A long time ago, I was a student at Southern Illinois University. I went there because I wanted to be a fighter pilot and kill communists. SIU had an Air Force ROTC Program, but the Vietnam War ended and so did my quest to fly a fighter. I decided I might become a lawyer, the next best thing to killing communists – I was very young.
Anyway, I was required to take a criminal justice course taught by a very old professor who had been at SIU forever. On the first day of class, he told a story to demonstrate that the police are the only 24/7 social service agency in the country. It involved his mother and her widowed neighbor who was alone with no food and no heat in her home on Christmas Day.
The professor’s mother didn’t know who else to contact, so she called the police. The officers came out in force. They hauled coal in a squad car’s trunk to start the widow’s furnace. They contacted the local grocer to provide her food. A new officer each shift stopped by the house to spend time with her. The police eventually contacted relatives to arrange a long-term care plan.
The point my professor was trying to make was that no other social service agency can do what the police did on Christmas Day and the days following. Unintentionally, he pointed out a direction for my life that I’ve followed for almost 40 years.
That story was the reason I became a cop.
I recall a quote from a Joseph Wambaugh novel where a character said, “You only need 3 things to be a good cop: common sense, a sense of empathy and a sense of humor.” I’m sorry to say that there were times during my career when I lost sight of those things, but I did return to those guiding principles often enough that I was successful.
A positive role model is one of the most important things a young officer can have. Maybe it’s an FTO, maybe it’s one of the unofficial leaders in the police department. I would counsel a young officer to listen to everything the FTO says and commit it to memory. Look for one officer who never seems to get in trouble, always has a professional appearance and always has clean arrests and paper work. Emulate that person, talk with them, learn why they did what they did and do that yourself. You will make mistakes; accept that and accept the responsibility for those errors and learn from them.
I had several mentors in my career. Officer Roger Sether was a senior officer and one of my FTOs – he was as sharp as they come. McHenry College Chief Michael Clesceri, my chief today, is another great role model. He has a law degree and a long history of police work – he relates well to all people. My wife is my biggest fan, yet she always manages to point out when I’m wrong. I’m lucky to have her. She never loses an argument – I envy and hate that.
When I hear criticism of the police these days, it makes think we need better communication between all sides. I’d love to be able to sit down and have a civil discourse with Antifa or Black Lives Matter. I’m sure they have reasons for feeling the way they do, but I can’t help but think we could come to an understanding if we could sit down and talk.
Still, there is more good than bad in my world. A few years ago, I was working a summer festival in my town when a mother and her adult daughter came up to me and asked if I remembered them. I said I didn’t figuring it was someone I wrote a ticket to.
The mother explained that, many years prior, her daughter fell out of an open second-floor window. The mother found the girl not breathing, and she called 911. I was right around the corner. When I arrived, the mother was hysterical and the girl still wasn’t breathing. She also had a bleeding head wound.
I was able to establish an airway to help the girl start breathing on her own. Once the ambulance got there, I told the mother that I thought the girl would be fine; she just had the head wound. I really didn’t know what I was talking about, but I figured there was no point in the mom continuing to beat herself up and hyperventilate. As it turned out, the girl was OK in spite of having fallen about 20 feet onto her head.
In fact, that girl and her mother were the people talking to me. They both wanted to say thank you. I felt pretty good about that.
McHenry County College Deputy Chief Scott Sosnowski started his law enforcement career as an intern with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department in 1977. After stops in Glen Ellyn and Wheaton, he spent 30 years with the Crystal Lake Police Department before joining the college in 2010.