As any rifleman can tell you, the eye more readily picks up motion than it does human silhouettes.
So when Philadelphia police officer John Smyl was tooling down East Passyunk Avenue on his two-wheel, battery-powered Segway, ‘walking’ his regular South Philly beat in the 3rd police district, a man ambling along in a quick jog caught his eye.
Not only was it the hottest, most humid, 100-degree, first-day of summer, with Mother Nature reminding us Philadelphians that we don’t have weather – we merely have misery. But the heavy set man’s uniform de guerre was black jeans, white t-shirt, and a red baseball hat. And he was glistening.
And it seemed like he was clutching something in his one hand.
Officer Smyl observed the bearded man making his way to a compact, white, Dodge caravan. It was close to a busy intersection of pedestrians and commerce near Philly’s major thorofare, Broad Street — the longest and straightest strip of road in the country – and McKean Street.
Just around the corner from where two banks sit across the street from each other.
The officer made a mental note of the license plate. At the same time a female bank clerk waved John down and shouted over: “ John, we’ve been robbed!…We’ve been held up!…”
And so was the other bank.
She gave John a quick description. So did the other bank manager.
It matched the jogging guy. Eventually it would match up to a similar description and modus operandi of the same guy who had rudely worn out his welcome at a couple of banks in the vicinity during the past few weeks.
This time he slid the teller a note that demanded: Hand over all your money! Then he flashed a revolver in his waist band. Afterwards the bankrobber fled on his ‘4-wheel horse’, hoping to ride that nag until it dropped him safe and clear.
John started tracking the guy in the van as he called it in to police headquarters.
It was this call, this first bit of communication, that the precinct captain claims made the apprehension possible. Because Officer John Smyl, with 22 years on the force, did what a good cop is suppose to do – assess the unusual among the whirlwind of life’s usual and ordinary activity.
It’s called common sense – something of a rarity in these times where we are swamped and stupefied with polls, studies, reports and surveys telling us what and how to think.
At that Officer Smyl tracked the van. Although his Seqway only tops out at 12 mph it was good enough in traffic to keep the perp in sight until his fellow officers swooped in.
The putative bank robber was eyewitnessed, identified and booked. And now John is up for accommodation.
Now I gotta tell you I am no fan of pinning cereal box medals on folks for merely doing their jobs. That’s what they are supposedly getting paid for.
But these days of moral disorder, and downright pig-snorting debauchery, we need reminding of what it is we should be doing: That is, not only doing the right thing, but simply doing your job… and doing it well, even better than you are getting paid to do.
And that’s whether you are a union dreamer, a Wall Street schemer, or a Washington screamer.
Unfortunately, however, this story got lost in the deadline roars of TV, Radio and Press breaking news last week of the two ‘big’ court decisions — that of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky and the first conviction of a member of the Philadelphia diocese.
You know, big stories about big bad wolves doing bad things – this time to kids – that cops like Officer Smyl are prowling to prevent.
At that, a good story got flushed away with stuff that gets flushed away.
And that’s too bad, really. Because these days we are inundated with so many bad stories about bad cops doing their jobs badly. You know, doing bad stuff involving dope, sex and money that ain’t listed on any IRS returns. And dat’s bad!!!
We forget that 1 or 2 percent of pernicious cops may seem like a sizable number on a Philly police force of over 6,000. But 98 percent is a vastly superior number, the immense majority of men and women in blue who are actually doing what they are supposed to do, what they are supposedly sworn into duty to do.
Admittedly, I have, from time to time sarcastically stipulated, that I never came across a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.
But I sincerely appreciate beat cops and community cops who patrol on foot and Segways and bikes so the neighborhood gets to know them. And vice-versa. It’s gets very personal that way.
They are not just some uniformed or plain-clothes cowboys who barrel in, squealing with TV ass-kicking attitudes as if this one single drug bust is going to solve all the world’s problems.
They are one of us. Trained to react when one of us is misbehavin’. And react accordingly, especially by the laws of physics that stipulates that for every (illegal) action there is an “equal and opposite” reaction. And not something nuclear.
Look, I know Officer John Smyl. We smoke cigars from time to time at the Damon Runyon-esk, marvelous South Philly Twin Smoke Shoppe at 10th and Tasker Streets, a few walking blocks from where these bank robberies manifested, one week before John’s 43rd birthday.
From John’s twinkling, genuine smile down to the knobby knees poking from below his summer-uniform shorts, he does, indeed, suggest a caricature of Baby Huey, of the hard-boiled, egg-shaped body, topped by his beanie helmet. Especially when he’s cruising on his Segway.
But from time to time I have been fortunate enough to test John’s admirable restraint beneath those massive tattooed forearms. He takes my teasing and other BS pretty well – except when he doesn’t.
What I’ve always enjoyed about cops, like John, who stop for a puff in the Smoke Shoppe, is that John, in particular, enjoys engaging in conversation that goes beyond the usual pontificating stuff.
We talk about travels and places and ideologies. It all drifts about in our convivial, philosophical cigar smoke.
And John talks about his job with the same respectful manner he seems to treat others, whether they are empowered or un-empowered. As if he somehow, long ago, garnered the humility and dignity of treating those who can’t help or hurt you the same way you treat your wife. That is, if you want to be able to close your eyes when you’re sleeping at night, presumably in the same bed.
I mean, Officer Smyl knows what it’s like to grow up with certain indignities and humiliations as he did growing up in the mixed Southwest Philly neighborhood.
His Irish Mom only had one good dress. And the weekly church newsletter often listed the three Smyl boys among those who weren’t in good stead with their Catholic school tuition.
But he persevered. Just like his Polish father after his extremely severe, full-body burns in a welding accident that left him badly scarred and damaged. His Dad endured years of tortuous rehab including painfully pealing back layers of destroyed skin tissue so that his kids eventually wouldn’t wince whenever they wanted him to swim with them.
“You live and learn,” explained John one afternoon through our smoky haze. “Whatever you do, you do it right. You do it to set an example for your kids and anybody else who might want to learn a thing or two. But mostly you do it for yourself. And honor…”
Look, even though he is abashedly proud of the attention he has been receiving for “just doing my job,” he firmly feels there are others who should also be sharing in the attention.
He’s right. But as Officer Smyl readily stipulates, he didn’t do it for the attention. He did it because that’s his job.
And he did it well.
And dats yDrewIS on DIS penal colony…