Commentary: Thanking the police who keep us safe

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A Philadelphia police officer keeping watch Wednesday as demonstrators square off during the Democratic convention.

Liz Dow

is CEO of Leadership Philadelphia

It's a late afternoon on a warm spring day. I stand watching passersby on a crowded downtown street. As I take in the normal ebb and flow of activity, in my left peripheral vision I notice a man slowly opening a door in a curious crouching position. He continues to crouch as he emerges, with one hand behind him. I yell, "Stop!" He keeps moving. I yell it again, much louder, but still he does not.

My adrenaline surges as his arm moves. Once more I yell, "Stop!" He lunges forward. I inhale, aim the gun, and fire. He drops to the ground.

Before I catch my breath, another man runs toward me from the right, gun drawn. I pivot, shoot, and he drops.

Time suddenly seems to stand still as I ask myself how I, a nice girl from Minnesota and the mother of two, could have shot two people.

The instructor walked up next to me shaking his head saying, "I didn't expect that of you, but you did the right thing - you saved those civilians on the street."

Thank God this was a laser gun.

I was in a shoot/no shoot simulation with the FBI Citizens Academy in Quantico, Va. Ever since that day several years ago, I have understood a little bit more about the split-second kill-or-be-killed decisions so often faced by the police. I saw what they see, and stopped questioning their judgment.

For more than 30 years, Leadership Philadelphia has had the privilege of bringing classes of corporate executives to the Police Academy as part of their education in how the city works.

Now, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, a Leadership alumnus, explains the challenges facing the department. The class sees demonstrations from the K9 unit, the SWAT team, and the bomb squad. When Lt. Tom Fitzpatrick demonstrates how a bomb that fits into a business envelope can blow up a school bus, the class grows silent and pale. The gravity of the work of the police hits home. We are reminded how lives can be lost in an instant. What most of us see only on television is an everyday reality for our police.

Class members also have the option of taking ride-alongs, and they wear bulletproof vests as they accompany officers on their shifts. This "walk a mile in my shoes" experience turns critics into supporters.

Attorney Seamus Duffy's ride and reaction were typical. His officers were called after an armed robbery at a convenience store. It was very late at night so at first Duffy was puzzled by the presence of a young girl. It turned out that the owner spoke little English, so his daughter was there as his translator.

Duffy watched quietly as the police collected details from the crime scene, and later they returned to the station. When he got into his car to drive home to his house in the suburbs, Duffy wept, thinking of the contrast between his young children tucked safely into their beds and the store owner's young daughter, who bravely and matter-of-factly translated the details of the crime to the police.

When you have the opportunity to see such things up close, you come to appreciate not only the danger that police officers face, but also the compassion, service, support, and safety they bring to citizens.

We cannot ignore the larger issues of police and community relations facing our country. It is clear that the abuse of power and racism are pervasive issues afflicting departments nationwide. However, through Leadership, some of us have had the unique experience of getting to know the Philadelphia police, through visiting the academy, sitting alongside them through their shifts, and getting to know on a personal level the officers and their leaders whom we are proud to call alumni.

We at Leadership know the character of the commissioner, many of his deputies, and other officers who go through our program and shine as leaders among leaders. We also know that they almost never get thanked for what they do.

During this last week, with the demands created by the Democratic National Convention, they stepped up their efforts and faced even more challenges. The very least we can do is to step up our effort to thank them.

Perhaps you can join us in expressing appreciation to the people who keep Philadelphia safe.

edow@leadershipphiladelphia.org