His family and fellow cops buried Officer Paul Rutherford on the final Thursday in March. Rutherford, 51 years old and a father of two, served this community for 22 years before a vehicle struck him dead at a crime scene in west Phoenix.
That night and for a few days before, the local news was full of tributes to Rutherford’s service. Fellow officers came from around the country to pay final respects. Perfect strangers lined the route to the cemetery, there to salute the officer’s hearse, to honor the ultimate sacrifice made by Rutherford and his kin.
By the weekend, life in the Valley had returned to normal – a status quo I would describe as unfortunate in the extreme.
Nowadays, we live in separate realities when it comes to policing, a society self-divided into two teams, each side zealous on the subject of law enforcement, cop conduct and how best to separate the law-abiding Americans from criminals.
On one side stands Team Thin Blue Line, those of us who believe that policing remains a noble profession.
Full disclosure: I have worked for 10 years representing public safety organizations all over this state. No client paid me to write this, but they didn’t have to: I have been writing newspaper pieces about police work, good and bad, since 1992 and the beginning of what has since become a part-time newspaper career.
And the other team? I’ll paraphrase the rap group N.W.A. and their 1988 hit album, “Straight Outta Compton.” Those opposed constitute Team F–– Tha Police, a slur they roll off the tongue with extreme gusto and loathing.
For this side, each cop seems to represent little more than a racist with a badge, a member of an occupying force sent by the government to harass, maim and murder – and the darker the civilian’s skin color, the better, or so the police haters would have us believe.
Here in the Valley, those who decry the police have become a growing presence, often rallying within hours after an officer-involved shooting – not the kind where an officer gets shot, mind you, but only shootings involving a cop and his or her gun.
They scold one and all about whose lives matter – as if to support the police is somehow akin to disregarding the value of a black or brown life – and screech about “change,” though how exactly we ought to define this change remains fuzzy at best.
The truth, at least from my perspective?
This nation has more than 750,000 sworn police officers currently, a force comprising a city the size of Mesa and Scottsdale combined. Would such a population inevitably include some unfit officers, bad actors, racists?
I submit it certainly would – and that this small percentage of the whole must be rooted out and stripped of a badge. At the same time, when we watch police officers work, be it live or after the fact via body-worn camera, we also should be cognizant that theirs is a terrifically difficult job. Lives hang in the balance.
There can be – and should be – extreme consequences for decisions made in nanoseconds.
No police force is perfect. Perfect cops also are nothing more than myth. But for every Officer Paul Rutherford, who served this Valley admirably for 22 years, there are thousands more cops just like him. These men and women serve with commitment and professionalism, and with the willingness to stand between the rest of us and danger.
In the history of this state, we have lost 258 such officers. We should respect them and their living colleagues not just on the days we hold funerals, but every day.
David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.