My first police job was as a railroad cop. Most people don’t know it, but railroads are permitted to form police departments – not security departments – and appoint actual police officers to protect their far-flung property and interests. In the 1970s, the government took a bunch of failing railroads in the northeast, and combined them into ConRail. In March of 1977, I was appointed to the ConRail Police Department.
I don’t know how railroad policing may have changed since the 1970s, but back then it was dangerous, dirty work. Freight yards and rail lines are inherently dangerous; the footing is bad, there is debris all about, and trains aren’t gentle things. If you are far back from the engine, your first clue that a freight train is moving is when it jerks into sudden motion in front of you. In rail yards, the freight cars are shoved nearly silently into long dark tracks between other trains, with little room to spare, or cut loose to roll silently through the yard.
On at least two occasions, my fellow officers – one was actually a high-ranking boss – told me quite explicitly that they would kill me if I should ever say anything negative about them to someone in authority.
And then there were the thieves we were supposed to be deterring. Several of my colleagues had been shot while patrolling freight yards alone; one had been abducted and shot in the face at point-blank range. A guy I was working with quit suddenly after being hit over the head with an iron bar.
So I walked the freight yards with my issued .38 on my hip, a short-barreled .38 in a shoulder holster under my jacket, and a heavy blackjack in my hip pocket.
My first assignment after completing my minimal training was on the midnight shift, covering the former Erie-Lackawanna Main Line from the yard in urban Paterson, NJ to the yard in rural Hillburn, NY. The freight in Paterson was pillaged routinely and extensively. The yard in Hillburn was a feeder for the Ford assembly plant in nearby Mahwah, NJ, and had become a target for tire thieves. Before I was posted there, a group was taking a truck into the yard during the night a couple of times a week, and filling it with tires meant for the Ford plant.
About three o’clock one morning, I left the Hillburn yard and started down the two-lane state highway to the village of Suffern. As I came around the bend, I saw a village police car stopped on the road ahead of me, its red roof lights flashing. As I pulled ahead of it, I saw the officer standing in the harsh light in front of the car, looking at a human form lying in the roadway. I stopped, turned my red lights on, and walked back.
The man lying on the pavement wasn’t moving. The Suffern officer, who had sergeant chevrons on his sleeve, was looking at him calmly and thoughtfully. “Pedestrian hit?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Just drunk.” Then he squatted down by the man, shook his shoulder gently, and when the man opened his eyes, the sergeant said, “Come on, pal, let’s get you out of the road.” He helped him to his feet, and then to the side of the road, where he steadied him to sit on the guardrail. The man’s head was hanging forward, and the sergeant told him that the ambulance would soon be there to take him to a hospital where he would be safe until he sobered up.
I didn’t hear anything of the indifference or contempt that is so common in emergency service workers dealing with drunks and other lesser beings. There was only gentle concern and kindness.
Standing in the red, moving light, I realized that I had just met the cop I wanted to be.