Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Two cops, two lives, two endings

Charlie Walker’s 30 years on the job ended at a visitation. He met up with some buddies. They all waited in line two-and-a-half hours at First Baptist Church. Then he was at the front of the line, standing across from Fred Thornton’s widow.

This is Charlie Walker, somebody told her. This is his last day.

He dreaded what those words might do to her.

Two cops, two careers. One ended just the way you’d want it to. The other ended the way you hope it never does.

A couple of Sundays ago, I wrote a story about Charlie. He spent the last 15 years of his career as a police officer at The Square, one of the last in town who still walked the beat. He got to know millionaire bankers and barefooted homeless women. He treated people with respect. On his last day at The Square, dozens of friends showed up to send him off.

Last Friday, Thornton died when a flash-bang grenade – part of his gear as a member of the SWAT team – exploded in his garage. Police say it was an accident. Thornton was due to retire this summer. He injured his knee last year, and instead of running out the clock at his desk, he rehabbed so he could go back to SWAT. At his funeral Tuesday, hundreds of officers mourned.

Walker remembers working with Thornton once, years ago. Police had spotted a robbery suspect. Thornton arrived from one direction, Walker from the other. They caught the guy and found the loot.

Besides that, all Walker knew about Thornton was his good reputation. But he has spent the last few days thinking about Thornton a lot.

“I felt guilty that I made it,” Walker says. “It’s not always your training or everything like that. It’s a crapshoot sometimes… Forget all the times over 30 years that I know about, when I knew I might be in danger. How many occasions were there that I didn’t know about? How many times was it close to being bad and I never saw it coming?”

Online, the stories about Walker and Thornton had some grumbling in the comments. A few folks griped about Walker drawing a pension even though he retired at 52. Others said Thornton’s service cost too much money. In these times, the complaints are understandable. People worry over every dollar.

But police work is different. Every day might bring a simple traffic stop that goes south, or a domestic dispute that blows up, or a career criminal who decides he doesn’t want to go to jail anymore. Now multiply that by thousands of days.

Cops aren’t gods. Former Charlotte officer Marcus Jackson pleaded guilty back in December to sexually assaulting women while on duty. And even good cops make mistakes that get magnified when you carry handcuffs and a gun.

The goal is to do a good job and make it to 30 years. Charlie Walker made it. Fred Thornton got so close.

Walker’s last day on the street was Feb. 11, but he had a couple weeks of desk work. Monday was his official last day. He finished his shift and went to the visitation. And he ended up in front of Thornton’s wife, Linda.

He thought she might break down.

She looked at him.

Thank you for all your years of service, she said.

And the long procession moved on.


jackie simpson said...

Great story, Tommy. You showed the best of two very dedicated officers. I don't care how much the service cost; it was not enough. I don't care what Charley's pension is; it is not enough. They lay down their lives for Us. Do we deserve it?

Charlie said...

Thanks Tommy. I am so glad we have you to tell this story and tell it with all the heart it deserves.

Katie said...

Rest in peace Officer Thornton. Thank you for all your hard work and for keeping us all safe. Police officers sacrifice so much in such a dangerous society.

Anonymous said...

This is too bad but who knew SWAT cops take WMD home? What else besides grenades are in their arsenal? Unless this was a suicide and there no indication, its clear accidents can and do happen.
Shouldnt all WMD be stored at the police station? Knowing they could be next door could make homeowners a bit uneasy.

Anna said...

Thank you to both Officer Walker and Officer Thornton. As Officer Walker said, you don't know how it's going to end up. As the wife of a sheriff's deputy in Union County, I know that no matter the assignment, each day that my husband puts on his uniform is another day where anything can happen. Anyone who signs up to protect our society, military, police, fire, EMTs, etc, deserve nothing but our thanks, and to both of these officers, thank you from the bottom of my heart.