Spirit of the Badge


For nearly seventeen years I’ve patrolled the streets of San Diego, California. I began my career in the late 1980s, when the rock cocaine epidemic was at its peak, crystal methamphetamine was exploding onto the scene, and gangs openly wore colors and engaged in drug-fueled battles over territory.

I’ve worked in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with bad schools; middle-class neighborhoods with working-class everyday folk; ultra-wealthy, gated communities with high-walled homes; and border communities where the only thing that separates have and want is a piece of corrugated steel fence.

I’ve made my career on the streets. I’ve been in car chases and brawls. I’ve been hit, bit, kicked, and spit on more times than I can count. I’ve captured bank robbers, rapists, and murderers. I’ve investigated nearly every type of vile act a human can perpetuate on another. I’ve taken my share of guns and knives out of the hands of those who would use them to do harm. I’ve seen friends lose their careers to injuries, poor judgment, and bad acts. I’ve seen that which most people get little more than a momentary glimpse of.

And, when I think back, these are rarely the moments that bring the greatest sense of satisfaction. I cannot remember the year for certain, only that it was the latter part of the 1990s. The San Diego Police Department had opened a small Community Center in a strip mall in one of its residential neighborhoods. I was working on assignment as our Community Relations Officer. The center contained a police storefront and an office that allowed people to access other city services, to get permits and such, without having to go to the central office downtown. It was part of a push to get cops into the neighborhoods, where they could more easily interact with the public and partner with other city departments to work collectively to resolve the root causes of problems and not just focus on enforcement. Though much of my area was made up of single-family homes, there were also a fair number of apartment complexes, one of which was known as the Blue Roofs. This was a large complex that was home to hundreds of people, many who were low-income or subsidized residents. Oftentimes the single parent, or both parents, worked. This left a great many kids without supervision during the afternoon hours. Petty crimes, such as graffiti, were rampant and the complex was in a state of disorder.

Officers responded by directing their actions at long-term solutions. One such effort was a collaborative one where the complex management donated a two-bedroom ground level apartment near the playground so that it could be used as a recreational center. Inner-City Games came in and supplied a staff worker to run the center, which was outfitted with donations from the community. The goal of this rec-center was to give the children a safe place to gather during the high-risk after-school hours before their parent(s) returned home. The end result was that the disorder that had plagued much of the complex was greatly reduced when the children had positive activities to focus on.
It was the rec-center that brought me into contact with a child who would be a part of one of my favorite career moments. I don’t remember how old Jimmy was, perhaps ten or twelve. I know he was older than his mental age of six. He was a frail kid with a gaunt face; a thin, little boy who had difficulty speaking. He stood maybe half my height.

Each time I showed up at the rec-center for my monthly meeting with the staff and supporters of the project, Jimmy was there. He was there whenever I stopped by unexpectedly to see how things were going. The kids were thrilled to see me because they were still of the age where a cop in uniform was a grand thing to behold. But, the glow in Jimmy’s eyes was larger than most, and he would rarely leave my side.
Talking to him was difficult and there were times that he would act out; but under it all, through all the disability, there was simply a great kid who loved cops. Each Christmas season the media ran stories about the police department and its fund-driving efforts to collect food, clothing, and toys for those less fortunate. Sometimes the reporters showed as presents were distributed and the event becomes one of those warm, happy moments you expect to see on the seasonal broadcasts. This, however, was not one of those events and no news station was notified to watch what occurred.

Within our post we had collected many items to be given out and, since mine was a position of community relations, I was tasked with finding three families in need to whom we could provide assistance. I easily thought of two families who lived at Blue Roofs. The third family was Jimmy’s.

I didn’t know much about Jimmy’s family, just that he had a sister and lived near the rec-center. I knew nothing of their situation, but guessed that living where they did times were probably tough with a disabled child. I could have never imagined how tough. I recruited another officer to help me pass out the gifts. He also enjoyed working the streets and was one of our SWAT officers. Neither of us was the type who was drawn to the social, emotional end of the job; we both preferred the more adventurous aspects. Law enforcement operates in a world surrounded by raw emotion--and volunteering to do things that might force you to feel is sometimes difficult for cops. Typically we avoided emotional situations And, passing out Christmas presents usually garnered a good ribbing from the other officers. It’s far easier to make jokes about sensitive, socially motivated moments than it is to actually be the one to do them. If we couldn’t joke, there would only be uncomfortable silence.
All I remember of the first two homes we visited is that the people were grateful. I expected that.

Jimmy’s house was the last stop. I had a toy police car for him and a teddy bear for his sister. I also had a gift certificate from the local grocery store. We walked up to the door and I knocked. Jimmy quickly answered. His eyes beamed when he saw us. I asked him if his mother was there and he told me she was. When I asked him to get her he scampered down the hall to retrieve her. A few moments later he returned and told me she was busy. I asked Jimmy to go back and tell her it was the police and that we needed to talk to her. Jimmy disappeared again. We pushed the door to the apartment open and stepped into the entryway. As we stood there, I could see everything I needed to know. The kitchen was nearly barren. The furniture was old, worn, and threadbare. In the corner stood a half-dead Christmas tree that looked like it belonged in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Underneath the sparse, browning tree were two presents wrapped in newspaper. I have no idea what was in those packages, but it looked like maybe a coloring book. It was clear this family was very poor. This is precisely the type of moment cops want to avoid. It’s hard not to get emotional when someone has so little—and it never feels like you can do nearly enough to alleviate their circumstances.

After what seemed like a very long time—probably not more than a minute—Jimmy’s mother opened her bedroom door and came out to meet us. With only a glance, the difficult nature of her life was clearly visible on her face; but there was also a look of concern. She greeted us and asked if everything was okay, if her children were okay. I told her they were fine and then asked her to step out to the police car. I told her I had something and asked her to follow me. Her fear didn’t lessen, despite my repeated statements that there was nothing in the world to worry about. She was clearly troubled and not yet grasping that a visit by the police didn’t have to mean something was wrong. As we walked to the car, I explained that I knew Jimmy from the rec-center. I told her I thought he was a good kid and that we wanted to do something to help for the holidays. When I opened the trunk to reveal the presents for them, tears burst from her eyes. I gave her the gift certificate and told her I hoped they had a Merry Christmas. When she collected herself enough to speak, Jimmy’s mother asked if I knew why she couldn’t come to the door when Jimmy first went to get her. I had no idea--and I told her as much. With eyes wet from tears and a choke in her voice, she explained to me that she had been unable to leave her bedroom because she had been on her knees, in tears, praying to God for a way to give her kids a better Christmas. What makes this memory powerful is that regardless of how it happened, or what my beliefs might be, or what my partner’s beliefs might be--there was a woman so distraught over her inability to provide for her children that she wept on her knees and pleaded for a miracle--as the answer to her prayers knocked on her door.

I will never be able to forget that for someone my actions were nothing less than an answered prayer. And, more importantly, that moment had little to do with me--for there is no way a person can execute something like that.


Printed with permission from

Sgt. Wes Albers
San Diego Police Department
San Diego, CA


Chance favors the prepared mind.
--Louis Pasteur