The Fort Report
This week's guest will be Fort Wayne Urban League President Jonathan Ray, who will discuss recent events in Ferguson, Mo., and the state of race relations in the U.S. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.
By the time he finally retired Aug. 5, Bill Walsh had been a Fort Wayne police officer for 55 years, one month and 23 days – making him by far the longest-serving cop in city history.
"And until the last year, not a day went by that I didn't want to go to work," the 80-year-old former sergeant said, alluding to societal and technological advances that, for all their benefits, have not always produced better law enforcement or a safer population.
Perhaps it's not surprising that the man who began the city's mounted patrol unit in 1980 and rode a horse for 21 years should sound anachronistic. After all, when Walsh joined the force, many cops were still walking a beat and stayed in contact with headquarters through the use of call boxes scattered around the city. And he carried his original .38-caliber service revolver until just a few years ago, when he finally agreed to carry the standard automatic that carries 11 more rounds than his six-shooter had.
Walsh is not anti-technology. He believes increased use of cameras will benefit police and public alike and appreciates how instant communication and portable computers allow officers access to databases that alert them to who is wanted or potentially dangerous. But all that hi-tech and sometimes remote policing has come at a price, he believes.
"In the Army, they told us that 'united you win, divided you fall.' When I came on (the department), if I said I was going to take a few days off to paint, five guys would show up to help," he said. That doesn't happen today, according to Walsh, because of a lack of camaraderie he attributes in part to the elimination of daily squad meetings that allowed cops to compare notes, make citywide contacts and build friendships. With take-home cars and computers, such meetings are considered unnecessary and even unproductive.
Walsh also believes police morale is also undermined by changes in the criminal justice system, including recent state legislation reducing the sentences for some crimes.
But it was his experience astride four-legged partner Boo that convinced Walsh that old-fashioned methods can still be most effective.
The riots and demonstrations that followed the recent shooting of an unarmed black man by a white Missouri cop have again cast the national spotlight on the sometimes delicate relationship between minorities and police officers. But Walsh said he and Boo were generally well-received in black neighborhoods, as children and others would be drawn by the horse but ended up talking to Walsh.
"They'd tell me stuff they might not have if I had been in a car," he said. "The old-school way was to talk to people. Today, (some) want to be aggressive."
And in all of those years, Walsh was shot at only once – by an angry pimp – and never had to fire his weapon in anger. But you can't be a street cop for more than half a century without seeing things no human being should have to experience or endure.
And when Walsh remembers a certain Sunday morning, he still chokes up.
"A mother was looking to pick up her two sons from their visit with Dad. When she got there, she found him in a pool of blood," he said. "We go in, see he had cut his arm and bled to death. But we don't see the two boys. Then we go in the dining room and found them in a cardboard box. He had taken a hammer and killed them. You can't get that kind of thing out of your mind, and in our conversations (among police) we were saying it was good he killed himself or we would have done it. I don't remember what year it was; I've blocked it out of my mind.
"That's the only thing I don't like. I remember when I couldn't stand the site of blood. But the job makes you not as upset when something gruesome happens. It changed me."
But it hasn't changed his love of horses. Walsh owns a farm off Bass Road, where 20 horses roam 25 acres. The work keeps him alert, and fit to a degree that belies his age. "I probably missed less than 10 days (off work) in all those years. (The farm) is how I dealt with the stress of the job. It really is a different world. Some people say, 'You're an icon' (for serving all those years). But I don't miss it. I probably should have retired a long time ago."
He didn't, of course – a reality that has sparked a legitimate debate over when, or whether, police should be forced to retire. And if that doesn't quite make Walsh an icon, it should at least ensure that the record he established will endure, perhaps forever, offering lessons to anyone willing to look for them.