Dedicated to serving others, Officers McCarthy and Platt couldn't protect themselves

October 22, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN HE GOT to the toughest part of the eulogy, Martin O'Malley's voice dropped to a whisper. The mayor of Baltimore wished to comfort the families of two slain policemen last week, and so he reached for the sound of intimacy. He wanted to tell the children of John Platt and Kevin McCarthy that their fathers were loved, that their fathers were good men who'd spent their lives doing God's work, that each day they had shielded the most vulnerable among us.

That is a beautiful thought to sustain grieving souls on the most terrible day of their lives, but it does not quite capture the specifics of this tragedy. The dreadful irony of the newest Baltimore police to go to the grave is this: Though we remember them as protectors of a city, they could not even protect themselves.

This is why all communities gather as an extended family whenever a police officer is slain, why citizens gather on streets outside funeral homes and places of worship, why the hour of grief touches us all: "These are people," the mayor of Baltimore said, "who are willing to give their own lives for strangers."

And yet we should understand this: Their police cruiser could have been anyone's car sliding through that Hamilton intersection Oct. 14. Officers Platt and McCarthy were struck in the act of being citizens, driving a car the way millions of us drive every day.

The driver of the pickup truck accused of hitting them was trouble waiting to happen - to anyone. He is a man with a criminal record that includes convictions on drug charges and destruction of property but, in the modern context, he was not considered dangerous enough to be kept behind bars.

Before the accident, he had been drinking enough that his blood-alcohol level clearly showed intoxication.

So the deaths of two police officers remind us not only of their vulnerability, but our own. And when Mayor O'Malley offered his tender words of comfort, it took some of us back seven years, to another funeral, another slain policeman, and the randomness of life and death.

This cop's name was Herman Jones. He was a 23-year veteran in a job in which every day is a roll of the dice. But the irony of his death, like Platt's and McCarthy's, was that it could have happened to anybody. Jones had gone to an East Baltimore carryout for an evening snack, where a teen-age kid who should have been home studying arithmetic pulled out a gun and shot him.

And on a summer morning at the Little Ark Missionary Baptist Church, they laid Herman Jones' body in an open casket for everyone to see, and Jones' wife Linda and his two kids were nearby, and a choir sang so hauntingly that it tore up everybody in the place.

Take my hand,

Precious Lord,

Lead me home.

And the mayor of Baltimore was there that day. They saved a front-row seat for Kurt L. Schmoke directly in front of Herman Jones' casket, and the mayor looked at poor Jones, and he heard the choir chanting its refrain, and you knew that something special was coming from Schmoke. The mayor was so much like Jones. They were kids who'd grown up in post-war America, each a product of the great civil rights movement, each a graduate of Baltimore City College, each a football player for the legendary coach, George Young. This one would come from Schmoke's heart.

But nothing came.

By the time the mayor reached the pulpit, he'd had time to think about the killing in his city, and he'd had time to absorb the emotional singing, and all of the church's mourners with their grief coming out of their pores, and there was nothing he could summon.

He muttered a few platitudes about the awfulness of killing, and the need for some national sense of urgency, and in a few moments he was done. Whatever passion he felt, he kept it to himself, and there were people who walked out of the Little Ark Missionary Baptist Church that morning feeling they had been cheated.

Last week, the new mayor of Baltimore spoke quite beautifully. He calls the funerals of police officers the toughest part of his job. But the job is still new for Martin O'Malley. It has been his for less than a year. By the time of Herman Jones' funeral, Kurt L. Schmoke was five years into the job, and maybe 1,500 killings into it, and some of those killed were police officers of his city.

Last week, about 2,000 police officers gathered to bury John Platt and Kevin McCarthy. There is always a sense at these ceremonies that the police are telling everyone: Look what has been done to the best of us. They never know if we feel it deeply enough. They never know if the mayor delivering a eulogy will be new enough at the job to feel actual emotions, or already so numbed by the violence that nothing can be summoned.

And they never know if the rest of us understand: Poor Platt and McCarthy were good cops, but they were also two vulnerable human beings. They wished to protect the weakest of us, and could not even protect themselves.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.