News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

July 14, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Through it all, police officers continue to perform

TERRE HAUTE — Put one foot in front of the other. Again. And again.

It sounds easy. Yet, in the wake of hardship or trauma, that’s one of the toughest challenges — to simply keep on keepin’ on.

The tragic shooting death of Terre Haute police officer Brent Long on Monday afternoon stunned the community. As the sad news radiated from the scene of flashing lights and pained expressions on North Eighth Street through the stifling July heat and out to the surrounding city, teams of law enforcement officers and emergency responders continued to deal with the difficult situation. Long died in an exchange of gunfire with a suspect as Long, his K-9 partner, Shadow, and a police task force entered a northside apartment to serve an arrest warrant.

The suspect, who investigators say fired first, died inside the apartment. Long — a 34-year-old husband, father and “just one of the best people you could ever imagine,” as assistant police chief Shawn Keen put it — became the first city officer killed in the line of duty in more than a quarter of a century. An outpouring of community support for Long, his family and his comrades began flowing quickly and steadily over the next 24 hours.

Such encouragement and comfort matters, because the demands facing Long’s fellow 132 Terre Haute Police Department officers did not cease, of course. As Monday turned into Tuesday, the routine calls continued to come in, just as they always do — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. A serious car-bicycle accident at Third and Cherry streets. Drunken drivers. Domestic disturbances. Fender benders. Disputes between neighbors. Rerouting traffic around stalled vehicles.

Somehow, one foot goes in front of the other, even while carrying the extra weight of a heavy heart. On Tuesday, the local men and women wearing a badge found ways to keep on keepin’ on.

“When you have a job to do, you do that job and that’s your focus,” John Plasse, Terre Haute chief of police, said Wednesday.

“It’s when you have down time,” he added, pausing to clear emotion from his voice, “and you reflect on it, that’s when it gets to you.”

Such focus on the moment at hand marks a trait common to police officers, explained Indiana State Police Sgt. Joe Watts, one of many at the scene of Monday’s tragedy. It helps them summon the composure to return for duty.

“It can be very hard,” Watts said Tuesday afternoon, halting, momentarily, just as Plasse did.

“Law enforcement is a calling,” Watts said, continuing his thought. “You don’t just get up one day and say, ‘I want to be a police officer.’ And when it’s a calling, you have those built-in coping mechanisms. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel grief or show it.”

That ability, Watts added, “allows you to get up each and every day to see what we see.”

Along with ordinary, daily tasks come calls for help in life-and-death situations — homicides, suicides, roadway crashes. “I’ve spent many sleepless nights after traffic accidents involving kids and parents,” Watts said.

Depending on the need, an officer’s role may be peacemaker, stabilizer, mediator, messenger or rescuer. Each case, no matter how mundane, involves risk, just as Monday’s terrible incident proved. “That’s going to be in the back of your mind,” Plasse said. “Brent went on a routine warrant service we’ve done hundreds, if not thousands of times.”

In a perfect world, crime wouldn’t happen. People would do the right thing. We’d live by the Golden Rule.

In the real world, the public relies on police officers to protect the expectation of peace. Generally, peaceful life is the norm rather than the exception in Terre Haute, thanks in large part to the local force. Violent crimes reported to the THPD totaled 157 in 2008 — far fewer than similarly sized Hoosier college towns. Muncie had 349 violent crimes that year, while Bloomington experienced 268. In 2009, Terre Haute’s violent crime total dropped to 136, according to THPD statistics reported to the Tribune-Star.

Still, as the community has been painfully reminded, the potential for danger always exists. Terre Haute officers understand that, Plasse said, partly because the department maintains its Honor Guard, an 18-member unit that represents the city at various state and national ceremonies, including services for fallen law enforcement officers. They’re also human. Amid the heartbreaking loss of Long, their friend and colleague, assistance will be available this week from a visiting state Fraternal Order of Police memorial crisis unit, which, among other services, offers counseling for officers, Plasse explained. The FOP counselors, he emphasized, speak from experience.

Because, hard as it is, duty continues to call. “We still have to perform,” Plasse said, checking his voice again. “That may sound cold, but we still have a public to protect.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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