ST. LOUIS (CNS) — Among the iconic images of the 9/11 tragedy, photographs of policemen and firefighters stand out: The first responders were entering the doomed World Trade Center as most everyone else was filing out.
They embraced the danger of the moment, most going ultimately to their death, because the job requires it. First-responders sign up for this risk; they accept it as part of their service.
Similarly, in the situation that has become known as simply “Ferguson,” Sgt. John Wall of the St. Louis County Police Department knew in the second week of August that the time had come to stand up and be counted. Peaceful protests after the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer during a confrontation had devolved into rioting and looting.
A QuikTrip near the shooting site had been looted and burned. Police had lobbed tear gas and shot rubber bullets to disperse crowds, presumably while real bullets flew in their direction. The situation was fraught with danger.
But did Wall think twice about going into it? Nope.
“I volunteered,” he said, on a recent morning at a coffee shop.
“I volunteered; it was kind of ‘all hands on deck,’ so everybody had to work it at some time,” he explained, matter-of-factly. He added, “I was fortunate enough to work it the entire time.”
Wall, a 50-year-old married father of a teenager, not only volunteered for duty, willfully taking the risk, but counted himself as fortunate for being there.
This from a man who in 12-hour shifts on his two weeks of voluntary duty was spit on, was hit by rocks, bricks and bottles of urine, and was berated — with protesters calling him every name in the book.
“In those two weeks, I was called more things than in the 25 years I’ve been in this business,” said Wall, who became a police officer in 1989 and joined the county force in 1998. “I’ve worked narcotics, I’ve worked homicide and I’ve never been talked to like that. Ever.”
In those moments, his Catholic faith guided Wall, particularly the part about loving thy neighbor.
“Faith comes into every aspect of this job. You have to forgive.”
“Faith comes into every aspect of this job,” said Wall, who became a Catholic in 1991. “You have to forgive. I can’t personally hold a grudge against any of these people; they were not screaming at me as an individual. I understand, and most of us understand, they’re looking at a uniform and not a face. They don’t know me and everything that I stand for.
“You have to have forgiveness in your own heart,” he told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, in an interview some days before the grand jury handed down its decision that there would be no indictment of the police officer who killed.
When Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, fatally shot 18-year-old Brown, an African-American, racial unrest in the St. Louis suburb led to protests. Some demonstrators looted and burned local businesses.
When it was announced that after three months of looking at the evidence and hearing more than 70 hours of testimony, the grand jury declined to indict Wilson, violent protests followed. Protests have continued in Ferguson and across the country.
From the beginning, Wall and fellow officers have leaned on the pastoral care of county police chaplains. Chaplains started each shift with a prayer before the officer’s role call and briefing at the police command center. Catholic priests served among chaplains of many religions.
“No one went to church for two weeks either; you’re working the whole time. So, it was very helpful to have the chaplains there,” Wall said.
The prospect of having Mass or other religious services at the command post was out of the question. Work consumed the officers, for one, and it wasn’t safe anyway. Bomb threats prompted Gov. Jay Nixon to call out the National Guard to protect the command center and make it a safe haven for officers.
The scene of the unrest on the quarter-mile stretch of West Florissant in Ferguson was unsafe. A native of St. Louis, Wall describes the venom directed at him and other officers in Ferguson as “unbelievable,” particularly since he knew, or at least recognized, some of the people hurling insults.
“The people we took it from were … people I had good relations with,” he said, adding that he gave those people the benefit of the doubt. “There were people that just got caught up in the heat of the moment.”
The protesters “came from all walks of life — young, old, ministers,” Wall said, noting that one woman among the latter “really laid into me, saying things like how we mistreat people, how we beat people, how we should be ashamed of ourselves, and all the people that I’ve killed. I was just looking at her. I haven’t killed anybody. I haven’t fired my gun in 25 years as a police officer. Been shot at, though.”
“You just have to gut through it.”
It’s a tough time for the men and women in uniform and their families, but Wall’s attitude is to grin-and-bear it. “You just have to gut through it.”
For all of the bad Wall has experienced in Ferguson, he also has experienced much good, starting with people closest to him — “family members, friends and people of the parish.”
People also have come up to him while he’s in uniform and thanked him for being a police officer.
In the meantime, Wall’s wife and daughter worry about his safety in Ferguson.
“My family has worried way more than I’d like them to,” Wall said, adding, “I know how to take care of myself and take care of my people. They don’t need to worry about me.”
Thoughts of his wife and daughter are with Wall at all times; he has only to look at the two rings he wears on the little finger of his right hand. From his wife, he has a ring with crosses. From his daughter, he has a rosary ring. He also carries a rosary in his duty bag, hands out St. Michael the Archangel prayer cards and wears a St. Michael pendant that his wife gave him 24 years ago. St. Michael is the patron saint for policemen, and even non-Catholic officers wear the medals and carry the prayer cards in their pockets.
“Almost every policeman will have a religious trinket of some kind,” Wall said. “Faith is huge in the police department, and in the military, too. It’s a big presence.
“Like a minister, a policeman is there for good.”