Friday, January 22, 2010

Appreciating PA State Troopers

(News-Herald, January 21) Here in Venangoland, we’ve had ample opportunity recently to think about the business of being a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
I learned several things at the service last Sunday for Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul Richey. I learned that troopers are unparalleled organizers, that they can take seemingly unmanageable logistics and manage them. Among their many talents, it turns out that troopers are the world’s best ushers. (As a choir, however, not so much.)
I have also learned that the Troopers do not wear a badge. This practice reminds the troopers that their authority comes from their conduct, not any badge. In other words, the state police do not demand that citizens respect the badge no matter who wears it. Instead, they demand that their troopers earn our respect by being honorable men and women.
In this area, it’s not hard to find people who have an automatic dislike for any and all manner of police. And there’s no doubt that putting on a uniform does not magically transform an average jerk into a hero.
But I don’t think it’s at all easy for an average jerk to put on the uniform of a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
Not all jobs are created equal. Some jobs are more tough, more demanding, more heroic than others. They require a level of guts and commitment that not many people have, and yet the jobs need to be done. Pennsylvania has always known it asks a great deal of its troopers. For the first few decades of its existence, the PSP didn’t allow its troopers to marry.
It has been noted many times that Paul Richey volunteered to go out to the Smith home, that he didn’t have to be there. That tells us a lot about his character, commitment and courage.
But here’s the thing. The same thing is true of every trooper, every day.
None of them have go out there. None of them have to put on that uniform. None of them have to stay on the job, and none of them had to take the job (a job that they had to work hard to earn) in the first place. Scott Mohnkern could be selling cars by day and spinning tunes weekends. Dave Wargo could live off his wife’s teacher salary while he worked as a blues singer. All the members of Troop E could hang up their uniforms tomorrow and the rest of us would have no excuse to complain, because the rest of us didn’t have the nerve to take on that job in the first place.
State Troopers belong to that select group of people who run toward the things that the rest of us run away from.
It is easy for us to forget the level of danger that troopers face in their routine days. On the 13th, after all, the troopers were only going out to talk to a guy with a bad tendency to smack his wife around. Today other troopers will answer similar routine calls, make routine traffic stops, step into routine situations where someone is needed to bring some peace and order. Today, like any other day, they will never know if they’re about to meet some dangerous nut with a beef and a gun.
The rest of us don’t have to think about the danger in such places because there are people in uniform to think about it for us.
Sometimes civilians are called to face extraordinary danger. I wonder, for instance, how well Nancy Frey-Smith knew that she was putting herself in harm’s way every day. But as civilians, we usually find ourselves in a dangerous place by accident or circumstance. Troopers choose it.
In 2008 there were over 50,000 violent crimes in Pennsylvania. There are fewer than 5000 State Troopers.
There is nothing good about the loss of a man like Paul Richey. But it does serve as a shock and a reminder that even here in one of the world’s quieter places, dark and dangerous events can strike, and that there are people who have chosen to stand between that darkness and the rest of us. They and their wives and children and families sacrifice so much, sometimes all at once, and sometimes day after day, year after year, so that the rest of us can rest easy.
PSP’s stated core purpose is to seek justice, preserve peace, and improve the quality of life for all. Paul Richey’s life and death remind us how seriously they take that, and how large a debt of gratitude we owe them.

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