I was sitting last week with Texas County Sheriff James Sigman as he shared statistical information with me about his department’s caseload in 2014.
Not surprisingly, numbers were substantially up from 2013 – across the board. Regardless of the reason or reasons why, deputies handled more cases in pretty much every possible category, with theft and assault topping the list (again, not surprisingly).
And while the sheriff’s department’s caseload went way up last year, the number of officers on Sigman’s roster was the same as in 2013, so it’s the old “more work, same manpower” situation that so many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are dealing with because of the oil-and-water-like combination of societal trends and budget constraints.
You don’t even have to look outside the boundaries of Texas County to find three more agencies hampered by that combination, as the police departments in Houston, Licking and Cabool are all up (again) in caseload numbers, but not up in officer rolls.
Anyway, that’s just how it is in early 2015. There’s no arguing that business is booming in the “busting business” (as an officer I knew once called it), but there’s little relief in sight for the men and women taking care of business.
But aside from the unfortunate reality that budgets and busts are following differing paths, there’s another aspect of law enforcement that always gets my attention. While I sit and talk about statistics, trends or specific cases with the likes of Sigman, his counterpart with the Houston Police Department, Chief Jim McNiell, or any other member of the badge-wearing, gun toting community, I can never avoid being touched by a certain grim reality hovering over the lives they live: You just never know.
Officers of the law have always lived a 24/7 existence of uncertain destiny, never being 100-percent sure what’s going to take place when they pull over a truck or knock on a door.
But that’s true now more than ever, and as Sigman himself said, they’re even increasingly becoming “targets.”
On a weekly basis, I read dozens of incident reports generated by law officers in the community, and it boggles my mind every time I ponder the possibilities. The bottom line is, they really do continuously set foot in a myriad of situations presenting potential for major problems.
Sure, many of the calls they respond to are just plain silly (and it’s hard to imagine someone called the law about it), but no matter the issue, there’s simply always a you-never-know factor involved.
But it’s impossible to know beyond doubt exactly what or who will be on the other side when an officer knocks on the door of a rundown cabin at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a forest at 2 a.m. on a pitch-dark overcast night.
And how can an officer be sure that when he or she chases a suspect into a wooded area that the suspect won’t suddenly stop, turn and fire a .38 special?
And if a guy has been busted four times in the last two years and has vowed there won’t be a fifth, it’s possible that an officer who pulls him over for a tail light being out on his 1985 Chevy pickup might be in for a big surprise.
Even if it’s only the same two unfriendly trailer park neighbors having yet another heated discussion over a barking dog, there’s always a chance one is going to possess a weapon and the responding officer – for no valid reason – will suddenly find himself on the business end of it.
Sigman and I have talked about how it’s inevitable that at some point in Missouri’s largest geographical county, an officer is going to give someone a command three times to “drop that gun,” but the person isn’t going to comply and is instead going to pull the trigger. Then it could be a matter of whose time is up, the officer’s or the gunman’s.
And whether the law officer is wearing a police uniform or that of a deputy won’t matter, because bullets don’t play favorites.
Anyway, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: For what they do, law enforcement officers are deserving of all the recognition, praise and thanks they get (and more), especially those who get out in the field and mingle with an increasingly volatile and unpredictable public. As Sigman, McNiell, and all of the counterparts would surely agree, law officers are, for the most part, in sort of a thankless line of work.
For the most part, maybe, but not entirely. To all of you: Thank you for all you do.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.