The mistakes police make can grab headlines, so it surprised a couple of Durham officers when their good deed showed up on Facebook.
It wasn’t anything that any other officer wouldn’t have done, District 2 officers Bret Taylor and Daniel Johnson said.
“I’m up on a ladder, and (Johnson’s) holding the wood, putting the board in, and the next thing I know, I see the Red Cross lady; she’s sitting there with her camera snapping photos,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t to get the attention, but it’s appreciated when people appreciate us.”
Police Lt. Lamont Minor, the watch commander for District 2 in northern Durham, realized the 76-year-old woman who lived there needed help when he drove by Nov. 19 – the day after the house caught fire.
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The woman was “in good spirits,” he said, but as they talked, he realized officers might be able to help with Thanksgiving dinner. Once inside, however, they realized “it was uninhabitable,” he said.
“Black soot and smoke all throughout the home, no power,” Minor said. “Where the fire originated in the laundry room, that was definitely burned. One of us asked her, where did you sleep last night. She said, ‘I slept in the car.’”
The house – with two badly damaged windows and a door – wouldn’t be fixed for a while, Sgt. Tammy Tuck said. The woman stayed out of concern people might try to break in if she left.
Tuck suggested they board up the home and went to the Lowes on Roxboro Road, which donated some of the plywood.
“When it’s that cold,” Minor said, “sleeping in a car or sleeping in a house with no heat, no power and open windows, she might as well have been sleeping outside.”
Taylor was asked to do the work, because the 33-year-old had construction skills and tools. He recruited Johnson, 25, to be “some extra muscle,” Taylor said.
The job took less than an hour and helped them persuade the woman to take a Red Cross hotel voucher.
“She was really thankful when we got the door and windows boarded up,” Taylor said. “She came by and shook our hands.”
‘It’s not worth it’
While home repairs are uncommon, they find opportunities to give back every day, the officers said. One recent call earned Johnson and Taylor recognition as District 2’s Employees of the Month.
It started when a man ran into McDonald’s and said he needed help. Johnson arrived first, finding the man hunched over in his car with the window cracked. The man had a bottle in his left hand and a lighter in his right.
“He handed me a note ... and it just talked about (being) suicidal and just the problems he had going on in his life,” Johnson said. “I came around the car and just talked to him, trying to explain there’s a lot more of life to live. It’s not worth it.”
It wasn’t until the man handed over the bottle that they realized it was filled with gasoline, Taylor said. An EMS crew took the man to the hospital, he said, and the department’s Crisis Intervention Team followed up later.
The key to talking with someone in crisis, Johnson said, is to have a conversation and “get their mind off whatever is setting them off or triggering them to have suicidal thoughts.”
“A lot of these calls, you see a lot of different things, and you put a different professional hat on for each one,” Johnson said.
Being unsuccessful can stay with you for years, the officers said.
Minor still remembers when Derek Walker, a 26-year-old father, became suicidal after a custody battle and went downtown with his pistol in 2013. In an hourlong standoff, Walker waved the pistol around and pointed it at police and at his own head.
Walker sought him out that day because he remembered their previous conversations about law enforcement, said Minor, who tried to talk Walker into giving up.
“I said to him, if you want to talk, we can sit right there on the ground and talk. If you want a hug, I’m willing to hug you, but you’ve got to put that gun down first and give me an opportunity to come over there, because clearly, he wanted help. He just didn’t know which route to take.”
Walker was just 10 feet away when an officer fired the single, fatal shot, Minor said, his voice cracking. He drew his breath and paused to regain his composure.
“So many thoughts have gone through my mind that I tried to forget,” Minor said.
“I wanted go up and tackle him, I wanted to pull out my Taser, but at a time like that, you have to put yourself first, you have to put your family first, to fight the desperate feeling that you want this guy to live,” he said. “You don’t want him to get shot.”
Walker’s death and others have brought criticism to the department. While the negative news gets attention, the public should know they care about the community, the officers said.
“If you encounter a Durham police officer, what I expect and the way I will treat you is how I would want my mother, my grandmother, my family to be treated,” Minor said.
That’s true whether they are helping people or enforcing the law, the officers said.
“It’s always positive helping somebody, rather than hurting somebody,” Johnson said. “Every day we come to work is an opportunity to help somebody.”