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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It matters to the ones we save

Appeared in the Beacon News on Sunday, December 13, 2009

Columnist Kristen Ziman

As you may have heard, due to the financial times we are all currently experiencing, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program has been suspended as a cost saving measure by Aurora Police.

Since the announcement went public, many have asked me if D.A.R.E. really works. I have heard from those whose opinions I respect say unequivocally that D.A.R.E. does not work. On the other end of the spectrum, I have heard others declare that the program absolutely works. Unfortunately there is no scientific method for proving that either side is correct. While I have never been a D.A.R.E. instructor, I do have a bit of experience to draw from when it comes to observations I’ve made about the program as a police officer.

My strongest memory that made me question the effectiveness of D.A.R.E. was when I arrested a man in his late teens for possession of cocaine. While placing handcuffs on him, he asked me if I knew a certain Aurora Police officer because that officer had been his D.A.R.E. teacher. I don’t think I need to point out the obvious irony that he was being arrested for possessing drugs. Clearly this was not a success story. I’ve heard more stories from D.A.R.E. instructors of the students they taught who didn’t receive the message being sent. However, for every failure, I believe there are probably more successes.

The problem is that measuring those effective moments is impossible. We may never know about an incident in a locker room or at a party where a peer being offered drugs declines the proposal. It’s similar to being a parent and imposing values and moral lessons in your child. You can never really know when they have heard your message and internalized it. Sometimes it may take years for you to fully realize the influence you’ve had. In the same way, we may never know that a child who says no to drugs did so either consciously or subconsciously because of the teachings instilled in them by their D.A.R.E. officer.

I have also seen the ancillary benefits of D.A.R.E. For some kids, the only positive interaction they have had with a police officer is the time they’ve spent with their D.A.R.E. instructor. One officer told me that after teaching a D.A.R.E. lesson, a student stayed after class and told her that his older brother (a gang member) had a gun under his mattress. The officer conducted a home visit and seized the gun. We can never really know if that child’s trust in his D.A.R.E. officer saved a life by preventing a shooting.

I don’t disagree with the decision-makers that our financial constraints make it impossible to continue funding programs like D.A.R.E. Unfortunately, the time and resources equate to money that is not currently available. My personal hope is that we can re-evaluate the program and reinstitute it when the economy recovers. The way I see it, if we can empower one child to have the courage to say “no”, then the program is a success.

D.A.R.E. reminds me of the starfish parable: A man went down to the beach one day to take a walk. When he arrived, he noticed that the tide was unusually low and that thousands of starfish were scattered over the beach that had been exposed by the strange weather patterns. The man looked out and saw a child out amongst the sea of starfish, gathering them up and returning them to the ocean.

"What are you doing?" asked the man.

"Putting the starfish back in the ocean," the child replied. "If I don't, they will die."

"But there are thousands of starfish beached out here and you're just one person. You won't be able to save them all in time. Your actions won't matter."

The child responded, "It matters to the ones I save".

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Indifference Could Result in the Demise of Community

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, November 16, 2009

Indifference may very well be the plague that eventually leads to our demise. The worse words strung together in the English language to form a sentence are: I - don’t - care. Of-course I’m not suggesting that those words aren’t appropriate as the answer to insignificant and meaningless questions like, “Where do you want to go to dinner?” or “What movie do you want to see?” In those situations, it may be better if one person were genuinely indifferent because some would starve before deciding on a restaurant choice if one person had a passionate preference for Chinese food while the other for Italian food. Either that, or they would eat alone.

The indifference I speak of is the kind that prohibits us from movement because we are absolutely convinced that what we do does not matter. I find so many people that fall into this category not because they genuinely don’t care but because they don’t believe that their action will have any adverse effect on a particular outcome. When we begin to fall into this line of thinking, the natural reaction is to find a place of indifference because it’s easier to not care if things don’t go our way. It’s a layer of protection that we use so we aren’t disappointed with defeat. The defense mechanism is in place so the agony isn’t quite as piercing.

Sometimes I long to be one of the ones who have mastered apathy. What a simple existence it must be to go through life genuinely not caring what happens around them as long as it doesn’t adversely affect them. I know many people who live life with the schematic that asks, “What does this have to do with me?” A great example of this was the recent beating of a young Chicago student at the hands of several thugs armed with 2x4's. Onlookers thought best to videotape the beating rather than assist the student who would later die from the injuries he sustained. Were those spectators plagued with the disease of apathy? I often wonder what goes through a persons mind when they fail to answer the call for action.

I started thinking about the consequences of a police officer who decides they just don’t care anymore. Several weeks ago, an officer on the midnight shift saw several subjects sitting in a car in the middle of the night. When he approached the car, he noted that they were smoking marijuana and he subsequently arrested them and then searched the car. In doing so, he found proceeds from a burglary that the subjects had just committed. It was later learned that the same subjects were responsible for a rash of burglaries on the far east side over a several week span. No one would have been the wiser had that officer chose indifference and drove past the occupied vehicle. It would have been much easier not to stop - not to mention much less paperwork.

You don’t have to be a police officer patrolling the streets to care about what happens in your city or your place of work. I question the possibility of what would happen if we all stopped going through life so apathetic. Imagine what we could get done if we truly cared about our life’s work and the things that happen around us.

Interestingly enough, there are many people who exist just to do the minimum and spend their lives merely getting by while suffering no consequences. It may be a simple existence but it is also meaningless. Dr. Seuss perhaps said it best: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

Officers Debate Supporting Comrades who Commit Crimes

*Appeared in the Beacon News on Sunday, November 1, 2009

You probably heard about the Chicago police detective who was involved in an off-duty car accident last April that resulted in the deaths of two young men on the Dan Ryan Expressway. The detective was allegedly drunk behind the wheel and was charged with reckless homicide, DUI, and leaving the scene of an accident.

It goes without saying that the outcome of this accident is absolutely tragic. Not only did two young men perish, but the fact that the officer was purportedly driving while intoxicated, tarnishes the integrity of his badge and defies the oath that is synonymous with wearing that badge. Far be it from me to even attempt to defend his alleged irresponsibility and blatant disregard for the law that took the lives of two human beings.

It is always front page news when a police officer is involved in criminal activity. The story again made headlines last week, but for a very different reason. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Hall served as the venue for a benefit to raise money for the detective to assist with living expenses, legal fees and defense experts. The mothers of the 21 and 23 year old men who perished in the accident were outraged at the notion that other police officers would support someone who exercised such poor judgment. I vehemently agree.

This incident has sparked some interesting debate among my fellow police officers. It is not surprising to me that most officers say they would neither purchase a ticket nor attend a benefit for an officer who made such an egregious error in judgment. The majority couldn’t reconcile themselves to the moral disregard for the law and the subsequent consequences. I even took a momentary introspective and reflective look into myself and decided that if it had been me who had drove drunk and killed two people; I wouldn’t allow a benefit to be held on my behalf. My guilt and self-loathing would prohibit pity from anyone who genuinely tried to assist.

There were a group of my colleagues, albeit a minority, who said they would contribute to the officer and for every reason I gave in opposition, there were those with strong convictions in favor of the fundraiser. The common theme was that the money raised should go to the family of the accused officer. The thought was they were collateral victims and shouldn’t have to suffer a monetary hardship because of the officer’s actions. One officer took it ever further and pointed out that we can never really know the depth and breadth of a person’s suffering. By that, he wondered if the officer had a problem with alcohol that could have been recognized or diagnosed well before the accident.

Those who said they would contribute are not morally corrupt individuals. In fact, I consider those who held the opposing viewpoint to be ethical and levelheaded. Their perspective was rooted in compassion but we just saw the situation differently. I can empathize with the need to assist the officer’s family but my thoughts were never far from that of the families of the deceased men. You can’t empathize for one and not the others.

None of us who engaged in this discussion knew the Chicago officer. If it was a close comrade, we may have changed our stance even with the understanding that the officer made a horrible mistake. When human emotion is an added variable to decision-making, objectivity becomes clouded. In the big picture, our stance on the fundraiser is of little importance as compared to the lives that have been profoundly altered by this accident. Just ask the mothers of those young men.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fighting Crime with Compassion, Courage

Fighting crime with compassion, courage

Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on October 18, 2009

When I was new to the Aurora Police Department and riding with my field training officer, we responded to a domestic violence call just as our day shift was beginning. We discovered that the victim's ex-boyfriend had kicked in her apartment door and battered her because she refused to take him back. He then fled the scene. As I was gathering information for the report I would be writing, I spotted a school-aged child bustling around the bare apartment with his backpack firmly in place. I noted the child was dressed in a tattered sweatshirt -- a detail that is burned into my memory because it was a brutally cold winter day.

The veteran officer and I cleared the scene, and as I was eyeing an empty snow-covered lot to park and write my report, my training officer redirected me to a store that was just opening for business. He entered the store and returned minutes later with a bag. He then advised me to drive back to the address from which we just left. I drove the few short blocks to find the victim standing outside with her son awaiting the school bus. With a sense of purpose, my training officer exited our squad and pulled a winter coat from the bag. He placed it on the child, then knelt down and zipped it up as far as it could go. He returned to the squad and said absolutely nothing.

I thought at first that he either knew the family or that the mother had asked him for the coat. I quickly surmised that neither were true when I saw the expression of gratitude and surprise on the face of the mother.

I have witnessed and heard secondhand many heroic acts in the almost 19 years I have worked for the Aurora Police. Whether it be entering a burning building or going into an icy river, there are stories of selfless rescue where officers have risked their own lives to save another. I have seen more courageous acts committed by Aurora police officers than most people have seen in Hollywood movie scripts. Some have taken bullets or experienced near misses in their quest for peace and justice. They have fought and been injured while dedicating themselves to the mission of our police department. I have watched my colleagues work seamlessly and tirelessly to solve the crimes that have plagued those we serve. In all of these scenarios, each officer would say that they were "just doing their job."

Officers train in the academy so that every day we can handle these dangerous situations while on the job. Our departmental training is rigorous and strenuous because in police training we understand the words of the Greek soldier Archilochus: "We do not rise to the level of expectations. We fall to the level of our training."

And yet, the more important lessons are those learned when you least expect them. My training officer taught me that every human being is worthy of dignity and respect. I can recall an officer giving a bag of fast food to a homeless man, and I have seen another comfort a rape victim with gentleness and kindness. I have watched strong men bend down to the eye level of a child to calm their fears, and I have seen others shed a tear when overcome with the sadness and reality of death.

For every story of raw courage, there are more everyday acts of humanity. Brave acts deserve recognition, but it is the small acts of compassion that define us as human beings, and it is those that require the greatest strength of all.

Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman can be reached at

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Squad cars at schools a sign of relief, not crime

Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, September 20, 2009

At a recent social event, an acquaintance of mine told me she would not send her children to an east side school (that shall remain nameless) because of its crime problem. Knowing a little about the subject matter, I was confident the school she identified didn’t have any more challenges than the other schools in the city so it prompted me to inquire about the origin of her information. Her answer: “Because there is always a squad car parked in front of the school.”

Quite frankly, I can see how many citizens might surmise that a squad car parked at an educational institution may be an obvious identifier to high crime or other problems. As logical as that observation may be, it is wrong.

Nearly every middle school and high school in Aurora has a School Resource Officer (SRO) assigned. (As a matter of fact, Aurora Police was one of the first departments in the State to assign SRO’s.) While an SRO is responsible for anything police-related that transpires within the institution, they play a far more important role within the schools.

As some kids reach middle school and high school age, their perception of the police becomes adversarial (especially for those students who are inclined to test the boundaries). These students then tend to mistrust and create distance from the police. School Resource Officers reverse the distance and trust issues because for many students, the only police officer they know is the one who works in their school. Therefore, they become more inclined to accept guidance and redirection from them.

The SRO’s serve as extensions of the school staff and work very closely with the administration and teachers to ensure each child a safe environment in which to learn. The SRO’s handle mediation among students before they escalate into criminal activity. They are often alerted to tensions among students, and because they have developed a rapport with those involved, the situation can be diffused.

Police officers assigned to schools can be seen as an extension of the community oriented policing philosophy. They are there to bridge the gap between the students and the police and their taking the time to build relationships means a better quality of life for everyone in the institution. However, their purpose runs deeper. According to school violence expert Lt. Col. David Grossman, there has not been a school shooting where a police officer was present. In the Columbine school shooting, the assigned police officer left the premises and the assailants executed their carefully planned rampage. The other schools that suffered such tragedies did not have a police officer assigned.

Like all police officers, SRO’s are trained in “active assailant” which means that if a threat presents itself within a school, they move toward the threat to eliminate it. While optimally, the active assailant team consists of four officers that work strategically as a team to directly address a threat (such as a student with a gun), an officer already inside the school can act singularly to prevent the shooter from killing or injuring more people. Waiting for officers to arrive can mean crucial time is lost resulting in many more casualties.

In the wake of the school shootings across the country, many School Resource Officers believe they have played an integral role in the prevention of violence through their intelligence gathering, interaction with students, and by their mere presence.

There are some representatives of academia that believe a police officer in their school brings with them an image of crime and negativity. Judging from my acquaintance’s negative perception of the squad car out front of the school, there is obviously some merit to this belief. With enough education and dialogue, perhaps we can begin to alter our perceptions and change our paradigms so that the presence of the police in our schools brings a sense of relief rather than a fear of crime.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Texting While Driving - Appeared in the Sun Times Beacon News on September 6, 2009

I was on my way home from a Cubs game last weekend when I witnessed a car accident. I happened to look over at a vehicle in the adjacent lane as it was about to slam into the vehicle that was stopped in traffic. I cannot estimate the precise speed of the driver that caused the crash but he was going fast enough to have completely crushed the front end of his car. As I played the incident back in my head, my recollection actually registered a few milliseconds before he struck the other vehicle. In the film reel of my consciousness, I saw the man holding his cell phone in his hand and giving it his full attention as the explosion of metal on metal caused everyone in my car to gasp.

Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in that crash. Whether you subscribe to luck or a guardian angel as the reason the drivers walked away unscathed is of little importance. The more pressing issue as you can most likely infer is the fact that the accident was a direct result of the driver’s focus being on his cell phone rather than on the road in front of him. I’ve been paying close attention to the Illinois House Bill 71 that was approved by the House and Senate in May of 2009 and now sits on the Governor’s desk waiting to be signed. Effective January 1, 2010, the law will prohibit a person from using an electronic communication device to compose, send, or read an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle. One might think that the topic interests me because of my profession and the responsibility of enforcement that befalls officers when a new law is enacted. Despite the logic, you would be wrong. I am intrigued by the topic because I am helplessly and hopelessly addicted to my cell phone. I am guilty of dialing while driving, talking while driving, and I have even been known to (gasp) text while driving. If I know I’m going to be stuck at a stoplight for two minutes, I can get through about four e-mails of average length on my shiny iPhone. I welcome a delay at the train tracks because that means Facebook and Twitter can get some attention while the box-cars fluidly float by. I am not proud of this addiction and my confession is more of a step to publicly denounce my behavior than a means to preach about the dangers of this habit.

After witnessing that accident, I feel as though discussions in the media about cell phone use and driving are stalking me. When I pick up a newspaper or channel surf, reports of the dangers of texting while driving taunt me with statistics that cite cell phones as the rising cause of injury accidents. It is as though the universe is conspiring to take over my subconscious by tuning into only that channel.

Well universe, message received. I knew that my simple recognition of the fact that texting while driving is considered just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol would be enough to alter my behavior. Besides, I’m a very disciplined person by nature and I’m not one to allow a vice to overpower me.

And then it happened. Ding. A text message came through on my phone while I was driving down the street.

“No biggie. I’ll just check it when I reach my destination” I thought.

I looked down at the phone sitting in the cup-holder with the text message alert nagging at me.

“I’m sure it’s nothing pressing - - just a meaningless message from a friend meant to amuse or delight” my inner voice was saying.

I gripped the steering wheel tighter with both hands so as not to reach for the phone. Then I had an idea. I could read the text message quickly while barely taking my eyes off of the road. Yes, that is what I would do I decided. I picked up the cell phone and read the message which ended up being a bad idea because the urge to respond was overwhelming. Dare the sender of the text think me rude for not answering? I succumbed at the next stoplight conceding that this addiction would render greater restraint than I originally thought.

I am happy to report that I am slowly conquering this weakness but it is not out of sheer discipline as I had predicted. Instead, I must turn the ringer on silent and strategically place the phone into my glove box where I cannot see it or hear it thereby taking away the temptation to connect with the outside world. I can’t wait until January of 2010 to break this habit. Your life and mine depend on it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Smart Power

Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on August 23, 2009

In a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about foreign policy and the security of America under our new leadership. In that speech, she used the term “Smart Power”, vowing to utilize the “full range of tools” at our disposal to become partners with our adversaries.

I started thinking about the term “Smart Power” and began to realize that it applies to policing as much as it does to national security. The “tools” police officers use to maintain peace and order are laws involving search and arrest, use of force, incarceration, and many others. As America’s first line of defense, these tools are afforded us by the US Constitution and their application demands responsibility and nobility.

There are many times in a police officer’s career where the thrill of the chase becomes greater than the cause. During those times, nobility can be lost. For example, the adrenaline pumping in the veins of the police officer running through the back yards to catch the armed robber makes them momentarily devoid of the notion that they are serving their community with justice and fundamental fairness in mind. They simply want to catch the bad guy. This may be a dangerous moment for the police officer (both literally and figuratively) because the adrenaline may also lead to the officer not utilizing ‘smart power’ resulting in an abuse of authority by using excessive force. We have seen far too much video footage of officers who did not exercise smart power during an apprehension and it is those few that tarnish the badge for us all.

To me, ‘smart power’ in policing is suggestive of, not only tools like incarceration, but of possibly our greatest power - our power of influence. When I was a recruit in the Field Training Program, my Field Training Officer and I met on a weekly basis with the sergeant that was assigned to monitor my progress. In my third month of the four-month program, the sergeant looked over my paperwork and noted that I was progressing very well. I couldn’t help but feel extremely gratified by the compliment until he looked at my FTO and said, “But we still need to get her into a fight and see how she fares.” I looked at my FTO for his response and had a momentary vision of leaving the office and picking a fight with someone on the street to prove how tough I really was. My brute thoughts and knuckle-cracking were interrupted by my FTO who explained to the concerned sergeant that I had been in many situations that could very well have turned physical. Rather than immediately going “hands on” he offered that I had used my personality to diffuse many situations so that it didn’t escalate to force. What a concept.

There are many times when a situation is not negotiable and an officer must use force to place someone under arrest or protect themselves or others from harm. But I do believe that an officer’s influence is the most powerful tool they have. Police Officers should use the ethic “service above self” when upholding laws and maintaining peace. They also need to keep focused on the cause of the action and not merely the action itself. Getting into a scuffle for the sake of proving you can is an abuse of power. Authority is interesting. When used responsibly, accompanied by moral choice and guided by principles, it is extremely effective. Contrarily, when it is abused the damage can affect people for a lifetime.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Start a Movement

*Printed in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, August 9, 2009

It takes just seven people to start a movement. For example, if I alone were to stop on the street and look up at the sky, those passing by will continue on with nary a thought about what I’m doing. If two more people were to stop and join me staring into the clouds, several people would pause and follow our stares into space but most would keep on their way. However, if seven of us were all standing with our faces transfixed on the sky above us, the majority of people will stop and begin looking as well.

This social dynamic is called critical mass and it is a phenomenon that builds upon slight movement and develops into momentum. When a small number of people know something in a new way, it remains the conscious property of only those people. However, there is a point at which if only one more person tunes in to a new awareness, the new awareness is picked up by everyone. This is also referred to as the “tipping point”. While glaring into the sky is an oversimplified example of critical mass at work, there are far more compelling tales of what humans can accomplish by using this technique.

Having spent several years as a Community Policing Officer, I know the sheer power of passionate people with a driving purpose. I have watched a few concerned citizens recruit their neighbors (many who were complete strangers) and come together to problem-solve around quality of life or crime issues in their neighborhood. When there is a common vision or goal, human beings can be unstoppable and the ideas and problem-solving strategies that are shared through brainstorming and information exchange are far better together than they are individually. The community and the police have a common interest in making neighborhoods a safe and peaceful place to live and once we started to realize that we want the same thing, the movement of partnerships gained momentum.

National Night Out is an event that perpetuates the notion of police and community partnerships. It was developed in 1984 by a resident who started a Town Watch newsletter in his hometown over the years, National Night Out has grown into over 35.5 million participants. The concept at its origin was simple. On the first Tuesday of August each year, residents would simply go outside as a visual metaphor for involvement in their neighborhoods. The concept strives to conquer the realities that so many of us live side by side but rarely speak to one another. Other than the occasional nod while collecting the mail, we don’t engage our neighbors. Because of this, we don’t feel a sense of unity to those with whom we share a community. In other words, we’ve stopped looking out for each other because we close our blinds and retreat into our homes. The consequence is that criminal activity moves into our neighborhoods. Quality of life issues become bigger crime issues. National Night Out serves as the catalyst for connecting with our neighbors to combat apathy.

It began simply with stepping outside but since the inception of National Night Out, residents have gotten very creative and many coordinate block parties and festivals in conjunction with the police department to bring neighbors together. In the midst of the celebrations, the theme of community involvement through partnerships is always prevalent.

Fortunately, we need not wait for an organized event before we begin to change the space we occupy. All we need is one person to care enough to make one small step towards change – one person to start a movement. Apathy is a disease and when we become indifferent, all hope is lost. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Crime Prevention Begins with Deterring Unlawful Opportunists

*Appeared in the Beacon News on Sunday, July 26, 2009

I’m generally not one to blame the victim. In fact, I have a strong belief in responsibility and accountability when it comes to the choices people make in life. By that, I mean an open garage door should not entice a criminal to help himself to the property inside. Even when an opportunity for instant gratification presents itself, the human condition allows us the ability to reason and use restraint before engaging in destructive activity – be it criminal or otherwise.

When I see a wallet left behind in a shopping cart, my thought process instantaneously flashes to the owner of the wallet and the panic they must be feeling. Most of us think along the same lines. We may have a fleeting thought about the cash inside and may even momentarily have a dialogue within our own mind about how easy it would be to take the money and throw the wallet away. If our values are in tact, our moral compass finds its true north in a matter of moments and empathy for the owner of the wallet consumes us.

The same concept applies to unattended cars with the keys in the ignition or unlocked cars with a GPS on the dashboard. Most of us would walk right on by without a conscious thought of committing a theft. Despite the majority that would not commit a crime, there is a minority that thinks and acts upon the temptation. These small percentages of people are responsible for a large percentage of crime.

On the midnight shift, one of our goals is to alert Aurora residents to behaviors that may leave them vulnerable to victimization. Officers walk neighborhoods and apartment complexes and look for vehicles that have valuable items in plain view. When we find an easy crime target, we issue a Crime Prevention Notice (CPN) that details our observations and we place it in your mailbox. If you leave your garage door open, you will most likely be awakened by a police officer’s knock to remind you to secure your door. We have issued nearly 600 CPN’s in 2009 as a result of this initiative and our hope is that residents will develop a consciousness about what they leave in plain view.

While blaming the victim contradicts my original statement, I’m afraid I’ve become a bit jaded as a result of our Crime Prevention crusade. Officers report wallets and expensive electronic devices left in cup holders of vehicles visible to anyone in proximity. As if that weren’t enough, many of the vehicles are left unlocked. In the past two weeks, 42 vehicles were broken into throughout the city on midnight shift alone. Of those 42 vehicles, a whopping 29 were unlocked. I risk sounding politically incorrect or jaded but the first thought that comes to mind is, “What were you thinking?!” In an ideal world, my aforementioned speech about accountability and responsibility is just that – the ideal. If everyone’s moral compass were true north, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Because that is not the reality, I’m afraid I must proverbially shake some sense into those of you who believe that crime only happens to other people.

Crime is inevitable. Since the beginning of civilization, human beings have discovered that humans left to their own devices will struggle with temptation and some will succumb to it. Social norms and laws are put in place as deterrence. Despite this, there will always be people looking to prey on others. Don’t make it easy for them.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Move over Spidey, Aurora crimefighters use a different web

While I was “twittering” what I was having for breakfast one morning, I stumbled across police departments that use Twitter to keep their citizens updated on crime trends and other topics. I quickly went to my “Facebook” page to report my findings so all my friends would be privy to my discovery. I then found many police departments have Facebook home pages with bulletins of missing persons and wanted offenders. I immediately contacted all my “” associates to notify them of the social media wave, and finally “blogged” about it on my Google blogger domain site. An airplane was not readily available for me to attach a banner in hopes of spreading my message but the more I thought about it, the airplane would not be able to provide the instant gratification for which I was looking.

Surely I jest about the airplane but there is no joking about the rapid acceleration the information age has taken. Immediacy in news reporting is the new trend and we want to watch the story unfold in real time. Words like Twitter, Facebook, and other “social media” are rapidly replacing having to hover around the television to watch the news or wander to the end of the driveway to gather up the newspaper. Instead, my iphone alerts me to a new topic on Twitter and I find out within seconds the outcome of an Illinois Appellate Court case. Front page headlines are being replaced by updates on Twitter (known as “tweets”). In fact, “mainstream” media (TV, newspapers, radio stations, etc.,) were warned of this impending technology decades ago and chose to ignore it. By not jumping on the bandwagon, many outlets have gotten run over— hence the stories of their bankruptcies and other financial ills we often read or hear about, ironically enough, on social media sites! In one sense, I am saddened that newspapers are at risk of obsolescence. There is nothing like sipping coffee on a Sunday morning while passing around sections of the newspaper. In contrast, I am addicted to real-time news and information and am tethered to the electronic devices that provide it.

Policing is no different. We have all heard of the gaper’s delay that slows traffic whenever emergency lights illuminate a thoroughfare. Human beings have an inherent need to know about events happening around them - even when it has no direct effect on their lives (that’s a nice way of saying the people are nosey). It is that very reason social media so popular. Now when you see the red and blue lights, you can put it on Twitter to get the information out. (Of course, you should never “tweet” while driving!) This is precisely why police departments are dipping their toes in the social stream— because it solidifies partnerships with the citizens they serve. Conversely, the citizens not only receive information that is useful to them, but know the source is credible.

About a year ago, the Aurora Police Department joined to give our residents the information they desire. The site allows Aurora Police to quickly disseminate news on specific criminal cases, wanted fugitives, crime trends, and other alerts to anyone that signs up to receive them. While those that have subscribed number well into the hundreds, we would like to see that number swell into the hundred-thousands. Quite frankly, we could not have reached 30 year crime lows without interaction from our community and in order to continue this success, we need our citizens to keep partnering with us. Sign-up takes about a minute. Just go to and it will guide you through. You can even get the messages sent to a cell phone or pager.

Resistance is futile because only the Internet can keep up with constant flow of information. Oh, and you can find out what I’m having for breakfast tomorrow by following me on Twitter by going to

Monday, June 1, 2009

Put end to things that go thump, day and night

Appeared in the Sun Times Beacon News on May 31, 2009
Lt. Kristen Ziman - Columnist

Put end to things that go thump, day and night

Mother Nature has been teasing us with sporadic warm days for two months, but soon a consistent warmth will settle in and summer will be here. The gentle sound of birds chirping will sing a duet with our alarm clocks as we wake to meet the world. We will dust off our bikes, get out the gardening tools and soak up every ray of sunshine, because we know the summer months pass too fast. We will rush home from work and fire up the grill. The sound of laughter will emit from the neighborhood children while the steaks sizzle and...THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

The summer scene is thwarted by cars driving through neighborhoods with their stereos thumping so all the world can "share" in the melody of rap and hip-hop. Before you scold me for generalization of this particular genre, I will speak only to my experience in that I have never heard Kenny G or Garth Brooks past a certain decibel from a passing vehicle.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a lover of music and have even been known to bust a rhyme in sync with LL Cool J's "I Need Love" (don't test me -- I know every word). However, I enjoy my music in my own vehicle and even with the windows rolled down, you probably wouldn't hear Neil Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans" blasting from my stereo, because I keep the volume at a reasonable level (and because I am deeply, deeply embarrassed about loving Neil Diamond).

I would never dream of subjecting other drivers who are stopped helplessly beside me at a stoplight to my music. You may, however, have to endure the disturbing visual of me using my cell phone as a microphone, but rest assured, you won't hear a thing.

This is not about my questionable taste in music, but rather about the quality-of-life issues that test the patience of Aurora residents. When I speak with residents, I am often astounded their most pressing complaints are issues regarding the peacefulness of their neighborhoods.

Excessive noise from loud parties, car stereos and barking dogs top the list of complaints. Violent crime has been greatly reduced in recent years, so the communities have begun to recognize these quality-of-life issues and have turned to the police for help. No one wants to sit inside their house and feel it shake as a result of the bass coming from a passing vehicle, and no one wants to hear it three car lengths away, no matter what the genre.

If the noise problem is coming from a neighbor's house, I always suggest speaking with the neighbor before you involve the police. Sometimes honest concern and a respectful request will curb the problem. If it doesn't, call the police department's non-emergency number (630-859-1700 if you live in Aurora). Oftentimes, the stereo volume gets turned down with a little encouragement from your local law enforcement. Quite honestly, we would rather tackle the sub-woofers with the hip-hop blaring than deal with street violence, any day of the week.

If the police do get involved, thumpers beware. The price to pay for subjecting others to your music can be quite costly. If your noise can be heard from 75 feet away, you will most likely be issued a $75 ordinance ticket and your vehicle will be towed and impounded. It will cost you $250 to get the vehicle back, not including the ticket, tow or any storage costs. I'm no mathemagician, but those numbers add up to nearly $500.

Imagine all the Neil Diamond albums you could buy with that.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Save Us From Ourselves

Published in the Sun Times Beacon News                                                                                                       Columnist Kristen Ziman

National Police Week is celebrated annually during the week of May 15th and each year, members of law enforcement pause and reflect upon those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Police Officers who die in this profession don’t lose their lives - - they give them.  Every officer knows and willingly accepts the risks involved every time they begin their next tour of duty.

 When a brother or sister in blue is lost, we often use his or her experience to remind us that tomorrow is not promised to anyone.  We attempt to gain some insight on what went wrong in the hope we can use the scenario as a training opportunity and learn better techniques to protect ourselves. 

 During National Police Week, we also have somber reminders of those officers who took their own lives.  Unfortunately, these scenarios are discussed in whispers as other officers speculate the reasons why or develop hindsight that reveals many warning signs.  Despite those signs, there are not many confrontations.  Police officers are extremely intuitive when it comes to reading the emotions of others.  We have to be.  Every police officer I know can tell when a person with whom they are interacting transitions from being cooperative to someone who poses a risk.  This profession forces us to hone our observation skills because it is a matter of survival.  It seems counter-intuitive, but the skills that we’ve perfected on the street are not always applied to those with whom we have personal relationships.  Co-workers are no exception.

 Throughout my career, I’ve often heard officers say they’re worried that one of their colleagues is going to “eat their gun”.  The phrase befits an officer going through a horrific personal or professional problem.  No matter what the scenario, we talk amongst ourselves but rarely reach out to the officer in need.

 For the Aurora Police Department, this topic remains especially painful.  A beloved sergeant committed suicide in 2004.  His closest friends knew he had been detached and distant but never speculated he was about to take his own life.  Those closest to him live with the internal conflict that begins with the statement, “If only I had…done something…asked the hard questions…pried.”  Suicide leaves so many unanswered questions and we never know if our intervention would have saved a life.

 I know of one officer who pulled himself through his own darkness in solitude.  He recalls being on midnight shift several years ago when he was going through a bitter and angry divorce and felt as though he had reached the point of desperation and hopelessness.  Because of his personal problems, he was drinking more.  His productivity at work suffered and he made some mistakes that resulted in disciplinary action against him.  One night while working, he drove to a remote location and got out of his squad car.  He carefully removed his duty weapon from his holster and placed it to his head while pleading out loud to his higher power, “Give me one reason not to end it all.”  As he worked up the nerve to pull the trigger, he glanced over at the picture of his children that he painstakingly placed on the visor of his squad at the beginning of each shift and he lowered his weapon.  He now realizes that his children’s faces had saved his life that night.   Today, he is happily remarried and a productive police officer who had to live through the darkness in order to see the light.           

 Police officers are problem-solvers by nature.  Unfortunately, some are better at solving the problems of others while their own lives are in disarray.  The job teaches us to hide emotion as a coping skill - a skill that is necessary to shield us from the suffering we see on a regular basis.  It doesn’t teach us to ask for help when we need it and that can be the one thing that saves us from ourselves.                       







Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Trust but Verify

Sun Times Beacon News
by Columnist Kristen Ziman

My children think it’s cool to have parents that are police officers. Since they are only in elementary school, there is a rock star status associated with the uniform. When I offer my shiny handcuffs to their friends, my kids are left beaming with pride at the awe of their comrades. Because I am a sensible person, I realize that my adorable young children will most likely lose that luster as they enter into their adolescent years and denounce my profession. This phenomenon will have less to do with the profession itself and more to do with the rebellion that naturally occurs during the teenage years. Plus, I plan to stalk them using my keen detective skills inherent with the trade.

By that, I mean that I will insist on knowing every one of their friends. To make life more torturous for them, I plan on telephoning the parents of their cronies each time there is a sleep-over planned in order to ensure parental supervision. I will be suspicious when they answer their cell phone and give their location. If GPS cell phone tracking isn’t advanced enough to follow them on Google Earth I will surely demand that they call from a land-line for verification purposes. To further make their lives miserable, I will personally enforce the curfew laws of the City of Aurora making sure that the a hours are adhered.

As if that weren’t enough, I will respect their space just enough for privacy but will hone in on their belongings in their bedroom and question whenever I see anything that raises suspicion. Furthermore, I will set expectations of their academic performance and if their grades do not meet those expectations, they will cease their extra-curricular activities until they have reached my proposed academic eligibility.

Being a police officer for 16 years gives me insight into the fact that some parents are not fulfilling their parental job description as well as they should. I have seen many parents who blindly trust that their kids are doing the right thing without questioning or confirming. Those same parents seem surprised when they get a call from the police department informing them that their child was arrested for attending an underage drinking party and need to be picked up from the police department. Some parents are even insistent that it couldn’t be their “Johnny” because he is sleeping over at a friends house. I’m not at all insinuating that kids won’t make bad choices now and again. Because teenagers are coming into their independence, the occasional withholding of the truth and testing of the waters is to be expected. This does not make your child a juvenile delinquent but rather a perfectly normal adolescent. The key is having proper perspective and knowing what actions are a battle of wills and what actions are teetering on bigger problems.

For example, we were experiencing a rash of vehicle burglaries in a particular area of town. On one evening, a teenage boy was observed by a witness suspiciously walking around parked vehicles and looking inside the windows. When officers arrived, they learned that the young man was out past curfew and arrested him accordingly. When the officers went to the teenager’s home, they spoke with his parent and gained consent to look around his bed room. The officers discovered several car stereos and GPS units in the teen’s bedroom – obvious proceeds from vehicle burglaries. It was unbelievable to me that the child’s parent didn’t notice the accumulation of electronic equipment piled up in plain view. The mother had no idea that her son was out past curfew and hadn’t bothered to question him regarding the property in his room.

Denial is another emotion that every parent must fight. When my children come home and tell me that they were wronged at school by a friend or a teacher, my first question to them is, “What was your role in the incident?” I often find there is more to the story than they lead me to originally believe. When parents don’t pursue the story in its entirety, they often find themselves in conflict with the school or the police by vehemently defending their child without exercising the possibility that there may be merit to the issue.

I have been involved with many parents who immediately dismiss a police officer or school official that expresses concern about their child affiliating with gang members or engaging in questionable activity. The moment of truth comes when the police officer or school official pulls up their child’s MySpace page or pictures on their phone and shows the parent images of their son or daughter flashing gang signs to the camera. Some police officers make home visits and speak with parents for the purpose of informing them that their son or daughter is fraternizing with gang members only to find the parents vehemently defending their child. A search of the child’s room by consent of the parent can sometimes reveal gang graffiti on the walls and drawn in notebooks boldly declaring their allegiance to a gang. Many times the parent doesn’t know that the symbols are gang related but most don’t bother to ask or research. These are only a few examples of parents wearing blinders that prohibit them from seeing what is really going on with their child. It is those very blinders that put kids at risk of being a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime.

My overzealous parenting really has nothing to do with my job as a police officer. It has more to do with my job as a parent. Although I exaggerated the use of a GPS tracking device for my kids, I believe that every parent must make a concerted decision to police their child. That is not to say that you should never trust what your child says. Trust but verify.

I am prepared for my children to grow out of proudly declaring to their friends that their parents are police officers. I am also prepared to trade in the rock star status in exchange for taking an active role in their lives and keeping my eyes open to the things that can potentially harm them - even if they get upset with me in the process.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Police Can Sometimes Lack Tact

Published in the Sun Times Beacon News on April 26, 2009
by Columnist Kristen Ziman

A much-viewed You Tube video, which shows an off-duty, obviously intoxicated, Pennsylvania police officer inside of a bar mocking the scene of a murder at which he was the responding officer, has spurred public outrage. The obscenity-laden tape shows the officer laughing at the plight of a murder victim who was shot between the eyes as other tavern patrons listen and cackle in response. He is obviously enjoying the spotlight, and even makes fun of the mother’s reaction when she identifies her son.

Among those publicly calling for the police officer’s termination is the NAACP. In the video, the police officer suggests that the victim, a black man, is a drug dealer. The police officer, who is white, seemed to find the entire incident humorous in a way that is disturbing to anyone on the outside looking in. While I understand that some may see the video as a racial issue, I’m believe that this is more about blind ignorance and disrespect than it is about race.

I’ve read some interesting blog posts in response to the video and I’m amazed at the polarized viewpoints. One blogger suggested that police officers handle things differently than most people and that humor and alcohol are common methods for dealing with traumatic incidents. I would be a blatant liar if I didn’t admit to exercising a warped sense of humor about some of the tragedies I’ve seen in my career. I have told myself on more than one occasion that if I didn’t laugh, I would cry. The desensitization that occurs in police officers is necessary so we can function in our lives. If we were not desensitized from tragedy, we would surely not be able to cope--- and sometimes--- we don’t do very well at coping despite the protective measures. As the blogger suggested, some officers may turn to alcohol as another layer of protection (which may explain the Pennsylvania police officer’s obvious intoxicated state).

I must also confess there are some incidents for which we police officers lack emotion because they involve career criminals that knew the high stakes of playing the “game”. When investigating a crime, it is not uncommon for us to shake our heads when we learn the victim was caught up in criminal activity that obviously had the high propensity for danger. The Pennsylvania officer’s declaration, “We’re looking at it like, one less drug dealer to deal with--- cool,” makes me wonder if this was one of those instances. Even for police officers, it is much more difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible) to conceptualize when innocent victims lose their lives to random acts of violence in contrast to those who knew the risk and still chose the lifestyle. (I have heard many who are not in police work suggest the same). As disappointing and astounding as it may seem to some, I understand the psyche of that Pennsylvania officer because it is a glimpse into the dark side of police culture.

However, that is where my empathy ends because understanding it is not the same as condoning and I cannot defend the indefensible. Some of the other bloggers suggest that the police officer on the video is an evil human being and deserves to be fired. I know far more stories of police officers who stay and comfort families after a tragedy or those who attend court on their off time because they are emotionally vested in a case. The officer in that video is not a representative of all police officers.

As much as I disagree with vilifying him, I believe he should be held accountable for the exhibitionist style of disrespect. Even if the shooting victim was a career criminal or a drug dealer, he is still someone’s child. The police officer’s lack of respect violates a human being’s right to dignity. While some of us may be able to understand it, there is no excusing it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

True Acts of Charity

Appeared in the Beacon News on April 12, 2009

Although I rarely ride Metra, I recently decided the train was the best way to go to a training class in Chicago. I arrived at the transportation center about 15 minutes early and stood in line to purchase my ticket. Once I got to the window, I was stunned to learn Metra didn't take credit cards. Those who know me well know I rarely carry cash. I go through life swiping my credit card for nearly everything because I find it less cumbersome than writing checks or fumbling with loose change.

The cashier directed me to an ATM so I again waited in line to get cash. When it was my turn, I fed in my credit card and typed in my PIN number and waited. Denied. The transaction could not be completed because my PIN number was incorrect. After trying twice more with the same results, I looked at the people waiting behind me and offered with nervous laughter that I was having technical difficulties.

I then panicked because my train was about to leave. Recognizing my angst, a man behind me offered to give me some cash. I was taken aback by his offer and my initial (and silent) reaction was "no way." I am not very good at taking charity as my pride tends to be an inhibitor, but I had no other choice. I could either accept the man's offer or I could politely decline and miss both the train and my class. Without hesitation, he handed me a $20 bill.

I scribbled down his address and promised I would pay him back. He gave me a knowing smile and said, "It would make a great letter to the editor if you didn't because I read your columns in the Beacon." I was absolutely flabbergasted (but secretly giddy) at being "recognized."

After I recovered and took my seat on the train, I thought about a previous column I had written about Good Samaritans and instantly knew I had crossed paths with one. Some might argue the man wasn't really a Good Samaritan because he knew where to find me if I was delinquent on my payment. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not have to bail me out of my predicament. My ride on the "cash-only" Metra train gave me an hour to contemplate human nature and what makes a person trusting enough to hand over $20 and risk not getting paid back.

If I'm honest with myself, I don't think I would have given money to a total stranger if the tables were turned. Being a police officer for 15 years has made me rather suspicious of the motivations of others. Mind you, this isn't something I'm particularly proud of, but it comes from years of investigating the intricate scams that some criminals successfully pull off by tugging at the heart strings of others.

I have seen seemingly gentle mothers use their children as props to scam money from charitable victims. Then there are unsuspecting people who handed over money to the nice couple that knocked on their door with an empty gas can and a "stalled" vehicle -- the same thing they pulled in several neighborhoods and made a handsome earning. There are hundreds of similar scams that I have seen over the years that have made me into the skeptic I am today.

And then a man in a train station gives me a moment to pause and reflect on humankind. I immediately settled my debt by sending him payment, but I wondered what he would have done if I hadn't. Some people just give to others without expecting anything in return. No scams. No motives. No need for recognition. Whether it be a kind act or a charitable donation, those who selflessly go out of their way for others are reminders of everything that is right in the world.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen

Friday, March 20, 2009

Publicizing Police Complaints

Appeared in the Beacon News on March 15, 2009 

When I was a patrol officer, a citizen filed a formal complaint against me, claiming that while arresting her, I picked her up and threw her against the transport van. I remember receiving the official notification of the allegation and feeling the blood drain from my face when I read that an investigation was being launched and that a guilty finding may result in my termination.

Not only was I not guilty of the infraction, but, ironically, I'm so much smaller than the person who filed the complaint that it would have made it nearly impossible for me to lift her, let alone throw her, as she claimed. One of the sergeants for whom I worked even gave me the humorous nickname "Crusher" based on the sheer irony of my predicament. Eventually, justice prevailed and the complaint was ruled "unfounded" after several of the citizen's own family members gave statements that exonerated me. Despite being found not guilty, that allegation sits in my personnel file to this day.

There are many innocent officers who have had multiple complaints of varying allegations filed against them resulting in a "not guilty" finding. For this reason, I vehemently support Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis' refusal to submit the list of officers who have complaints lodged against them by the public. Although, facing a contempt of court charge, he later turned over the list, I share his position that complaints that are "unfounded" and officers who are "exonerated" should not be branded as "repeaters."

I have been following Weis' story along with the published comments in response to his refusal. The common feeling amongst the bloggers is that Weis' actions are another example of police corruption and "cover-up." "It's about time (police) be exposed, branded, and made to pay for their egregious behavior," one person posted anonymously.

I can't speak for the Chicago Police Department, but I can speak for Aurora police when I say that every citizen complaint is heard by supervisors and investigated for validity. The complaints are taken very seriously, with accountability being the force that drives the process that protects the public from "cover-up" and corruption.

When I became a sergeant, I was surprised at the number of citizens who filed complaints against officers. I was even more surprised when I began to learn that a number of allegations were fabricated. When our squad cars were outfitted with video cameras and microphones, many accusations were dispelled after viewing the incident and finding no validity to the complaint.

Self-preservation drives human beings who break the law, and it is not unusual for them to accuse an officer of misconduct for their own self-interest. For example, a law-abiding citizen probably has never felt as though they were being harassed by the police. In contrast, criminals who are routinely (and repeatedly) arrested notoriously complain about police harassment.

The common citizen sees this so-called harassment as good police work, where the criminal may see it as an impediment to their lifetime of criminal activity. When the latter occurs, it is not uncommon for them to file a complaint.

Regrettably, a very small percentage of police officers are in this profession unfaithfully. It is the officers who have repeated complaints filed against them with "sustained" (guilty) findings who should be on the "list" of repeaters.

Those officers who abuse their power do substantial damage to our noble profession and should be held accountable to their department and the public.

The vast majority of police officers are doing their jobs and risking their lives every day. Vigilant police work and unyielding pressure on criminals may result in a higher volume of complaints.

If the officers follow the law and departmental procedures, they should have the support of the public and their department to keep their names off of a list that could be damaging to their careers.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Classic Good Samaritan

Last week, police officers on the midnight shift responded to a suicide in progress where a man tried to hang himself in the basement of a home.  The first officer on the scene found the unconscious man hanging from a homemade noose.  The officer immediately grabbed and lifted him up to release the pressure from his neck while his back-up officer cut through the noose.  After freeing him, they guided the man to the ground.  Because he was not breathing, one of the officers, Mike Nilles, administered CPR including mouth-to-mouth recessitation.  He continued the life saving efforts until the man vomited in the officer’s mouth (saving a life is far from pretty) and began to breathe on his own.

I went to the hospital to check on Officer Nilles and found him in the emergency room waiting for the nurse to administer a blood draw for an exposure kit that would advise in 24 hours whether he contracted H.I.V. or other diseases from the man he saved.

The officer knew the male was intoxicated and had a history of drug abuse when he chose to perform CPR.  He could have easily waited for the medics who were only minutes away and let them use a breathing apparatus.  Knowing that time was critical, however, he placed his own safety in jeopardy and acted without regard to his own life.  I asked Officer Nilles if he had a conscious thought about the risk to himself before he administered CPR and he said the only thing that went through his mind was, “We can save this one.”

This is just one of many heroic acts that police officers perform in their tour of duty that you never hear about.  It didn’t make headlines and there were no drums beating or crowds cheering as the man’s heart began to beat again.  The medics whisked the victim away and transported him to the hospital where he will recover and be given a second chance.  The officer quietly left the hospital ate the salami sandwich in his squad car that he packed with him, and went on to the next call.

Throughout my career, I’ve often thought of the classic story of the Good Samaritan when witnessing fellow police officers who have acted so bravely to save a life.  I’m confident everyone knows the parable where a man walking a dangerous road was beaten, robbed, and left to die.  A priest walked by the battered man and crossed to the other side of the street without stopping.  Another traveler came upon the injured man and continued on his journey as well.  The Good Samaritan found the man and stopped to render aid.  He dressed the man’s wounds and carried him to an inn where he used his own money to pay the innkeeper to watch over the man until he was well enough to leave.  The Priest and the traveler didn’t stop to help the man because they worried about what would happen to them on the dangerous road.  The Good Samaritan stopped to assist because he worried about what would happen to the man if he didn’t. 

Officer Mike Nilles never worried about what would happen to him as he breathed air into the lungs of the man.  He knew the man would die if he didn’t.  In defining moments like these, there is no pause for reflection or reasoning.  It is the same instinct and call to action that make police officers run towards gunfire while everyone else runs away.  It all comes from the same place of courage and nobility and it has few witnesses.

Thankfully, Officer Nilles did not contract any diseases as a result of his life saving efforts.  His actions demonstrate the character of which police officers are made and remind us all of the Good Samaritans dressed in blue that are willing to put others' lives before their own.