Former police officer chronicles illustrious career in memoir


By Brian Cox
Legal News

At a time when there are cries nationwide to “defund” the police and calls for fundamental reformation of the criminal justice system in America, a sincere and heartfelt memoir by an Ann Arbor police officer detailing his 18 years on the force offers a clear and empathetic look into the demands and stresses of a job that by many is widely misunderstood and underappreciated and at times vilified.

Peter Stipe’s memoir “Badge 112” does more than put a human face on the role of a police officer; it reveals the heart behind the officer’s badge.

Beginning with his days as a teen-age cadet at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, Stipe gives an engaging account of his journey from being a directionless young man to becoming the most decorated police officer in the history of the Ann Arbor Police Department. It is a storied law enforcement career worth chronicling.

In unadorned, direct prose, Stipe brings to bear his significant observational skills to draw a picture of policing a college town in the 1980s and ‘90s – from drug raids to bank robberies to violent street celebrations; from chasing suspects to brawling arrests to rescuing people from burning homes.  Stipe leaves no doubt that he loved the action that comes with patrolling the streets, but it becomes clear through his vibrant character sketches that what sustained him was the bonds he formed with fellow officers, particularly his patrol partners on whom he had to rely. While effusive in his praise and admiration for many of the officers he served with, Stipe pulls few punches in his assessment of other officers he feels in any way shrugged a duty, practiced poor judgment or side-stepped personal risk. It is that exercise in honesty that gives “Badge 112” a distinct sense of authenticity and frankness.

At the center of the memoir is a perspective on how for someone who immerses himself in a job, co-workers, and the work itself can often take on the role of family.

When Stipe was 11, his mother – a former World War II combat nurse who struggled with depression after the war – committed suicide. It was Stipe who climbed into the running car parked in the closed garage to turn off the ignition key; his mother was dead in the back seat. Six years later, his father died from cancer.

“I was lost,” Stipe writes of those days. “I had no goals. No ambition. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life.”

After some aimless years, Stipe follows a friend’s suggestion and takes a job with the City of Ann Arbor as a building inspector. It is evident that Stipe’s work as a building inspector helped him find grounding and a sense of familial support. Six years later, after getting married and having his first son, he leaves the building department to join the police department at the urging of the police chief. It is an emotional separation for him.

“They had been my family when I’d had none,” he writes of his co-workers at the building department.

In the police department, Stipe forges another family and finds a career for which he is physically and temperamentally well suited. In only his third year on the force, he receives four Professional Excellence Awards and a Medal of Valor, the department’s highest award for those who survive an action, which for Stipe involved saving a woman from a burning house.

“I wasn’t particularly heroic or courageous,” Stipe writes. “I was empowered by the fact that the welfare of people was dependent on my taking action.”

It was the same year, however, that a tragic incident lies in stark contrast to Stipe’s heady achievements and reveals the emotional trauma police officers often undergo in life-and-death situations. A car carrying three teen-age girls veers off the road and plunges into the frigid waters of a deep retention pond. Stipe arrives first on the scene to find one of the girls has escaped, but the other two are trapped in the car, which has vanished beneath the surface. Stipe dives into the water, but despite his every effort is unable to locate the car in the murky depths.

“After that experience stopped keeping me awake at night, it gave me nightmares,” Stipe writes. “The tragic loss of those young lives haunts me to this day.”

Aside from the riveting accounts of police action and enlightening details of departmental dynamics, Stipe is sufficiently self-reflective to acknowledge the toll the job takes on his personal life. His marriage, while clearly fragile from the outset, eventually dissolves, and following a failed affair with a fellow officer, Stipe enters a downward spiral of dark days, at one point even locking himself in a room with his pistol until a former partner arrives to talk him back from despair.

In time, with the help of friends and co-workers, Stipe’s life stabilizes again and he remarries. The job continues to demand large swaths of his time and attention as he takes on assignments including roles with the Special Tactics Unit and in the Detective Division. After serving 18 years, Stipe retires from the force in 2004.

“I was forty-seven and weary from all I’d absorbed as a cop,” he writes. “Stress fractures in my feet still caused chronic pain and I had lost count of my concussions. I was done.”

Hyper-vigilance, he says, had wrung him out and he admits to still having vivid dreams of armed encounters and shoot-outs.

It is only at the end of the book that Stipe briefly addresses the current chasm of distrust that exists in the country between law enforcement and large segments of the citizenry.

“There is a contentious history between law enforcement officers and people of color in this country,” he writes. “It’s documented quite clearly and police bear much responsibility for the atmosphere that currently exists. Distrust of authority is a hard heritage to resolve.”

He adds, “Officers rely on their own experiences to draw conclusions in the field. They too are exposed to an inordinate amount of ill treatment, sometimes at the hands of people of color. Until we all bear our share of the blame, that dynamic will continue to plague us. When leadership fails, it is up to line officers and citizens to close that gap, one encounter at a time.”

As a memoir, “Badge 112” is an engrossing, forthright account of Stipe’s distinguished career in law enforcement, but in another vein, it represents one line officer’s effort to shine a light on the strenuous demands of the job and to serve as an encounter with the reader, aiming to closing the gap of distrust by illustrating his humanity and fostering broader understanding.

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