August 14, 2021

"The Right Stuff"


Dear PERF Members,

It’s Saturday morning, and you’re used to picking up Trending and reading something serious, maybe something cutting-edge. But today I’m taking a break and writing something less ponderous, maybe even funny, I hope!

I’m a big George Carlin fan. When he died, it felt like I had lost a good friend. If I had a second life, I’d love to come back to this world and make people laugh like George did. 

One of George’s classic bits was about “stuff.” If you haven’t seen it, take a minute and watch:

George explains that the meaning of life is really about “trying to find a place for your stuff.” We invented houses because we need “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” Some people collect too much stuff to fit in their houses, so we have storage facilities -- “a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.” You can visit friends and stay overnight, but the problem with other people’s houses is that “somebody else’s stuff is all over the place.”

The other day I thought of this classic Carlin rant, and it got me thinking about “police stuff.” You know what I’m talking about. If you come to visit me someday in Washington, you’ll see that my office is filled with stuff, because I can’t travel to a police or sheriff’s department without being given stuff. And I’m not complaining. I’ve kept this stuff for years; it’s kind of fun.

You get hats, pens, pins, patches, T-shirts, ties, sweatshirts, jackets, badges, coffee mugs, miniature billy clubs,  ….  and challenge coins, which are unlike any other gift. Many of you know the drill. The giver puts the coin in the palm of their hand and slips it to you through a handshake. It’s a special ritual.

I wonder what George Carlin would have said about police stuff, because we take it to another level. If you go to a police department, you don’t just get one piece of stuff.  You visit the chief, and they give you chief stuff. You go see the gang unit, and they give you gang unit stuff. The community policing cops give you stuff. Drug cops have their own stuff. The bomb unit has special stuff. The K-9 and motorcycle cops, and the police union gives you their stuff.

Finally you head home, and the cops who take you back to the airport... well, they give you stuff too.

One of my favorite pieces of stuff is a jacket former Las Vegas Sheriff Doug Gillespie gave me that says “Metro Homicide” on the back. One day I wore it doing errands, and it raised eyebrows at the dry cleaners. The bullet hole through the ace of spades is a nice touch.

No one can top Steve Anderson for nice stuff. In 2018 we had PERF’s Annual Meeting in Nashville, and after it was over, I got a package in the mail.  It was a large blanket with the PERF logo and my name woven into it, to commemorate the event!  I thought Wow, isn’t this something?  Then I learned that Steve sent everyone on the PERF staff a blanket, customized with their names. That’s Steve. Talk about blanket coverage! (sorry)

I’ve done some traveling overseas, and police stuff abroad is a few levels above our stuff. In Ukraine I got a gigantic hand-carved wooden box. It was beautiful, but it was a real challenge getting it on the plane. What do you do with stuff that’s too large, without insulting your host?

Once I was in Poland with former PERF President Chuck Ramsey and PERF staffer Rebecca Neuburger, and we visited the American ambassador. He had amazing stuff for us. A jacket for each of us with our name on it. The custom is that you reciprocate and give your host stuff. Whoops. Ramsey looked over at me, and all I had was a PERF pen. Ramsey and Rebecca just laughed.

I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and they gave us amazing gifts. Flags, books, wooden carved stuff, impressive gifts unique to their culture. One time our guests turned to me, and I gave them PERF umbrellas. Seems I’m better at receiving stuff than giving stuff.  Former U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer never lets me forget that this happened in the Middle East, where they might need an umbrella once a year.

Another time Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis and I were visiting Israeli and Palestinian police, and of course they gave us gifts. When Ed and I got to the airport, Israeli security separated us and asked us that wonderful question, “Has anyone given you anything to carry on this flight?” Ed and I answered the question a little differently, so suddenly Israeli security came out of nowhere and began searching our bags. And they found our stuff! Luckily, I was able to make a phone call to someone who rescued us. I was afraid we’d end up like the guy in Midnight Express who gets thrown in a Turkish jail for trying to smuggle hashish.

My most embarrassing “stuff” story happened when Terry Gainer and I had a meeting with the head of intelligence in Jordan. In front of us was a beautiful leather place mat. I thought, “Wow, this is really beautiful.” Somehow I had gotten the idea that it was a gift, so I put it in my bag. As we were driving away, I commented to Terry, “Isn’t this a beautiful thing they gave us?” Terry looked appalled and said, “That wasn’t free stuff! That was part of the General’s office!”

One final story that turned out to be one of my favorite “stuff” memories. I always have to jam stuff into my carry-on bag, because I never check luggage. One time I was going through security and bam, the metal detector goes off. Slowly the TSA guy starts pulling out all these challenge coins, including one from the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit that weighed a ton.  He’s laying them all out and studying them, and I can tell he’s thinking, “What kind of a nut is this guy, with all this police paraphernalia?”

But then a supervisor walked by and casually said, “Nice stuff.” 

He wasn’t making fun of me; he was serious.  He understood that stuff isn’t just about stuff.

We hear a lot these days about the need to change police culture.  But “police stuff” is an appealing part of police culture.  These gifts are a sign of friendship and respect, of brotherhood and sisterhood. They say, “We’re all in this world together. We share a common set of values, of stepping up when others step back, of being part of something much bigger than ourselves.”

And then there are those who actually use the stuff, and never have to do any shopping!

Weekend Clips are below. Have a good weekend.