By Mark Pooley
June 1, 2018 was a day I’ll never forget. That was the day I received my cancer diagnosis for something called multiple myeloma, an uncommon kind of blood cancer in which a group of cancerous plasma cells eat away at your bone marrow. In my case, the multiple myeloma caused me to have 10 vertebral compression fractures, basically breaking my back. I was unable to walk, unable to shower or dress myself. My wonderful wife did all that for me before I relearned how to walk and function.
At that point, however, I was definitely unable to do my job. I had been an officer with the Tempe Police Department in Arizona for 15 years, and last year, at the age of 43, two painful, stressful years after that initial cancer diagnosis, I suddenly found myself at a crossroads, walking away from the life I loved.
Why am I writing this piece? Because I’d like to tell you a story, one that is mine, but also one that probably belongs to countless law enforcement officers that go into work every day across this great nation, just hoping to get back to their homes and families at the end of the day.
I grew up a bit of an anomaly — and while labels have never been my thing, or my family’s, the reason I mention my background is because it played a role, I think, in defining the police officer I became and the person I hope I am.
On my father’s side I’m half Navajo and half Hopi. If anyone is familiar with the history of indigenous people in what became the United States, you’d understand why that in itself is unusual — the Hopi and the Navajo had been in conflict for more than a century. Then you add in the fact that my paternal grandparents joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so I’m Native American and LDS. But that’s not all. My mother is from Hawaii and is of half-Japanese and half-Polish origin. So, I suppose you can say that we’re an all-American blended family in our own special way.
My mom and dad met at Brigham Young University, fell in love some 53 years ago, and have stayed that way through his entrepreneurship and life as a marriage and family counselor, and the equally emotional highs and lows of her career as a social worker and CPS officer. They’ve been together through the best of times and the worst of times, including the loss of a child, my younger sister Gessica, who was a detective on the Salt River Police Department’s crimes against children unit for many years. She was just 39 when she died.
I grew up one of six close-knit siblings. My eldest sister Susan works with my dad at NAFFA, the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association. Karra is an elementary school teacher, I’m No. 3. Michael, my only brother, and one I’m very proud of, is an Assistant Chief of Police at the City of Tempe. Gessica was next. Amy, our youngest, followed in my mother’s footsteps to focus on Child Protective Services and is now Executive Director with NAFFA.
Mike is the reason I became a police officer. I am two years older, but after graduating from BYU, I’d set my sights on law school. I missed the application deadline, however, and decided to work with the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community for a year, so I could apply the next year to law school. Mike, meanwhile, broke with tradition and went to ASU, and joined the police academy while still in college. He knew what he wanted straight up. I didn’t. He called me while at the academy and said he thought I should sign up too. We eventually graduated within months of each other.
It Wasn’t Love At First Sight
Looking back, I have to confess I didn’t really like police officers when I was younger, because I had been pulled over multiple times. But I had married early, and my wife was pregnant. I had heard that the City of Tempe had great health insurance. So, I signed up for the police academy because I would have access to health insurance for my wife and yet to be born baby girl, after that call from my brother. It was as simple as that.
I graduated in November 2001 from the Arizona Law Enforcement Academy (ALEA). As new law enforcement officers, we graduated into a very different world from the one we were in when we entered the academy because of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Anyone old enough to remember that day also remembers where they were on the day the world changed. We were at the shooting range, having firearms training, when our sergeant called us over, and told the group that the Twin Towers had been attacked.
Having never been to New York, I didn’t really know what the Twin Towers were or understand their significance or symbolism, but a friend standing next to me, a former NYPD veteran of 15+ years, did. He had just moved to Arizona with his family, and was going through the recertification process at the academy to qualify as an Arizona police officer. He would later find out, over the next several days, that several of his friends at the NYPD, and other first responders he knew, had died during that day of unimaginable horror.
But Then, It Became A Calling
Just so you know, despite all of this, I was initially a police officer on the street for just a year-and-a-half after graduating from the academy. Why? I received an opportunity to become a tribal prosecutor on the local Indian reservation. I didn’t have to go to law school to become a tribal prosecutor, but as I’d mentioned above, law had been my original plan. And I jumped at that opportunity. But then something happened. Over the ensuing three years I spent prosecuting my cases and examining local tribal issues, I began to miss my brief stint in city law enforcement. I suppose once a cop, always a cop. So, in 2005, I went back to the City of Tempe and became an officer again, but this time for all the right reasons.
It wasn’t a decision I made alone, or lightly. My wife, Elizabeth, who had been with me since my BYU days, and my elder daughter, Yesenia, who was then four, were both part of this decision. My younger daughter, Yasmin, had just been born that summer, and my son, Mathias, was yet to come. The reason I mention them all is that you cannot be in law enforcement and be able to focus on your job without the unstinting support of your family. If you’re a police officer, you’re missing birthdays, anniversaries, games, holidays, and pretty much most momentous events in your children’s lives. You have to tell them that we’ll celebrate whenever possible, and they have to understand. I’m glad mine always has. Being an officer isn’t a one person job, it’s a family calling.
It was good for me to leave but better for me to come back stronger, more sure of myself, ready to be a police officer in my heart and mind, where it mattered.
Life As An Officer
Over the next 15 years, much like others in law enforcement, I worked in different assignments. I started off as a beat officer, and three years later, I became a detective in the TPD’s robbery night squad. We were called the robbery squad, but much like any department with fewer resources than the major cities, we all chipped in for everything, especially at night. We focused on robberies, but I worked home invasions, violent crimes, street jumps. I was there for a little over two years and was then assigned to what was pretty much a dream assignment, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 — to the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), with the local FBI in Phoenix.
I was there three-and-a-half years, and I loved that job. I probably shouldn’t have moved on, but I left because I had the opportunity to do another dream assignment, this time in TPD with Homicide. I was there a little over a year and then got promoted to Sergeant.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m trying to paint a picture of what being a police officer is about, beyond the overwhelmingly negative headlines. We are much like other people: We make career decisions, choices, some good, some not so good, and get to live with those choices. The only real difference between us and pretty much everyone in every single profession, except military personnel in war zones, is that in no other profession do you go into work every day, knowing someone may want to kill you, and knowing that that someone may possibly succeed.
Anyway, I was in patrol for two years, that’s sort of what you have to do after becoming a sergeant. From there, I was promoted to what was called the Professional Standards bureau at the TPD, basically, I moved to Internal Affairs.
If you watch the movies and the dozens’ of cop shows on television, you’re probably familiar with what Internal Affairs does. In most cases, the TV shows give the impression that officers who investigate other officers are “the rat squad,” or they’re universally hated. Not true. I basically investigated officers that violated policy and they understood that I was doing my job, much as they would do theirs. I must confess that there is nothing harder than investigating your friends and colleagues. I would never ever do it again. But did they hold it against me? No. Unlike public perception, for the most, police officers learn to compartmentalize. We must, in order to be able to keep our mental health intact and to do our jobs.
The Good, The Bad & The Sad
Do I believe there are bad officers? Absolutely. There are bad, even terrible persons in every profession, and law enforcement is no exception. From where I stand, the problem isn’t in the people, though, it’s in the screening process. There are people who come into the job who should never have been there in the first place. But there are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States and more than 700,000 full-time officers of different stripes. Most of them go into work every day to do good, to be a force for the good.
Those that don’t, and yes, they do exist, were either probably already people who should never have been officers, or people who couldn’t cope with the stress the job brings, at an emotional, mental and psychological level. But that’s exactly why we have rigorous screening procedures in place, because entering this field puts people in a position of authority.
If you’re already inclined to misuse authority, it is likely that power might amplify your worst side. When you get hired as an officer, typically, you are polygraphed, have a psychological evaluation, drug evaluation, a thorough background check in which everyone you know and their neighbor is questioned, a physical test, and a mental health test. But testing standards are different in different places, so I’d suggest that if we want to look at re-examining our systems, we begin with auditing existing screening procedures.
So, what makes an officer a good one? Again, at the heart of it all, how you were brought up and what shaped you as a person plays a part. In my case, I’d like to think it was family. When my brother, sister and I became officers of the law, my father sat each of us down and told us three rules. The first rule was to try and come home to your family every night. Rule No. 2 was to remember that as an officer of the law, you represented justice. You treated the person fairly. There should be no bias or prejudice. And No. 3 was the most important, when you made contact with anyone, you ensured you maintained their dignity by treating them with kindness.
Be Respectful, And Get It Back Manifold
Here’s an example of that. When I was a sergeant, I once stopped by a local Burger King for a meal. A homeless man stood outside. He saw me approach and immediately said, “Officer, I don’t want any problems, stay away from me.” I remarked that I only wanted to know if he wanted a meal, as I was getting myself one. He seemed perplexed and then accompanied me inside and asked me if he could order what he liked. I said sure, he could. He ordered a combo meal, and then said he had a sick girlfriend who was sleeping under a bush, and could he order a combo for her too. I agreed, and he quickly added an Oreo Pie to her meal. It made me smile. We introduced ourselves and went our separate ways.
Two weeks later, we got a call on radio about an injured woman, hurt after her head had been crushed between grills at a storage locker facility. I got there to find two officers pulling back a man from attacking the fire and ambulance teams. There was a woman on a stretcher, hurt but also combative. Both appeared intoxicated. As I approached, the man suddenly shouted, “Hey, Sergeant Pooley.” I suddenly realized it was my homeless man from two weeks ago and he was scared and stressed. I called out to him by name.
Let’s call him Jack. He turned to me and said, “These guys are hurting her, Sgt. Pooley, they’re hurting her.” I responded, “They aren’t hurting her, Jack, they’re my friends.” He turned to her and said, “Sgt. Pooley’s here.” She knew who I was; thank goodness for Oreo Pies! She said “Hi, Sgt. Pooley, how are you?” I said I was doing well and asked her if she could lay down calmly and let my friends help her, and she assented.
As I told my young colleagues later, we were able to de-escalate because at the heart of it, we’re a community, but we could only be one if we tried to get to know each other and treated each other with dignity.
A month later, someone on my squad, a female police officer, helped a stranded man in a beat-up truck push his vehicle to the nearest gas station and paid for his gas. I told her and everyone else then to consider that a teaching moment, because I hoped he would remember her kindness and pay it forward at some point, and also remember law enforcement can be human. And kind.
Sgt Mark Pooley (Retd.) is a former law enforcement officer of 15 years with the Tempe Police Department, who retired from law enforcement in 2020 after a debilitating cancer diagnosis. He now works with the Native American Fatherhood & Families Association (NAFFA) and is focused on using his investigative skills to work on Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) cases. This is the first of his columns for Biometrica.