When Jennifer Fulford, a Florida police officer, survived being shot 10 times in the line of duty, her friends and family assumed she would hand in her badge and pursue a safer line of work. After all, killing the gunman at point-blank range and successfully protecting the four children caught in the crossfire had nearly cost Fulford her life. She displayed uncommon levels of bravery in the close-quarters gunfight, and no one would have questioned her decision if she’d moved on to a more peaceful profession. But the thought of calling it quits never crossed Fulford’s mind.
Fulford soon returned to patrolling Florida’s streets and answering calls for help from complete strangers. When Fulford’s father asked why she wanted to go back to the same job that had almost ended her life, the veteran police officer responded with a simple answer: “Because I want to help people,” she said. “I want to solve crimes, get involved in what’s going on in the world. We’re not going to catch every bad guy, but it’s important for people to know they can feel safe, that there are people out there fighting to protect them.”
In Walk the Blue Line, a new book by bestselling authors James Patterson and Matt Eversmann, Fulford and 49 other law enforcement professionals from around the country provide unique perspectives into what motivates American police officers to get up each morning, don their badges, and head to work in a dangerous — and largely thankless — job.
The collection of interviews is the result of a formula perfected by Patterson and Eversmann, who have teamed up twice before to compile and curate similar collections. In February of 2021, the pair published Walk in My Combat Boots, a compilation of first-person accounts from service members who served in the Global War on Terror. Nine months later, they released E.R. Nurses, a collection of first-person testimonies from emergency rooms across America. Eversmann — a 20-year veteran of the US Army and the author of more than 300 books — is best known for his role in the infamous Battle of Mogadishu, made famous by the book and film Black Hawk Down. He and Patterson have found a good rhythm, combining their unique talents to assemble some of the best first-person descriptions of life on the front lines and giving a voice to many of America’s veterans and first responders who otherwise would not be heard.
From elite SWAT officers at some of the nation’s largest police departments to deputies working in small towns and rural counties, Walk The Blue Line reveals a wide spectrum of what police officers across the nation encounter on a daily basis. But for all the varying types of emergencies they respond to, the one through-line all officers have in common is their innate calling to serve. Whether it be an FBI agent in a Baltimore field office or a rookie patrol officer in the boondocks of Louisiana, each law enforcement professional describes an uncommonly strong desire to help others.
“They can defund us all they want, but the truth is, this is a calling,” says Matt Burroughs, a patrol officer in the Southwest. “I took a pay cut to join the police department because it’s not about the money. Honestly, I enjoy going to work. I hate to even miss a day. I just really like going out and helping people.”
Burrough’s view that his career is a calling is nearly universal among the interviews in this collection. When former police chief Bill McHenry found himself face to face with a gun-wielding robber at a dentist’s office, it never occurred to him to lay low like everyone else and avoid a confrontation. For McHenry, there’s no such thing as “off duty,” so instead, he felt obligated to intervene. Emerging from the dental chair with his concealed firearm, McHenry managed to kill the armed robber before anyone else was hurt. Hailed as a hero for stopping the violent criminal, McHenry thinks he was simply answering his call to serve and protect.
Other interviews in the collection reveal the increasingly complex nature of policing in today’s world. With bystanders today more likely to take out their phones and film an interaction involving police than to help a stranger in need, several interviews in Walk the Blue Line point to media bias as one reason the relationship between officers and the communities they serve seems so broken right now.
“Times are changing. The world is changing,” says Nicole Powell, an officer in New Orleans. “The media doesn’t promote the good things we do within our communities. And there are good things happening every day across the nation, whether we realize it or not. We’re in the business of saving lives and building true relationships within our communities.”
Other officers wonder what the future holds for police. With departments nationwide struggling to recruit enough new officers and increasing tension between citizens and police, many officers who come from families with traditions in law enforcement don’t want their children following their path.
“The thin blue line, it’s not a thin blue line anymore. It’s a gray fuzzy area, and it’s getting grayer and fuzzier,” says John Reilly, who served 34 years as a state trooper. “I’ve had an amazing career; I wouldn’t change it for the world. But both my sons want to go into law enforcement, and I’m afraid for them to follow me into it.”
Walk the Blue Line by James Patterson and Matt Eversmann, Little, Brown and Company, 344 pages, $30; available wherever books are sold.
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