Cops Find Comfort In Verse

03/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Arts and Equity Initiative, a non-profit program which pairs city workers with artists, recently decided that the Portland, Maine Police Department would benefit from some exposure to the fine arts. Clearly they had never seen Cop Rock.

The department--thankfully--didn't try putting on a musical, but they did try their hand at writing poetry with the help of some local poets. As you'd expect, there was a lot of skepticism toward the project among the officers. At the first meeting between poets and police, one officer reportedly said, "I gotta be honest with you...if you gave me a choice between writing a poem or fighting four guys at the same time in the street out there, I'd be fighting those four guys right now." Officer Marty Pottenger, reflecting on the skepticism, told the Associated Press, "Officers are brave by nature, but it takes a different kind of courage to write a poem."

Relations improved as the two groups got to know each other--the poets even did some ride-alongs--but the real breakthrough came after the funeral for Sergeant Rob Johnsey, who died last May when his weapon accidentally discharged. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, Johnsey had been writing poetry for years. As a tribute to their fallen colleague, the department put together a calendar of police poetry, with some of the proceeds going to help Johnsey's family.

But the calendar has turned out to have more benefits than just fundraising. Portland Police Chief Joe Loughlin told the Initiative that the effort has had an unexpected impact on the department: "The poems in the hallways, reading poems at roll calls - it's brought us a different sense of who we are and what we do. Reports from the officers paired with artists were very positive, which I didn't expect." The calendar has also given the public a chance to see past their preconceived notions of who police officers are, to get to know a more human side and to better understand the challenges officers face. In this sense, an untitled poem by Officer Pottenger is particularly effective:

Say I go to
for a coffee.
Outside there's
five maybe six firemen
having a good time.
That's fine.
supposed to.

going in
and out

hey hey
how are you
good job
way to go

That's fine.
They're supposed to.

Me in my uniform
they say

is this your break?
are you on duty?

like I'm sloughing off
don't deserve STARBUCKS

moving away
like they
don't want
to touch

So (t)here I am putting my--you've
heard it all before--
life on the line dealing
with things everyday that
nobody else wants to

knives needles
puke obscenities
bones sticking out
guns drawn
dead mammals
you name it

Like that's fine.
Like I'm supposed to.

Not surprisingly, in the process of helping others to understand them, the poems also helped officers to understand themselves. Officer Alissa Poisson told the Associated Press, "In this job, you try to keep your emotions in a box," she said. "It's a hard job and if you get too emotional, it becomes even harder." Her poem, "The Things I Carry" speaks, indirectly, to the possibility of violence and how she copes with it.

Always it has to be in my right pocket,
the knife with the dull blade.
I look at it on the shelf in my locker and think,
Why am I bringing that?
I can't leave without it--just in case.
My black gloves, fabric on top, Kevlar on the palms,
in case someone has something sharp, a needle or razor--
I don't pat anybody down without those gloves.
They're my second pair, someone's blood on the first.
We do carry a lot of gear--20 pounds: pepper spray,
flashlight, two sets of handcuffs, one hinged, one linked,
radio, baton, knife, gun, two clips of bullets...

I Carry a Glock 45 That's my gun.
It's too big for my hand. And heavy.
13 x 3, plus one in the chamber. Forty bullets--
silver, with copper power points.

The poem also addresses Sergeant Johnsey's death directly:

Inside my hat a picture of Rob, the card from his funeral.
There's a small plastic window in the hat.
Some officers use a picture of someone in their family,
some a prayer. Rob's in mine.

Two of Johnsey's own poems are featured in the calendar, including this excerpt:

I visit as a stranger
But want to belong
To a world that makes sense
Not one that is wrong

With the help of poetry--and in his honor--Johnsey's fellow officers are making a little more sense out of their part of the world.

You can purchase the Portland Police Calendar through the Arts and Equity Initiative here.