WHO I AM: The Man Behind the Badge is the grim memoir of retired police officer Jeff Shaw who, beginning in 1979, served 24 years — from beat cop to homicide detective — in the South Florida city of Hialeah. The book’s preface, by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution war correspondent Jedwin Smith, aptly describes Shaw’s autobiography as a “case book of vignettes” offering readers a close-up of the challenges police face daily.
Shaw organizes his memories by types of emergencies and by his promotion through the ranks from traffic cop to homicide detective. He details cases related to drug abuse, domestic violence, gang wars, mental illness, race riots, suicides, and traffic fatalities as well as police corruption. And he doesn’t always paint himself in the best light, such as when telling about causing a nearly fatal car crash due to chasing a traffic offender. Some of the book’s stories are funny — at least in retrospect — such as circling up police cars like a wagon train to capture a two thousand-pound brahman bull on the lam from a rodeo.
Shaw’s writing is lean and doesn’t overdramatize what surely must have been traumatic experiences. However, the accounts of many cases are so short they feel choppy in contrast with the smooth style of excerpts from fictional works-in-progress on the author’s website. Stories in WHO I AM often conclude abruptly and leave one asking, “What happened next?” Yet, as Shaw reiterates throughout the book, it isn’t unusual for rank-and-file police to know little about the final outcome of emergencies to which they respond. They are too busy racing to the next bad experience.
Shaw says that his sleep is still troubled daily by nightmares of crime scenes and the deaths of friends on the force. He notes that among professions, law enforcement is near the top for suicides. Police see so much death, he writes, that “its mystery and fear become less significant. The blackness of death fades to subtle gray, and all too often becomes a muted light, beckoning us.”
Shaw’s wife, Susan, has served in police dispatch for decades. He credits her love and understanding conversation about his work as rescuing him from the darkness. WHO I AM is helpful reading for police officers; law enforcement caregivers such as psychologists, social workers, and spouses; mental health first responders; and anyone who wants to understand the pressures of law enforcement.
Jeff Shaw’s memoir WHO I AM: The Man Behind the Badge features lean writing and a closer look, via short vignettes, at the pressure and trauma of spending 24 years in local law enforcement.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader