FITCHBURG -- Police Chief Robert DeMoura recognized Officer James McCall on Monday by giving him a ribbon of merit and commendation for his work in arresting an armed robbery suspect while off-duty last week.
"This officer showed a remarkable dedication to service and protecting the citizens of Fitchburg, even while off duty," DeMoura said.
On Friday morning, Fitchburg Police Officer James McCall had just picked up his paycheck from Elm Street headquarters when he was driving down Main Street and saw two men scuffling in front of the Fay Club.
"I said to myself, 'That don't look right,'" McCall said during an interview with the Sentinel & Enterprise Monday.
McCall said one of the men, 6 foot, 240 pound John C. Barnwell, 28, began to flee from the scene.
McCall -- off-duty at the time -- tried to call for backup, but his cell phone didn't have service.
He said he noticed the other man bleeding from his hand. The victim yelled, " 'That guy just stole my wallet,' " remembered McCall, who is less than 6 feet tall but solidly built.
The armed robbery suspect had allegedly cut the man in the abdomen and on his hand with a box cutter while stealing his wallet and $900 cash, DeMoura said.
McCall said he saw the suspect running up Wallace Avenue and followed him in his private car.
"I knew I just had to keep an eye on him," McCall said.
The suspect turned on Fox Street and appeared to slow from fatigue, McCall said. McCall said he got out of his car and Barnwell noticed him -- McCall said he recognized Barnwell from previous on-duty encounters.
"He saw me and tried to run," McCall said.
Within a couple of steps, McCall said he had wrestled Barnwell to the ground and restrained him until backup police arrived.
McCall said he couldn't have done it without help from a civilian who was sitting in a truck on Fox Street.
When McCall wrestled Barnwell to the ground, McCall asked the passerby to call for backup and he did.
"If it hadn't been for him, who knows how long I would have been wrestling," McCall said.
Barnwell has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and armed robbery, DeMoura said.
When officers lined up for roll call at the beginning of his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift Monday, McCall saw DeMoura walk into the room.
"I saw the chief walk in and then it clicked," McCall said.
McCall, 33, a four-year member of the force, received a commendation and a ribbon of merit. He proudly wears the purple ribbon lapel above his badge on the left side of his uniform.
McCall's police brothers and sister's weren't surprised by the move.
"Without a weapon, without a radio, he chased this armed robbery suspect down," said Police Sgt. Chuck Siomos, who works with McCall daily. "He's just a good cop."
McCall said he's proud to receive the recognition.
"I see it as something anyone else in this department would have done. I was just at the right place at the right time," McCall said.
McCall said he's known since he was 3 years old that he wanted to be a cop. The TV show "Chips" inspired him, he said.
But as a youngster in Akron, Ohio, McCall said he started hanging out with the wrong crowd.
His mother moved him, his brother and his two sisters to Fitchburg, where he has lived since he was 13.
"It's like I tell kids today, if you associate yourself with bad people you're going to do bad things," McCall said. "You are who you associate yourself with."
McCall said getting involved in sports at Fitchburg High School turned his life around. McCall played football, basketball and track and field.
McCall also said he met his wife in Fitchburg.
Her father was a Fitchburg police officer.
"I knew I couldn't be dating a cop's daughter and be a bad person. 17 years later it's still working," he said with a chuckle.
McCall took a civil service exam after graduating high school and worked various jobs in the city, including with a local electrician and at Dunkin' Donuts.
He took the civil service exam to work in the state's Department of Corrections or State Police and landed his first law enforcement job maintaining control and care of Shirley's maximum security prison inmate population.
After four years on the job, McCall took a job opening in Fitchburg.
He spent six months at the police academy in Agawam and did a few months of on-the-job training with senior officers.
To this day McCall said he's not fully comfortable on the job.
"You can't be," McCall said. "I learn something different every day. If you get comfortable you become complacent."
McCall said the job's gotten more difficult in recent years with staff reductions and not having a new contract for three years.
"The less bodies you have the less work you can do," he said. "But we still do a lot."
McCall said cops chasing robbers down the street doesn't happen as much as people would expect it to.
"I'm almost certain that anyone that dons this blue uniform would do the same thing," McCall said. "We do care, we want to take the bad guys off the street."
McCall said if he sees a crime he'll act on it, whether he's on-duty or off-duty. "We're obligated to," he said. "They teach you in academy, you're a police officer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year