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DEDICATION TO DECENCY REFLECTIONS ON A BOSTON STREET COP
Boston Globe
January 30, 1997
Author: Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff
Estimated printed pages: 11
Being a street cop, Walter Fahey says, is one of the last honorable professions.
That is why he remained one for 40 years, despite opportunities to do other kinds of police work. And that is why he did not want to retire. At 65, he had to
Working a job that can consume the most resilient and robust of individuals, the vast majority of cops who last as long as Fahey do one of two things: they coast, leaving street work to younger cops, or they become cynical.
Fahey did neither. He retained the I-can-change-the-world enthusiasm of a rookie, but comported himself with a street wisdom honed over five decades. As tough as he was, Fahey was known as much for his compassion. He always had a soft spot for children and the homeless.
While most cops look to move up and out to specialty units, seeking the prestige and extra money that comes with it, Fahey went out of his way to stay where he felt most suited: the street. Five years ago, after being promoted, Fahey became the first and only detective to voluntarily turn in his gold badge to return to the rank of patrol officer. He loathed the paperwork, and missed the streets.
Last year, at the age of 64, he became the oldest officer to win the department's Medal of Honor, honored for his role in ending an armed hostage standoff. It was the second time he won it. Earlier this month, at a time when most officers approaching retirement would, understandably, leave dangerous work to younger cops, Fahey hopped out of his cruiser and chased a man who had robbed someone at knifepoint near Fields Corner.
Having heard Fahey, huffing and puffing as he narrated the chase into his two-way radio, Sergeant Frank Armstrong, one of many Fahey proteges, called him. Armstrong's concern manifested itself almost as anger.
"Walter!" he said. "What are you doing? You're going out in a couple of weeks!"
Fahey shrugged. "Hey, Sarge," he replied, "you're still paying me. I don't stop working until the final tour."
Fahey, part anomaly, part legend, all cop, worked his final tour of duty the other night. His 40 years of service are more than the legacy of a conscientious police officer. They are a window to the city and its history, how it has changed, how its diversity is its strength, how it will survive only as long as its neighborhoods.
Walter J. Fahey grew up in St. Joseph's parish in Roxbury, between Dudley and Egleston squares, one of six children born to Irish immigrants from Cork. His father was a night watchman, and by the time young Walter was 6, he wanted to be a cop.
"There was a beat cop in our neighborhood," he recalls. "Bill McCarthy. He worked out of old Station 9. He kept all of us kids in line. He never hit us. He had a big pot belly, and he wouldn't chase us because he couldn't catch us. But if we did something wrong, when we got home, our fathers would give us a backhander, and we knew that McCarthy had been around."
Fahey appreciated the stability that cops like Bill McCarthy brought to working-class neighborhoods. Only in recent years have policy wonks and highly paid consultants come up with a name for the kind of work Bill McCarthy performed and inspired in Walter Fahey: community policing.
Ike was in the White House and Fahey was 25 years old when he took an oath and got a badge. He was paid $73.26 a week. He thought he was rich. He was assigned to the traffic division downtown, and started a family that would grow to six kids.
Fahey was a dream for the Record-American, the tabloid that loved hero cops. In 1958, he stopped a runaway truck on School Street, averting tragedy. In 1961, he talked a hysterical 15-year-old out of jumping from the seventh floor of a building downtown, earning his first Medal of Honor. The girl got help, grew up, got married and had four kids. In 1974, he rescued a family of seven from a burning house in the South End. He worked downtown for 19 years, tagging cars, chasing bank robbers, talking the ears off tourists who stopped for directions.
But Fahey was living large. Literally. He came on the job at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds. A decade later, he was up around 350 pounds. Bill Bratton, who served as police commissioner both in Boston and New York, remembers when Fahey changed his lifestyle and lost much of the excess weight.
"It was like Walter was reborn. There was no stopping him," said Bratton.
Fahey is one of those most responsible for creating the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association in 1965. After the infamous 1919 police strike, cops were left without union representation. Fahey said he and other cops decided to stand up for their own rights as workers, inspired in part by the courage and effectiveness of civil rights marchers.
The tension between street cops and superior officers conspired to provide Fahey with one of his biggest influences. A cop named Ray Winson got transferred from Roxbury to traffic in retaliation for his union activity. There he found a fast friend and partner in Fahey. Winson was something of a street philosopher.
"Never seek the level of the people we deal with," Winson told his younger partner. "And always remember we're not dealing with the Kennedys and Rockefellers out here."
Seldom a day goes by that Fahey does not recall his words.
"It stuck with me for 40 years. Ray always reminded me to not judge all people by a few. That's the worst thing you can do, ascribe an individual's failings to a group. That's why I get mad when I hear people badmouth a whole neighborhood because of a handful of maggots. That's why I get mad when I hear people badmouth all police officers because of a few bad cops."
Kathleen O'Toole, who as secretary of public safety is the highest-ranking law enforcement official in Massachusetts, says that when she began her career as a police officer in Boston, Fahey went out of his way to encourage her and others who had broken into what was previously an overwhelmingly white, Irish and male department.
"Walter instinctively sides with the underdog," says O'Toole. "It was pretty rough, breaking in. Walter would come by, put his arm around you and tell you to hang in there, that the job needed women and minorities."
Given such testimonials, it might surprise some to learn that Fahey was active in the antibusing movement in the 1970s. Fahey sees no contradiction. To him, busing children to desegregate Boston's schools was a disastrous experiment in social engineering that set race relations back a generation. He says it had noble intentions, but was fatally flawed because nearly everyone who could afford to avoid it did. And he says that anyone who voiced opposition to it was branded a racist, further polarizing the city. Fahey says he opposed busing for the same reasons that inform his philosophy on policing.
"Busing thumbed its nose at the idea of neighborhood, and once you destroy the neighborhoods and their institutions and their character, you've destroyed the city," he says. "To me, it was never an issue of color. It was an issue of class, of a judge, who lived in Wellesley, telling parents they had to ship their kids across town on a bus to satisfy a quota while the judge sent his kids to private schools."
Despite his personal beliefs, as a police officer, Fahey worked to enforce the desegregation plan. There is a remarkable photograph that ran in newspapers all across America in 1974. It shows a rattled US Senator Edward M. Kennedy addressing a hostile crowd of busing opponents at City Hall Plaza. And it shows a cop in back of Kennedy, protecting him. The cop was Walter Fahey.
"I thought Kennedy represented exactly what was wrong with busing: he was for it, but he sent his kids to private school. But my job was to uphold the law, not interpret it to my liking."
The crowd got ugly that day. They began throwing eggs and rotten tomatoes at Kennedy, who retreated into the federal building named for his murdered brother, John. Fahey was incensed at those who attacked Kennedy.
"They discredited a lot of people who opposed busing on principle," he says. "Whatever moral ground we held, we lost it because of idiots like that."
Many cops of Fahey's generation resent the consent decree that led the city to dramatically increase the number of minority officers. Fahey doesn't like quotas, but is an enthusiastic supporter of integrating what he calls "the job."
"You see that cop?" he says, pointing to an imposing black officer walking out of District 11. "That's Willie Gross, and he's all cop. He's one of the finest police officers in this city. You hear some guys gripe that some black cops got on because of affirmative action. I say you judge a cop by what he does on the street. Give me a Willie Gross, a Donald Casey, and I'll run through walls with them. It's like I said, you don't judge groups, you judge individuals."
Fahey attended a diversity seminar, and spoke passionately about how he wished he had the chance to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. One cop, skeptical of Fahey's claim, approached him after and asked, "Would you really have marched in Selma?"
"Not in '63," Fahey replied. "But today I would. Your views change. You have to adapt."
Fahey transferred to District 11 in Dorchester in 1976, teaming up with Frank Venuti. They were partners for 12 years, until Venuti retired in 1988. They became an institution. Venuti, the quiet Italian who never got a word in edgewise because Fahey, the storyteller with the map of Ireland on his face, never shut up. But when the bell rang, Fahey and Venuti were considered among the best.
Asked what he considers his best arrest -- his best pinch, as Fahey would say -- Fahey doesn't mention any of the half-dozen murderers he collared.
"Years ago, up around Meetinghouse Hill, there was a guy who was abducting Haitian kids and molesting them," he says, cruising down Bowdoin Street. "Every Wednesday, for six months, Frank and I would pick up one of the victims, an 11-year-old girl, after she got out of school, and we'd just drive her around, looking for the guy. After he raped the little girl, he lit a match and put it under her lips, said she'd be cursed if she told anyone what he did. One day, she says, `That's him.' We gra b the guy, lock him up. He confessed to five others. He was a pedophile, and Frank and I figured we saved some kids by getting him off the street."
Every neighborhood, every street corner, holds a Walter Fahey story. As he approaches St. Peter's Church in Dorchester, Fahey points to the huge granite edifice.
"I got married there," he says. "And you see that green house over there? I nursed my mother there when she was dying, God rest her soul. We'd pray before the crucifix in her bedroom, and wouldn't you know, 15 years after she died, I'm standing in that same bedroom, my mother's bedroom, with my gun drawn, and I've got it on seven guys, all of them with heroin, and I'm holding the gun on them, calling for backup, and I'm looking up to heaven, saying, `Ma, can you believe this?' "
One day, Fahey and Venuti got a call for an unresponsive child. They went to a home where a large Puerto Rican family stood helpless as the lifeless body of an infant girl lay in her crib. Fahey checked for vital signs, but knew she was gone. The body was still warm.
"Has this child been baptized?" Fahey asked.
The parents, their eyes red raw, shook their heads.
As Fahey poured tap water onto the dead infant's forehead and made the sign of the cross, the family knelt around him, murmuring prayers in Spanish.
Fahey and Venuti stayed with the family after the medical examiner had removed the body. A priest showed up, and was taken aback when the mother explained that Fahey had baptized the baby. The priest took Fahey aside and, in a haughty, condescending tone, told Fahey he had no business administering a sacrament. Fahey felt his face grow flush, the anger rising.
"Listen, Father," he whispered, "You and I are of the same faith. I was always taught, in my church, that anyone could perform a baptism in an emergency, especially for a child. Now if you want to tell that family their beautiful little girl is in Limbo, you be my guest. But as far as I'm concerned, that little girl is in Heaven right now."
The priest, stunned, said nothing. Fahey walked over and hugged the dead child's mother.
Sergeant Matthew Kervin is all business, reading off the duty roster at the District 11 station. But even Kervin, a serious man, allows that tonight is special.
"This is Officer Fahey's last tour of duty," he says.
The day shift, whose officers would normally head right home, have stayed behind. There are about 40 cops crammed into the squad room, to witness a little bit of history.
After Kervin finishes reading the assignments, Fahey stands on a landing, slightly elevated from the squad room.
"I just wanted to say a few words," he begins, and there is some chuckling, because anyone who knows Fahey knows he is anything but a man of a few words.
"If I hurt or offended anybody in this station, I'm sorry. But if I left anything with you professionally, that means I'll always be here. You know, I always took this job seriously. I never believed in that `Do nothing, but do it well' stuff. Believe me, I've been down on this job. But I always bounced back. And I was as proud to put on this uniform the last six months as I was the first six.
"It's hard to leave. But when I pick up the paper, and I read about a nice piece of police work, and I can put a name and a face with it, it will really make me feel better. I'll be with you all the time. If somebody starts ripping a cop unfairly, they'll hear from me. I'll never stop being a cop, until that last roll call."
Fahey's voice is cracking.
"I look at you new cops. And I stood there, like you, 39 years ago. I have no qualms. I know the city is in good hands. I love each and every one of you. And with that, I'll say so long."
His eyes glistening, Fahey steps back, pinches the bridge of his nose with a thumb and forefinger, and the room erupts in loud, sustained applause.
Captain Bob Dunford, the station commander, has come in on his day off. As Fahey stands a few yards away, shaking hands with other cops as they head out to their cruisers, Dunford shakes his head in wonder.
"It's hard, staying on," Dunford says. "A lot of older cops can't relate to the younger ones. Walter always liked the young ones. He liked to teach them, and he always learned something from them. He changed along with them."
When Tommy Nee got out of the police academy 10 years ago, all he wanted to do was arrest bad guys. But the protocol is that you ride with veterans, old-timers, and learn the ropes.
Nee, 45 days out of the academy, picked up Walter Fahey at District 11.
"Where to?" Nee asked.
"The Carney," Fahey replied.
"The Carney?" Nee asked. "What for?"
"The sandwiches," Fahey replied.
At the end of the day, Carney Hospital in Dorchester would throw out food it didn't use. Fahey would stop by, collect the uneaten sandwiches and bring them to a homeless shelter.
"So," Nee recalled, "we pick up the sandwiches and we're heading over to the shelter when Walter says, `Pull over, pull over.' There's this homeless guy, standing on Dot Ave, and he's just pissed his pants. Walter gets out and brings the guy over and puts him in the backseat of my brand new cruiser. And I'm looking at Walter and I go, `This isn't what I went to the police academy for.'
"Walter didn't get upset. He just said, `Look, kid. You'll have plenty of time to lock up bad guys. Anybody can be tough. You've got to learn how to be tough and compassionate at the same time.' And I'm thinking, `This old fool. What does he know about police work?' But, you know what? Walter was right. It's like when your father told you something when you were a kid, and you thought it was a bunch of crap, but then you grow up, and you look back and you realize your father was right about everything. I look back now and I see that Walter was right about everything. You have to be tough, but if you're not compassionate, you're not going to be a good cop."
Fahey has asked Tommy Nee to ride with him on the last tour.
"Let's go to Long Island, Tommy," Fahey sighs.
Fahey has worked the detail at the homeless shelter on Long Island for years, as much a fixture at the shelter as Victor, a slight, emaciated man with a thick gray beard who has called Long Island home for 12 years.
"Victor was a Polish freedom fighter," Fahey says, saluting the old man. "Victor fought the Nazis. If not for Victor, we might all be speaking German. And look at the poor bastard. Smokes four packs of cigarettes a day. A freedom fighter, and he's going to die here."
Fahey wraps his arm around his replacement, Jimmy Tran, the city's first Vietnamese officer. Tran has inherited the armchair Fahey stuffed into a closet that serves as the detail cop's refuge. As Fahey works the floor, saying goodbye to the shelter denizens, Jimmy Tran talks about him.
"Walter was very supportive," he says. "He always say, `You the future, you the future.' He say we need more Vietnamese officers, to help the community."
Fahey is calling out various names, demanding their presence.
"Henry! Come here!"
Henry, a diminutive, elderly gentleman, dressed neatly in a modest suit and tie, emerges from the TV room. Henry is a compulsive gambler who lost everything, except his dignity.
"Henry gets up every morning at 5 and takes a shower, don't you, Henry?" Fahey says.
Henry nods, then looks up at Fahey and says, very seriously, "We're gonna miss you, Walter."
Fahey leaves, promising to come back to visit. But before he can drive off, Jimmy Tran comes sprinting out into the parking lot. It is freezing and he is not wearing a jacket.
"What's up, Jimmy?" Fahey asks, rolling down his window.
"I just want to say," Jimmy Tran says, catching his breath, bowing. "I just want to say, I am very proud of you, Walter Fahey. You are an honorable man. I thank you for everything."
Fahey is visibly moved by the young cop's tribute.
"Thanks, Jimmy," he says softly, shaking Tran's hand. "Now, get back in there, before you freeze your ass off."
Fahey is standing in the lobby at police headquarters on Berkeley Street, waiting for the elevator. He glances over to the Roll of Honor plaque. The names of 21 officers who died in the line of duty since Fahey came on are engraved on the plaque.
"I knew every one of them," Fahey whispers. "Some better than others."
Fahey says there are some names not on the plaque that should be, cops who died, not necessarily in the line of duty, but because of a job that can eat you up inside.
"I knew a cop. One day, out of the blue, he comes up, hugs me, says he loves me, walks away. I couldn't figure it out. Three days later, he stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger."
The elevator doors open and he steps in.
"I've cried on this job," Fahey says, almost to himself, punching at the 7th floor button. "Lord, I've cried on this job."
On the top floor at headquarters, in the communications center known as The Turret, Fahey is making the rounds.
Sergeant Armstrong, who had admonished Fahey for chasing the guy with a knife, is beaming as dispatchers hook Fahey up to make a citywide broadcast, a farewell that cops call an "Ocean Frank," police lingo for signing off.
"Take a good, long last look," Armstrong whispers, "because they don't make 'em like this anymore."
A dispatcher nods. Fahey clears his throat and begins.
"This is Officer Fahey. This is my last tour of duty, ending my 40th year on the street. All I can say is, be good to your families, to the communities that you serve, and keep your faith. Most of all, be tough with your adversaries, working within the framework of the law, never crossing the line. Good luck. God bless you all. Ocean Frank."
There are no more tears. Fahey shakes some hands and leaves, even as responses from cops crackle over the police radio.
"See ya, Walter."
"Good luck, grandpa."
"Tell Frank Venuti I said hi."
He walks out into the frigid air. The streets are empty, the sky dark and hauntingly clear. It is so cold that it stings your nose to breathe. But Fahey stands there on the sidewalk and inhales deeply, as if he wants to breathe in the city, its sights, its sounds, its smells, one last time in uniform.
"C'mon," Walter Fahey says, exhaling. "Let's go. It's time to go home
 

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That man represents everything that makes me want to be a cop. Hopefully I can be half the cop you are. Thank you Officer Fahey!
 

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I know Walter, worked with him, and wrecked his favorite cruisier one night chasing bad guys........has anyone heard from him lately? What a Cop......Just watching Venuti and Fahey working was an experience in itself..........I gotta tell you I learned alot from them.........Walter could talk a dog off a meat wagon and sell you an acre of the Boston Common at the same time.........
 

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Wow, I had the pleasure of meeting Walter about 10 years ago. What he taught me is still fresh in my mind. I thought this was a new article, but then realized he's been retired for over 8 years.
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Yep. It's an old article...but I pull it up periodically - its great reminder about what being a cop is all about. I never had the honor of meeting Walter Fahey...but from what I hear of him he was a true gentleman and an exceptional cop. The don't make 'em like that anymore.
 

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A terrific story, about a great cop and even greater father. Walter Fahey is my dad and it has always given me great pride in sayig so. He is truly my hero. My dad remains busy in retirement; working out, working at the Carney hospital, working with hospice patients on the so. shore, working for a funeral home and above all spending time with grand kids which now number 12. My dad left the job but the job will never leave him and he can be found talking to guys on the job often and offering his advice. Everything I have in my life I owe to this man and I have tried to emulate him the best I can in my own personal life and profession. (active duty Air Force Security Forces) Thank you all for remembering my dads career, he has read all the replies and is deeply touched. Stay safe!
 
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