Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007 American of the Year: Chuck Cassidy



Folks outside of the Philadelphia, PA area might be saying “What? Who?” right about now. But bear with me and you will understand. For those in the area, it’s likely that you know the name, and if so then you know the reason. Let’s start off with the briefest of updates for those who don’t know the reason. Charles “Chuck” Cassidy was a Philadelphia police officer who gave his life in the line of duty on Halloween morning, basically ambushed by a robber whom he likely never saw coming.

It was the sunny morning of October 31st, 2007, and 54-year old Chuck Cassidy eased his marked Philadelphia police department SUV into a parking space directly in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts business in the West Oak Lane section of the city. No one can speak for officer Cassidy as to what was running through his mind at that moment. From being in his situation on thousands of occasions over a seventeen-year career, I can probably paint you a fair picture.

First, it was a beautiful day outside and Chuck, a veteran of a quarter-century policing the streets of Philadelphia, was likely basking in it. Perhaps on the drive to the donut shop he had music playing in his patrol vehicle. He certainly had his police radio on, listening to the scattered broadcasts coming over on a typical bustling day in the busy 35th police district which he served for two decades.

Nearby that morning there was scheduled to be a memorial service for a long-ago fallen officer. A plaque would be placed near the location of that heroic officer’s ultimate sacrifice, and it is entirely plausible that Chuck had plans to attend that service along with dozens, if not hundreds, of fellow officers, friends, and family members of the officer. He would certainly have known of the service, and was factoring it into his morning plans in some way.

Also, it was Halloween, and Chuck Cassidy was a family man in the best sense of that word. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Judy, for over 26 years, and they had been raising three great kids: Katie, Colby, and John. Along with this immediate family there were numerous nieces and nephews, and some would be getting ready for the annual “trick or treat” rituals. This kid-friendly holiday and his own family’s plans to handle that evening’s anticipated rush of candy-craving kids was surely on his mind.


At that early part of the morning, this was probably not just another day to Chuck Cassidy; it was probably one of the good days. Sunny and pleasant, a family-type fun holiday, a remembrance scheduled for a fallen brother officer. Chuck headed out on patrol with his mind likely at ease, but he was also most certainly at some level of extra awareness and attentiveness due to recent events both in his patrol area and in the city.

In his area, there had been a string of robberies, and these Dunkin’ Donuts establishments had been particularly targeted a few times. Chuck had established an ongoing friendly relationship with the management and employees of this particular venue, as all of us who have ever patrolled the streets have done with many of the business people in our assigned areas. Chuck made it a habit to particularly stop by and ensure that all was well at this location.

Over the past four weeks, the city had been rocked by the shooting of three other Philadelphia police officers in separate incidents, including two in just the past three days. And it was just over a year ago that the city had been rocked by the death of another popular family man officer, Gary Skerski, a friend and work colleague of mine from my own days patrolling the 6th district in the early 1990’s, who was shot by a robber exiting the scene of his crime.

Shootings have been out of control in our town for some time now, and local cops and other law enforcement officers have not escaped becoming victims of the epidemic of violence.

So as he exited his SUV, Chuck Cassidy was likely in good spirits, looking forward to the day, possibly even to enjoying that “first cup of coffee” that is one of the small things so important to so many of us. As he exited, someone outside of the shop told him that something suspicious was going on inside, and with that information and all of the previous knowledge of robberies and shootings, Chuck likely opened that shop door with a heightened sense of awareness and apprehension.

There is no way that I can say this for a fact, but having viewed the news videos from outside the shop, and having seen the surveillance video from inside, there is likely another crucial factor that contributed to what happened next. As anyone who has ever stood outside on a bright, sunny day knows, it is very difficult to see into the windows of a small business. The glare from the sun simply overtakes the situation. My bet is that Chuck was walking in “blind”, perhaps believing that he might be walking in on an argument that the establishment was having with a customer.

We certainly know what happened next. 21-year old John Lewis, a young black male, a high school dropout, a repeat offender with a lengthy criminal past already, had been inside holding up the business at the point of a handgun. It was not his first time, as he would later be named as the robber in the other recent Dunkin’ Donuts robberies. He had been an employee at one of the businesses in the past, knew their routines, and thus felt the store was an easy mark. What he didn’t count on was a police officer pulling up just at the moment that he was robbing the shop.

Lewis had just a couple of seconds to decide what he was going to do next. Since he could see out the windows much better than Chuck could see inside, Lewis knew that he was about to be confronted, and thus he had a serious advantage. Chuck only knew that there might be some type of problem inside, nothing more. As he pulled open the handle of the door and stepped into the doorway, Lewis had made his decision. He was not going to be arrested on this day, he was going to try to get away, and there was only one way that was likely to happen.

At 10:30am on Halloween morning 2007, John Lewis pointed his gun and shot Chuck Cassidy at point-blank range in the head as Chuck took the final step of his life into the doorway of that small Dunkin’ Donuts shop on Broad Street in Philadelphia. He never saw it coming, at least not until it was entirely too late. Chuck was kept alive by artificial means until he died the following morning. The killer made his getaway, and eventually fled to Florida with the help of a family member. But outstanding police work by Chuck’s fellow officers led to his capture.

At this point, I would like to apologize to the family and his fellow officers in the 35th district for any liberties that I may have taken here in describing Chuck’s thoughts and actions. They are in no way meant to speak for what absolutely happened; they are just the ruminations of a fellow officer who has been in similar situations on similar days, albeit without a tragic ending to this point.

Also my apologies to the department, particularly the hard-working investigators on the case, for any slight errors in describing the incident. The details have been gleaned from press reports and conversations with fellow officers. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Chuck, as is obvious with the announcement of what I hope is the honor being bestowed herein.

An outsider might argue that I am being partial to law enforcement officers, Philly cops in particular, in naming Chuck as this year’s honoree. After all, cops are killed all across the country, every year. And last year saw the murder under very similar circumstances of Gary Skerski, whom I personally knew and worked with. Was there some reason he was not named, and Chuck suddenly was this year? And there will be some who say, in all due respect to the fallen officer, weren’t there Americans this year whose contributions were more vital in the bigger picture?

I always feel the need to defend the choices that I make for this honor each year. There have been three previous recipients, all of a higher national awareness level than Chuck. In 2004, Pat Tillman was named for sacrificing his life in the War on Terror, particularly since he gave up stardom in the NFL to defend his country. In 2005 it was pundit Bill O’Reilly, who put the heat on both the political right and left in his “No Spin Zone” every night during a time of political partisanship, and who had become an outspoken champion of children’s causes. In 2006 it was the preacher to the country, Billy Graham, a man whose is certainly a modern-day apostle.

In choosing Chuck Cassidy, it is for both his own personal sacrifice, because after all he gave of himself fully by giving his life. He paid the ultimate price in the service to his community, and after all what is more important to the nation? It is also representative for the sacrifices in the past of Gary Skerski, Danny Faulkner, and the thousands of other law enforcement officers across the country who have likewise given their lives in service to their communities. The men and women of law enforcement put on a uniform, strap on a gun, and step out each day on some level to serve their fellow Americans.

The sacrifice of Chuck Cassidy raised him above some of the other very worthy nominees this year. I want to thank those who submitted the names of First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, economist Thomas Sowell, author Dinesh D’Souza, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, TV personality Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, former Senator Rick Santorum, local war hero Dell Dailey, and Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

There was another consideration this year as well. It was most certainly the year of the “Pop Tart”, and I wrote an article about this back in June of this year. The embarrassing public and private exploits of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, and Tara Reid, among others, took over the headlines many nights. This was all highlighted by the death of Anna Nicole Smith. The awful negative example that these young women were giving to our youth led me on a search of young Hollywood women who might be a shining, positive example, in the hopes that highlighting one of them with the honor would serve as a counter. But the sacrifice given by Chuck overwhelmed even that idea.

Earlier in the year, back in March, Chuck and his partner had confronted a pair of armed gunmen who had just committed another robbery. The two officers confronted the men with strength, professionalism, and maturity, and were able to convince the men to lay down their weapons, taking them into custody without further incident. That job ended far more pleasantly, and gave Chuck the opportunity to bask in being a hero to his community and fellow officers. But it was not a role he cherished. Almost to a man, it was well known that Chuck avoided the spotlight.

At his funeral services, Chuck’s brother-in-law, Tony Conti, gave a tremendously eloquent and moving eulogy that painted a wonderful, uplifting picture of Chuck’s life. In it, Mr. Conti described all of the attention that was surrounding the aftermath of the murder: "Chuck is an unassuming man, right Mrs. Cassidy? This is a guy who avoided the spotlight. This is a man who hated to be the center of attention. Do you have any idea what he's saying right now?"

I hope that in naming Chuck Cassidy as the website’s 2007 American of the Year, he would accept if he could on behalf of the sacrifice that all of America’s police officers and their families make every day. The battle that our troops overseas face every day is similarly fought here at home on our own streets everyday by its police officers, firefighters, and other law enforcement officers and public service professionals.

May God bless the family as they move forward. May He bless all of the police officers around the nation, and particularly here in the City of Brotherly Love, in staying safe while remaining dedicated to their communities each day. And may God especially bless Philadelphia police officer and 2007 American of the Year Chuck Cassidy with a well-deserved eternity of peace.

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