Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Entering the Academy and joining the Philadelphia Police Department was a huge step for me, both personally and professionally. It led directly to many big changes in my life, and signalled a complete change of direction for me and my family, both in the short and long terms.
But the changes that I would go through as a result of joining the PPD were nothing compared to those of Charlie Knox. You see, he was the one who died on-duty from our class. He sacrificed his actual life for the citizens of Philadelphia.
The experience of a recruit officer at the Academy is not an easy one in any way, but it is an incredible experience, and it was seriously fun at some points. I have often described it as sort of being back in high school, but being paid for it. Only this time you have classes that include how to fire a gun, drive a car under emergency conditions, and hand-to-hand combat, among others.
Still, the instruction takes place in classrooms and on the grounds of a campus environment, and it very much has a high school feel to it for those of any age.
Our class #289 started at the Academy on April 23rd, 1990, and was made up of about 100 recruits divided into two 'platoons' identified as 289-A and 289-B. The division came alphabetically, and Charlie fell in with the 'A' platoon while I was assigned to 'B' platoon.
Since most of your day-to-day experiences came within your own platoon, we didn't see a lot of the 'B' folks except in passing. But Charlie and I had become friendly in passing over that spring and summer.
We were the same age, were both married, and both had young kids. His son was 7-years old, and my two daughters were 10 and 8 years. And he had that same kind of mischievous, smart-alick, attitude and sense of humor that I had, and we always said 'hi' to one another and asked how we were doing with the Academy process.
When we got our assignments upon graduation, neither of us got a bad one: I was assigned to the downtown 6th district, Charlie to South Philly's 1st district. Having lived in the 1st for much of my teenage years, I knew it well, and knew that he would likely enjoy himself there. It also was close to home for him, as he lived just across the bridge in Southwest Philly.
Our graduation was in mid-September of 1990, and we all congratulated one another and wished one another well. As we shook hands that day out at the old Convention Center in University City, I didn't realize that it would be the last time that I would ever see Charlie Knox alive.
Everyone who came out of class #289 worked our first full year on the streets in 1991. As we moved through 1992, my first marriage had come to an end, and I actually met my future (and current) wife early that summer. So on Sunday, August 30th, 1992 with less than two years on the street, my own life was going through a number of big changes, but nothing compared to what Charlie was about to go through.
That evening, Charlie and his partner, Tony Howard, were working a patrol wagon. Tony had less than 6 months on the streets. So it was a couple of relatively inexperienced, but aggressive, cops who responded to a call that came from police radio of a robbery in progress at the Roy Rogers restaurant at Broad & Snyder.
Having responded to these kinds of calls hundreds of times, I can tell you that they flipped on their overhead dome lights, kicked the wagon into high gear, and headed towards that major South Philly intersection. Charlie was paying attention to traffic, and driving in that controlled emergency responder manner that we were taught at the Academy, while Tony was likely operating the siren when needed.
The two also were mentally playing out in their minds what would happen when they got there, how they would handle whatever situation awaited them. They might even have talked out some flexible game plan. There was probably even the thought crossing their minds that all this could be for nothing, as so many calls like this end up being either 'unfounded' completely, or some other type of situation than a robbery, such as a minor argument or disturbance.
They arrived at the restaurant just after 8:30pm, just moments after receiving the call, and walked in on a violent robbery in progress situation. Charlie confronted a male in the manager's office who was holding a gun to that manager's head. Charlie ordered the man to drop the gun, and then became engaged in a physical struggle with the robber.
Unseen by Charlie, a second gunman suddenly stepped from behind a doorway, shoved a gun into Charlie's side under his vest, and fired. When Charlie fell, the gunman fired another shot into his head. Howard had entered through a separate entrance, and the gunman fired at him as well, striking him in the shoulder.
Tony Howard was rushed to Thomas Jefferson hospital and survived the shooting. Charlie Knox wasn't so fortunate. He died from his gunshot wounds as the two robbers, who turned out to be brothers Tucker and Alan Ginn, fled the scene. They would not be arrested for another five months, after an incredible investigation and an intensive manhunt, and they were found guilty, now both serving life sentences in prison.
This afternoon, myself and other classmates of Charlie's from PPD Academy class #289, now having served 18 years with the police department, gathered along with his family, local dignitaries, and hundreds of fellow officers as a memorial plaque was laid outside the Walgreen's pharmacy which has now replaced the Roy Rogers restaurant at Broad & Snyder.
The plaque is part of a memorial program instituted a few years back to honor all of Philadelphia's fallen heroic police officers and firefighters like Charlie Knox at or near the place where they made their ultimate sacrifice for our community.
Charlie's son, Charlie Jr, was not there today. He was tragically killed in a car crash at the age of 16, six years after his father's murder. Charlie's widow, Arlene, has since remarried and has two young children with her second husband. She was there, front and center, to honor her former husband and her hero.
Anyone who knew Charlie Knox will never forget his famous, flashing smile, and that twinkle in his eye. When we were in the Academy, at one point an instructor invited everyone in the class to take a look around at one another, because he said that the odds were that at least one of us was going to be killed on duty over the course of our careers. It turned out that we didn't have long to wait. It was less than two years before Charlie Knox became the one that died in the line-of-duty from class #289.