They say the character of a man is proved by what he does when nobody is watching.
If that is true, then Laurel Police Officer Bennett Johns proved beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly what kind of man he is.
Johns took a shoplifting call from a Giants store in the middle of a shift one day, and he had no idea that he was about to become a viral phenomenon.
The first interesting part of this story is that cops don’t usually like taking shoplifting calls.
For one thing, they can get messy as very few people admit to having shoplifted, even if they get caught redhanded. It’s also a lot of paperwork for what is usually a low-dollar, no-violence crime.
But Johns had a job to do so he quickly made his way to the store, not expecting the call to be all that exciting.
He went into the store thinking it was most likely a teenager trying for a thrill. Or it could’ve been someone trying to hoist something to hock immediately for quick cash.
It used to be that cigarettes were the most popular target for shoplifters but now that they are kept behind the counter, the focus has shifted to a wider range of items.
These days chewing gum is the most likely item to be stolen. Other commonly stolen items include:
Painkillers, diet drugs, Rogaine hair renewal (who wants to bring attention to their baldness by paying for the treatment?), hair products, cosmetics, tooth whitening strips and deodorant.
Officer Johns expected some combination of the above when he walked through the door, but he was floored by what he found instead.
A young mother with a two-year-old son had been caught trying to steal, not something to make quick cash from, but instead two packages of diapers.
She hadn’t gone there intent on committing a crime, either. She only attempted to shoplift the diapers after she realized she didn’t have enough money to pay for everything in her cart.
Despite the sad situation, the store manager had called the police, and Officer Johns knew that the manager was well within his rights and that justice had to be served.
But, as a child of a single mom he also knew what a battle that young woman was facing every day. He remembered well the times his own mother didn’t have the money to pay for family necessities.
Furthermore, the woman (who remains unidentified) was aware that what she did broke the law.
She just didn’t see any other way to continue to take care of her son, and that just about broke the soft heart of the hardened police officer.
After checking to see that she had no open warrants against her and her identification was valid, he issued her a criminal citation.
That meant that although justice was served and her crime was registered, he did not have to take her (and her son) to jail.
Then he went a step farther and opened his wallet to pull enough money out to pay for the diapers. The young mother couldn’t believe her eyes.
She listened, her eyes glistening with tears, as the officer explained to her that there are always other options.
He gave her a phone number of a local agency that would provide necessities to parents who were having problems providing adequately for their children.
He also made sure that her toddler wasn’t traumatized during the entire process; he remained calm and quiet and simply explained what he was doing and why.
Then he helped her gather up her packages and said goodbye.
He says he didn’t think much about it after that.
It had made him feel good to help someone the way he wishes more people had helped him and his mother. But, he didn’t feel that his actions should have gotten a lot of attention. After all, he was just doing his job.
But a lot of other people noticed his actions. A lot. And they all thought he deserved to be recognized for being a very good guy doing a very hard job.
Over the next few weeks even the Laurel, Maryland mayor and the Chief of Police, Richard McLaughlin got involved in heaping accolades on the shoulder of the young officer who thought he was just doing his duty.
They both made statements that their officers make these kinds of heartwarming gestures almost daily.
It’s part of their training to have empathy as well as an understanding of the law and the ability to enforce it.
But they also said that Johns’ effort had been especially thoughtful and had made a great impact on everyone involved.
“Though it’s but a snapshot of some of the work your officers are doing daily, we still wanted to take a moment to thank Officer Johns for not just fairly enforcing the law, but also showing empathy to an innocent child put in a difficult situation,” the department wrote on their Facebook page.
The Laurel Police Department should be commended, for not only encouraging but also applauding the above-and-beyond efforts of the men and women who practice “community policing” and not just doling out punishments.
This kindly offier showed the world that indeed what makes a man great is what he does when he thinks no one is watching.
We were watching…and we are proud.