Post Military - Chris Sarno Memoir
|When Chris Sarno received his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, he considered attending Boston
University. He took the preliminary test, but his scores were weak. Advisors recommended that he attend prep
school for two years, and if his scores were higher, he could finish his junior and senior year at BU. "I walked
away from that," Sarno said. Instead, he bought his first car with the money he had saved in his last year in the
Marine Corps. "It was a 1950 Pontiac convertible," he reminisced. "Convertibles are glitzy cars, but when youíre
driving with the hood down in the sun, you roast like a peanut and you get road grit all over you. Iíll never own
another convertible as long as I live."
Although he had a fancy car when he got out of the service, his job wasnít as flashy. "I had no trade. No skills," he said. "I worked a lower echelon job, receiving basic pay, for the city of Medford for about a year. Then I got a job in a paint factory in my home town. When I went to Korea, I was making 75 cents an hour in a furniture bedding factory. Five years later I made a dollar an hour as a factory laborer working 5 Ĺ days a week. It allowed me to get a newer car, but thatís all. I could get a car, but that was the end of my money pool. If I had any wild ideas of settling down and getting married, I couldnít even support a family. I worked that job for two years and eventually made $85 a week. It was a small, Jewish-owned six or seven-man outfit. I remember that every Christmas they gave us a nice bonus. It didnít make me rich, but they did give us a bonus commensurate with our status at the factory. The two years I was there, I daydreamed at my job. It was monotonous and so dull to me that I knew I didnít want to stay there. I felt that I could so something much more important, but I didnít have the initiative to pursue it. I was more or less waiting for things to happen."
But he did take the preliminary test to become an officer on the local police force. After passing the test, he was hired in 1958 as a patrolman on the Medford Police Department. The pay was the same as his paint factory job--$85.00 per week. "But I had medical benefits," Sarno said, "and I didnít have to pay into social security. They had a state-run retirement fund that we paid every week, but no money was ever taken for social security." There was no formal training to become an officer at that time, Sarno said. "I was handed a .38 revolver and a billy club, and placed under the supervision of veteran night officers for two weeks. I was to observe them and see how they handled all the different kinds of situations that cropped up."
He thought that being on the Medford police force would have a more military flavor to it, but he assumed wrong on that. "It was a very lax outfit," he said. "It was strictly civilian oriented." As time went by, he saw political corruptness in the department, as well as thieves working within the department. "I worked the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Medford didnít have an all-night place to socialize, but there were places that stayed open until around 2 a.m. No liquor was served in these places, but at the townís eateries and doughnut shops, there was always an element of people who habitually circulated there. There were single (and married) women who were attracted to Ďthe uniformíóand it didnít matter whether a single or a married police officer was wearing it. "There was a lot of temptation being a night police officer," Sarno said. "I was young and single. I never succumbed to them because my father had been with the department for twenty years. He had a good name and I was still living at home." Chris was determined not to tarnish the Sarno name on the police force or to be an embarrassment to his father. "I was a straight cop," Sarno said. "An honest cop, I was never involved in corruption and I was never on the take."
He was a different kind of officer than his father was, however. "My father never made an arrest in the 40 years he was a police officer," Sarno explained. "He was the old-fashioned type Ďgoodí cop that everybody knew. I was a good cop, too, but I was more aggressive than my father. I made plenty of arrests in my 23 years on the forceówhether it was a drunk or a felon." He liked being a police officer, but he was disappointed that it wasnít run in a more military fashion. "It was worse than an Army outfit," Sarno said. "Most of the department was Irish, but about 30 percent of the younger, incoming officers were Italian kids. Eastern Massachusetts was predominantly a huge Irish settlement, and the Irish on the Medford police force didnít want to relinquish their hold as an all-Irish department. There was a little racial friction there. Generally it was good-natured, but sometimes a fight broke out over differences of opinions."
Honest cops on the Medford police force had to be dedicated to their jobs, and they also had to understand that they were on their own when it came to making decisions about actions that might or might not backfire on them. "In the Marine Corps," Sarno explained, "if a good Marine crossed the line and screwed up, he was always given one more chance by the commanding officer. ĎOkay, so you made a mistake. Youíre a good Marine. So donít do it again.í But in the Medford police department, if you made a mistake, you would hang for it. You could be sued or you could be the subject of ridicule. There was not that camaraderie on the police force. You did police work for eight hours and then you went your own way until your next shift. It took me a while to realize that. You were on your own basically. If you didnít want to get in trouble, donít do anything."
As a case in point, Sarno said that two young kids once stole a car while Sarno was on duty. "We pursued the stolen car into a neighboring city at a high rate of speed," he recalled. "The fellow I picked up started shooting at the car, knowing well enough that we didnít have enough probable cause to use the weapon. He took a couple of shots at the car anyway, but he never hit it. The car eventually went out of control in another cityís main center, demolishing a newsstand, careening across the boulevard, and resting against a telephone pole." The kids were banged up a bit, and during the booking process one of them collapsed. He was taken to the hospital.
When his shift was over, Sarno went home. At 4 p.m. the next day, the night division captain called Sarno into his office and raked him over the coals for the events of the night before. Sarno, who was driving a one-man car when the pursuit took place, had erred by picking up an extra police officer to assist him. Sarno felt that it was better to have the odds in his favor when trying to apprehend a suspect. Unfortunately, a stray shot from the fellow officerís gun had gone through the front window of a funeral parlor, and the business owner demanded that the city pay $200 to replace the window. "This captain was a bigoted Irish guy from day one," Sarno said. "íLet me give you a tip, he told me. ĎYouíre a good, young officer, but youíve got to realize that the less you do, the better off youíre going to be. Let somebody else chase a stolen car. You do nothing, but you do it well.í" Sarno admitted that, "A lot of cops followed that trend. They got real lazy on the job. You do nothing, you last longer, and nobodyís going to bother you. Some of them spent 20 years avoiding all kinds of basic police duties. Some who got in a bad rut lost their jobs for not performing." The rut was not for Sarno. He angered the captain by talking back to him and informing him that he would not avoid his responsibilities as a police officer. If he saw a crime taking place, Sarno intended to act. "I hated that captain from that moment on," Sarno said. In spite of the animosity between the two officers, however, Sarno was cited four times by the department, all under that particular Irish chief.
Where many others on the police force opted to avoid an aggressive stance as police officers, Sarno silently (and publicly) decided to do things his way: when he saw a crime, he was determined to do his best to stop it. "In 1958, I started with the cruisers," he said. The previous police chief liked Chris, so much so that he put him in a night cruiser car. It was a steady assignment, and a good one. When the "bigoted Irish police chief" came into power, Sarno was bumped off of the cruiser and became a bouncerónot assigned to one sector, but bounced between two cruisers for two nights here and two nights there. "It was a slap in my face," Sarno said, "but I took it." He was replaced in his old sector by "guys that would play ball with the police chief."
A few years later, he requested a walking beat. "In those days," he said, "there were more walking beats than there was cruiser duty. It was a lot easier. Youíd go on the walking beat for eight hour, hitting a call box once an hour. Inside of that hour there was no contact between you and the station. Walking officers had to check all the stores on their particular routes. To miss a break-in during their tour of duty could result in being run up on charges. But the job was better for an evening social life, as well as for a man who was also raising a family at the time. "I was a very aggressive officer," Sarno said. "I didnít go out of my way to hurt people, but if I knew that somebody had stepped over the line and deserved to be arrested, they did get arrested. I didnít arrest people just for the sake of having power over somebody legally. No. If anything, I would make sure the guy hung himself before I decided he was well over the line." As a walking officer who only had to report in to headquarters every hour, Sarno had more relaxed moments than being on call in a cruiser. "But you were out in the elements now, too," he said.
On January 13, 1971, his walking beat started out as it ordinarily did, but it ended in an extraordinary way. That day, he was destined to be in the right place at the right time to stop a bank robbery. Sarno happened to be in the back alcove of a branch bank of the Medford Savings Bank when two men made the unfortunate decision to rob it. "I was a route officer in the Italian area of Medford, and one of my duties as a patrolman in the neighborhood was to be there when the kids got out of school at the end of the day. One very cold January day, it was about ten above zero. The bank nearby had an alcove that served as a break room for the bank employees, and they always had tea and cookies there. The assistant manager was a friend of my mother, so I went into the alcove that day to get warm. I took off my jacket and was having a cup of tea. Just recently the bank had installed a security deviceóa small TV monitor with audio. You could see right down the line of the four tellers from the back area. I was sipping my tea and watching it, when I heard a conversation between the customer and the teller. He said, ĎGive me all the money youíve got.í I looked at the screen thinking, ĎWhoís this wise guy?í Thatís when I saw his hand gun. I said, ĎOh shit. This guy means business.í I scanned the screen to see if there were other guns so I would know what I was up against." The break room was only about ten yards away from where the robber stood, but there was no back door. If Sarno came out the door, he would be right beside the nearest teller. "The only thing I had going for me was the element of surprise," he recalled. "That was always drilled into us in the Marine Corps. If you can gain an element of surprise, youíve got a great chance of being successful against the enemy."
The enemy turned out to be not one robberóbut two, and both were wielding guns. One was at the entrance, and the other had a gun on a teller. Sarno came out of the break room with gun in hand. "When I pulled the trigger," Sarno said, "I had his whole face in front of the muzzle of my gun. But when he saw the gun, he started to go straight down. I fired right through that thick plate glass, and I heard this ungodly scream. I figured I must have blown this guyís head off and he would now be laying in a pool of blood." Sarno knew that he was in the line of fire from the robber at the entrance. But rather than shooting at Sarno, the robber took a fast exist. When Sarno came around the counter, he discovered that the plate glass had deflected the bullet aimed at the robber. Sarno had only hit him in the hand rather than in the face. The robber crawled out through the front door, and both he and his partner in crime took off in different directions. The uninjured, would-be thief drove by in a car. Sarno got the license number, and quickly phoned it and a detailed description of the robbers in to headquarters. "No sooner was it broadcast to all the detective cars and inspector cars than the driver of the getaway car was apprehended," he said. In the meantime, the wounded robber had joined up with a female accomplice, and they were trying to get a cab when the department received a tip from a local resident regarding two suspicious people. Two officers got into a cab and picked them up."
When the mobile criminal, fleeing from the scene in an automobile, was stopped, it was discovered that he was "The Pig"óa hardened criminal from East Boston. A criminal all of his life, he had been in and out of the state prison for robbery. When officers tried to arrest him, he reached for his revolver. One of the policemen, a paratrooper from World War II, fired at the suspect at close range and the bullet went right through his neck, killing him. The other suspect was booked for bank robbery and other criminal acts associated with the robbery.
Sarno had to go to the station and file a report. "But before I did that," he said, "they sent me upstairs away from the reporters. They didnít want me to say anything that might jeopardize the legalities of the court case that would be coming up against this guy." In came the "Irish bigot chief of police," Sarno recalled. "He came towards me sort of smiling. I had been on the job twelve years now. I hated him and he hated me. I figured that he was going to compliment me." Instead, Sarno didnít receive that expected accolade. A couple of days prior to that, the street sergeant ordered the patrolmen to tag each and every car on their route that was in violation of the cityís overnight parking ordinance. Sarnoís route happened to be the one where the chief of police resided. The chiefís car was one of two cars that Sarno ticketed. Sarno based his decision to ticket the chief on the fact that the other ticketed car owner would not be happy if he got a ticket but the chief of police didnít get one for the same violation done at the same time. The chief of police thought that Sarno had ticketed him at the urging of the street sergeant. The chief and the street sergeant were on bad terms with each other. "I told him that it was strictly my doing," Sarno said. "He was in violation, so I tagged it."
Sarno said that he had enjoyed writing the ticket. "The chief took care of about ten men in the department," he said, "and the other hundred could die or something as far as he was concerned. He had complete control of the police force. He was the old-fashioned chief that did it the hard way. If he didnít like how you were doing things, you had to do them the way he did them twenty years ago. There was no union at the time--no police brotherhood or anything. None of this collective bargaining. The chief was like a dictator. Even the mayor left him alone so they could be on good terms. The chief had a fiefdom over his own men. If he didnít like you, he buried you on the midnight shift, and there was nothing you could do about it." Sarnoís act of defiance was a legal one. In fact, it was an official order: issue tickets to all violators. As far as Sarno was concerned, the chief of police wasn't too good or too special to receive a ticket if he happened to be one of those violators. With news of the foiled bank robbery permeating the department, the chief of policeís inquiry regarding the parking ticket didnít phase Sarno. "I could care less at that stage," he said. "I knew I was sitting pretty. I was the fair-haired boy right at the moment."
The local news media and the politicians made a big deal out of the fact that Medford officers had interrupted a bank robbery in progress. After ten years in his high-ranking office, the Irish police chief was due to retire in a couple of months. Because the attempted robbery was foiled, he exited his law enforcement career in a blaze of glory. The stateís attorney general came to Medford, and a huge luncheon for all the police officers involved in stopping the bank robbery was held. The officers were awarded the Medal of Valor, which was the police departmentís highest award. Each of them also got two weeks off with pay at a future date. Sarno got renewed respect from his fellow officers. They considered his initial efforts to stop the attempted robbery to be heroic. The Boston papers carried stories about how great it was to have a good police force and good law enforcement.
The local VFW honored Sarno as "Citizen of Medford" for doing what he did to stop the holdup. "I got a big write-up in the local paper," Sarno said. "Patrolman Sarno wins the Medal of Valor." For his part in the bank robbery foil, as well as for coming to the aid of Alexander Ritchie, a member of the Medford Fire Department who was stricken ill at home and survived thanks to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by Sarno, Patrolman Sarno was also nominated by the same local VFW Chapter for the J. Edgar Hoover Gold Medal Award. His career as a Medford police officer was as shiny as his badge.
Before retiring, Sarno switched jobs once again. He decided to go to traffic division, and he found that he liked it. "I was around people all the time," he recalled. "It was day shift work, so I got to see and know the people who frequented the square and other areas of my route. The job had a lot of diversity. I had conversations with the people, and I liked that." One eventful day, however, Sarno was temporarily pulled from his walking route to fill in as a cruiser officer. He wasnít happy about the change in his routine.
Sure enough, right off the bat there was an incoming call over a husband and wife problem. "In those days," he said, "that was a shit call. It wasnít called domestic violence. It was a civil problem. If we broke up the problem, we just recommended that they get a lawyer to help them out of the situation. If we didnít see any blows delivered and if nobody appeared to be seriously hurt, we couldnít arrest anyone. If it wasnít a criminal matter, our hands were tied." On this particular day, the "husband and wife problem" resulted in a major injuryónot to the fighting couple, but to Officer Sarno.
"It was the basic yelling and screaming at one another when we arrived," Sarno said. "I told the other officer that I would take the husband and he could take the wife. We needed to separate them and get them to calm down. We calmed the husband down, but the wife was out of sorts. She attacked her husband, so we got in the middle to try to break them up." The fighting moved from inside the apartment to the top of the stairway. In the scuffle with the wife, Sarno was tossed down the stairs. "When push came to shove," he said, "I was down the stairs doing somersaults. My back was seriously injured. I could walk, but I couldnít walk straight up. I didnít have a herniated disc, but I had damage to the connections between a couple of my lower disks. As a result, I was in and out of the hospital frequently. I was never the same after that. I couldnít even put my gun belt on without it starting the pain in my back. I couldnít perform my duty, and in those days there was no such thing as having light duty. You either came back and did street duty, or else forget it. Within two years they decided to put me on the involuntary disabled list. I was 48 years old when I was discharged from the police force with a restricted pension."