Retired police officers reflect on community, camaraderie
BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — Everyone has a story.
The glory days are irresistible fodder for storytellers, golden times when friends were many and worries, few.
Then, there are the dark and heavy stories that do not get lighter, no matter how many times they are shared.
There are secrets that pulse beneath the surface of everyday talk, just waiting to be spilled to a sympathetic hearer, and there are those far-fetched, yet true, tales that compel an honest man to offer witnesses.
Beckley is the city where Tim Berry’s stories happened. One day, Berry said, he may write down his stories. But in October, he and a group of former Beckley Police Department officers met at the Historic Black Knight ballroom to relive the days they spent as BPD officers.
“These group of officers worked our streets,” Berry said in October. “We made a lot of friends.
“It was just a nice time to be there.”
Berry fills one of two at-large positions on Beckley Common Council now, but some of his most poignant memories happened at Beckley Police Department, between 1981 and 1994.
During his time at BPD, Berry followed or worked with a team that includes West Virginia Parole Board member Cedric Robertson (retired BPD chief detective and former Beckley councilman), former BPD Chief Tom Durrett, Frank Pack (retired BPD), the late Randy Boyd, Harry Burkowski, the late Eddie Hatcher, former patrolman Don Lilly, the late J.D. Meadows and current Raleigh Clerk Danny Moore, who also served as Raleigh sheriff.
“I still see a lot of them, and communicate with a lot of them, but there are several I hadn’t seen in several years,” he said. “The importance for us getting together is that this group of officers, they kind of paved the way for the newer generations.
“I feel like we set the standard, thanks to the leadership of Tom Durett, who was our police chief at the time.
The holidays were special on the force.
“I remember during the holidays, Thanksgiving, there would be a truck that would pull up in the front of the police department, and it would be full of turkeys, for each of the officers and their families for Thanksgiving,” he said. “Just to show appreciation to the police department for their service.
“Right before Christmas, they be a truck pull up, and it would be full of hams,” he said. “We officers, during that time, we would for Christmas, we would order fruit baskets, snack baskets to the retired members and widows.”
The youngest officer to be hired at BPD, Berry was 18 when he joined the team of eight officers in “Platoon A,” a group that became like family.
He said officers could count on dropping by one another’s home for Christmas or any other special day.
One icy Christmas Eve in the 1980s, Berry and a partner stopped in at Robertson’s home, and spent Christmas Eve watching Robertson put together a bike for his young son. Another Christmas Eve, Berry and his partner sneaked into officer Harry Burkowski’s house after midnight, while Burkowski was at work.
Berry said Burkowski’s scrawny pine looked like Charlie Brown’s lackluster tree. The duo carried out the offending evergreen, Grinch-style, sneaked back in with a nicer one and decorated it with the Burkowskis’ ornaments.
“When they woke up the next morning, Harry’s wife Alyce went into the living room and said, ’That’s not the same tree that was here last night,” said Berry, adding that she called and thanked him for making the switch.
“To this day, that’s probably the ugliest tree I’ve ever seen in a house,” Berry recalled, 30 years later.
Police work was different then.
BPD patrolmen didn’t have cellphones. If they needed to call back to headquarters, they used the radio or stopped by an uptown business to borrow the phone.
Those were the days when Beckley Highway Patrol Squad (BHiPS) circled uptown Beckley on motorcycles. It was the time when a uniformed officer would make a daily stop by all uptown businesses to chat with the manager on duty and to show store staff and shoppers that police were present.
“Chief Durett set the bar high for officers’ training,” Berry said. “We were the best-trained police department in the state, by far.
“It was hands-on training. They’d actually put you in scenarios.
“Probably the most important thing he taught us was to talk in the community and deal face-to-face with the people which you see there.
“Computers and cellphones, they’re very impersonal, where we actually had to get out of the car and go visit people.”
Durett, who retired from his law enforcement career in Clarksburg, came to the reunion in October.
“It was great seeing the guys, after so many years,” he said. “Here, lately, we’ve had several funerals.
“It is a sad moment to look back upon their careers and the things they did. It was just heartbreaking to see men that have put in so many years, and they did such great work.”
Durett advanced to BPD chief in the early 1970s, and he is proud that he secured grants that allowed him to expand the force. He also established the drug unit at BPD, and BPD had the lowest crime rate in the state for 12 years, while he was chief.
He worked out a deal with Beckley College for officers to attend the school at little cost, and he scheduled officers around their college course load.
Durett required the officers to adhere to a strict protocol for answering complaints. The rule was that an officer followed the complaint until it got prosecuted, he said.
“I have to give credit to the men, themselves,” Durett said in October, remembering the young officers who worked on his force. “They were an outstanding group of young men.
“We hired a group of young 20-, 21- to 24-year-olds, and they all bought into the program.”
Don Lilly, a retired BPD detective corporal, said Durett remains the “patriarch” of the officers who served at BPD under his leadership.
“He’s still our leader,” Lilly said, after the reunion. “All of us admire and respect him, and he will always be our chief.
“With him it was always, push yourself to train and to learn and to improve your education...to learn everything that you could possibly learn.
“Even though he was our boss, he was still one of us.”
There were fun times at a job that could be heartbreaking, the officers said.
Durett laughed when he remembered young officers being silly on the police radio.
More than once, he called an offender to his office for correction.
A U.S. Marine recruiter once called BPD around midnight and asked them to come get a bat out of his South Heber Street loft apartment. When police arrived, the bat was peacefully snoozing, upside down.
“It was just kind of hanging out,” he recalled. “When we got close to it, it sensed us.”
The spooked bat showed his wings and fangs, and the two armed BPD officers and the Marine ran down the apartment stairs, shrieking.
“We all got to the bottom of the steps and said, ‘We’ve got to do something. What are we going to do?’” Berry recalled.
One grabbed a tennis racket and the other grabbed a blanket, and they went back to catch the fist-sized bat, Berry said. The plan was to wave the tennis racket and scare the bat into the blanket, so he could be “wrapped” and released.
The bat, however, did not cooperate.
“That bat went crazy, flying all around that apartment,” said Berry “Once again, fully grown and armed policemen run back down them steps, squealing like little girls, scared to death of that little bat.
“I guess everybody thought it was going to bite us.”
They eventually managed to catch it.
“We took it down the street and just let it go,” he said. “He was on his own, after that.
“That was what I call the The Marines and Beckley PD vs. The Bat: Bat, 3. BPD, 1,” he said. “I always wondered what the people downstairs thought.”
One of Lilly’s funniest memories, he said, was when he and his partner took a new BPD cruiser to Birmingham, Alabama, to extradite a prisoner back to Raleigh County.
On the drive to Alabama, Lilly said, the officers encountered unlikely issues with their proud-looking cruiser. Part of the blue light blew off the top, and the muffler dropped off the car.
“We pulled into the police department in Birmingham, almost like the Blue Brothers,” he said.
On the drive back to Beckley, they stopped at a small convenience store in Alabama to let the prisoner use the restroom.
Lilly said they had not driven far after that stop, when he saw a line of police cars following his own loud cruiser.
“They all started hitting the median and coming in behind us,” he recalled. “They pull us over, and they’re getting us out of the car at gunpoint.”
The prisoner had told the clerk that Lilly and his partner were impersonating officers and that they had kidnapped her. Lilly thinks the battered cruiser may have made the story more believable to the clerk.
“He, being the good Samaritan that he was, called the police,” said Lilly. “When we ID’ed ourselves and explained to them what we were doing and all the calamities that had happened to us on the way there, they understood.
“That was a fun trip,” he added. “When I got out of the car with that shotgun in my face...yeah, that was not something I wanted to do again.”
There are more memories to share, and Berry said that he is planning another reunion, tentatively set for Oct. 12, 2019.
“It was unanimous from everybody that they wanted to make it a yearly event,” he said.
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com