the making of Officer Gutierrez
Gutierrez honed his interpersonal skills working at the Donald W. Wyatt maximum security prison. He hadn’t wanted to work there, but after marrying his high-school girlfriend and giving up his dream of playing pro football, he realized he needed a job to pay the bills and support the daughter they were expecting.
He often worked the A-Block, the solitary unit where the most notorious prisoners were held. For eight hours—16 if he worked overtime—Gutierrez would stand in the hall and oversee the eight prisoners.
Aquart Azibo stood out from the rest of the inmates. Gutierrez recalls that the officers crept past his cell, the other inmates were too scared to even look at him, and if you worked his block and he didn’t like you, he would cover up the inside of the glass window of his door so he wouldn’t have to see you.
Gutierrez always thought Aquart prowled his cell with the contained fury of a caged pitbull. He was on death row, consigned to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, the first person to be sentenced with capital punishment by a Connecticut court in modern times for the triple homicide of a rival crack cocaine dealer using duct tape and baseball bats.
But Aquart didn’t cover up his window when Gutierrez came over. Instead, they struck up conversations, talked for hours on end—about their children, about the stories Aquart wrote, about ways to make money outside of prison. Separated by several inches of glass and the wall of the cell, they’d work out together, each on his own side, doing pull-ups and dips and calling out the reps; they would play focus and concentration games, giving each other push-ups as punishments.
G, there’s something about you man. You’re real, Aquart always told him. You’re not a corrections officer, you belong somewhere else.
Aquart read hundreds of books, was one of the brightest minds Gutierrez had ever met, and became something akin to a mentor for him. If I had your opportunities, man, Aquart said constantly, coaching Gutierrez to do better with his life.
Every day, Gutierrez came home on the verge of tears, feeling like he was doing time with Aquart as well. He would wake up the next morning, hating his job so much that he sometimes hoped he would get into an accident so that he wouldn’t have to go into the prison.
When Gutierrez heard the Providence Police Department had begun a new recruiting drive, he saw an alternative to his job as a corrections officer. The Department accepted his application. Next, he had to pass the grueling Police Academy.
Every single day at the Academy, he wanted to quit. For six months he woke up at 4:30 a.m., lining up with the rest of the officers outside the gym, and a few brutal hours later he’d be sitting in class, studying law and policing tactics. When he’d finally arrive home at 6:30 at night, he’d iron his uniform for the next day, then crack open his books and not close them until 1 a.m., if he was lucky. Most of the recruits were young, in their 20s and fresh out of college or the military. Gutierrez was 34 with a wife and three kids.
Training proved a constant ebb and flow of chaos, shrouded in secrecy and intense paramilitary training. People routinely passed out, puked, or had nervous breakdowns. Gutierrez wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with any of his superiors, had to endure push-ups and sit-ups and constant scrutiny of his appearance and performance in the fiercely competitive environment where each 10th of a point in the grading system carried tremendous weight. Shoes had to be shined daily, faces shaved clean.
The Academy started with 60 recruits and a reserve list of 10, but by the end of the six months, only 53 graduated, the reserve list exhausted.
What are you doing here, Jimmy? He’d think every morning while lacing up his sneakers before the workout. Why don’t you go back to the prison? Here you’re just a nobody. You had respect over there. It’s not too late to go back.
He thought of his family to get him through the training, but after a certain point, not even that could sustain him. Instead, Gutierrez found himself falling back on the strength he had summoned to endure his own childhood, which made police training seem like nothing.
Gutierrez remembers the feel of his mother’s fingers running through his hair, caressing the long curly locks he used to have. As she sat on the bed watching the evening soap opera, he would close his eyes, feel time extend before them for what seemed like hours. Every evening, he knelt before her bed, sitting there silently and letting her hand rest on his head, knowing in the pit of his stomach that as darkness fell, George would inevitably stumble home and the comforting stillness of the room would be shattered.
After the worst nights, his mother would wrap him up in her arms and whisper promises into his ear, promises that George would stop hitting, that things would change, that one day soon she would leave him, that they wouldn’t always be as poor as they were and, Jimmy, if only you stay being a good boy things are going to change for you. They will.
Except, at breakfast, they kept having to pick roaches out of their bowls of cereal, and George kept coming home smelling like pot and rum, and he kept wrapping the boy’s hands up with towels to fight his brothers, and the screams kept ringing through the walls into the night, and Jimmy kept having to run down the street, run as fast he could, to pull that alarm, and he kept living in a house where every day he thought someone would die. If you are a young boy living like this, you grab those whispered promises and bring them close to you and hold on tight. The promises strengthened his nightly prayers, and he let the words expand in his imagination until they were more than just promises—they were the truth of the future he so badly wanted to believe in.
Then one day he is the one promising.
They are driving cross country in the old station wagon, all the way to California with the five boys squeezed into the back, when George and Maria start arguing and George smacks her right across the face. I’m done, she screams, clawing back as they race along the highway through the mountains. She’s reaching for the door, trying to pry it open, and George has his hand on her, holding her in. The boys are crying and all the while Maria is screaming I’m sick of this shit until George swerves off the road, and she pushes open the door and races out, right up to the edge of the mountain road where the precipice drops off below. She sits down, lets her feet dangle over the side.
Jimmy scrambles out of the car, sprinting and diving onto her leg, trying to pull her up, crying and yelling—Ma, if you jump, I’m not staying, I’m going with you—and she’s struggling with him, shaking with tears, her blond hair a mess, muttering that she doesn’t want to live anymore—and he’s clutching her leg, holding it so tight and close because he knows that if he lets go… Ma, you gotta think about us, please think about us, and she stops struggling, just sits there, convulsing on the side of the highway, with George in the car watching them and his brother’s faces pressed up against the window. Mommy, please stay with us, it’s gonna stop. I promise. The futile words of an 11 year old.
For weeks, he wonders if his words, his promises are enough. Will she leave? Will she kill herself? Will we end up living with George forever? No one prays harder than Jimmy Gutierrez does for his mother, not a priest or a nun, nobody.
But in that moment, the physical act of saving someone else, of preventing an evil from occurring, imprints itself in Gutierrez’s psyche and lies at the core of why he puts on the blue of the Providence Police uniform each night.
It is the memory of his promise that gives him the strength to make it through the Academy.
Despite the perception of the public and the press, Gutierrez continues to hold a positive outlook on his work.
Six months into the job, he receives a dispatch for a 911 hang-up. Dispatch says it heard only one thing: the sound of a female screaming.
Gutierrez comes to the door of a dingy apartment, knocks at the door. He waits as the minutes tick by, knocks harder, then pounds the windows. Something tells him to wait, to stay a bit longer. He keeps pounding.
Finally, a man opens the door a crack.
Everything’s all right, officer, he says. I live here with my girlfriend. She’s been smoking hookah, acting weird.
Gutierrez replies that he has to see the girlfriend to check on her wellbeing.
The man hesitates.
Move over, Gutierrez says, or I’m gonna have to force my way in.
He walks into the apartment cellar, pushing past the man.
On the floor a young woman lies completely naked, crying softly, Ayudame, por favor. Help me, please.
The man doesn’t think Gutierrez understands the Spanish, says something about the hookah.
No, Gutierrez says, feeling his voice rise and pulse pound. You threw her on the floor, you hit her. She’s asking for help.
He hears the woman’s story, learns how she is an undocumented Dominican immigrant, how the man said he could beat her and hurt her and the cops wouldn’t do anything, then choked her until she fell unconscious.
The police would scare George off, but they never locked him up; he always got away with it.
As Gutierrez puts the man in handcuffs, childhood memories resurface and open up before him. He can feel the tears on his face and his mother’s hand in his curls, can still picture George holding his mother by the hair with the hammer raised, his mother’s legs dangling over the cliff the day she almost left him, and the soothing words she whispered.
She kept her promise: When Gutierrez was 13, the family left George and the Bronx behind, moving to Providence. Gutierrez found his outlet through football—he sought out the impact, relished the ability to finally hit back for the first time in his life.
Now, every night, on his way to work, he repeats the same phrases to himself, what he calls his “affirmations”: how lucky he is to be alive and how his family, his culture, and his mother, whom calls every night, are all still a part of him. The words are his protective armor, calibrating his state of mind to the night ahead.
He doesn’t want to be a cop forever—he wants to go back to school, start a company. No matter what, though, he knows he will never be able to fully move on from his job as an officer. He’ll always carry with him a heightened sense of alertness, instilled in all police officers by the unpredictability of people and their lives.
But despite all the anxiety and apprehensions of policing, Gutierrez comes away each night with the knowledge that he has done something, however small or seemingly inconsequential, to help someone, whoever the person may be. And when a little boy climbs out the fire escape window to pull the alarm, Gutierrez can sleep at night knowing that he is the one who will come.
In a world full of uncertainties, that much is certain.