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Norman Rockwell policing

Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey called me earlier this week to sell a story: "Peter, have I got something for you. You know that famous picture by Norman Rockwell with the cop and the runaway kid ... "

I stopped him right there. Not only do I know about it, the coffee cup I use every morning has that illustration on it. For the record, my desk is a collection of strange cop things -- two baseball caps with police written in Hebrew and Arabic, from my days in the Middle East, a cup from the city homicide unit that says, "Our day begins when your day ends," a "John Doe" toe tag from the morgue and a mouse pad from the gift shop at Los Angeles County Coroner's office, "Skeletons in the Closet" that has a chalk outline of a body and the slogan, "We're dying for your business."

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So yes, I was interested in meeting the now retired Massachusetts State Police trooper who in 1958 posed for the Rockwell illustration. His name is Richard "Dick" Clemens. (He's seen above on the right shaking hands with Capt. Marty Lurz. Lt. James Pianowski is in the background of the photo taken by Algerna Perna).

Clemens flew here to present an autographed illustration to Baltimore County Police Lt. James Pianowski. Turns out Pianowski won a similar illustration last week at a leadership seminar, but gave it to a colleague who was best friends with an officer who suffered a stroke and died during an investigation last summer. Hearing that story, Clemens rushed to Maryland to make sure Pianowski got a replacement.

Clemens handed over the gift -- and another illustration to hang in the county police museum -- at the training academy in Dundalk during a class of recruits. (read that story here). They were in the midst of lesson when they were ordered to clear their desks of dictionaries and law books, neatly fold their caps and keep only their name tags visibile. They stood at attention as Clemens and members of the command staff entered. Clemens had arrived at BWI earlier and was greeted by a throng of officers from the Maryland Transportation Authority, and last night he spoke at a graduation of Anne Arundel County police officers.

Clemens gave a few remarks. The story is both simple and complex. Rockwell lived three doors from Clemens in Stockbridge, Mass. Rockwell's Bassett hound wandered over to Clemens' yard and the two became friends.

I think what struck me about the story that Clemens writes is that the entire illustration is staged. I must have known that the illustration couldn't have captured such a perfect moment -- the stoic cop staring down at a young boy he had just found running away, sitting at a soda fountain in a Howard Johnson restaurant. I guess I just never thought of it.

Clemens details (his full account is below) how much Rockwell manipulated the scene to get it right -- he changed countermen, tried differrent models, used a Howard Johnson but removed its name to make the scene more rustic. And the boy who appears with Clemens -- Eddie Locke -- was also used in another Rockwell painting -- that of a doctor giving a boy a shot.

This takes nothing away from the painting or the message, but it did remind me that waxing nostalgic about the old days doesn't mean the old days were perfect. Clemens told the recruits in Baltimore County that policing is more than the TV shoot-em ups, that they are serving people. He's right, of course, but then I think back to programs like Leave it to Beaver, the Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, and realize that like Norman Rockwell's "The Runaway," they too are spruced up versions of reality.

I asked Clemens whether such a painting could be done today and he answered, "I don't think so." I didn't include this exchange in the print edition of the column because when I got back to the office and reviewed my notes I wasn't sure if he understood the question. I'm not even sure what I was asking. I think I wanted him to address the state of policing today, the disrespect people have for law enforcement. It's too complex a question for a simple answer. Here is a letter he sent explaining his story:

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