I’m a cop because of Ashley’s story

If we, the police, don’t fight for victims and speak for their loved ones, then nobody will

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Mike Knetzger. To find out more about Ashley’s story, visit visit www.ashleystory.org. Officer Mike Knetzger uses Ashley’s story as a platform to highlight Wisconsin’s drunk driving problem and to motivate police officers to make a difference. Knetzger has shared Ashley’s story with thousands of high school students in support of “Every 15 Minutes” programs throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Officer Knetzger has also presented at national law enforcement conferences. Knetzger can be reached via email at mikekn@greenbaywi.gov.

By Mike Knetzger
Green Bay (Wis.) Police Department

Like all police officers, when I set out to become a cop and was asked, “Why do you want to be a police officer,” I was the typical idealist and replied, “Because I want to help people and make a difference.”

I have never heard a police candidate say, “I don’t play well with others and I hate all mankind.” We want to help others. We want to make a difference. But police work has an interesting way of ruining the idealist and in time we become more of a realist. Sadly, we often lose sight of why we put the uniform on in the first place. Sometimes we need a wakeup call to remind us why we became a cop.

My wakeup call happened on June 3, 2008.

A Knock at the Door
At 2100 hours I was sitting across from an apartment complex with another officer. We had just finished counseling a mother and her nine-year-old son about the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch.”

I was due to be off at 2300, and up early to teach at the police academy the next day, so when a message flashed across my screen, “Check out the double fatality in Ashwaubenon,” I felt sadness for the victims, but never looked up the call. I deleted the message and ended my shift a short time later.

Just before midnight, there was a knock on at my door. I was expecting my 18-year-old daughter, Ashley. As I walked to the door I thought, “You are so lazy.” After all, why should she use her key to open the door if dad’s still up?

I looked out the window beside the door, just to make sure it was Ashley. I saw a patch: Brown County Sheriff’s Department.

My second thought, “What did Ashley do?”

She had just graduated from high school 10 days earlier and had been hanging out with friends. I thought, “Maybe she made a mistake, had been drinking or something, and we would get through this.”

I opened the door and expected to see Ashley. Instead, there was another deputy. A voice said, “Mike, is Ashley your daughter?” I replied, “Yes.” He continued, “She was involved in an accident...”

I interrupted him and recalled the earlier message, “Check out the double fatality in Ashwaubenon.” I knew what he was going to tell me and asked, “Is she dead?”

He confirmed what I already knew. I don’t recall much of what happened next, but I then made the most difficult death notification of my life. I had to tell my wife Lisa, Ashley’s mom, that she was dead.

I walked upstairs, woke Lisa, and lied to her.

“Honey, Ashley was involved in an accident. We need to get to the hospital.”

Translation: Ashley is alive. I couldn’t tell her alone that Ashley was dead.

Taken by a Drunk Driver 
I walked downstairs and waited for Lisa. A few minutes later she came down, saw all the police officers in the house, and knew it was more than an accident. I bluntly told her the truth, “Honey, Ashley is dead.”

She collapsed on the floor and screamed, “No, no, I wish it were me!”

A mother’s first-born had been taken from her by a drunk driver.

At the hospital, we sat outside “Ashley’s room” for what seemed like eternity. Time had slowed considerably. A white sheet hung across her room. We finally had the courage to enter. Ashley was on a bed, on her back. A white sheet covered her with the top half folded over one time, just under her chin. We could see her beautiful face and long brown hair.

My first thought, “She shouldn’t be dead!” Not only because she was an 18-year-old girl taken from the world too soon, but also because she looked so good. I stroked her brown hair back with my right hand and kissed her forehead.

Her skin was cold. I repeated the last three words that I said to her earlier that day: “I love you.” Our pastor was present. He said a prayer, but I couldn’t make it out. The coroner had me sign some paperwork for her property. We left a few minutes later. Soon, we would plan her funeral.

Ashley’s death nearly ended my career. Even if I had been at the intersection when the crash happened, there was nothing that I could have done to save her life. City policy allowed for three days funeral leave, which is not nearly enough. I was in no condition to return to work, but the true brotherhood and sisterhood of police work revealed itself. Officers volunteered to work my shifts and I had the next 30 days off.

Make a Difference
I went through eight crisis counseling sessions, and during the last one I said to my counselor, “I don’t think I can go back to work.”

She replied, “If you want to retire on a psychological disability, we can probably make that happen, but I first want to ask you a question. What would Ashley want you to do?”

Tears began to stream down my face, my chin quivered, and I said, “She would want me to kick some ass!”

The counselor replied, “Then go out and make a difference.”

I’m a cop because I believe that we make a difference. The officers who investigated the crash that killed Ashley made a difference and allowed for justice. The defendant took the case to a jury trial, which we had to sit through and relive Ashley’s last moments.

The prosecution fought for us and prevailed. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years confinement. Justice does not bring Ashley back, but if we, the police, don’t fight for victims and speak for their loved ones, than nobody will. I have experienced the difference that police officers can make. Trust me, fellow brothers and sisters in brown or blue, you can make a difference!

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