45 years and counting: Meet the beat cop who's been patrolling the same Indianapolis streets for more than four decades
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffrey Stagg, 67, a beat cop, hostage-crisis negotiator and "Taps" bugler, began his policing career in 1977 after serving in the Air Force
On the west side of Indianapolis, a white weathered wooden cross used to stand in front of a gas station. The cross was adorned with a shiny tiara and various pieces of jewelry, but the carefully placed name across it was difficult to make out.
Every day, hundreds of thousands of travelers drove past this cross on the way to their next destination. Nearly 23 years ago, 18-year-old Shelby Smith was one of those travelers.
However, while attempting to cross at an intersection near the gas station, Shelby was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Family members, friends and neighbors gathered together to create a memorial for her, including the wooden cross, a stapled photo, and various rocks and trinkets nearby.
Over the years, the memorial started to weather and deteriorate, but one frequent traveler – Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Officer Jeffrey Stagg – vowed to never let Shelby be forgotten.
"Shelby was the same age as my daughter," Stagg said. "They both graduated in 1999. They went to different high schools, but not that far apart. She was going to go to college to be a teacher. It was all taken from her. I often think to myself, 'This young lady would be the same age as my daughter right now.'"
The memorial is in the middle of Stagg's beat assignment – the same one he has patrolled for 34 years now. Trash often blows around and collects near the memorial, but Stagg, who drives past the memorial multiple times a day, ensures the area is kept clean.
In fact, a now-viral TikTok video, which has over 40,000 likes, captured the exact moment Stagg was tending to Shelby's memorial last summer. "When that gentleman pulled up, I didn't realize he was recording. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him about Shelby."
The video was eventually seen by Shelby's mother, Sherri, who now lives in Texas. Sherri was given Stagg's number, who received a phone call just as he had finished picking up things around the memorial.
"I was seated right by Shelby's memorial when my phone rang. It was her mom. I said, 'Sherri, you're not going to believe this, but I'm parked right next to Shelby's memorial as we speak.' Her voice started to break up and I lost it."
Last October, the two met in person, but this time the memorial looked different. With some help, Stagg replaced the weathered cross with a new one and bright pink letters with the name "Shelby Smith" displayed across can be seen from afar. Sherri added a photo of Shelby next to some original items that have been placed nearby for decades.
Taking care of Shelby's memorial, Stagg says, has been the biggest privilege and honor throughout his 45 years of policing.
Choosing a law enforcement career
Stagg, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, started thinking seriously about what he wanted to do while in junior high. Toward the end of high school, he had decided: he wanted to become a police officer. But first, he joined the Air Force. He served from 1973 to 1977 in the security police career field.
"It was a good four years," Stagg said. "I applied with the Speedway Police Department as a road officer before I was discharged from the Air Force and things just fell into place. They had an opening, and I was fortunate enough to be selected through their application process just before I was discharged."
He was a road officer with the department for over 10 years. In 1988, he applied for and became a merit deputy with the Marion County (Ind.) Sheriff's Office. "I immediately went to road patrol, the law enforcement division. I was a road patrol deputy my entire time there – for 19 years."
And in 1995, he became a hostage-crisis negotiator while serving at the sheriff's office.
"We work hand-in-hand with SWAT. When they go out, we go out. It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It's a challenge. It's tough when it doesn't end well. It can be heartbreaking, but the calls that are successful make it worth it."
In 2007, the Indianapolis Police Department and the law enforcement division of the Marion County Sheriff's Office merged to form the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD). The two negotiator teams also merged, but Stagg said it was "one of the best mergers."
Stagg even got to keep his same district and beat assignment, which means he has been patrolling west-southwest Indianapolis his entire 45-year career.
"Working on the street is great because we're the first ones on the scene. We start the investigations and we get things rolling. I have always loved that aspect of law enforcement – having to be familiar with every area and getting investigations started."
Another rewarding assignment, Stagg says, is his involvement with the Honor Guard as a "Taps" bugler. "It's a privilege to be a part of the team. It's a really special group." Stagg's first time playing "Taps" was while he was part of an Honor Guard for an Air Force troop whose remains were found and sent home. "It was just before I was discharged," he said.
When he started his police career, he had the opportunity to join the Honor Guard and play "Taps" at a local service for a slain officer. "I was asked to stay, and it has been my honor ever since to be the 'Taps' bugler," he said.
Stagg's trumpet-playing days started in the high school marching band, but his love for music began long before that.
An ear for music
Music has always been a safe haven for Stagg. His mother was a professional singer and musician, who played the piano and organ.
"I was surrounded by all kinds of music growing up," he said. "I sang and played the trumpet."
Over the years, he has also enjoyed rewriting lyrics to different tunes. In 2019, he wrote a poem for Police1, called "Police Man," written to be sung to the tune of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." In the poem, Stagg reflects on some memories as a veteran officer to his rookie partner.
A few months later, he wrote another poem, this time called "You've Got the Good Cops," written to be sung to the tune of Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero." The poem, he said, came to him after a trying few weeks for law enforcement.
And, in honor of last year's National Police Week, Stagg wrote "A Cop Today," written to be sung to the tune of Elton John's "Rocket Man." The poem reflects on the challenges facing law enforcement officers today.
Writing the poems, he said, is therapeutic: "I just write about what's on my mind and in my heart. Sometimes it's easier to write down how I feel."
Stagg's wife and daughter, who's now grown and living in Pittsburg with a daughter of her own, both know first-hand how emotionally – and physically – demanding his job is. "Some days are a little harder than others, but they know I still love this career."
And after 45 years on the job, he's now watching many of his colleagues he "grew up with" retire.
A veteran patrol officer
Stagg, who recently turned 67, gets asked almost every shift when he's going to retire.
"I realize I'm older," he said. "I'm older than most of the parents of our rookies who are coming out of the academy now. I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is really, really starting to hit home here.'"
But Stagg loves being out on the street.
"I still enjoy being around the rookies when they're going through their field training process, answering any questions and being with them on runs with their FTOs. A lot of them are shocked when they realize what it's like out here, what they have to face and the decisions they have to make."
Some of them, he says, find out they may have picked the wrong career, while others hit the ground running.
"I've been blessed with the right 'tools' to perform the greatest job in the world. I draw on experience and expertise from my long career to show younger officers how to keep this thin blue line strong."
That experience and expertise comes in especially handy during a hostage-crisis situation – even when it's least expected.
Dispatch: Officer, be advised. Male victim outside apartment complex on west side shot in leg by male suspect inside through a window.
"I've got a person shot right down the street," Stagg says frantically. "I've got to go."
And just like that, he's on his way – where he'll keep seeing the good, but more of the bad, wearing the badge 'cause he's pretty rare.