He is a symbol of longevity, persistence, innovation and, perhaps, feel-good humanity in a profession too seldom perceived that way.
To others, perhaps, he is a symbol of a bureaucracy that didn't follow its own rules and, perhaps, put the wishes of individuals over the good of the institution.
Either way, Fort Wayne Police Sgt. Bill Walsh is about to end what is believed to be the longest career of any cop in city history, retiring “in the near future” after about 55 years on the force, according to spokesman Michael Joyner.
Walsh, who is about 80 years old – he declined to be interviewed for this piece – is one of several city officers over the supposedly mandatory retirement age of 60 established by city ordinance in 1982. But while his age and the city's failure to enforce its own guidelines have at times exposed him to unwanted scrutiny, it is his career that deserves to be remembered.
It was Walsh, after all, who in 1980 served as the city's first horse-mounted officer. Thanks mostly to budget constraints, the city's horse patrol unit was disbnded in 2001, but not before Walsh and his equine partner Boo became a valuable public-relations tool for the department – and a formidable team able to prevent problems before they started.
In his 1995 book, “Mounted Cops are 10 Feet Tall,” co-written with Ralph Reynolds, Walsh explained that after successfully campaigning for creation of a horse patrol it didn't take long to understand the benefits.
“Although I was no different from the day before, somehow, magically, mysteriously, I had, in the eyes of the people, become more human – perhaps more humane – astride Boo,” he wrote. “I was no longer viewed as a faceless, mechanized representative of an indifferent bureaucratic agency. I had instantaneously become someone people could approach.
“The mere sign of an officer on horseback served as an effective deterrent (to crime).”
Walsh and his “partner” Boo, a commissioned police officer who died in 1994, deterred other things, too.
In the mid-1990s the team was a common sight outside the now-demolished abortion clinic on Webster Street, enforcing a federal law that sought to provide unobstructed access to the facility by keeping pro-life demonstrators a safe distance away from the building – and from pro-choice picketers as well.
Walsh, in fact, testified before a congressional committee in 1994. “It's a game of political football, and people like me are tired of being caught in the middle,” Walsh said at the time
Not all of Walsh's assignments were as contentious, however. When the city celebrated its bicentennial in 1994, it was Walsh who portrayed the city's namesake, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, on horseback.
In 2004, Walsh talked to The News-Sentinel about how policing had changed since his rookie year of 1959 – and not always for the better.
Police on foot or the back of a horse could interact with people more easily than today, with most officers in cars. “When I came on, everybody talked to you. Now they shun you,” he said. At the time, Walsh was still carrying the same 38-caliber revolver he was issued as a rookie. Even so, the Fort Wayne native and Army veteran said he didn't feel vulnerable despite his then-45 years on the job.
“I work with horses (on a farm of Bass Road) and do the labor every day. It keeps you fit,” he said at the time.
Now, 10 years later, Walsh's pending retirement is eliciting congratulations – and just a little second-guessing.
“I'm just glad to see a guy who can stay on the force for as many years as he has, having the good health to do a good job. He truly loved his job and people,” said City Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st.
Sophia Rosales-Scatena, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association that presents rank-and-file police officers (Wash is not a member), said “I'm in awe. I don't know how anybody could do that job that long.”
But, Walsh's exemplary career notwithstanding, that's really the issue, isn't it? As Rosales-Scatena noted, people slow down over time – acceptable, perhaps, in most jobs but a potential problem in police work.
Smith doesn't think there should be mandatory retirement for city cops at all. Rosales-Scatena, however, suggests 65 or 70 might be ideal. Mandatory retirement of highly paid veterans, she said, would make it easier to bring in more new officers.
That is something for City Council and the department to address, because laws should either be enforced, revised or repealed. But none of that should or can detract from what Walsh has don for so long, the impact of which could not always be measured in statistics.
“While giving a safety lecture at one of the elementary schools, I set little girl on Boo,” Walsh wrote in his book. “From up here,” she squealed, “I feel 10 feet tall!
“I knew exactly how she felt.”