If you didn't know better, you might think Carnell Green is hurting, the way he sits on stage in his black suit and shiny shoes, stiff-backed and stone-faced, squeezing the life from his 73-year-old thumb.
"Ladies and gentlemen," a woman announces from the podium. "Thank you for coming."
Carnell and his wife, Sarah, drove six long hours to get here. And now that they've arrived, Carnell can't keep his eyes off the door.
"This is not the Academy Awards," the woman continues. "But we do have an Oscar winner with us here tonight."
Carnell swallows hard.
It's not the size of the audience that makes him squirm. There are only 35 people in the hotel ballroom on this Saturday. And it's not like he's surrounded by strangers, either. Some of the people here have known him for more than forty years. It's just that Carnell Green and his "no-nonsense self" are not accustomed to public recognition, even public recognition as overdue as this.
"We're very proud to honor a man who has touched so many lives."
This is his big night. The man is nervous.
A Few Words
Several days before the March 20 ceremony, Wilbur Reed sits at his kitchen table in Aurora. The top of the table is covered with a scattering of news clippings and a plaque from the U.S. Justice Department with Carnell Green's name on it. Reed is a retired mediator with the justice department. He knows Carnell very well. He has a few words he'd like to share. He places his big hands flat on the table and takes a deep breath. This is what he has to say:
"He is a fine fellow and a fine person. An outstanding example of a police officer. I've known him for 25 years. He is a leader and a role model. He fought long and hard to make things better for minority officers, especially African-Americans. Very few people would take the time to do what he did. He could have been out fishing on his days off, but instead he was heading up organizations to improve relationships between the African-American community and the police department. And Lord knows there have been problems historically.
"He was a force, but a quiet force. And quiet forces usually go unheard by us mortals. A lot of us, unless we make noise, are not seen or heard. He had the talent to be in the hierarchy of the police department, but for whatever reason, he never did. He always felt that certain things passed him by. He's an unsung hero. I guess you could put it that way.
"We decided a long time ago he should be recognized. I petitioned the committee in Washington to take an in-depth look at him for a special community-relations award. The next thing I know, they said, 'What do you want on the plaque?' He won hands down from more than a dozen nominees. But before we could have a ceremony, he left town. Then I got sick, and somewhere in there, we never connected. We never did celebrate his award or recognize him for his many outstanding works. He probably felt no one gave a damn, but there were people who did. They really did. But because of certain events, we just never got the chance. Until now."
A Brief History
Carnell Green was born February 17, 1926, in Bryan, Texas, the oldest of two sons and three daughters. His dad worked construction and served as church deacon. His mother stayed home and raised the kids. He moved to Denver in 1946 and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, where he prepared snacks in the California Zephyr club car.
In 1957 he joined the Denver Police Department and worked in the traffic, juvenile, investigations, community relations, identification and career-service bureaus. He was the first leader of the black police officers' union, the first black officer to pass the sergeant's eligibility exam and the first black officer to lead his fraternity. He also developed strategies for minority recruitment and community relations that have been used around the country.
He served as an usher at Zion Baptist Church, sat on its board of directors, helped raise $25,000 for renovations and on Sundays read ordinances from the city's codebook.
He retired from the police department in 1983 and went on to supervise security at Denver Public Schools. Despite his passing the sergeant's exam, the DPD had never promoted him beyond the rank of patrolman. Still, when he left in 1997 for Green River, Wyoming, he packed his badge in a special place and took it with him.
Several days before the ceremony, Carnell Green sits in his Green River home and contemplates his career. He has a few stories he'd like to share. He switches the phone to another ear and takes a deep breath. This is what he has to say:
"What interested me in law enforcement was the type of officer I wanted to be. I wanted to be positive. And it's more difficult to be that type of officer, because there's a lot of opposition. Some officers are used to doing things a certain way. They don't want to change. The way I approached my job was this: Either you had a problem or someone else had caused a problem.
"I never had any hatred against a citizen. I'd seen enough of that growing up. I'd never read anything about police but police killing folks, beating them and disrespecting them. You did not expect the best from police officers. You expected the worst. And I didn't want it to be that way.
"In 26 years, I only had five cases dismissed. I only had three resisting arrests. I worked northeast Denver, west Denver, north Denver, south Denver, Larimer. Five Points and Santa Fe. I've never run up on a person yet who said I was a wrong-doing police officer. You'd go to Five Points, and people would say, 'Hey, Officer Green. How are you doing?' Hell, when I was on my day off, they'd wait until I came back to tell me what was going on.
"That's because they knew where I stood. My job was not to harass you. My job, if you were wrong, was to catch you. And if I didn't, well, that's life. I'd tip my hat to you. If our paths crossed, they crossed. If they didn't, you wouldn't find me out there looking. I had prepared myself to be a professional police officer. And I was."
But it wasn't always easy.
"Once I had a case where a seven-year-old girl was raped by a 27-year-old guy. He was scared because he thought he was going to get killed. A lot of officers were irate. The emotions were obvious. But I said, 'No. We have our jobs to do. We'll see that he is under arrest. He'll be put in jail, the reports will be forwarded, and it's up to the detectives to take it from there.'
"Inside I felt bad. Real bad. I felt like doing everything in the world to that guy. But that was not what my job called for. It was painful, but I did what I had to do and walked away."
Such rigid standards didn't exactly make him Mr. Popularity, though.
"It was hard to work with some of these guys, because I knew they wanted to be with someone else. One time I went on a traffic stop, and the officer with me pulled someone over. I said, 'What did you stop them for?' And he said, 'What's the point of being a police officer if you can't have a little fun?' I said, 'You inconvenienced those people for fun?'
"I'm the type of person who takes police business very seriously. To me, when you get involved in other people's business, you'd better have a good reason. That's serious. That's nothing to play with. I wasn't the top most popular guy."
He might have been the most determined, though.
"I took 21 hours of college one semester while working full-time. That's almost unheard of for a working person to take that many hours. But after I found out I could become the first officer in the history of department with a bachelor's degree in police science, I worked until I got it. This was in 1970. I took three philosophy courses at once. That should be enough to let you know what it was like right there. That will pull your mind different directions. But I kept with it until I did it. I was determined."
And he was dedicated.
"One night I had to go to Fitzsimons Hospital and pick up a baby. The mother had been incarcerated, and the baby needed to be transported to the welfare agency. So I put him on the front seat beside me, and all the way downtown, people looked over and saw me looking at this little baby. I was so proud of him. Little baby Jason. I called my wife and said, 'I'd sure like to bring him home.'
"I felt for him. I felt his problems. It didn't seem like he belonged to anyone. Here he was at this little age, and already he was headed to foster care. Here was a human being getting thrown away and discarded. He was only five months old.
"I felt real close to Jason. He was in my care. And I knew he was going to get the very best. Even if it was just a drive across town, I knew only good things would come to him. Even if I had to give my life for him, I'd do it.
"I never saw him again. I never knew what happened. But I still think about him. My wife and I often say, 'Jason should be 20 years old now' or 'Jason will be 25.' I think about that little baby boy all the time. Little baby Jason."
That's not all he thinks about. On or off the beat, the wheels are always turning.
"I did a lot of my writing on my coffee breaks. I would write everywhere. Mostly on napkins. I'd go into a restaurant and get three or four napkins and start to write.
"My first book was called High Way Down. I was supposed to speak at Manual High School about narcotics and alcoholics, but instead of speaking, I wrote a book and gave it to them. I called it the High Way Down because you know how you get high, but you actually go down. It was about what narcotics are made of, how they're used, and why not to use them. On the cover was a hypodermic needle and lethal marijuana. They liked that book. It ended up in the bookstore.
"Another one was called The Cost of Existence. I was in a restaurant once, out across Bronco stadium, and a man was sitting at the counter. He couldn't just barely get what he wanted. If he wanted to reach for the sugar, he was slow doing it. I looked at him and thought he probably was living by himself. Then I started thinking: What does it cost a person to exist? The devastation that happens to every living being. The people stooped over in the hospital. This is the price you pay for existence. Time is the executioner. Time is going to take you out. That's where my thoughts came from when I looked at this man. So I wrote about it.
"I also wrote a book about the blues and a book about law enforcement called The Threshold of Repentance. I wrote others, too: The Game of Skin and Name, From Toll Gate Pass to Expedition Island and A Place in Time and a Time in Space.
"I don't pick things to write about. I just start thinking, and one day the idea comes to me. I hope I don't write but one more book. But it just depends on what I'm thinking about."
At the moment, that happens to be the time he led a parade.
"Martin Luther got killed and there were protests all over the country. There was a big march in Five Points, and the people there were hostile. They wanted to do it without assistance from the police.
"So the lieutenant said, 'We can't let it be like that.' And I said, 'Okay, I'll tell you what. Let me talk to the fella in charge.'
"So I talked to them and said, 'I'll be up front with you. I'll make sure you can do your march so it won't be interrupted.'
"They said okay. They knew who I was, but they were still hostile. I asked, 'Where's the route going to be?' And they said, 'You'll find out when we get there.'
"Just as the march was about to start, a drunk came up and started staggering all over the place. At the time, it was a violation to be drunk in public, but I wasn't going to put him in jail or let anyone arrest him, because I had a crowd that was about to erupt. So I called out to him: 'Do you think you can help me lead these people where they want to go?' And he said: 'Damn right I can.'
"So that guy got up front with me, and we started the march. All of a sudden, everyone started falling in love with this drunk guy. Even the people along the sidewalks. And they weren't prepared for rational thought, either. They wanted to join because they thought it would be violent. But we got all the way to 35th and Holly without any problems. We walked 72 blocks without any confrontations. Not a one of them got out of line. Everyone fell in love with this drunk guy.
"I drove real slow on my motorcycle, and he staggered right beside me. Every once in a while he'd call back to the group, 'Hup, two, three, four...' He walked 72 blocks and then passed out.
Carnell Green's career was filled with proud moments, most of them walking the neighborhood beat.
"I used to work up on 16th and Tremont by the May D&F department store. In the afternoon, a group of ladies used to wait until I got a break so I could take them by the arm and walk them across the street. The street was full of people, but they used to wait for me. Even if I was busy, they'd stay and wait. I don't know. I thought that was kind of special.
"If you've got a police officer in your community, people ought to know him. Those are his people. The good and the bad. You are there to give them police protection. I don't care if you're a Harvard graduate. You should adopt those people as your own. And they will adopt you.
"That's the problem today. Police come from all parts of town and could care less about the people they're supposed to protect. They're trained not to care less. I sure as hell wouldn't want to go to a hospital where a doctor felt that way. Can you imagine? What would you do if they said, 'I don't know you. I think I'll let the janitor do the surgery today?'
"I never had any reason to be that way. I cared about those things. I'd like to think people appreciated that."
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SHOW ME HOW
The Big Night: Part II
If you didn't know better, you might think Carnell Green is smiling.
One by one, people from the audience approach the microphone and say a few more words about the serious "constable on patrol." You made us feel safe in our neighborhoods, they say. You showed our children the right path. You were the one we called when delinquents threw rocks at the postman. You were the one who sent Christmas cards to our homes each year for forty years. You were the one who wore integrity like the badge on your chest. "We salute you," they say. "We're glad you came our way."
Carnell stands, hugs his friend Wilbur and reads from a shiny wooden plaque with his name on it: "In recognition of special leadership in police and community issues for more than thirty years."
The audience rises for a standing ovation.
Yes. You can see it now. Carnell Green is smiling. "Thank you," he says, beaming now. "Thank you for remembering.