News broke on the day that I was supposed to meet Hassan Atkins and Camden County Police Officer Andrew Smith for lunch at Donkey’s Place in Camden. So, I was a no-show.

I was bummed, because I had been looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about over the legendary sandwich shop’s cheesesteaks on poppy-seed-studded Kaiser rolls.

But more than that, I wanted to watch the interaction between Atkins, a former drug dealer, and Smith, with three years on the force.

They are two men from two different worlds. Yet they’ve managed to bond.

Their worlds collided on Feb. 18, 2018, after Atkins was shot during a drug transaction gone awry. Shortly after 8 p.m., he and a female acquaintance went to 29th and High Streets in Camden to buy a couple of ounces of marijuana. After he pulled up in a 2018 black Nissan Sentra, a man toting a snub-nosed .357 Magnum jumped into the backseat and pointed the weapon at his head.

Camden County police officer Andrew Smith poses for a photo with former drug dealer, Hassan Atkins in Camden Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Smith rushed Atkins to the hospital, saving his life, after Atkins was wounded in a gunfight last year.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Camden County police officer Andrew Smith poses for a photo with former drug dealer, Hassan Atkins in Camden Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Smith rushed Atkins to the hospital, saving his life, after Atkins was wounded in a gunfight last year.

“I grabbed the hammer of it, because if the hammer don’t go off, the gun don’t go off. I was tussling with him," recalled Atkins, 38. “The first shot went off, it shot my finger off, my middle digit of my right hand. It was hanging on by a piece of string. And he shot again.… It hit my hand again.… And then, while tussling [with me], he shot the girl two times in her shoulder."

The gunman "jumped out of the car. He let the last two bullets go. One hit me in my abdominal area,” Atkins added. "The other one hit me in my back.”

Atkins attempted to drive himself to the hospital, but stopped when he spotted Smith’s cruiser and flagged him down, saying, “I’ve been shot!”

Smith, 23, remembers what happened next: “He had a white T-shirt on, but it was red completely from the blood. I’ll never forget it. The tip of his finger was shot off, and it was sitting next to him. In Camden County, we have a policy. It’s called ‘scoop and go.’ It’s to save lives.”

Instead of waiting for an ambulance, officers now can take victims to hospitals because “seconds matter,” pointed out Lt. Gabe Rodriguez, who in 2006 watched a gunshot victim die while awaiting an ambulance.

With the assistance of another officer, Smith got Atkins into the back of his cruiser and rushed him to Cooper University Hospital.

“His fast reaction saved my life,” Atkins told me.

Camden County police officer Andrew Smith gets a hug from former drug dealer Hassan Atkins in Camden Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Smith rushed Atkins to the hospital in February 2018, saving his life, after Atkins was shot during a fight.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Camden County police officer Andrew Smith gets a hug from former drug dealer Hassan Atkins in Camden Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Smith rushed Atkins to the hospital in February 2018, saving his life, after Atkins was shot during a fight.

He woke up several days later to the news that he had nearly died. His medical situation was complicated by the fact that he had been seriously injured in a 2015 car accident.

Atkins has been recuperating ever since — not just physically, but mentally. Atkins, who served nine years in prison between the ages of 17 and 26 for armed assault, swears he’s done for good with street life. Smith believes him. And after talking to him, I believe him, too.

He’s doing the work.

Atkins, who doesn’t have a permanent address and has been staying in a hotel, enrolled last month in the Jolie Beauty Academy to study barbering. He drives a taxicab and has done some motivational speaking.

Then there’s his unlikely friendship with Smith. He connected with Smith through a mutual friend. Their first meeting was in August at Donkey’s, Smith’s favorite spot. They hugged. Atkins cried.

“I wanted to meet him, because he really gave me a second chance,” Atkins said. “He’s not just an officer to me. He’s a lifelong friend.”

The relationship means a lot to Smith, too.

“In today’s world, [police officers] are not really liked,” he told me. “It’s heartwarming to know that someone actually appreciates what we do.”

I’m sure there will be lots of Donkey’s cheesesteaks in their future.