Tears streamed down my face as I sat shackled to a steel rail in the holding area of San Francisco’s Ingleside Police Station. It was October 2004, and I’d shoplifted a hamburger when I found myself with nothing to feed my dog, Mickey, who I believed was the only living creature who cared about me. Now I might never see him again. Police Officer Renee Pagano arrested me after finding me with a loaded .357 pistol and a sixteenth of an ounce of methamphetamine.
I was a meth addict. I felt my life had no purpose, even though society bestowed many blessings upon me. I’d parlayed my college education, biotech career, and fitness interests into a lifestyle of zooming the highways on a BMW motorcycle, traveling, and competing in kickboxing.
Methamphetamine addiction gave my life a twisted sort of purpose; I believed in conspiracies against me. I carried the pistol as protection against imaginary gangsters I thought were going to torture me to death. On the evening of my arrest, I tucked the gun into my waistband, looped Mickey’s leash around my wrist, shambled to the supermarket, and stashed the hamburger under my jacket. Store security spotted me and called the cops.
Officer Pagano’s squad car screeched to a halt, blocking my path. She leaped out and crouched behind the driver’s door, gun leveled at me. I set the stolen meat on a car bumper and leashed Mickey to a parking meter. As Officer Pagano had me assume the position and confiscated my pistol, Mickey ate the hamburger. Evidence destroyed! Man’s best friend. I forced myself not to watch him disappear in the distance as Officer Pagano drove from the scene, with me locked in the back of her car.
In the Ingleside station’s holding area, Officer Pagano pressed a button on her tape recorder and began interviewing me. Our conversation consisted mostly of me making up lies. At one point, she asked why I was crying.
“I’m worried about my dog,” I choked out. This time it was the truth. Later, she turned off her recorder and spoke to me in a way that changed the course of my life.
“I hope you get back on track,” I remember her saying. I felt she cared about me, insofar as she cared about human beings in general, and I, even if just barely at the time, fit into that category. Years later, I’d learn more about Officer Pagano. She was a dog owner herself, and after arresting me, she’d fed Mickey some of the dog treats she always carried.
I began to realize if one person cared about me, others might, too. Officer Pagano’s compassion was especially meaningful because her life had purpose. Of course, part of that purpose was to put people like me in jail. Which is where I went, for two months. I got out and was reunited with Mickey, who had been in a kennel. But for three more years, I remained mired in addiction. Bouncing in and out of cells, rehabs, and flophouse hotels. I lost Mickey for good when I was evicted from my apartment and went to live in a homeless shelter. Finally, in 2007, I found the strength to quit meth. I never forgot about Officer Pagano.
Over time, I volunteered in my community, as a first responder and as a disaster preparedness instructor for the Red Cross. I also volunteered for the FBI and still assist the FBI’s outreach to those affected by addiction and who are returning to society following incarceration. Through that program and other positive interactions I had with police, my fears of law enforcement began to diminish.
Just after the New Year in 2019, I told a retired police officer friend of mine how much Officer Pagano’s words helped me. He told me she had been promoted to captain and offered to put us back in touch.
That’s how, on a cool February night, Capt. Pagano stopped her cruiser in front of my home in San Francisco. Instead of a drawn firearm, she had a hug for me. I climbed into her car, sparing her my corny jokes about riding in the front seat this time.
She and I went to the Ingleside station’s community room to talk. Surrounded by empty tables and chairs, I learned that, like me, she studied psychology in college. She’d joined the police department to do something positive for society. As we discussed the night of my arrest, I looked back on my life and saw how far I’d come.
My interaction with Officer Pagano in 2004 was by no means my only encounter with law enforcement. Usually I believed cops did me wrong when they slapped me in handcuffs in parking lots, stripped me naked and locked me in a padded cell at the psych ward, pulled me over, and searched my vehicle. They’d taken my freedom, whether for minutes or days.
Today I realize those cops who “did me wrong” probably believed I was so far gone to drugs and criminality that I was a danger to myself and others. That taking my freedom was necessary to protect innocent people from me, and me from myself.
After I got clean, I started to believe that I could view my past as an opportunity to learn, rather than a source of bitterness.
Capt. Pagano said that, when she helps people who go on to help others, she sees it as a spider’s web; goodwill radiating outward. “I feel great about you and I being friends,” she told me. “It feels awesome to know I made a difference in someone’s life.”
She told me she knew I was in a bad place when she arrested me. “But you weren’t a bad guy,” she said. “Just because someone uses drugs, they’re not a bad person.”
She said she knew I was making poor choices but believed I was decent at heart. “You loved your dog,” she said. “You needed help.”
She also told me I’m the only person she’s arrested who has ever reached out to her like this.
By no means do I intend a blanket endorsement of any group. We see examples of bad actors in law enforcement, just like in any profession. I also am aware that as a white male, society has given me privileges everyone does not have.