Last Updated: June 23. 2011 1:22PM .
Neal Rubin: Somebody cared
Samaritan and firefighter put panhandler's safety first — despite cops.
Mike Kozlowski will tell you up front that he swore at the police officer. You might have, too, if you'd been willing to do what he did in the first place.
Kozlowski, 27, was on eastbound Jefferson Avenue Friday morning, about to make the sweeping right turn into the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. Straight ahead, he saw something odd: a black sedan, facing the wrong way, toward the cars exiting the tunnel into the United States of America.
In front of the black sedan, near the orange cones and orange-and-white barrels that mark the middle of the Randolph Street entryway, sat a man in a wheelchair. Idling in front of Mariners' Church, Kozlowski rolled down his window.
"I assessed the situation," he says. He left the Army in 2006, after two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, but that's still the instinct. You stop, you observe.
If need be, you act.
The sedan, he quickly realized, was a Detroit police car. The man in the wheelchair was an amputee, probably in his 50s or 60s, missing his left leg and right arm. There were two officers in the car — man driving, woman riding shotgun — and the man was on the vehicle's loudspeaker.
"Get the bleep out of the road," Kozlowski heard. "Stop your bleeping begging. You need to hurry up."
As best he could with one arm, the man began to roll himself west, Kozlowski says, toward the sidewalk. Maybe intentionally, maybe not, the bumper of the car tapped the back of the chair.
Kozlowski threw his teal-colored Ford Escape into park, set the emergency brake, punched the hazard light, and stepped into the street.
Doing the right thing
Nine years ago, fresh from Notre Dame High in Harper Woods, Kozlowski swore an oath to defend his country.
He enlisted as a kid and mustered out, four years and 29 parachute jumps later, as a sergeant. On an early leave, he met a Canadian psychology student named Nicole who's now his wife and the mother of their 31/2-year-old girl. He runs the overnight shift for a food distributor in Detroit, and he was on his way home to Windsor when he walked across three empty lanes, grabbed the handles of the wheelchair, and pushed the beggar out of harm's way.
"I'll be honest with you," he says. "I don't give money to panhandlers." But there are ways you treat someone and ways you don't. Ways that make a situation better, and ways that don't. Ways you conduct yourself in a uniform, and ways you don't.
The police car swung around, facing Jefferson against tunnel-bound traffic, and Kozlowski approached the driver's-side window: "Is that so bleeping hard to get him off the road?" The officer barked back, the F-bombs bursting in air. "He's just a bleeping alcoholic," the officer said.
"No," Kozlowski said, "he's a human being. He's got someone, somewhere, who cares about him."
The officer gave Kozlowski five seconds to get back to his SUV. Kozlowski met the deadline. The police car pulled away, he says, and as it did, the officer in the passenger seat flipped him the bird.
Another good Samaritan
It's not easy being a police officer anywhere, let alone Detroit, and there are surely times when "pretty please" doesn't get the job done. Just as surely, it's poor policy to splash kerosene on a dwindling fire.
Kozlowski hollered a response out his window. The police car swung around behind him.
The policeman wrote him a nuisance ticket — no proof of insurance — even though the card in Kozlowski's glove box clearly say he's covered through October. He'll go to court and show it to a judge who's too busy to worry about the beggar and the language and couldn't do anything about them anyway.
The officer's name is on the citation. His initials are P.J. and his badge number is in the low 800s, and the department can find him if it cares to.
The Office of Public Information didn't return a call, but what could a spokesman say? It's OK to shout amplified profanities at a harmless, armless citizen in a public place?
The panhandler was still on the corner as the officer wrote the ticket, Kozlowski says, and the officer kept badgering him, telling him to move on. Silently, the man turned his chair and started the laborious journey across Jefferson.
Moments later, a fire truck stopped in the left lane. The driver hit the overhead lights, and another firefighter swung open the passenger door and jumped to the pavement.
The firefighter wore a uniform, too, the way the officer does and Kozlowski so proudly used to. He pushed the panhandler all the way to the north side of the street, Kozlowski says, through 10 lanes of traffic.
Then the truck rumbled off, the police car drove away, Kozlowski went home to his family and the panhandler went wherever panhandlers go, knowing that at least on this morning, somebody cared.