opinion: 'Unsung heroes' of the police department deserve recognition
Two detectives and their sergeant shared an office the size of a small child’s bedroom that was in the infamous basement of City Hall. They were unsung heroes of the police department. All were very different, but all shared one quality that was a positive reflection of their sergeant — they would always help confused and befuddled patrol officers with complicated financial crimes. They were the Checks and Fraud Unit of the Ann Arbor Police Department.
A little secret around most police departments is the majority of road patrol officers do not like to take crime reports involving checks, credit cards, fraud, identity theft and now computer frauds. The cases are not as “sexy” as “street crimes” like robberies, burglaries, assaults, murders and the like.
A fraud investigator must enjoy the cerebral challenge of catching criminals who are some of the brightest and most imaginative criminals the police deal with. Today a fraud investigator also has to be an expert with computers and not intimidated by writing search warrants to obtain information. They will need to obtain search warrants at every turn in the investigation in this age of privacy and civil litigation. Back in the day of the “old” Checks and Frauds Unit — which was absorbed during budget cuts causing reorganizations — the unit dealt mostly with checks.
The kindly sergeant of the unit was recognized throughout the state for his expertise in Checks and Fraud investigations. Everyone’s “Uncle Norm” is a large man and very serious when talking about crime, but has a great laugh and smile when joking around — which happens at almost every retiree breakfast.
Uncle Norm and his detectives, George and Dave, were very sharp guys and always made road patrol officers welcome in their office. They knew that patrol officers were intimidated by some of the cases, so the trio would offer to write the original police report in many cases — so they were properly done.
Uncle Norm’s detective wardrobe included a white plastic pocket protector containing almost every color pen that could be used to sign a check. These he would use to get handwriting exemplars from suspects who had forged checks.
This was back when checks actually were returned from the bank and they could be fingerprinted and the signatures forged on them could be compared to known samples by handwriting experts at the Michigan State Police Crime lab. Uncle Norm merely would ask the suspect for a sample of writing and he would make sure the pen used closely matched the pen used on the check.
Uncle Norm was an innovator and fiscally very responsible. For instance to protect the fingerprints and pen impressions on canceled checks he used clear plastic baby bottle liners, which fit the checks perfectly. The alternatives were expensive clear plastic check envelopes sold in crime laboratory supply catalogs.
Uncle Norm and crew kept all the checks from previous cases, filed in their baby bottle liners, in large files to be compared with future crimes. Armed with these files, their expertise and cunning — these guys locked up an impressive number of criminals.
Of the Checks and Fraud Unit, George was the most mild-mannered and quiet. Always friendly but soft-spoken, few knew that “still waters run deep.” George had been known as quite a street cop, being respected for his cool head and marksmanship in the street. George had been in several notable shooting incidents, before joining the “Bunco” squad.
A week or so ago the old Checks and Frauds Unit alumni lost their third musketeer. The most boisterous and gregarious of the group, (Retired) Detective Dave Gray, died on Nov. 23.
Dave really was someone special. Before becoming an Ann Arbor Police officer he had been a United States Marine. I have seen his official Marine Corps and early police department portrait, and both depicted a fierce looking young man you would not want to anger. That seemed to be the furthest from the Dave we at the police department all knew and loved.
Dave was a wonderful guy who always was quick with a joke, smiled a lot and whose head vigorously nodded up and down when he laughed — which he did often. Professionally at the police department he was known as an outstanding and unflappable dispatcher for the AAPD for many years and a solid detective.
I first became distantly connected with Officer Dave Gray when I was a kid listening to my police band radio. Officer Gray did not know me, but his niece gave my sister a copy of the coveted radio codes for the Ann Arbor Police Department. Armed with those codes I actually could decipher what was going on while I listened to the police calls.
Though I had never actually met him, I knew his voice when I later went to work at the police department. I guess you could say I was a fan from an early age.
Dave Gray was a genuinely nice guy. When an officer is new at a police department, his first wish is to just be accepted. Most officers treat you with a detached indifference until you have “made it” and are accepted as a peer. It can be tough on rookies, and you certainly remember those who are first kind to you. Dave Gray was one of those guys who stood out as a friendly face and a helping hand when I was new and throughout my career.
I had the honor and privilege to work with him from 1982 until 1992 when he retired. Dave was a dedicated police officer who loved people and loved “the job.” I was pleased when he “flunked retirement” and came back to the police department. For several years he was the guy in charge of gun registration, taxicab licensing and applicant fingerprinting. It was great to share a cup of coffee and laugh with him in the morning again.
To Jan and the rest of the Gray family I send my heartfelt condolences. Rest in peace my brother of the craft and the “blue gown.”
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.