Fayette County

35 years on the beat

She had two options.

She could go voluntarily to the hospital and get checked out.

Or police would take her to Eastern State Hospital, where she would be held for as long as a judge said she should stay.

The woman, who had been drinking and had threatened suicide, told Lexington Police Officer Tommy Puckett that she would rather stay at her Lakebow Court home.

"They always want option C," Puckett said. "There is no option C."

It was shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, New Year's Day. Business had been brisk for Puckett and the Lexington Police Department. Before being summoned to Lakebow Court, Puckett had already arrested two people, refereed some domestic squabbles, handled a noise complaint and helped direct traffic at a three-car accident caused by a woman who not 20 minutes earlier had caused a fender-bender.

"I think people are still drunk or something," Puckett said shortly before noon. "It's going to be a weird day."

It was also going to be a memorable one.

Thursday was the 35-year veteran's last day as a police officer. Others have been with the Lexington Police Department longer, but Puckett might be the only officer to spend his 35-year tenure as a beat cop.

Mention the name Tommy Puckett to many retired or current police officers and their reaction is typically the same.

"Tommy? He's good police."

What "good police" means is difficult to quantify or define. But it has something to do with the way Puckett, in less than five minutes, was able to persuade the drunk and depressed woman to go voluntarily to the hospital. Police had been called to the brick ranch home on Lakebow Court by the woman's sister, who said the drunk woman had called, saying she was going to kill herself by overdosing on pills.

As curious neighbors stood on the sidewalk gawking, the woman, dressed in a purple fuzzy robe, willingly hopped into the back of a Lexington Fire Department Emergency Care Unit.

"I don't know if she took the pills," Puckett said. "But we can't take the risk."

If someone was crazy, drunk or just plain cantankerous or, as Puckett calls them "one of our problem children," it was often Puckett who was dispatched to take the call.

Why?

"I'm exceptionally good at reading people," Puckett said. "You learn to read body language."

Puckett, 6-foot-2 with a thick chest made larger by his bulletproof vest, knows how to use his body to communicate.

Shortly after 2 p.m. Puckett stopped at an apartment complex off of Dinsmore Drive on a noise complaint. Ralph Joyner's upstairs neighbors had been playing music too loud. Joyner had called the police to complain.

Puckett knocked on the offender's door and leaned casually against the frame and explained there had been a complaint about noise. The man readily agreed to keep the music down.

By leaning against the door frame, Puckett communicated that he was not there to arrest any one, Puckett later explained. "You don't make it personal," Puckett said.

"I like that guy," Joyner said of Puckett, who had been to the apartment complex dozens of times. "He always listens."

But Puckett is also a talker.

His gift for gab has gotten him out of some tight spots, including the cross hairs of a gun.

Early in his career, he was called to a local hospital. A woman was out of control and the hospital needed help. Puckett walked into the woman's room and found her wedged between the wall and the bed.

"She had a gun pointed at my head and she was hysterical," Puckett said. "I thought, 'Oh, mouth, don't fail me now."

Puckett talked to her for 10 minutes and she later dropped the gun and slid it to him across the floor. It didn't sink in until afterward that he could have been killed.

"Cops run toward trouble. We don't run away from it," Puckett said.

Puckett, 56, never planned on being a cop. He grew up on a farm on what was then rural Fayette County near Chinoe Road in a house with no hot water. After graduating from Tates Creek High School in 1971, he became a mechanic. Another mechanic quit to join the police force. Puckett was intrigued.

"I thought you had to be something special to be a police officer," Puckett said.

Puckett, who was 21, decided that better pay, health insurance and a pension sounded good. He started on Dec. 24, 1973, earning $160 a week, or $4 an hour.

Since 1973, he has worked every beat in the city. He was first assigned a walking beat in Aspendale, a predominantly black neighborhood. It was the early 1970s, and racial tensions were high. He was taunted while walking his beat. Glass 12-ounce pop bottles were a favorite weapon.

"I could tell you if it was a Pepsi, a Coke or an RC," Puckett said. "But at least you could hear them coming ....Sometimes they would throw 'alley apples' or a brick at you too. You couldn't hear them coming."

Early in his career, Puckett wanted to work his way up the ranks. Most police officers only spend a few years on patrol and then move on to other divisions or trade in their police cruisers for a desk job.

It didn't turn out that way for Puckett.

"I didn't just burn bridges," Puckett said, laughing. "I blew them up."

Puckett has sued the city three times — once over whether police officers could have second jobs and twice over the city's contribution to the police and fire pension. Puckett, who spent 14 years on the Police and Fire Pension Board, sued the city most recently in 2003, saying the city had not contributed enough to the pension system. A Fayette Circuit Court judge and the state Court of Appeals have sided with Puckett and five other police officers who brought the suit. But the city has appealed to the state Supreme Court. It's not clear yet whether the court will hear the appeal.

Puckett's mouth, which has kept him out of trouble on the streets, might also have annoyed department brass, Puckett concedes.

"My wife says that I lack tact," Puckett said. "I've gotten better as I've gotten older."

Former Lexington Police Chief Anthany Beatty, now a University of Kentucky vice president, was in the same Christmas Eve 1973 recruit class as Puckett. Beatty said as a commander and later chief, it was a relief knowing that Puckett was on the street with younger cops.

Beatty said he's not sure why Puckett never moved up the ranks.

But Puckett had a natural ability to connect with people on their very worst days, Beatty said.

"He has been a stabilizing force in the department," Beatty said.

As Puckett made the rounds in his patrol car Thursday afternoon, he pulled in front of a tan, ranch-style house where a petite brunette was raking leaves.

"Come here, give me a kiss before my wife finds out," he hollers. His wife of 30 years, Karen Puckett, comes over to give him a hug. Karen Puckett, an executive at Lexmark, starts to cry as she describes the cop that few of Puckett's fellow officers see.

"He's gotten thank-you notes from people he's arrested," Karen Puckett said. She was perplexed when her husband would return from work with fast-food wrappers littering the floor of his patrol car. Was her husband becoming a stereotypical cop who ate too much?

Turns out, Puckett wasn't the one gorging himself on trans-fats.

"If he was taking someone to jail and he found out that they hadn't eaten, he would stop and get them something to eat," Karen Puckett said tearing up.

Puckett had been kicking around retirement for some time. The average life expectancy of a cop after retirement is seven years, Puckett said. That statistic bothered him. But it's not his own mortality that led Puckett to trade in his gun for a fishing rod. It's the safety of the young man in the picture Puckett keeps tucked in his visor in his patrol car.

Adam Puckett, 24, is Puckett's only child. He's also a Marine in Iraq. His phone calls to his dad are filled with details of fire-fights and tales of near-misses.

A son in Iraq, an aging mother who needs more and more care and the stress of 35 years of seeing the worst in people have taken their toll.

"Think about it, you don't call the police when you're having a good day," Puckett said. "I don't need any more stresses in my life."

He plans to take it easy for a while, maybe do some hunting and fishing. He may later join a smaller police force part time, he says.

But he loved the job. He got a thrill from seeing a bad guy go to jail. He liked outsmarting people who think cops are stupid. He loved his fellow officers, loved helping people even if they didn't always send thank-you notes.

"This is going to be tough," Puckett said as he turned into the East Sector Roll Call center just before 4 p.m. Thursday at the end of his last shift.

As he gets out of his car, Officer Grace Asher walks up. Asher, a seven-year veteran, is one of the few people Puckett has told that Thursday will be his last day. Puckett kept his retirement a secret because he didn't want anyone to make a fuss, he said.

"I'm just going to tell myself that he's on vacation," Asher says as she gives Puckett a hug. When Asher had a question or didn't know what to do, it was Puckett she called first. Puckett is like a father figure to her, Asher says.

"I'm going to try not to cry," Asher says.

When Puckett walks into the Roll Call center, his wife has brought balloons. Many of his fellow officers now know that Puckett is retiring.

"These guys are cops," Puckett says. "They're naturally suspicious."

Puckett, in his farewell speech, keeps his voice steady as he says his goodbyes and reminds them that he lives just up the road. Officers come up to rib him, shake his hand or give him a hug. Some cry.

But in the middle of his speech, the radio crackles. It's dispatch; someone had passed along that Puckett was retiring. It was his final call.

Puckett finally tears up.

In the parking lot, he hugs his wife and looks around him.

"I didn't break down," Puckett said.

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