A badge of sorrow
Former police officer finds himself homeless
Once Christopher Rogers worked security details at the Pine Street Inn, watching over the homeless men who shuffled in and out of the shelter. Now he sleeps there, in a room with 17 other people.
Years ago, Rogers walked a beat in the South End and Brighton, keeping an eye out for criminal activity. These days, he rambles along the streets of Boston, filling the hours until he can return to the shelter.
Until 2006, Rogers was a Boston police officer, respected by many of his peers, a member of a department singing group, and beloved by the students he worked closely with as a community service officer. Since June, he has been homeless, the culmination of a long decline that he says began with a 1987 domestic call that left one of his colleagues dead.
His fall has shocked former colleagues, who want to help him regain his footing, but also see in him a cautionary tale about how a seemingly stable life can be so dramatically transformed.
“I think everyone’s hearts go out to Chris because we know the stress involved in our jobs,’’ said Superintendent William Evans, who was Rogers’s captain in Brighton and ran into him on the street in June. “I think deep down we all think . . . that could be us but for the grace of God.’’
Rogers, who turned 49 last month, has a hard time explaining his plight to the officers he now runs into - or even to himself.
“It’s embarrassing,’’ Rogers said during an interview outside the shelter in the South End. “I never thought I’d be homeless.’’
The seed was planted, he believes, during his rookie year on the force, when he saw Officer Roy Sergei gunned down during a shootout on Commonwealth Avenue. Rogers says he never got over the shooting or his feelings that he could have done something to save his colleague.
In 2003, his wife of 11 years left him and gained primary custody of their two young children. Three years later, Rogers was asked to retire after a department doctor diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and the department deemed him unfit for duty. The department would not comment on what led to the diagnosis.
Rogers, who once owned a Mercedes Benz and a house in Franklin, had to leave Boston and move back in with his mother in North Carolina, sustained only by the partial pension he qualified for after almost 20 years on the force.
After working a series of jobs there, he grew restless and wanted to be near his son and daughter, who live in Milford. He took a Peter Pan bus back up in June, but with no job and no place to go, he moved into Pine Street, where some of those he lives with are not thrilled to be roommates with a former officer. Twice, he said, he has been assaulted on the streets after he told strangers to stop doing drugs in public. Last month, a man hit Rogers in the head with a brick when he told him to stop smoking crack, according to a police report.
“I keep forgetting I’m not a cop,’’ said Rogers, a tall, clean-shaven man with a soft, gravelly voice that sounds smooth and warm when he sings, as he often does during his daylong jaunts around the city.
Rogers insists the department’s diagnosis was wrong, that if anything, he is still suffering from the after-effects of witnessing the death of one of his colleagues.
Rogers was 26 when he joined the department and was assigned to D-4, the district covering the South End and lower Roxbury. In 1987, during his rookie year, he and his partner, Jorge Torres, were among several officers who responded to a reported domestic assault at a Commonwealth Avenue apartment.
Rogers and Torres walked behind the building, where they found Ted Jeffrey Otsuki, a career bank robber, who was not involved in the assault but was in the building and crawled out the back when he saw the police.
Otsuki fired a barrage of bullets at them, hitting Torres, who survived, and missing Rogers.
The gunman fled toward Massachusetts Avenue. In a decision that still haunts him, Rogers said he did not shoot Otsuki, worried he might miss the gunman and hit a bystander instead.
At the same time, 42-year-old Sergei and his partner were running toward the alley, right into Otsuki’s path. The bank robber fired 13 shots at them, killing Sergei, a 17-year-veteran and father of three.
Rogers, who described Sergei as a role model, wept as he recalled the shooting.
“A guy loses his life covering you,’’ Rogers said, his voice breaking. “You never get over it.’’
The next day, Rogers said, he met with police officers trained as peer counselors. They told him he was fine, he said, and Rogers was back on the job a day later.
Today, the police department requires that an officer involved in a traumatic incident meet with a team of officers certified in a national counselor training program and at least one clinical social worker or psychologist. A department spokeswoman acknowledged that the counseling program has evolved significantly since the 1980s.
For years after the shooting, Rogers appeared to lead a normal life. He and five other officers formed a celebrated singing group called “Voices n’ Blue,’’ which performed for teenagers, politicians, and police officials across the city.
As a community service officer who worked with students in the schools, Rogers took teenagers on field trips, like white water rafting in Maine and skiing in New Hampshire.
“Chris was a very good officer,’’ Evans said. “He was great with the community, great with the kids.’’
But every day Rogers thought about the shooting. He often dreamed of Sergei’s death. He did not see a therapist.
It did not help, Rogers said, that some officers called him “Christine’’ after they saw him crying for Sergei. Others, he said, would remark, “Wish I’d been in that alley. [Sergei would] be alive today.’’
Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, was in Rogers’s class at the police academy and has heard reports from other officers who have run into him. He said he is not sure what he can do for Rogers.
“If he wants help, I’d exhaust myself trying to help him,’’ Nee said. “I just don’t know what kind of help we can give him now.’’
Rogers said he is not looking for handouts. He has scheduled appointments to find housing and said he is meeting regularly with a therapist.
“You can tell he’s very motivated,’’ said Ken Brady, Pine Street’s case management coordinator. “He doesn’t want to stay here.’’
Rogers has family in Boston, but doesn’t want to bother them.
“We’ve always been taught, ‘You take care of your own issues the best way you can,’ ’’ he said.
So he tries to stay positive. He shines his shoes like he did when he was a police officer. He dresses immaculately, making sure his clothes are clean and neatly pressed, a way to remind his old colleagues that he cares about his appearance as much as he did when he was in uniform.
“I still feel like I represent them,’’ Rogers said, smoothing his black silk pants. “You’re always a police officer, no matter what.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.