Do you recognize this picture from that scene in “Batman Begins”? Lieutenant Jim Gordon places his coat on a young Bruce Wayne following the murder of his parents. Later, in the sequel movie, “The Dark Knight Rises”, the now Commissioner Gordon asks Batman to reveal his identity, so the world could know the hero that was about to sacrifice himself. Batman replies, “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended”.
I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a pushover when it comes to movie scenes like that. I love stories about good deeds and how they elevate others. Just like Jim Gordon’s good deed helped elevate Bruce Wayne to have the courage to become Batman, and fictionally save countless lives…that’s a ripple effect! It’s easy to admire and be inspired by fantasy superheroes like Batman, or maybe even the actors who pretend to be them. However, it’s strange that we often overlook the real-life versions walking among us, doing good deeds that have positive life-altering effects. Case in point, SWAT Officer Dennis Stepnowski, or “Step” as he was affectionately known. He was one of those “Real Deal” superhero crimefighters. The only thing he was missing was a cape.
Step would have turned 47 years old last week. Sadly, he was killed in the line of duty on June 29th, 2006. He and a SWAT partner were ambushed while pursuing a murder suspect on foot, resulting in the death of both Step and the murder suspect. But let’s rewind this just a bit.
Step went through the DeKalb County Police Academy just before I did. I always remembered he had an interesting badge number, “1700”. We cops can get a little wrapped around the axel about our badge numbers. Since you have to live with it stamped across your shield, a cool number doesn’t hurt. Before SWAT, Step and I were never that close, just friendly. Probably because we never worked together on the same shift or precinct. He was the kind of guy who was not easy to miss, big muscular frame and bald head. His name was always associated with lots of felony arrests and was known to be quick to back-up fellow officers. Constantly upbeat and always ready to offer a smile, let’s just say he had a great reputation. Hell, one time he risked his life to extricate someone from a burning car!
Years later when I was assigned to SWAT, Step applied for the team and was invited to attend our SWAT school with a couple dozen fellow officers. The school was very grueling and physical, and taught by current SWAT Team members. During one exercise that included SWAT-candidates crawling through the mud, I vividly recall him looking up at me, exhausted with mud all over his face, and smiling. As if I was the one needing the reassurance! I smiled back and thought to myself, “This guy is a perfect fit for SWAT”. Step made the team with ease and soon became one of the standouts. Time after time, one crisis after the other, Step was never short on courage or good deeds.
Some may fixate on Step’s death as just being a tragedy. But, I argue that there is beauty in Step’s last good deed that likely had a ripple effect that will continue indefinitely. For example, when I worked homicide cases, I often wondered what effect solving a case and helping convict the killer had on others down the line. Would the killer have victimized others if I had not caught them? Would they have ruined more lives and devastated additional families? I think its reasonable to answer “Yes”. When Step heard gunfire that fateful night, without hesitation he ran to where his partner had been ambushed. As Step rounded the building, he was met by a hail of gunfire. The suspect was only feet away and rapidly firing at Step. Even though Step was hit with a fatal bullet, he gave it back in spades. It was as if Step acknowledged his fate and instead of crumbling under shock and fear, with the courage of a lion, he saw the task through. Ultimately ensuring his partner’s safety and balancing the books, so that this evil man could never touch another innocent soul. Warriors like Step yearn to be tested, they believe it is their purpose to fight that righteous battle, where their actions make a cruel world a little bit better. In tragedy, there is beauty.
You would think that Edgar Albert Guest’s poem, “See it through” was inspired by Step’s actions that night
Dennis Stepnowski’s story is one we have seen imitated on the stage, film & TV time and time again. A story that has been written into ballads where the hero gives his life, yet saves the day. Step will forever be spoke about in reverence and with legend-like status. He deserves his place among the likes of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Elliot Ness and other courageous lawmen. In closing, l think Step would agree with Batman, “Anyone can be a hero”…just have the courage to act.