3 badges, 24 hours: Pierce County Deputy Art Centoni



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Posted on January 26, 2010 at 11:52 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 27 at 9:56 AM

Between Halloween and Christmas of last year, six Western Washington law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. Five of them were deliberately targeted.

In the wake of those shootings, the KING 5 investigators rode along with three officers during one 24-hour period, covering the same beats where their friends and colleagues died. The goal was to capture the emotions and feelings these officers are still struggling with as they carry out their job of protecting us.

Our series "3 badges: 24 hours" begins with veteran Pierce County Deputy Art Centoni.

On a cloudy afternoon this month he answered the first call of the day. A man had a court order to kick his girlfriend out of his house. Two deputies were going along with the man to deliver the bad news.

“He has a temporary order of protection he needs to serve on his girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend,” says Centoni.

The woman gets upset when deputies find her and hand her the order, but she drives off peacefully.

"You never know what you're going to get with these situations. This one turned out relatively smooth,” says Centoni.

And so begins a 10-hour shift full of what officers call "domestics," arguments between family or friends that they can't seem to settle themselves. It’s one of the most common police calls and the type that can quickly turn dangerous.

Later on his shift, Centoni responded to a man who assaulted another Pierce County deputy during a domestic violence call.

Last month two fellow deputies were shot when a seemingly cooperative domestic violence suspect pulled a gun. Veteran deputy Kent Mundell died. He was the sixth local officer lost to gun violence at year's end.

"It made me feel ill," says Centoni. “It made my heart sink. Law enforcement is my family."

The men and women of the South Hill Precinct, where Centoni patrols, also have a link to another recent law enforcement tragedy. Maurice Clemmons lived on their beat.

Because of previous calls to his house,  Deputy Centoni knew of the man behind the coffee shop killings of four Lakewood officers. It occurred weeks after a similar police assassination in Seattle.

The relentless bloodshed made officers feel things they don't often admit to.

"At first it made me feel weak. It made me feel vulnerable," says Centoni.

And it has changed police work, at least for now.

Deputies are on their toes for the last call of the night, a suspected meth lab in Parkland. But even after the call ends, they can’t afford to let their guard down. Writing reports and taking coffee breaks now requires the same mental alertness as the night’s other duties.

“When I write a report I try to find a well-lit,  safe area," says Centoni.

Yet deputies have also found themselves being targeted for another reason: by a grateful public what wants to give its deepest thanks.

"I think they're brave. I think they're great," says Virginia Basher, just moments before she shook the hand of the deputy she witnesses tussling with a domestic violence suspect.

“You get a lot of people that come up to us and shake our hand,” says Centoni. "They'll be at a traffic signal next to us. They'll honk their horn."

And that outpouring is giving officers much needed strength in their time of need.

"We've grown tighter. We've grown stronger and we've grown better," says Centoni.