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Once he turned 17, Jeffry Dillon never thought much about clothes. In 1981, after wearing a blue uniform for eight years, he opted for the black one with the white collar he still wears today at 48.
A priest in the Brooklyn diocese, Father Dillon has been fighting depravity his whole life. "As a police officer there's a responsibility to stop evil in the world. Priests also confront evil, but their responsibility is to transform it into goodness," says the former cop, who served on the NYPD from 1967 to 1975, a time of great political unrest.
There were the Black Liberation Army, the riots at Columbia University, and the Vietnam War looming in the air. "Policemen were under siege," he says."There were times my life was in danger." As an individual he might have questioned the issues and what people were about but "you did what you had to do."
When he walked into the 83rd Precinct in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn a week after graduating from high school, he realized that what he had to do was grow up quickly. "We were all young, it was like the blind leading the blind," he remembers. "We had to learn by doing." So if there was an accident outside his assignment or someone threatening to commit suicide, he would show up just to get a sense of what a tragedy looked like.
"There's a part of you that wants to run away," he says. Like the day he got a call about a man who wanted to throw himself in front of a subway train at 96th and Broadway. As the train approached, Dillon, running down the platform, caught a glimpse of the guy right before he jumped. "It's just the horror of it and you have to do something," he says. Sometimes in summer he'd get calls about people who lived alone and had been dead in their apartments for days. "To be a police officer required in some ways that you suppress your own emotional reactions. You'd think this may be tragic but you're going to have something else afterwards."
Dillon's decision to join the force wasn't his own. "I didn't dream of becoming a police officer," he says. "It was my father's choice; he felt that I didn't have much of a future. He had a feeling his son was going to end up in jail." He thought about becoming a priest while in high school but when he heard he would have to go to college he forgot the idea. Being tormented by teachers who constantly compared him to his more academically successful older brother had turned him away from any further schooling. So he took the civil service test, trained, and became a patrolman.
When he finally found his calling, the transition from a secular lifestyle to one shaped by religious vows was difficult. "My father thought I was crazy," he says, and friends didn't quite understand why he would do it. Another challenge was returning to school at 25. "When I came to college I thought to myself, 'Last week I would've locked up someone for this.' " His priorities have changed since then. "What's important is my personal relationship with God."
Dillon doesn't resent his father for pushing him to become a cop. "I think he had good intentions," he says. He has few regrets. "I think that if I stayed a police officer God would've worked with that."
One of nine articles in our Mind/ Body/ Spirit Supplement.