It was a night like any other. Assistant manager Prem Menon was covering for one of the workers who had called in sick at the gas station along with his senior and five or six other staff members. A few hours passed and from the eerie silence of the night came a car that slowly stopped at the station while young Prem was behind the counter. The man who stepped out didn't seem so friendly. Little did he know then that what was going to happen next would change his life forever.
Before Prem could understand what was going on, there were threats and abuses. None of his colleagues was nearby, and right when he felt like explaining himself, a heavy blow landed on his face. As he crashed on the ground with a bleeding face, he heard two words clearly -- "Iraqi terrorist"...
Prem understood what was happening. It was 2001 and not long after the World Trade Centre attack. For the man standing in front of him, the fact that Prem was an Indian working late shifts to make some extra income didn't matter. He was so blinded by hate that all immigrants were terrorists.
Scared but still in his senses, Prem managed to press the emergency button. The average response time of Colorado State Police is two minutes. For the next odd 120 seconds, he had to fend off the attacker himself. But the man had other plans. He walked back to his vehicle to get something. Prem had spent enough time in the US to figure out what was gonna happen next. He wasted no time crawling into a bathroom and locking himself in, praying for the police to come...
"He was the first to call me a terrorist. Since that night, I wanted to do something for this country. That incident triggered an old aspiration I had long forgotten. That was the start..." says Prem, still fresh of the horrors from that night.
Things didn't escalate as the attacker chose to flee instead of risking arrest while trying to break open the bathroom door. And he unintentionally paved the way for the 1400-strong Colorado Police gaining one more loyal policeman!
Prem has dedicated himself to fight hatred. The helpless youngster from that night is today a happy husband, proud father and a respected police officer with an impeccable record of close to 16 years.
Kerala-native Prem arrived in USA in 1997 for his higher studies. He joined a Christian college for a course in Missions and Ministry and used to work at the campus cafeteria part-time. Soon, he was hired by a hotel near to the campus as a dishwasher. He was promoted to become a server before becoming a front desk staff. He did several odd jobs to support his studies, which he completed at the turn of the millennium. It was around this time that he joined the gas station.
"After completing pre-degree from MG College, Thiruvananthapuram, I worked in Delhi for a few months. During my childhood days, I dreamed of becoming a Sub Inspector in the Kerala Police. But that wish died down as I grew up and the realities of life became more clear," said Prem, whose parents still reside in Nanthancode in Kerala's capital city.
Who can be a cop?
"To become a cop here is different from doing so in Kerala. Since I am an immigrant, I had to work hard to make the transformation possible. I made knowledgeable friends including policemen who used to visit the gas station and learnt the process involved and on how to prepare. I got my Green Card in 2003 and by 2005, I was eligible to apply and got selected the same year after a background check," Prem said.
To become a policeman in the US, every candidate needs to complete a nine-month programme in the police academy. The schedule is tough, says Prem, since it is meant to prepare you mentally and physically to become a police officer. All cadets have to undergo different training modules that include investigation and interrogation techniques, search and seizure, firearm training, close contact combat etc.
"Here, cops are compulsorily taught traffic, criminal and family laws thoroughly like LLB students back in India. You have to have a burning desire to complete the nine-month programme. When you finish, there will be an exam called the POST (The Peace Officer Standards and Training Program). If you pass, the State will recognise you as a cop. This is how one becomes a cop in any of the 50 US states," he explained.
However, passing POST is no guarantee to getting the job. The next step is making yourself available for recruitment to various State Police forces and Sheriff's Departments.
"If you are shortlisted, your mental capacity is checked by a psychologist. They even conduct a polygraph test to understand the real you. Then comes the interview by a set of Commanders followed by the Chief of Police. If he/she is pleased, the appointment letter will land," he added.
All officers will be supervised by a senior officer for a year in 10-hour shifts, following which they officially become police officers. Only then are they given access to their own car, body cam, firearms and other gadgets. However, not all will make it, says Prem as some get fired by the supervisor during this period.
Not a gunslinger
December 13 2013 is a black day for the people of Colorado. It was on the fateful day 18-year-old Karl Pierson opened fire at Arapahoe High School -- killing a fellow student before taking his own life. Prem Menon's car was the second police unit to reach the school, seven minutes after the first shot was fired. However, the whole incident lasted less than two minutes and there was nothing to be done besides controlling the crowd after that.
Prem says to be a cop in the US is like playing a video game in survival mode. Flare-ups can occur at any time. That is why policemen like him need to be mentally strong and quick to react as the situation demands.
"I had to pull my gun out many times just to be on the safe side. But it hasn't come to a point where I had to take a life, luckily. They tell us at the academy to never lose hope even if we are shot. They teach us to believe help is on the way and we will make it. When plan A, B and C fails, you quickly need to find a D, E and F... It is that simple.
"I had never touched a gun ever in my life until I joined the force. There is a 40-hour-long firearm training in the academy that we need to pass that includes very intense target training," said the officer whose arsenal includes a shotgun and M-40 type assault rifle.
But can a police officer draw his weapon on a suspect freely? Does it all really play out as in those high-tension scenes in Hollywood movies?
Cops don't fight to knock out anyone, they want us to use the minimum possible force while engaging someone physically. The objective is to handcuff them and bring them to custody. There is no need to be a bodybuilder, Prem reminded.
He almost decided to quit the force when hate crimes against policemen were alarmingly high. He was scared about the future of his kids if something happened to him. That's how he entered the house rentals and ATM chain business. "Unlike in India, we are free to have parallel jobs while in service. Once I complete my 40-hour shift per week, I'm legally free to make investments in any field except strip clubs and liquor stores."
Prem says there are three stages in which a police officer can use force in his department. "We call the first stage the hard look. This is when we use pepper spray or baton to break up a fight or similar violent situation if people refute to disengage even after sensing your presence. Then there is the electrical stun gun (TASER).
"We are trained 21 hours on de-escalation skills at the academy. The gun is the last resort. The government has given it for a purpose -- to protect an innocent life around in the face of imminent danger. I had to point the gun 13 or 14 times to subdue suspects. Once it was to stop a robbery in progress, it was a chase involving a stolen state car in another. But my conscience is clear as I am sure it was justifiable each time," the 45-year-old said.
Prem confesses there were times he felt weird being a cop in the initial years of his service due to the colour of his skin. But as the years went by, he understood the futility of such thoughts. However, he believes the diversity of the community should be celebrated and the representation of minority communities is essential in achieving it.
"Over 20,000 Indians reside in Colorado. But I'm the only person in the force. I must admit it felt weird, especially when I had to enter white households to attend to domestic complaints. But things have changed. When I answer a call, there is only one thing that matters -- to protect and serve," Prem said adding how Hispanics, blacks and second-gen Chinese officers work alongside him in the force.
Kerala police or Colorado police?
Courage, discipline, obedience... which quality is pivotal for such a risky job? Prem says it is integrity.
"When you have a badge and a gun, you become responsible. Integrity is of prime importance, so is critical thinking empathy and devotion to the community. It is not just any getting a respectable job," he says.
And for the same reason, policing is different in the US than that in India, even after ruling out the risk fact, he feels. Disrespect of citizens is a strict no, he said recollecting reading repetitive instances of police high-handedness in Kerala.
"You have to have a reason to stop anybody in the US, otherwise, you will get sued," he said.
Corruption and nepotism are comparatively low and political influence can't safeguard you from the law.
"Imagine this. My colleague Edward attended my wedding and ate alongside my wife Cindy on the occasion. Three days later, Ed caught Cindy overspeeding. Imagine -- your friend's wife, married only a couple of days ago was driving slightly above the permissible speed. What will you do? My wife expected to be let go but she wasn't. Cindy was so mad at him back then. But that is not the best part. Ed is an officer who had given a ticket to his own wife for overspeeding. That's how things work around here," he shared laughing.
However, he is a huge fan of his counterparts back in Kerala. Prem says he follows three leading Malayalam dailies closely and is thrilled by the crime-solving rate and techniques of the police force at home.
In the year 2010, the state of Colorado honoured his service by giving him the Humanitarian of the Year Award. His wife Cindy Menon is a senior proposal manager with APTIM. The couple lives in Denver Tech Centre with their 12-year-old twin boys -- Andrew Vijay Menon and Alexander Ajay Menon.
Reading Malayalam news is Prem's way of staying attached to his roots. He is active in Kerala-based social media groups that keep him updated about trends and changes in his native land.
"We had tickets booked to go home for a family reunion when the pandemic struck. My sister too was advised by the Omani government to avoid international travel. It was so unfortunate.
"When you become parents, the hobbies of your children automatically become your hobbies. I spent weekends skiing, fishing and even wrestling with the boys. Time is moving very fast," says the man who came home last in 2016.