Jews in blue

Lt. Dave Wolf and Chief Rick Knox, both of the Olivette Police Department. Photo: Ellen Futterman

Ellen Futterman, Editor

Hey, mammas, as the old song goes, maybe you don’t want to let your babies grow up to be cowboys. But a police officer, well, that’s a different story. Let me explain.

During an interview late last year about the clergy’s response to the Ferguson shooting and riots that began last summer, Rabbi Mark Shook said he didn’t much like some clergy members suggesting that police officers repent for their sins. He felt that implied they did something wrong in the first place. 

He called this response “an application of collective guilt” and asked, “How many times have (Jews) been the victims, when individuals are judged not by their own behavior but by their group identity? The clergy urging repentance and atonement from the officers do not even know the officers. They have no idea what kind of officers they are or how they do their job.”

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Shook, who serves as rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel as well as chaplain coordinator for the St. Louis County Police Department, looked at me and said, “You know, there are Jewish police officers in St. Louis.”

Of course, it makes sense that there are Jewish police officers here as well as throughout the United States. The thing is, I hadn’t really stopped to consider that. But then, a few months later, my phone rang,and the caller identified himself as Lt. Dave Wolf of the Olivette Police Department.

As an Olivette resident, I immediately assumed my house was being burglarized or was on fire. Wolf quickly calmed me and explained he was calling because Rabbi Shook had mentioned I was interested in speaking to a Jewish police officer.

A couple of weeks later, we met at Olivette police headquarters where Wolf’s chief, Rick Knox, joined us. There, Wolf, 47, talked about being one of a few Jewish police officers in the St. Louis area.

He explained that he wanted to go into law enforcement for as long as he could remember. 

“I even had a letter I saved from when I was 9 or 10 that the FBI sent me after I toured their headquarters for my birthday,” he said.

Wolf acknowledges that his choice of vocation is especially curious given that he is the son of a rabbi. His father, Sylvin Wolf, served at United Hebrew Congregation and was an educator with CAJE (Central Agency for Jewish Education). Today, he and his second wife live in Naples, Florida, where he is a part-time rabbi. Wolf’s mother, Phyllis Wolf, who worked as a speech pathologist, passed away in 1996.

Wolf attended Temple Israel as a kid and celebrated his bar mitzvah at a Sukkot in his backyard.

“I grew up in a Jewish home, where we had Shabbat dinner every Friday night. It was a very liberal household, where my parents taught us everyone was equal. I think those principles shaped the way I look at the world.”

Wolf says his parents were always very supportive of his choice to go into law enforcement. He attended Drake University because it was one of the only colleges at the time that offered a major in law enforcement as opposed to simply criminal justice.

After college, Wolf attended the St. Charles Law Enforcement Training Academy and worked for three years on the Chesterfield force. In 1995, he decided to leave law enforcement for sales. He figured he could make more money selling computer software and hardware. The only thing was, he truly missed law enforcement.

“For a vast majority of police officers, it gets in your blood,” he said. “I think it’s because it speaks to what type of person you are. It’s much more than just a job. It’s really who you are.”

In 2001, Wolf joined the 23-member Olivette Police Department, which serves a community of 7,700. He says he has never felt any kind of anti-Semitism from any of his fellow officers, or at the police academy. 

“To tell you the truth, I got more razzing in high school,” he said, explaining that he attended Parkway West High School when that area of west St. Louis County was largely Christian.

“My graduating class (1985) had 604 students, and maybe there were five Jews in the school. Kids used expressions like, ‘Jewing you down.’ I can remember one kid rolling a penny on the floor toward me.”

At that point, Chief Knox chimed in, wondering when he was going to be asked about being Jewish. No, he’s not, but he’s married to a Jewish woman, St. Louis artist Marian Steen, and said several of his grandchildren had their baby naming ceremonies at Central Reform Congregation.

“I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I would help the Orthodox by going into their homes during Sabbath to turn on the lights,” said 

Knox, 60. “All my friends are Jewish. Some of them ask, ‘Do you have any Jewish officers?’ They think they know the answer but I tell them, as a matter of fact I do. They’re always surprised.”

Soon the conversation turned to Ferguson. Knox and Wolf are grateful that throughout the pandemonium after the death of Michael Brown, no one else — neither police nor protestors – had been seriously injured. Our meeting, however, occurred a week or so before two police officers were shot and wounded in the early morning hours of March 12 after a night of protesting in Ferguson.

Knox, who has been with the Olivette police for 37 years, stated flatly that during the thick of the Ferguson rioting, he was scared. 

“I was sending officers there, and I feared for their safety,” he said. “I also was heartbroken and very sadden by all the destruction to people’s businesses and livelihood.”

Both he and Wolf are adamant that all citizens have the right to protest peacefully and that police should respect that right. Knox recalled sending Wolf and other officers to a neo-Nazi rally at the Olivette Community Center several years ago to provide security and make sure the rally went off without incident.

“I may be vehemently opposed to the message, but I support someone’s constitutional right to peaceful assembly and free speech,” said Wolf, who is divorced and the father of two. “What’s not OK is burning down buildings, looting and throwing bricks at police.”

Knox isn’t sure how Ferguson will change the future of policing, but he is sure things do need to change.

“Departments, in general, need to examine how we do our policing, how we interact with our community, how we reach our community and the need to partner with our community,” he said. “After 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, I saw so much support for law enforcement that I thought people loved the police. But now I know there are issues we need to address. We have to figure out ways to work together.”