For nearly half a century now, I have been proud to call myself an Ocean County native. Among the many highlights of my life have been the years I spent in law enforcement with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, where I worked alongside Lieutenant Laurel Hester.
I have also enjoyed the good fortune of experiencing this grand American experiment of ours from myriad angles. I have served as an elected official, as an appointed official in various capacities, as an employee of government, and, in perhaps the most important role of all, as citizen and voter.
From those varied perspectives, I have observed thousands upon thousands of government employees. I have yet to encounter another public servant more devoted, more dedicated, more loyal, or more hard-working than Laurel Hester. To this very day, I see news headlines that would not exist but for her untiring efforts for more than two decades now.
Laurel entered law enforcement at a time when female officers faced an even steeper uphill climb than they do today. She brought to the profession a refreshing array of qualities it was lacking in those days; things like tenacity and compassion and incredible efficiency.
Whether we like to admit it or not, there are differences between men and women and Laurel brought to police work countless qualities that I believe only a woman could. As a result, I saw a heck of a lot of men in a male-dominated profession feeling threatened by all those things Laurel was introducing.
But I also watched in utter amazement as she slowly but surely gained the trust and confidence of the strapping 250-pound state troopers and the oftentimes holier-than-thou federal agents. And all of a sudden there it was before my very eyes: a woman cop being accepted by her male colleagues.
I was witness to Laurel Hester making history. I saw a pioneer among women in police work always working twice as hard for half the credit. And then I saw her taking her half of that credit and giving it away to a man in the interest of cultivating the harmony and respect always in her wake.
In Laurel, I was seeing then the evolution of social progress, much as we are all seeing the very same thing swirling around her today. I will take to my grave the vivid memories of the times Laurel and I spent working on cases together.
The frigid January nights in the back of a frost-encrusted surveillance van struggling with frozen fingers to focus a seemingly endless telephoto lens on the images of shadowy figures engaged in some sort of shenanigans under the cover of darkness. And we took some lumps together wrestling to the ground our share of drug dealers in the relentless heat of an August afternoon or two on the sandy beaches of Seaside Heights. We sledgehammered the doors of fortress-like drug dens with nothing more that wooden night sticks and 1940s-era revolvers.
Reasonable salaries and overtime were just a dream. No cop in the world could ever ask for better backup than that provided by Laurel Hester.
While she may seem to us today a frail and fragile figure, let me tell you she could mete out “necessary force” with the best of them.
And, not surprisingly, I don’t recall anyone ever checking on the gender of her partner when needing her help. Personally, I never knew the answer to that question and didn’t care. Now I know.
I still don’t care.
Of course not everyone agrees on things like religion and government. Indeed, that’s what America is all about. That said, I think anyone is hard pressed today in claiming our Board of Freeholders does not provide us with pretty good government year after year. At the very least, it’s an opinion that’s rather well quantified at the polls on a regular basis.
But I have just seen something go horribly awry. I have seen justice denied to someone who spent her life ensuring justice for the rest of us. I have seen my government turn its back on a loyal servant. I have seen a human being skewered — apparently on religious grounds — and I just can’t for the life of me understand how any God being worshiped by anyone in this county could possibly approve of this.
Laurel Hester’s last request is not about politics, religion, or economics. It’s not about the “sanctity of marriage” or any of the other things we’ve been hearing about.
But it is about morality. It is about human dignity.
This article originally appeared in the Ocean County Observer on November 24.