When he was a little kid, John Balog wanted nothing more than to suit up in a police uniform.
“I wanted to help people, always believed in doing the right thing,” he said, talking about the example set by his grandfather, uncle, and cousin — all police officers.
Balog’s big break came in 1983, while working at General Motors in Elyria.
He’d put in an application at the Amherst station. About 45 minutes before his GM shift was to start, the phone rang; it was Capt. Barbara Cowger.
“She asked if I was still interested in being an Amherst police officer. Of course I was. She said, ‘Good, behere at 4 o’clock, you’ll be sworn in at 6,” Balog remembers.
Attending the police academy in the afternoons and working at the plant at nights, Balog started off part-time. That was back in the days when new officers could work the road while at the academy.
He remembers being eager. One of the first calls he handled by himself was a crash, and Balog laughed recalling how he went overboard handling it.
“You would have thought there was a fatality on this, because I had all these markers everywhere, measurements, calculations, you name it — but it was just a one-car crash. A lady had gone off the road and hit a tree,” he said. “They said I did everything right. But I had taken it to the next level, not knowing.”
For several years, he also worked part-time patrolling St. Joseph Hospital in Lorain, building experience.
A defining moment came on the job in 1988 while on duty for Amherst PD. While responding to a medical emergency, neither police nor paramedics could find the Westlake Drive address where a patient desperately needed help. It was a pre-GPS era when many people had their house numbers on the curb, which is fine unless there’s snow on the ground.
Officers eventually found the right place. Yet the incident inspired Balog to action.
Upset at the delay, he walked the entire city with a clipboard, cataloging every house, every apartment, every hotel, restaurant, doctor’s office, and shop. When at long last it was finished, officers called the definitive address list the “Balog Book.”
For more than a decade, until the advent of Google Maps, the book was carried in squad cars and used by dispatchers. Some officers still have it on hand for fast reference.
The early days were quite different from today’s policing. For starters, there were usually just two police officers on duty and sometimes they were both part-timers.
Bars used to be more of a concern. It was nothing to roll up on Church Street on a Friday night and find a big brawl on the sidewalks.
Burglars have always been Balog’s pet peeve, especially when he went full-time in 1992. While on the roads, he’d make a point of driving residential neighborhoods, peering into the darkness on the watch for prowlers. “That’s what I always wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to stop burglars.”
Break-ins weren’t part of his job while assigned to patrol the Amherst Schools as the resource officer in the early 2000s.
But it was back to burglars when he was drafted into the detective’s bureau in 2005, filling in for a few months while another officer was out on leave. He returned to the bureau as Det. Dan Jasinski’s partner in 2007 and has remained ever since.
Drunk drivers, domestic disputes, and search warrants have been common issues over the years. The major shift in local policing over the past 34 years has been drugs.
“Now the biggest problem we have is the heroin overdoses, the drug overdoses,” Balog said. “It’s unreal. It’s affecting so many people.”
He chalks up about 90 percent of property crimes — burglaries, thefts, shoplifting, and so on — to addiction. Thieves are taking televisions to fence for drug money, he said.
Identity theft and other technology-enabled crimes have also changed the policing game. Computers are probably humanity’s greatest invention, said Balog, but they’ve given rise to everything from fraud to online harassment to cyber-stalkers and chat room child predators.
Balog’s fondest memories are of helping people. He recalls reviving a woman from a heart attack, basking in the feeling of having saved a life, and being emotionally throttled 12 hours later when her heart gave out again and she died.
Sometimes you can’t control what happens. But he said trying to make something right or better, whether finding a lost pet or breaking up a regional theft ring, is always rewarding.
It hasn’t all been good. Balog has watched people die before his eyes, knowing there was nothing he could do to save them. And that’s the worst part.
Pointing to the parking lot outside his office window, he spoke of a man who ended his life by shotgun in a car there. That memory won’t ever go away; it plays over and over in the detective’s mind.
So do child deaths, drownings, and beatings.
“We go to all these calls — suicides, kids being injured or killed, hurt real bad. Police officers go through a lot that people don’t ever see. That’s the hard part. That’s the part that really bothers you,” he said.
Still, it will be hard to let go of the job. Yet Balog said he’ll be leaving Amherst in good hands when he retires this summer.
At age 59, Balog plans to bow out in July. He’s served through three police chiefs, five mayors, and dozens of officers.
“I’m going to miss these guys but it’s time to move on,” he said. “It’s a young man’s game.”
The officers he’ll leaving behind, many who he’s trained over the years and are now in command positions, are highly trained. “They’re going to be OK,” he smiled.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.