ATLANTA — In a rough part of this city’s northwest side, the call about a shoplifter at a discount store should have been straightforward.
For Officer Che Milton, it was the first call of his shift — on his fourth day on the job.
Inside the store, Milton met a sobbing 12-year-old named Heaven Staples.
“She’s crying, bawling. Tears everywhere,” Milton told CNN. “She was upset she was caught stealing.”
Heaven told him that she was stealing shoes because her 5-year-old sister needed them.
“I couldn’t put her in the system, being 12 years old, for stealing some $5 shoes,” Milton recalled. “I’d rather just take her home and see what’s going on.”
The ride was short. Heaven cried. Then, they walked in the door.
“That’s when I saw the conditions — how the conditions were in the house,” Milton said: five children and their big sister, Heaven, without much food or furniture.
“It was very rough for them,” he said. “It just pulled on my heartstrings.”
Milton went back to work. But soon he returned with pizza and soft drinks.
Heaven’s mother, Shameek Staples, got choked up. Milton, who stands 6-foot-7, got a bit emotional.
Turns out, the pizza was only the beginning.
Word of Milton’s generosity spread through the police department and the community, and donations to the Staples family trickled in.
Three months later, Shameek Staples stood in her driveway while police officers unloaded boxes and bags of clothes, diapers, food and household supplies.
She hugged Milton. One of her children greeted him, and he laughed.
Among the contributions was a gift card from Kathe Schlomann, a retired school librarian in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, who also enclosed a letter.
“I have seen some students face difficult home situations,” Schlomann wrote. “I pray that their family gets a new start and a better life. … May God bless and protect you, Officer Milton, and your police force as you face each challenging day.”
Milton “has been a blessing to our family,” Staples said. “When you have a lot of kids, you are constantly in need of things, and he’s helped to fill some of those needs.”
It’s what police do, said Milton, whose father is a retired lieutenant and whose brother is a police officer in Detroit, near where Milton grew up.
“It’s just who I am and just what I’ve been around my whole life,” Milton said, adding many of his fellow officers have done the same.
Using discretion, serving others
“Juvenile crime drives our crime in Atlanta,” Sgt. Warren Pickard, an Atlanta Police Department spokesman, told CNN. “As a police officer, you have options,” he said, noting that police work is not about “dropping the hammer all the time.”
In the case of Heaven’s shoplifting, Milton said he didn’t want the young girl to carry a strike against her.
“We all make mistakes,” he said, children and adults alike.
No one might have known of Milton’s kindness had it not been for another officer who was on duty with him. In fact, Milton worried he’d gotten into trouble when his supervisor called to ask about the case.
Instead, Milton was named Zone One’s Officer of the Month, the same month he graduated from the police academy.
His actions also inspired Heaven to volunteer and donate items to other needy families, her mom said.
For a man who didn’t always want to go into law enforcement, Milton said the decision to become an officer is among the best of his life. His goal is to become a police chief one day.
“I’m here to help protect and serve,” he said, “and that is what I’m going to continue to do.”