Heroic 80-year-old former officer returns to Detroit police

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"I am too old to be a rookie again, I am 80 years old," said Tom Robinson.

But that isn't stopping Robinson from working for the Detroit Police Department - again - as he looks to be reinstated.

Let's take you back to how it all started:  

"To be honest with you, I really didn't want to be a police officer," he said.

It was the early 1960s and he was laid off from his job on the line. And working in law enforcement with strained race relations was the last thing Tom Robinson wanted to do.

"In those days the police were very hard on us," he said. "In fact when I was in high school the police detained four of us (in a) suspected stolen car (case)."

Tom was eventually released, but the job search was tough and shining shoes didn't bring home enough to support his family of five.

After much convincing, Tom entered the police academy - and passed. Ironically he was very familiar with the precinct he started at.

"The place I started off assigned to was the same where I was arrested at, 6th precinct," he said.

His mindset would soon change.

"If people only knew the police have a difficult job out there," he said. "Those who are anti-police or critical of police (should) walk in shoes for at least a year, I guarantee they would feel the same way - it is very difficult out there."

When his 27-year career on the Detroit police force began, crime was rampant. Tom rarely took time off, aggressively going after his suspects.

"I got captured two different hold-up men, and a man wanted for felonious assault, so I got three people arrested," he said. "I said okay because I feel so good I am going to go downtown to the Hart Plaza, sit there, feed the pigeons and throw rocks in the river." 

But that didn't last long - on June 11th, 1982, the call went out a man with a gun barricaded on the 8th floor of the Buhl Building in Detroit. Tom ran in.

"I hear two shots a shotgun blast and a handgun," he said. "I took my snub-nosed .38 out and I said, well this is it."

A law office was under attack by a disgruntled insurance salesman Robert Harrington, who was armed with a gun and a jar of gasoline. He stormed the building demanding a check he never received. 

He killed 24-year-old Eve August and wounded dozens more before he set the floor on fire. Former Free Press photographer Daymon Hartley captured the dramatic images. 

"People were crawling underneath desks, jumping out the windows and so forth," Tom said. "He took a jar of gasoline and threw it on the carpet, took his shotgun and boom and caused a fire. 

"I pulled my gun put it right here, I said if you move, I'll kill you - and I was serious. He said 'Please don't shoot, my brother did the shooting and I took the gun away from my brother."

Tom, who was first to respond, handcuffed the men and the smoke started rolling in. They broke the glass out and the special agent dragged his suspects to the open window where an iconic photo was taken. Tom was dressed in a fedora and white suit holding down the gunman until firefighters arrived.

"I guess my survival instinct kicked in ... I'm not sure how I made it out but I made it out," he said.

Harrington went to prison for life. Tom Robinson continued going after the bad guys until July 5th 1990.

"I gave myself a birthday present and I retired," he said.

Just from DPD. Tom spent the next two decades working for two airlines and nine years going to school to learn Arabic. But then when it was all over, he found himself at home.

"I'm sitting around the house thinking what do I do today," he said.

Until an old friend suggested he apply again to DPD. There was an opening for a police assistant. Now, at 80 years old, Tom is back in the academy hoping to get recertified and go back to work doing what he loves, what he knows.

"The atmosphere is so different then when I was on the job, it is very different," he said. "I like it better now because everyone seems like one big family."