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The streets will look the same after dark next week. People will gather on porches, seeking relief from the heat. Cars pumping Puff Daddy from behemoth speakers will drive up and down Broadway.

But something will have changed. The city's bleaker neighborhoods will be a little less safe, their occupants a little less cared for.

For 28 years, Norm Appleford brought order, compassion and -- as unlikely as it sounds -- humor to Buffalo's meaner streets. After Saturday night, he won't be out there anymore.

He leaves a legacy: Three decades of evidence that superior police work is about brains and heart, not brawn and intimidation.

Appleford seldom drew his gun or swung his nightstick. At 5'9" and barely 155 pounds, he's as imposing as the typical librarian. But no cop kept order, defused people on the edge or caught bad guys better than the man dubbed Father Crime.

"It just shows you," said Lt. Mark Maraschiello, a longtime colleague of Appleford, "that 99 percent of this job is up here," tapping his head, "and in here," pointing to his chest.

He could have retired at full pension eight years ago. He could have taken a desk job years earlier. Yet Appleford, 51, will end his career as he began it -- working nights on the toughest streets in the city.

"It's more exciting," he said with a shrug. "I don't understand these young cops who want to work in a quiet (precinct) house. That's not how you learn the job."

Although his peers rank him among the best street cops in the city, there's no strut to the man. He's as friendly as a neighborhood grocer, no more self-impressed than a nun. The diplomatic temperament suited him for a job that's equal parts social work and raw authority.

"On domestic disputes, the first thing he told me is don't humiliate a man," said Officer Tim Pringle, who was Appleford's partner for six years. "Take the guy outside, don't handcuff him in front of his children."

The deference is typical of a man with a cop's instincts but a social worker's mentality.

"We come into these people's lives for two minutes," said Appleford. "You don't know what kind of day they've had, what kind of life they've had."

It's an attitude shaped by thousands of nights on the street, thousands of situations where instinct is a cop's only guide.

Appleford and Officer Tom English answered a domestic violence call a few months ago. It was a native Chinese family. A teen-age girl and her mother were crying in one room. The girl's hands were swollen and bleeding.

The daughter, in violation of custom, had taken food from her father's plate. He'd beaten her hands with a stick.

"The guy didn't speak a lick of English," said Officer English, who has been on the force three years. "But we've somehow got to tell him why he's going to be arrested."

Appleford spent 15 minutes calming the wife down, then used her as translator.

"He realized right away the only way to reach him was through her," said English. "By the time we left, the guy understood why we were taking him."

For years, precinct captains and lieutenants put rookie cops in Appleford's car. Then they'd see the streets through his eyes.

"You try not to let them get that gangbuster attitude," said Appleford. "You don't have to go out there and break heads to get the job done."

Maraschiello remembers a night, early in his career, he and Appleford pulled over two suspects in a drive-by shooting. The car was clean -- no guns, no drugs.

"We knew they were dirty," said Maraschiello. "I wanted to impound the car, grab whatever we could out of it. Norm said, no, let them go."

Appleford knew these guys would mess up again soon enough. When they did, every cop in the city would have their license plate and vehicle description.

"If we'd impounded the car," said Maraschiello, "they'd just go out and steal another and we wouldn't know what they were driving. There was a logic to what Norm did I hadn't even thought of."

But to fully appreciate Appleford, or any cop, one need understand that there are times savvy counts for nothing. Violence comes as suddenly as a hiccup.

Appleford answered a call for a loud party one Christmas Eve. The door opened. He was pulled inside and beaten by a half-dozen men.

"I just went into the fetal position and held onto my gun, so they wouldn't shoot me with it," he said.

His partner at the time, Rick Schmitz, fought off other partygoers on the porch and called for back-up. Appleford got out of it with bruises.

A hot August night

It's a hot Thursday night in August. The address of a 911 hang-up call comes over the police radio.

Appleford and his parter, Kathy Martin-Appleford -- a 15-year veteran of the force who is also his wife -- are first on the scene.

A woman is upstairs, doubled over with stomach pains.

Another woman -- friend? neighbor? -- paces nervously. Empty beer bottles litter the kitchen. When a second set of cops arrive, the woman -- who has obviously been drinking -- gets agitated.

"What are you all doing here? This isn't some drug house."

Appleford steps forward.

"Drugs? Where you hiding them? OK, you're under arrest," he says, laughing.

The remark breaks the tension. The woman relaxes. As others call for an ambulance, Appleford chats with his new friend.

By the time they leave, he knows she works in a canning factory, what she canned that day (peaches) and that she drinks to unwind after work.

"That's typical Norm," said Maraschiello. "Some guys think you've got to go macho with everybody. He disarms people with words."

The call underlines a truth of police work. A lot of what cops see is more pathetic than deadly: Longtime lovers in the grip of booze or crack, going after each other for reasons neither can remember. Decent people who do something stupid.

"Sometimes you give people a break," said Appleford. "I tell the young guys, 'You need all the friends you can get out here.' "

Pringle remembers people they'd cut some slack later telling them about somebody with a gun or a new dealer on the street.

Sometimes, the help is direct.

T.C. Smith, who was Appleford's partner for 13 years, remembered stopping a car weaving down the street. It was the woman's 40th birthday, she'd had one too many. Appleford drove her home.

A few months later, they answered a fight call and ended up rolling around with two guys on a porch. Coincidentally, the woman they'd driven home lived across the street. She heard the commotion, recognized Appleford and Smith, called 911 -- and then ran over with a hockey stick to help out.

"We had 'em handcuffed by then," said Smith. "But it was nice of her."

Somebody to talk to

A complaint calls breaks the police radio's silence. A man says he was assaulted the day before. Appleford pulls onto the East Side block.

Inside the tattered house, the complainant stares at the floor and mumbles, in the grip of some addiction. A young boy gazes at a flickering TV in the dark room. All windows are closed. The suffocating odor of unwashed clothes and bodies fills the air.

There's little chance this guy will ever go downtown to file the complaint. Still, Appleford writes it up.

"Some people," he says, back in the car, "just need somebody to talk to."

Even slow nights like this one can turn deadly in an instant.

Appleford and Pringle answered a call a couple years ago on a cab driver being robbed. The thieves locked the cabbie in the trunk and took off, Appleford and Pringle in pursuit. One of the thieves reached out the window and started shooting.

"We were right behind them, you hear the shots," said Appleford. "But you just keep going."

The cab eventually plowed into a guardrail. The thieves ran. They got one of them. The other got away.

"It was a kid, about 15," said Appleford. "That's what you're dealing with a lot of the time."

The nights when guns get pointed your way are rare. But they happen.

"You just hope," Appleford said, "you don't run into it too often."

The slow Thursday night is broken by a domestic violence call. A young man is being cuffed as Appleford pulls up.

A man on the porch next door calls his name.

"Hey, John, how you doing?" replies Appleford.

John was sent away 30 years ago for taking a shot at a Buffalo cop (he missed). Before going straight a while back, he was a pimp who mistreated his women.

"Did Norm ever arrest me? More like how many times," says John.

Word is out about Appleford's retirement.

"You've been around so long, you should own that precinct," says John.

"Aug. 29 is my last day. I'll be around with a warrant for you Aug. 28," cracks Appleford.

As he leaves, John tells a stranger: "He knows the East Side and pretty much everybody in it. He arrested me a lot, but he was always a gentleman. If all the officers were like him, this would be a better city."

Appleford has a drawer full of awards and the respect of his peers. Yet the one time his name rose into public consciousness was under a cloud of suspicion.

One night two years ago, Appleford and Pringle chased an armed man through a vacant lot. Jermaine Vayton dropped a .50-caliber handgun before falling while scaling a 6-foot cyclone fence. Although he seemed all right at first, he'd broken his neck; he stopped breathing and died on the way to headquarters.

The incident, coming just months after Mark Virginia's controversial death in police custody, made the front page of the newspaper. Appleford and Pringle were placed on leave for three months. They were cleared by medical evidence and the testimony of eyewitnesses.

"We all knew it was ridiculous, Norm would never brutalize anybody," said Lt. Rick Bartoszewicz. "But there was no way the general public could know that."

When it was over, Appleford went back to the same streets. Same shift. Same style.

Now, after one more week, he's home for good. He's retiring not because of the burnout that afflicts so many cops, or because he's admittedly lost his step over the years.

"I just figure it's time to move over," he said, "let a younger guy take over."

'Out there plugging'

Like teachers or firefighters, caps are anonymous except to those they deal with. Yet they have such a profound effect on people's lives, the service they provide is so vital, the worth of a good one can't be overestimated.

Appleford's value isn't measured just in arrests made or guns taken off the street. It's measured by what didn't happen because of him: arguments not escalating into violence, criminals not getting away to rob or rape someone else, distraught people allowed to keep their dignity.

"He never let the citizens down," said Lt. Mark Taggart. "He was out there plugging every night."

At 7 next Sunday morning, he'll end his final 10-hour shift. There will be no brass band to send him off. The streets will be empty, save for a few folks headed for church.

Maybe one of them will glance at Appleford, not thinking much of it. Not realizing the skinny guy who doesn't much look like a cop is Father Crime.

Leaving the station house, for the last time.