Monday, December 7, 2015
Twenty-two-year-old Ismael Lopez of Erie knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the law. He grew up with a father addicted to drugs, who was in and out of prison and, tragically, died of a heroin overdose. His older brother, who is serving time for firearms and drug violations, struggled with the same scourge.
As a boy, Lopez was his brother’s shadow, and that led him to a dark place. Although he hovered on the periphery, like his father and his brother before him, Lopez found himself gravitating toward the same kinds of troubled friends and nefarious activities.
But in a remarkable turn of events, he broke away from the legacy that seemed destined to hold him captive, and on Friday, Dec. 18, he will graduate from the Mercyhurst University Municipal Police Training Academy, a recipient of the coveted President’s Award.
He believes his upbringing will make him a good cop. “It’s one thing to have someone who has never experienced life around gangs and drugs to try and make a connection; it’s another for someone like me who’s lived it. I can connect because I’ve been there.”
Lopez yearns to tell his story. He wants people who feel they have no way out to know that they do. “You can steer your life toward the good or the bad,” he said. “You can make good choices. I did.”
It wasn’t easy to escape being a product of his environment. As he watched his brother’s life unravel, he ached for his to be different. Despite the lack of positive male role models, he knew his father and his brother wanted a better life for him. They urged him to choose another path. His mother, who never graduated from high school, encouraged him to go to college. It was a dysfunctional family, he admits, but there was a lot of love there.
Lopez enrolled in college, studied hard, and sought out positive role models, among them Owen McCormick, owner of McCormick Construction, and Matt Bresee, president of the Erie BayHawks, who gave him jobs and made him a friend. He also found a mentor in Joseph Meath, captain of the North Greece Fire District in Rochester, N.Y., who he met through one of his college friends.
“I would go home with my friend to visit her family and he would take me around with him,” Lopez said. “He took me for a ride on the fire truck, talked to me about all kinds of positive things, and he introduced me to his friends in law enforcement.”
And then came the epiphany. He had tried working in sports, logistics, hospitality, even construction. He had a college degree in marketing and communications. But nothing seemed the right fit until he decided to try law enforcement.
“On the first day of the academy, when our instructors stood before us and told us the value of what we were being trained to do, I knew this was where I had to be,” he said. “And, every day after, I grew more and more in love with what I was doing.”
He rose quickly through the ranks of the academy and embraced each leadership opportunity. When Mercyhurst President Michael T. Victor presents him with the President’s Award at graduation, he will no doubt hear a round of applause from his fellow cadets, as well as his mother, Amarilis Ortiz, his sister, Yoarelis Molina, and his three-year-old daughter, Jenalise. His friend and mentor, Joseph Meath, will be there to present him with his Act 120 certificate.
He’ll also have his late father in his heart and the memory of the huge hug that his brother gave him when he visited him in prison to tell him that he was going to become a cop.
“Growing up, just about everybody I knew hated the cops, and my brother was always on the opposite side of the law so I was almost afraid to tell him, but he was so proud,” Lopez said.
Going forward, Lopez said his goal is to start his career as a municipal police officer and eventually work at the federal level, perhaps on a gang & drug task force.
“I know firsthand how drugs and gangs rip communities apart and I’d like to try and make a difference,” he said.