He should have known better, after all, he had many years of experience behind him. Officer Zimmerman thought that it would be a regular traffic stop.
He had stopped the car and asked for their registration. But then he looked at the backseat. He saw something that he just couldn’t ignore as an officer for the law.
Officer Zimmerman wore his badge as a symbol of how he would protect his town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He lived there all his life and wanted a safer community for all.
It may have been a Saturday so most people were relaxing Zimmerman was out on the streets looking out. He was happy to do some good in his community even if it was a cold October day.
Zimmerman decided to watch the traffic on the main road. He was reading every license plate that went past with his scanner. Nothing had beeped yet.
Any vehicles that were registered as stolen or in an accident would set the scanner off. He needed to be ready if it beeped because they could get away if he wasn’t careful.
He had to be vigilant. If he lost focus for even a minute something could happen unexpectedly. But his training would make sure he could kick himself into full gear if he had to.
From experience, he knew even mild-mannered commuters can do the strangest things when confronted with a potential fine or even worse. He had to be ready for anything. But his training would come in handy this day.
His scanner then pinged on a car that went past. The license wasn’t valid and the woman behind the wheel was Ebony Rhodes. She had no idea that Zimmerman was trailing her.
When the sirens flashed behind her she froze up. She tried her best to stay calm and was ready to flash him her best smile. But she had no idea what was going to happen.
Officer Zimmerman wondered if his job was going to be easy when he saw the woman pull over immediately, but he still got out of the patrol car slowly.
His training kicked in as he approached cautiously. He had no idea what would be waiting for him in the unlicensed car, and he knew the driver might still bolt and he’d have to chase her down the street.
Ebony gripped the wheel, white-knuckled and terrified. She felt beads of sweat running down her neck as she looked in the rearview mirror and saw the cop approaching her vehicle.
She was trying hard to look normal, but she knew she was in big trouble. She couldn’t panic, but one look at officer Zimmerman told her that she couldn’t talk her way out of this.
Ebony knew that the cop wouldn’t overlook her offences, but she prayed anyway. She was driving an unregistered car, she had no insurance, and her driving license had been suspended.
But these weren’t the offenses that worried her the most. Tears began to trickle down her face. Any minute now, her terrible secret would be out.
Ebony’s face was drenched in tears by the time Officer Zimmerman reached her window. The officer was taken aback when he saw her.
“He came to the car and asked why I was crying and I was like, ‘…because I know my license isn’t good,'” recalls Ebony. Officer Zimmerman listened intently until a strange noise stopped him in his tracks. There was an odd-sounding noise coming from the back of the car. When he peeked into the back seat, he was shocked.
The past few months had already been quite hard on Ebony. After losing her mother, she packed up her entire family and moved them to Milwaukee.
However, soon Ebony was faced with an unforgiving reality. She tried to keep it a secret for the sake of her children. But she couldn’t keep it hidden forever.
There, in the backseat of Ebony’s unregistered car, were four kids jumping around. Being a single mother of four meant that Ebony had to hustle to provide for her family — all her children were in the car with her.
But it wasn’t her children that shocked Zimmerman – it was the fact that they had no safety seats. But, unfortunately, after the officer reviewed her documents, he told Ebony she had no choice but to arrest her and impound her car. Ebony’s heart sank. She knew that when they searched the car, the jig would be up.
Officer Zimmerman took her and her four children to the police station, where Ebony was able to call a co-worker to pick up her kids and notify her sister, who lived in Chicago. She was the only one who could take care of them while Ebony was in jail.
But that meant taking them back to Chicago, and Ebony couldn’t bear the thought of them being so far away. That said, she had other, more pressing problems. Once the police searched her car, she’d have to come clean.
The Milwaukee Police Department’s Deputy Chief Jeff Glazier was sitting in his office when Officer Zimmerman knocked on his door. He waved him in, and Officer Zimmerman told him there was a situation. Officer Zimmerman was conducting a routine search of Ebony’s impounded car. But what they found was more than they bargained for.
Chief Glazier went to the impound lot to see for himself. “We have to do something about this,” he said once he realized what was going on.
Inside Ebony’s 1997 Buick Regal officers found numerous bags, backpacks, and other items. At first glance, it looked like a hoarder’s car. But then the truth dawned on them. Ebony and her children had been sleeping in this car. It was their only home.
Alarmed, Officer Zimmerman went to Ebony’s cell to talk to her. And that’s when she told him the whole story.
Since moving to Milwaukee, Ebony had been working shifts at a Walmart store. Her pay wasn’t much, and it was compounded by the fact that she and two of her kids had chronic health issues. She found herself unable to make a deposit on an apartment, and so she and her family became homeless.
For the last six months, the whole family had been living in that car. And the details of that life broke Officer Zimmerman’s heart. No wonder she hadn’t been able to afford safety seats for her kids.
Finding a safe place to park her car at night was not easy, and sometimes it meant driving around from place to place. “A lot of times I didn’t sleep because the kids were asleep,” recalls Ebony. “I was watching to make sure nothing happened — no one tried to rob us… so we’d just stay right there in the car.”
She was ashamed of her situation, and so she tried to keep it a secret. For a while, she succeeded.
“When I got off work we would just sleep right there in the parking lot in my car,” Ebony said. “A lot of people didn’t know that because I was still going to work.” Still, this was no way to raise a family, and she knew it. “I apologized to my kids and let them know I’m sorry,” she confessed.
Then, when she was pulled over and arrested, she thought they’d just lost their home. But she was wrong.
Officer Zimmerman called the director of a family homeless shelter, whom he had met recently. “I called her up and said, ‘Listen I’ve got a family of five including three boys and a girl, and he’s 17,’” he recalls.
“And she goes, ‘Yeah, I have some room.’ And if you know anything about shelters in the middle of the winter, there’s nothing available and she had something available. I couldn’t believe it.” And neither could Ebony.
Officer Zimmerman told Ebony the good news. “When he called me that day I just started crying because I’d been trying to get into different shelters for a long time,” she said. “No one would ever accept us.” But Zimmerman wanted to do more than that.
He did a fundraising drive among the Police Department staff so Ebony’s family could get an apartment. It helped, but after a while, they realized it was not enough to keep them on solid ground. So they went public.
The Milwaukee PD set up a GoFundMe page to help Ebony and her family.
“My goal is to pay her rent, food, medicine, and transportation for a year so she can continue to work and save money without the stress of wondering if her family will be homeless again,” wrote Chief Glazier. But would the community come to their aid?
“It was the right thing to do,” Chief Glazier said. “Because at any point in time in our lives, any one of us can be in that same situation. Offering assistance to another human being is the right thing to do.”
Then, he and the other officers began looking for a more permanent home for Ebony and her children. They even helped with the paperwork to get her into a rental home in a nice neighborhood. But that wasn’t all.
The initial goal was $15,000, which they met in a matter of days. So they decided to extend it to $75,000 to help cover the family’s medical expenses. So far, they have raised $64,370.
People from all over donated clothes, food, furniture, and other vital supplies to help get them started. As soon as the housing application went through, Ebony and her children would have a real roof over their heads and real beds to sleep in. The struggling mom couldn’t believe it. Now Ebony looks back on that traffic stop with different eyes.
“It’s all about being a part of the community,” Chief Glazier said.
“I’m amazed we’ve been able to do this so quickly. I’ve always been taught that you always give a hand up and not a hand out. Ebony has done a lot of the work getting herself together.” And everyone wanted to help. Ebony had received five job offers that paid a decent wage in just two weeks!
Finally, the housing application went through. Ebony and her kids would finally have somewhere safe to stay!
“I’m so happy, microwave, dishwasher, washer, dryer,” Ebony said, “This is the nicest apartment I’ve ever had. I’m very excited.” She added: “I think it’s awesome, I think it’s really cool, very unexpected, but very cool!”
On the drive to Ebony’s new home from Walmart, Kevin was excited to see her reaction. He had asked all the right questions and knew where the home she was living in was.
Now, it was time for him to do what he had set out to do. Officer Kevin walked up to her door and knocked, excitedly waiting for her to open.
Ebony hesitantly opened the door. She was surprised to see Kevin there, but she was also a little apprehensive. For a moment, she was busy thinking of all the reasons for the police officer to be visiting.
And she hadn’t noticed what he was holding in his hands. Was he here with bad news? She wondered, anxiously.
Ebony never expected to see the police officer who had pulled her over to show up on her front doorstep, so all her old feelings came rushing back. So, what was going on? Was he going to arrest her? Or fine her?
Actually, it was the complete opposite. In Kevin’s hands, he was holding two brand-new car seats for her children.
After Kevin finished his shift, he went to Walmart and purchased two car seats for Ebony’s children.
When he arrived at Ebony’s house, he handed her over the two car seats. Ebony was overwhelmed with emotion. Then, Kevin shared why he decided to get her kids’ car seats: it was for the safety of her children. Now Ebony looks back on that traffic stop with different eyes.
“Milwaukee Police Department is my backbone,” says Ebony. “They helped me come a long way. The whole PD is my family because I can call on them for everything.” And she feels nothing but gratitude for the fateful traffic stop that set everything in motion.
“Had I not got pulled over that day, I’d probably still be in my car, just taking a risk every day. Losing that car and getting pulled over that day changed my life.”
And it wasn’t just a house that the police officers had helped her with. Ebony and her children had something they didn’t think was possible.
They had a home, a caring community, authority figures who really cared, and the helping hand that would let them finally have the future they dreamed of. And if it hadn’t been for the cops with hearts of gold, none of it would have ever happened.