HAMMOND — Officer Enrique Cook didn’t necessarily think joining the Hammond Police Department’s K9 unit would yield any new friendships, especially not with a 11-year-old boy.
But it did when he met Matthew Virden two years ago during a department event in which the Lake Station boy took a particular interest in his German shepherd, Aros, who specializes in detecting explosives.
The two remained in contact, with Matthew continuing to attend almost every event involving the department, making sure to greet his “favorite officer” with a hug.
Cook, a Hammond native whose father worked with the city's Fire Department, said he could always count on the boy to raise his hand to answer a question or to stay after and help clean up.
“We just created a nice friendship,” Cook said. “He’s a great kid. ... I may see him just four or five times a year, but there’s just that connection, and it stems from him. He created that bond, and I was just there, and I just accepted it. He's the coolest."
Cook even threw a party in honor of Matthew’s 11th birthday at a station in the 500 block of Douglas Street this June, gifting the boy a limited-edition Hammond police “Wolf Pack” patch — a welcome addition to his growing collection of more than 250 patches from law enforcement agencies across the country that includes one from each state.
Cook said he'd been storing the patch in his glove compartment, waiting until the next time he saw Matthew to give it to him. The boy's birthday presented the perfect opportunity.
“He’s my buddy,” said Matthew, who has a high-functioning form of autism.
Cook’s kindness prompted Matthew’s father, Scott Virden, to contact the officer’s superiors and ask if the department could honor Cook with an award — something Lt. Steven Kellogg said they were more than happy to do after learning of the two's friendship, which they had been unaware of.
“Officer Cook could’ve just been friendly and called it a day,” Virden said. “But he went above and beyond to create a relationship with Matthew.”
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On Tuesday morning, Chief John Doughty presented Cook with the Police Department’s Distinguished Service Award, making him the seventh Hammond officer to receive the honor and first recipient of a special coin recently commissioned for such occasions by the chief. Soon, his name will be etched onto a plaque inside the station for any visitor to see.
Doughty also surprised Matthew with a civilian award given only to "special visitors" for his continued support of the K9 unit, which caused a wide grin to spread across the 11-year-old’s freckled face as he held his own coin in front of him. His mother, Danielle, stood with Virden and four of Matthew's eight siblings, watching the ceremony with tears welling in her eyes.
Doughty said Cook's actions are an example of how the department encourages all of its officers to act with community members, keeping a "people-first, police-second" mindset. But Cook exceeded those expectations.
“I wasn’t surprised because I know Enrique (Cook), and he’s a wonderful person,” Doughty said. “I didn’t ask Enrique to do this, you know, they met by happenstance. It’s something that he took upon himself, just the initiative to build this friendship and community relations. ... I’m really proud of him and our other officers who are doing similar things."
Virden said his son has a love for all things police — in part due to his autism — so the family often travels to law enforcement events across the Region, collecting various memorabilia as they go. But they’ve never come across another officer like Cook.
“I can tell you about eight other officers that I know personally, and they’re not like him,” Virden said. “He stood out.”
“He’s just better,” Matthew added. “He has a puppy.”
When he’s older, Matthew said he hopes to join the department’s K9 unit, working side by side with Cook — a dream the Hammond officer would love to see come to fruition.
“For him to look up to me the way he does, I’m just honored. I never expected to have such an impact on him,” said Cook, whose two children and parents also attended Tuesday's award ceremony. “If he becomes a K9 officer, I would love to hang out with him and do some training with his dog. I think that would be the coolest thing."