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Mark Patinkin: MS hasn't kept this Providence police officer out of uniform

Providence Journal - 9/19/2018

Sept. 19--I was at the Providence police headquarters this summer when I saw an unusual sight -- a cop in a motorized wheelchair. I wondered why someone like that wasn't home on some kind of disability.

This week, I sought him out to ask.

Officer Mike Matracia told me it doesn't interest him.

It's been the honor of his life to wear the uniform of a Providence police officer, and he plans to keep doing it as long as he can contribute.

Matracia, 53, has been on the job 28 years, and in the chair for 14 from multiple sclerosis.

He's divorced, but lives independently. Each work day, he puts on his uniform, wheels into a special van and swings into the driver's seat.

"I fend for myself pretty good," Matracia says.

He met me at the headquarters entrance and took me to a sunny lounge overlooking the city.

He told me it was a choice to use a motorized chair.

"You mean you could push a regular one?" I asked.

Matracia, who's 6 feet and 250 pounds, smiled and flexed his biceps.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "With these guns -- come on."

But the motorized one is nimbler, and also has a function that stands him up so he can talk eye-to-eye. It's good for stretching out his body, too.

He's been mostly stable the last seven years, which he ascribes to controlling stress and working out -- he swims an hour and a half most days. He can take a few steps with a walker, and he keeps hope that science can help him improve.

Matracia has had a varied career, from overnight street cop to Buddy Cianci's driver.

He currently oversees the city's red-light cameras and draws up a daily flash sheet of all incidents, so officers can check what's going on in their district at a glance.

He's a go-to guy for student tours, both at headquarters and in schools.

Kids often say, "Wow, you can still be a policeman, man? That's cool."

He tells them: "We all have a dream to move forward. You might have to adjust, but it doesn't have to stop you."

In 2015, Matracia was given the department's Community Service Award for that kind of outreach, including bringing in folks with developmental challenges each week to help with department tasks. He's seen their presence show fellow officers how people with disabilities can contribute.

He spent his first four years on the force on street patrol, then found a calling in community policing. He'd sit down with kids in gangs and tell them: "Your family loves you. Make them proud. The group you're with -- they're not going to move you forward; they're going to move you six feet down."

Matracia first noticed something was wrong while playing basketball in 1994. A few times, he fell while running down the court. But he dismissed it -- he was 30ish and in great shape.

He kept brushing off the falls. But then came other signs, like being off balance.

By then, he was driving Cianci, who preferred stairs to elevators. There were a lot of stairs -- the mayor would at times do eight events a night.

Every so often, Matracia would trip on the way up. Finally, in late 1997, he went to see a neurologist. A spinal tap showed MS.

Seven years later, he began using the chair. That's when a higher-up told him he should come to work in street clothes instead of his uniform.

It devastated him.

"Obviously policemen can't chase down bad guys in a wheelchair," he says. But he was still a cop putting in a productive day on the job.

Yet he felt he had no choice but to accept it.

Then one of his two sons asked, "Dad, why aren't you wearing your uniform anymore?"

He decided to fight the no-uniform order, and won.

"To me, that was a turning point in life," says Matracia. "People with disabilities have rights. They have aspirations and dreams."

He says the current administration couldn't be more behind him.

"Mike has an indomitable spirit that will not yield," says Deputy Chief Tom Verdi. "He is an inspiration to many."

I walked with Matracia as he steered the chair into the elevator, then down to his office.

Officer Nicole Darling, a patrolwoman for 14 years, was working light duty nearby after an injury.

"I told him this morning I don't even see the wheelchair," she said of Matracia. "He could be my partner any day. I'd be glad to work with him."

Matracia turned to his desk, where he would soon put together the latest flash sheet.

As he got ready to work, he said he's proud to still be wearing the uniform of a Providence police officer.

He says there's nothing better.

Mark Patinkin's columns run in the Journal on Sundays and Wednesdays.

mpatinki@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7370

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On Twitter: @MarkPatinkin

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(c)2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

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