Ask Jack Guercio to show you his three favorite pieces in his vast collection of law enforcement badges and patches, and he won’t hesitate. He will promptly point to three.

Then four.

Then five.

Then six.

“Those two over there,” he says. “And that one. And all of these.”

The 77-year-old has collected hundreds, and on this morning, many cover a table in front of him. There’s a gold badge from the Maryland Capitol Police and a star-shaped one from the Baltimore County Sheriff’s Office. There are patches from Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Rome.

That last one has a Velcro back. Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler got it directly from an Italian officer, who pulled it off his uniform, to give to Jack.

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The simplest way to describe Jack’s position at the sheriff’s office is sewn onto his work shirt: custodian.

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But that title falls short of capturing the role he has played in the 27-plus years he has worked for the agency, and what his place there says about the benefits of employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That title doesn’t explain why deputies, background investigators and even the sheriff can’t go on vacation without thinking about him.

“Jack is our spirit,” Gahler says. “He loves this place. He loves the men and women who work here.”

Right after Gahler was sworn in as sheriff, the first phone call he received came from someone who wanted to know if the rumor was true. That person had heard Gahler was not going to keep Jack.

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That was five years ago. Since then, Jack went from having a desk in a hallway to his own space in an office.

“Jack will be here long after me, and I plan to stay awhile,” Gahler says. “Sheriffs come and go. Jack is the one constant.”

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Before I met Jack, when I first heard about him and his collection, my thoughts immediately went to another Maryland man with an intellectual and developmental disability. He also loved law enforcement, but his experience with a Maryland sheriff’s office differed dramatically from Jack’s.

Ethan Saylor, who had Down syndrome, used to dress up in a suit and sunglasses to play detective as a child. As an adult, he collected badges and baseball caps that read “Police,” “DEA” and “Sheriff.” He also developed a habit of dialing 911 to talk to operators when there was no emergency. Sometimes he would call just to ask for a job application.

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On Jan. 12, 2013, the 26-year-old died after three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies forcibly removed him from a movie theater. His crime: He hadn’t bought a ticket for a second showing of a movie he had just watched with an aide. During the struggle, he ended up on the ground and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was later ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.

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As a reporter, I covered his death and the lawsuit that followed. I also wrote about how his family worked with Maryland to change how law enforcement officials are taught to interact with people with disabilities. They now receive training in the academy, and the state has made a commitment to include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in that training.

In other words, Maryland now understands what all states should: The best way to help first responders know what to do when they encounter someone with a disability is to expose them to people with disabilities.

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Shawn Kros, who heads the Arc Northern Chesapeake Region, points to Jack’s position at the sheriff’s office as an example of why more places should hire people with disabilities. The Arc , which provides support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has provided Jack services since he was in his early 20s.

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“Jack does his job, but he brings more to that department than just cleaning the building,” Kros says. As for Jack: “He would be lost without that job.”

Kros says the moment she knew that Jack was genuinely a part of the sheriff’s office came in 2016. Deputies Mark Logsdon and Patrick Dailey were killed in a shooting, and she saw how during the services people in the sheriff’s office pulled Jack into their fold.

“This is the way it’s supposed to be,” she says.

Before he started working for the sheriff’s office, Jack says he held several jobs. He washed dishes in a kitchen, lugged logs for a fencing company and worked in a hot warehouse, placing labels on glass jars.

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As a child, he says, he always pretended he was the sheriff. Other children had to play the bad guys. One day as a young adult, he was in a car that drove past the sheriff’s office in Bel Air, and he recalls saying, “I want to work here one day.”

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When Jack talks about his years with the agency, he does so with encyclopedic precision. A conversation with him can feel as if you’re clicking links along the way. He will start telling a story about an event, mention someone’s name and then start describing the layout of the old building so that you know precisely where that person’s office was located.

When Amy Schaekel came from the Baltimore City police department to work at the sheriff’s office as a background investigator, she soon heard about Jack.

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“Everyone was like, ‘You got to meet Jack,’ ” she recalls. “He called me ‘that girl’ for a little while. Then I got Jack a badge. Once I gave him that, I was no longer ‘that girl.’ ”

He now calls her his sister, and he spends Thanksgiving and Easter with her family. Her children call him “Uncle Jack.”

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Jack says he bought his first badge from a five-and-dime. Others have come from flea markets. Many were given to him as gifts. He hopes to eventually get an NYPD badge and patch, and he would love if he could ultimately have every state represented in his collection.

The morning that he tries to pick his favorites, he focuses only on the table, so Schaekel reminds him of one that is not there. Around his neck hangs a badge that says, “Harford County Sheriff’s Office,” along with “Jack.”

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Gahler presented it to him as a birthday present at a gathering in the break room. The sheriff recalls it being only the second time he saw Jack express strong emotions. The first time was after the deputies died.

“I don’t think it’s come off since,” Schaekel says.

“No,” Jack tells her. “The only time it comes off is when I’m sleeping.”

Finally, he’s found his favorite.

Read More from Theresa Vargas

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