From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Steven Seagal is running now, sweeping his flashlight into the inky black night so it shoots white lines onto the overgrown grass and chain-link fence. "I don't see anybody!" he yells over his shoulder to the officers behind him. His bulletproof vest hides a custom long-slide .45 pistol and a backup .45. Stomping through the weeds, Seagal searches for an intruder but comes up empty. "Are you okay, sir?" he asks the trembling elderly man standing on a nearby carport in his underwear. "Tell me which way you saw him go, and then go inside and lock your door."

It could be a scene straight from any of Seagal's three dozen action films over two decades, but there's no script in sight on this recent night in Gretna, La. Seagal, 57, is making rounds as an officer with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's office, a real-life position he's held for over 20 years, and which is now the subject of Steven Seagal Lawman, his new A&E reality series. His partner Col. John Fortunato sees beyond the Hollywood résumé. "We know Steven as an officer. My life has depended upon him, and vice versa."

How did an action hero who started kicking butt onscreen in the 1980s with hit movies like Under Siege and Above the Law end up hunting down the bad guys for real? "I don't like acting, I never have," says Seagal. (He keeps acting to pay the bills; he receives no salary as an officer.) "People ask me, 'Why are you risking your life?' I like to help people and make a difference. I like real."

While skeptics may scoff—"We've received nasty comments questioning whether Steven is really an officer," says Fortunato—his fellow officers say Seagal has been an asset to the force since the mid-'80s, when the late Sheriff Harry Lee asked him to teach martial arts, hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship to his officers. "He has experience in aikido," says Sgt. Larry Dyess,"and he's a really great shot." He spends as much time on the job as he can between films—sometimes 10 weeks a year or more. Louisiana, says Seagal, "feels like home."

Which is why he sprang into action in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, taking to the streets in rescue efforts. "There were bodies everywhere," says Seagal. "Anybody who has a heart had tears falling every day." Adds former New Orleans police superintendent Eddie Compass: "He saved a lot of people. He was out with the special operations teams, getting people out of the water. This guy is the real deal." Seagal says Lawman is also for the city: "I was told I could give the New Orleans area a shot in the arm."

Storming through the streets of Jefferson Parish, where he is periodically recognized, the 6'5" Seagal is imposing, booming out threatening questions to would-be perps; yet he speaks softly when questioning a frightened citizen. Seagal shrugs off the risks of his job: "We are always concerned about getting ambushed. You'd be stupid not to be aware, but you can't be afraid." When not hunting criminals onscreen (he recently wrapped the action film Machete in Austin) or off, he sits on his sprawling Jean Lafitte, La., porch playing guitar. He and his wife, Elle, recently welcomed his seventh child (his oldest son is 34) and life is sweet: "I wanted to be a martial arts master; I wanted to marry, have a family and take care of them. I've been able to do that."

While he always wins onscreen, "there are real predators out there," he says, peering down Jefferson Parish's dark streets from the passenger seat of a police SUV. "I will do everything I can to find them. I am a warrior too."