DISCLAIMER: Adam-12 is the property of MarkVII/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended with the publication of this piece. ALL ORIGINAL CONTENT OF THIS STORY IS THE SOLE PROPERTY OF BAMBOOZLEPIG AND MAY NOT BE USED WITHOUT PERMISSION. *This story may contain graphic language, violence, and other adult situations, therefore reader discretion is advised.* For plot purposes, intentional liberties may be taken with the depiction of any real life protocols.
I wrote this piece a few years ago but I never posted it since it's not from any one character's specific point of view, it's a generic police officer that's telling the story, and it's basically an opinion piece on what cops experience on their jobs. But after the April 4, 2011 shooting death here in Iowa of Keokuk Co. sheriff's deputy, Eric Stein, by Jeff Krier, a man with a lengthy history of criminal offenses and mental health issues, I decided to dust this piece off and revamp it, adding to it and updating it with current law enforcement techniques, instead of what was in during Pete and Jim's time. I've kept the idea of the generic POV, rather than letting a certain character's 'voice' color the story, and the cases I've detailed herein are based on actual cases that have happened in my area, but I've taken care not to use names and I've changed some of the identifiers so as not to incriminate anyone and to protect the innocent. What is stated within is strictly my opinion ONLY and it should not be taken as fact, and while I realize it's on the long side, I hope readers will give it a chance, for I think the message within the piece is an important and valid one. Feedback is always welcomed and thank you for taking the time out to read this tribute story to all the good men and women who are courageous enough to put on the badge and gun and go out there every day to keep us safe, witnessing all the hells and horrors they do, sometimes laying their lives down in the line of duty when duty demands it. It's a small gesture, I know, but it's the best way I know how to honor them all…my grateful thanks to them and may they forever keep the peace.
THE VIEW FROM BEHIND THE BADGE
"…Policemen were not danger lovers, they were seekers of the awesome, the incredible, even the unspeakable in human experience. Never mind whether they could interpret, never mind if it was potentially hazardous to the soul. To be there was the thing." –Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (1973)
A young man died today, and he was just doing his job.
A job that is one of the most thankless, dangerous, inglorious, unappreciated, dirtiest, scariest, saddest, cruelest jobs that there ever is to do…being a cop. He was one of those few brave souls that was courageous enough to strap on the gun and pin on the badge every day, going out to enforce the laws in a sometimes lawless society, not because he was forced to do it, but because he wanted to do it, the calling to be a police officer strong in his blood.
And he got killed while doing it.
So we will slip the black elastic memory band that signifies our loss across our badges again, in what is becoming a common practice for us anymore, and at his funeral, the thin blue line will close ranks around our shared heartache and sorrow, mourning in private as we bury our fallen brethren with solemn dignity and respect, the somber pomp and circumstance of his services a mute tribute to a good life lived, a good life lost, and then…
Then we turn around and go right back to work…because we have to. The job doesn't allow for grief and sorrow, you weep and scream and rail at the senselessness and the cruelty of humanity on your own time, not the department's. After all, the taxpayers aren't paying you to sit around and cry, they're paying you to get out there and keep the peace, making sure the streets are safe for everyone.
It's not an easy profession, being a police officer. The costs are pretty big…cops have some of the highest rates in divorces, heart attacks, substance and alcohol abuse issues, on the job injuries, and suicides. That may seem strange to you, for you might think that once we pin that metal badge to our uniform, we are no longer human, that we're incapable of having the same emotions and thoughts that you do, that we don't care.
We just have to put on a game face and pretend we're not bothered by all that we see, because how else will we get through our shift without wanting to bang our heads…or someone else's…against a brick wall at the utter stupidity of a situation, without wanting to tear our hair out in frustration, without losing our tempers when all others around us are losing theirs, without…
Without falling apart?
After all, a thin metal badge worn over the heart does little to really protect it, does little to shield us from the slings and arrows life throws at us, and…
It does little to keep our hearts from breaking. And break they do, trust me…sometimes several times a day, but you can never show it, for the mantra of the job is to never let yourself get emotionally involved in what you see and experience out on the mean streets, keeping a stiff upper lip at all times, but all of it…all of the anger and the tragedy and the goddamned senselessness of it…it just begins to eat away at you, scouring you down to nothingness, pricking at your heart like mosquito bites to the soul, until you've been bled dry and the tears that you feel, you cannot cry because you've already cried so many goddamned times before, and the anger that wells up inside of you makes you feel hollow and numb, your rage rattling emptily around inside of you like gravel in a tin can. You begin to get sick and tired of getting spit on and called filthy names your mother would be ashamed to hear, getting your uniform torn by some scofflaw and having to pay yet again to get it mended, getting injured on the job by someone who sees you only as a symbol of blue-suited oppression, forgetting that behind that blue dacron is another human being, just like them. And eventually you begin to want all of that pain and sorrow and horror to go away, erasing them from your mind so you no longer have to see them on the black screens of your eyelids as you sleep or hear it in your ears when the world is at its most silent and your thoughts are at their most dangerous, lying awake in bed, staring blindly at the ceiling in the deepest dark of the night, thinking of all those 'what-ifs' and 'if onlys' and replaying past bad calls you've handled, the ghosts of bitter memory and remorse flitting about on the edges of your inner vision…those are the nights you think you have seen all that you can stomach of human misery and cruelty and goddamned fucking apathy and you just can't take it anymore, and how simple it would be to take the easy way out, sticking the muzzle of your service weapon into your mouth or to your head or heart, pulling the trigger and becoming just another statistic on a cold, sterile chart that's as black and white as the squad car, but doesn't have quite as much personality.
After all, you may be able to tell yourself that you can keep your heart from breaking out there, but when you're alone, with only your thoughts to solace you, you cannot keep it from shattering into a million little pieces, because from behind this badge, this thin metal badge, we witness things that you, the average, ordinary citizen don't see, that you wouldn't want to see…horrific things that would turn your stomach and make you puke, sorrowful things that would make you break down and weep, frightening things that would scare the living daylights out of you, vile things that would make you angry and disgusted with the callousness and cruelty of your fellow man, whom you'd quickly learn to hate. Only those with strong souls and brave hearts can make it in this job, because it would eat the weak and the naïve in a second, chewing them up and spitting them out like they were nothing more than a wad of chewing gum.
And you, the ordinary average citizen, don't have any idea what we go through, for we're an insular breed, for only fellow police officers can commiserate with us, can weep with us, can get angry with us, can laugh with us as we tell our war stories with that black gallows humor that is mostly a defense against what we see. You may scoff at the solid brotherhood of the thin blue line, but the minute you call on us, we respond…we're there when you need us, we're there when you don't want us to be. That's your right as a taxpayer, and that's our sworn duty, extending that right to even the lowest scum on earth. To serve and protect…that's our motto, the creed that we live by. And we try not to puke at what we see, we try not to cry at the tragedies we witness, we try not to hate our fellow man for his meanness, and most of all, we try not to bring it home to our families, exposing our loved ones to the disease of human misery and cruelty and horror that we see on a daily basis.
Think I'm kidding about what we experience on the job? Then just for a moment, come see through my eyes what we witness on a regular basis, like…
Like the badly battered wife who is beaten for spilling soup on the floor, her eyes blackened and swelling shut, new and old bruises peppering her body like hideous birthmarks, pleading through bloodied and swollen lips for us not to arrest her husband, he's a good man, he doesn't mean to hit her, and she should have known better than to be so clumsy in the kitchen, especially when he's cranky after working a long hard shift at the factory, and please…please…don't take him to jail, she doesn't want to press charges against him, he's the only one who brings in the paycheck that keeps food on their table and the roof over their heads and clothes on their children's backs. She weeps, wringing her hands as she pleads, the pale frightened faces of her three young children peering out at us from the darkened hallway, their wide, terrified eyes taking in every single little detail, from the spilled soup and the shattered shards of what used to be a bowl, along with a busted kitchen chair sitting cockeyed on the floor; to their father standing handcuffed in the living room with another pair of officers, spitting and cussing and growling at whoever had the nerve to call the fuckin' cops on him and his wife for what is a VERY private family matter; to their mother as she cries, her tears streaking through the blood smeared upon her swollen and bruised face. But their eyes focus mostly on us, their gazes drawn with worried fascination to the four big police officers now standing in their house, replete with loud squawky radios with pigtailed cords hanging down our backs, along with bright shiny badges on our chests and colorful patches on our shoulders; wearing creaky leather gunbelts that have all sorts of interesting-looking gadgets on them, from a yellow-tabbed taser to a collapsible baton to jingly keys to that scary-looking holstered .9 mm Glock that they KNOW is dangerous, for in a single powerful instant, it can kill someone, but they're intrigued by it just the same.
And as the wife pleads tearfully and the husband growls angrily, I look over at the kids, two little girls and a little boy, all under the age of twelve, the three of them staring back at me with those still-frightened eyes, the littlest girl sucking her thumb furiously as if that can make all of this terror-full incident magically go away, and I go over to them, calmly approaching them with a gentle voice of reassurance, kneeling down to their level so I don't seem so intimidating to them. They shy away at first, chewing nervously on bottom lips and fingernails, watching me warily to make sure I'm not going to use one of those scary fancy instruments on them that clutter up my gunbelt, because while they've been told in school that police officers are their friends, they're not TOO overly sure that that's really true. I tell them my name…my first name anyway, making a silly joke about it that a kid would enjoy, trying to connect to them, and when I ask them what their names are, they reluctantly spill them, as if their names are precious gems to them and they don't want to share their shiny beauty with me. And with gentle cajoling and goofy jokes, I finally win them over, the three of them regarding me timidly at first, then with shy little smiles as they realize I'm not going to hurt them.
The youngest girl leans into me, chattering brightly to me in toddler-speak as if we're best buddies from way back in the days of being in diapers, her wee fingers carefully exploring my badge, my ribbons, my nameplate, the radio cord that curls across my back and is attached to the mike that dangles from my uniform epaulet, her eyes shiny with avid curiosity. Her older brother huffs a bold sigh and asks me with sly cunning if I've ever shot anyone, as he's the first one to ever ask me that question. The oldest girl shyly admits that she thought it was neat when the police officer came to talk to her class at school, and she's maybe thinking of being a police officer when she gets older…well, either that or a ballerina…or maybe a veterinarian…or maybe a teacher, she's not sure yet. And as I talk with them, they slowly reveal what I've already suspected, that their mother isn't the only one who is the target of their father's slinging fists and furious words, they bear his anger, too, for I can see the reddened imprint of a palm across the face of the littlest girl, a bruise on the neck of the little boy, and one on the arm of his oldest sister.
And it breaks my heart, for kids deserve to have parents that will treat them like the treasures they are, rather than punching bags, outlets for someone's misplaced rage. But I don't tell them that, nor do I let it show in my face, and when my partner calls to me, I gently set the toddler back down on the floor from where she's cozied up in my lap, and I scruff light fingers across the head of the oldest girl, and I shake solemn hands with the boy, who tells me that when his dad is gone, it's up to him to be the man of the family and I acknowledge that with a somber nod of understanding from man-to-man. I turn away from them then, the three of them trailing after me like tumbling little puppies, and I notice that the other officers have since left with the father, taking him to jail, while my partner is finishing up the initial report, handing it to the wife to sign. I dig a business card that has my name and the number of the police station on it out of the breast pocket of my uniform, quickly writing two more phone numbers on the back of it, phone numbers I know by heart, from all the years I've been on the force. Flipping the card over and showing it to the wife, who has since quit crying, I point to the numbers I've scribbled on the back and tell her that one is the toll-free number for the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, while the other is the local number for the women's shelter, and if she calls either number, there are people willing to bend over backwards to get her and her kids out of this house and away from her abusive husband. I tell her that they're willing to help her formulate a plan to leave him, giving her and her children shelter for as long as needed, plus they're able to assist her in getting set up in a life of her own, providing job training and college classes and daycare for her so that she can provide for herself and her kids without relying on her husband. She takes the card with weary resignation, heaving a sigh as she lifts bony shoulders bearing the weight of the world towards the sky, then she tucks the card into her pocket, picking up the toddler who is clinging to my leg, and telling us thank you for the help.
Then we leave that normal-looking blue ranch house with the normal-looking furniture and the normal-looking family inside, wishing her good luck, and we know it can go one of two ways…either she'll take our advice and leave the bastard and forge a new life for her and her kids that is free of abuse and violence, or…she'll cancel the temporary restraining order that the judge will put into place and she'll listen to her husband as he apologizes contritely and profusely for hitting her like he has so many other times in the past, buying her flowers and maybe a piece of jewelry, buying the kids new toys and other extravagant little goodies, just to make up for what he's done, as if flowers and candies and jewelry and extravagant goodies can heal the scars of his abuse...bruises may fade and cut lips may heal over, but words…now they wound a person forever and leave you scarred on your soul where only you can see the damage, the echoes of what is said coming back to you even years down the road, for you can never escape them, they're imprinted on your mind forever. And when he solemnly swears he'll never hit her or the kids again, like he's promised so many times in the past, she'll relent and take him back, for she's lonely and afraid to try to make it on her own, thinking that maybe this time will be different, he'll keep his word, and things will be fine for a week, maybe a month, then we'll get called back out to that house again for another domestic disturbance, but this time…
This time it won't end well at all, for as we're walking up to that normal-looking blue ranch house with the neatly trimmed lawn and the blooming rose bushes and the oak tree out front, we hear the sound of three shotgun blasts…BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!...and as my partner and I dive for cover at the sides of the house, the husband comes out onto the porch, a dazed look on his face, a sawed-off shotgun dangling from his fingers, smoke still curling out from the barrel of it, and we scream at him in panic-laced fear, our weapons drawn in taut fists, ordering him to drop the shotgun and get his hands into the air. He twitches as if awakened from sleepwalking, his eyes going wide in horror and fear, and he throws the gun to the ground, falling to his knees and weeping, repeating oh what have I done, what have I done?, and we cuff him and secure the weapon, handing him off to the other officers as we enter the residence with queasy trepidation, the stench of cordite thick in our noses, the sound of the shots still ringing in our ears, but they're now being drowned out by the screams of the children, and we know…we know before we even find her that she is dead, the husband finally snapping and killing her in his latest burst of rage. What went on behind the closed doors of that normal-looking house with the normal-looking furniture and the normal-looking family is shielded no more by locked doors and closed curtains and drawn blinds, for they have become yet another statistic in the record books of domestic violence incidents that have ended in death.
And what a terrible statistic it is, too.
As my partner kneels before the crumpled body lying bloody in the living room, checking her for a pulse that we both know is non-existent, I gently shepherd the weeping and frightened children to one of the bedrooms, trying to shield them from the sight that they've already seen…their mother literally cut in half from the shotgun blasts, her thin body shattered and broken in two like a grotesque rag doll, her blood seeping and staining the grey carpeting, splashed across the furniture and walls like grotesque Rorschach inkblot tests. The homicide investigation begins then, the house becoming busy with uniforms and suits and squawky radios, spouting big words and directions and taking lots of flashing pictures, but I stay with the kids, trying to keep them entertained and distracted from what's going on out in the living room until the children's welfare workers can get there and remove them from the scene. They all know that their mother is dead, and I know that they know that, but I somehow manage to deflect their attention from that onto the Dr. Seuss book I read to them, even to the older two kids who've long outgrown Dr. Seuss, for yea verily, even in life's toughest times, the good Doctor is just the medicine we need, whether it's reading about one-fish-two-fish, red-fish-blue-fish, or Horton hearing a Who, or how the Grinch stole Christmas, or how I-do-not-like-green-eggs-and-ham, I-do-not-like-them, Sam-I-Am. The kids cluster around me, clinging to me, giggling a little at the silly voices I do, but their sorrow is eventually overwhelming, and so they lean into me, all three of them hugging me, weeping, wanting their mother who is gone forever to them now, save for their memories. And…
I hug them back, fiercely, protectively, for goddamnit, these kids should know that someone cares about them, that someone knows that they are hurting inside, that knows tonight is the worst night ever in their young lives as they watched Daddy brutally gun down Mommy, and when the social worker arrives to take them away, I escort them out, literally wearing all three kids as they cling tightly to my arms, my shoulders, my legs, taking them to the waiting car that will first take them to the police station to get their statements, and then on to the juvenile facility that will temporarily be their home, where they'll be cared for by impersonal people who are paid to pretend to give a damn about them, until a relative takes custody of them or they are put into foster care. I help buckle them in, the little toddler girl screaming for me not to let her go as I tuck her into the carseat, the little boy and oldest girl holding hands, realizing that the three of them is all they have now in this world, and the little boy tells me grimly, proudly, with a defiant jut of his tear-sticky chin that it's alright, he'll take care of them, for he's now the man of the family. Then he offers me his hand to shake and I do, my big palm closing around his small one, then the social worker nudges me away from the door and slams it. And when the car pulls away from the curb, three pale and frightened and teary-eyed faces staring back at me through the windows, I give them a brave wave, watching until the car rounds the corner and out of sight, then…
Then I swipe at the tears that sting my own eyes, catching them before they fall, before they give me away and reveal that I'm only human beneath the badge, and I try to steel myself to forget those kids, even though I really won't, the knowledge that the likelihood that they'll be abused by domestic partners or be abusers themselves when they become adults fairly high, for neither parent taught them that self-worth is the most important thing and that any person who raises their fists to you or uses cruel words to cut you down really isn't a person at all, they're a lowlife loser and not worthy of your love.
And they'll become statistics, just like their parents.
Then there's that missing child case we go on, taking the report from a nonchalant mother who says her ten-year-old daughter hasn't been seen since 8:00 that evening, but she's waited until midnight to call us to report her daughter missing. The house is rundown and ramshackle, looking like a good strong fart would knock it down, and the mother is rundown and ramshackle too, fat and slovenly with stringy greasy hair that looks like it hasn't been washed in a month, her nose ginblossomed and her eyes blearily bloodshot as she peers at us, using a chewed-down fingernail to pick her teeth that look like they could use a good brushing or twenty. She tells us in a slightly hostile and defensive tone that she's been busy all night with other things and the last time she saw her daughter, the girl was doing her homework in her bedroom. And one look around that dumpy living room with the shabby threadbare furniture and the velvet Elvis on the wall, the tv tuned loudly to the Home Shopping Network and the grungy coffee table littered with beer cans and trashy magazines and a half-smoked joint in the ashtray, and we know what the other things the mother was busy doing all night, and it sure as hell wasn't taking care of her kids, either.
Starting with the little girl's coldly impersonal bedroom, we begin to look for her, trying to glean some clue to her whereabouts from her meager belongings, but all we learn is she likes the color pink, Justin Bieber, and kittens, and she was in the middle of parsing sentences for her English homework when she left, leaving behind a tooth-marked worn-down yellow pencil with the eraser chewed off and a bunch of math homework yet undone. We take a quick search of the rest of the house for her then, looking in each room and all the closets, while the mother follows us from room to room, swaying drunkenly and cussing at us for doing what she's already supposedly done in her own search for the girl. While my partner checks the garage and shed out back, I try to keep from puking when I spot maggots crawling on the rotten garbage that's piled in the kitchen, hearing the crunch of cockroaches beneath my tread as I back away from the mess, and the mother defensively explains that she hasn't had a chance to do her housework yet when she catches the inadvertant grimace that crosses my face, the stink of rancid food and sour, bitter neglect thick in my nose. Then she begins to rant about how much she cares for her kids, it isn't her fault that she doesn't have the money to keep the place kept up and what do we expect, she's not Mary-fuckin'-Poppins, and while I know it's not my place to judge her, I cannot help it; I look around the filthy home, a layer of thick sticky grime greying everything, with unwashed dishes covered in weeks-old food in the sink and on the greasy stove top, with piles of clothing and newspapers and junk mail cluttered in nearly every corner, empty beer cans and booze bottles scattered around, and I can't help but think that if this woman truly cared about her kids like she says she does, she wouldn't be allowing them to live like this AND she'd also likely know where her daughter was at this night.
We come up empty in our search for the little girl and as we're starting to press the mother for the details of her daughter's life, the girl's little brother comes out of his room, awakened by the commotion, and rubbing his eyes sleepily, he tells us he saw the little girl getting into the truck that belongs to Mommy's boyfriend and leaving with him while Mommy was 'asleep' on the couch awhile ago. The atmosphere in the home immediately changes as the mother turns sullen and reticent then, her brows drawing down over suddenly shifty eyes as she reluctantly gives us the name of the boyfriend while telling us that there is no WAY he'd hurt her little girl, for he loved her so much, he was always paying attention to her, picking her up and cuddling her, buying her special little presents and spending more time with her than with the little boy and even her, his girlfriend, and there is a definite note of jealousy in her tone when she tells us that. And when we run him through our database, the hairs on the backs of our necks go up and our stomachs sink to our feet when we find that he is a registered sex offender with a predatory history of abusing little girls, and he's listed at a high risk to re-offend. He's not even supposed to be living here, his registered address is in another town. The mother turns scared then and says she doesn't know him all that well, that she has only just started dating him within the last two months, after having met him while chatting with him on the CB radio she owns. She flutters over to the gold-framed school picture of the little girl that she has hanging on her wall next to the velvet Elvis, pulling the portrait down and clutching it tightly to her, torn between wanting to stand up for her man and the realization that she has willingly let a predator into her home to feast on her kids, doing god-knows-what to them while she was drunk and passed out on the couch. Our hearts heavy in our chests, we put an Amber Alert out then, with descriptors of the little girl and the boyfriend, along with his truck, but we know…we KNOW deep down in our guts that this is not going to turn out with the happy ending that the now fear-sobered mother is hoping for, for the odds of that man taking that little girl out for an innocent purpose is slim to none.
Our sergeant knows it too, as he calls in the suits to ostensibly sit with the mother in case more information comes in, but we know as well as our sergeant does that the real reason they're there is because this case is likely going to be turning into an investigation and probably of the worst kind…a homicide investigation. We're returned to street patrol, listening to the sounds of the alert as it is broadcast over our radios every 15 minutes. We already know the information by heart…the little girl, a white female aged ten years old, an even four feet tall and weighing 70 pounds, with dark brown shoulder-length hair and green eyes, last seen wearing a pink hooded sweatshirt with a kitten on the front of it and blue jeans and pink sneakers…and the man, a white male, aged thirty-nine, 6'3" and 280 pounds, brown-eyed with dirty-blonde shoulder length hair pulled back in ponytail and a long scruffy beard, last seen wearing a green plaid flannel long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans and white sneakers, driving a silver pickup with a black topper on it. And each time that alert is broadcast, staticking out over the airwaves, scrolling across tv screens and interrupting songs on the radio and flashing on the overhead signboards on the highways all across the nation, we pray…we pray that our instincts will be for once wrong, that the man and the little girl will return home safely, the child unharmed by him as we scour the city for him.
But then, around dawn, an anonymous tip comes in and we're dispatched to an acreage on the outskirts of town, the weedy and rutted lot strewn with all sorts of garbage and debris…an abandoned 1970s style mobile home with half the windows busted out on it, several junked and rusting cars, busted wooden picnic tables, dented aluminum storm doors, window frames with the glass broken out of them, a molded plastic playground set in bright orange and yellow and green and blue, piles of brush, two fiberglass camper toppers, the rusted bed of a pickup truck that has been turned into a hauling trailer, black bags of garbage that have been torn open by animals seeking the food inside, their contents strewn across the lot, but it is among all that trash that we find what 'treasure' we're looking for…the silver pickup with the black topper, the license plate matching the one we're seeking. We park on the rutted gravel road and we carefully make our way up to the pickup, our guns drawn, for inside of it sits the man we've been looking for all night. He doesn't look up at our approach, nor does he follow our commands to get out of the vehicle with his hands up, he just sits there in the driver's seat, looking straight ahead with his hands clasped around the steering wheel with a sick little smirk on his face, and then…then when we reach the truck to pull him out, oh dear God, he has blood smeared all over the front of his shirt and on his pants, his fly opened and revealing bloodstained underwear, and oh dear God, there's a pair of little pink sneakers on the passenger side floorboard of the truck. Trading sickened looks, my partner and I throw open the doors of that goddamned truck and yank his ugly ass out, throwing him to the muddy ground as he whines pitifully at how roughly we handle him, cuffing him quickly and passing him off to the other officer who arrives on scene. As he's led away, he still wears that queer sick little smirk, and he calls to my partner and I as we make our way across the trash-strewn lot to the mobile home that sits on it, saying, "She made me do it to her, she wanted me to do it her. She made me do it her, she wanted me to do it to her," a mantra he keeps repeating until he's put away in the other patrol car, as if that excuses whatever vile atrocity he's committed out here.
On the rickety metal steps of the trailer, the screen door banging in the wind, my partner hesitates and I can tell he doesn't want to go into the mobile home, for he has a kid of his own, a daughter about the same age as the missing child, but he swallows hard as we slip on the latex gloves we carry in our coat pockets and with a straightening of his shoulders, he and I enter the dark interior of that run-down abandoned trailer with icy fear and jello-stomached trepidation, our hands hovering close to our service weapons and the hairs on the backs of our necks raising once more as the stink of urine and both human and animal shit and mustiness and dead rotten things assaults our noses in a thick fetid cloud. The trailer's dark wood paneling is spray-painted with various graffiti and peeling away from the wallboard in several sections, and narrow little windows are so grimy with filth, very little light gets in, save for what comes in through some of the broken panes of glass. Flicking on our flashlights, we are careful as we quickly search that dung heap that makes the mother's home look like Buckingham Palace, the brown shag carpeting squelching beneath our tread in the areas where the roof has leaked, trash littering everywhere, ranging from papers to discarded food containers to cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles that wink like glittering gems in the beams of our flashlights, clear evidence that people have been squatting here. A broken plaid couch sits in the middle of the living room, its springs jutting toward the ceiling like bony witch's fingers, and in the corner, there is the remnants of a meth lab or two or three, with empty pseudoephedrine boxes and popped out pill packets, plastic tubing with an ashy residue on it, discarded lithium batteries and cans of Sterno, plastic milk jugs that have been used to transport the anhydrous ammonia, a faint whiff of bitter anhydrous lingering in the air as we pass by to get to the kitchen. We take a quick look around the kitchen, the dirty yellow tile floor sloping downward in a noticable tilt, empty spaces where the appliances once stood, cupboard doors hanging askew from their hinges or missing completely, the stainless steel sink rusted and sagging in the brown-stained countertop that used to be yellow. Something skitters away from our flashlight beams…a mouse or a rat…scuttling into the walls and rustling loudly in protest at our presence, unhappy at our intrusion on their orderly world of scavenging.
We check the first of the two bedrooms, finding it empty, save for a set of rusted box springs leaning against the wall next to a broken mirror, the closet door yanked off its track and tossed into a corner, the window broken in here and letting in chilly spring air, and the requisite trash scattered about. We search the other bedroom next and it's clear that this bedroom in the past was a child's room, for in the beams of our lights, we spot a haphazardly pasted wallpaper border around the top of the dingy wood paneling, the wallpaper a faded design of nursery rhyme characters that frolic about. A giraffe poster with its edges curling away from the wall hangs near the open closet door that leans crookedly in the door frame, and the wide-eyed smiling giraffe exclaims, "Wow, you're this tall now!" as its body is marked off measurements of inches and feet, an apparent growth chart. Faded lines in red and black mark some child's growing progress, stopping somewhere in the vicinity of three feet, and on the wall opposite of the poster, someone has spray-painted a pentagram in red, the paint dripping eerily down the walls like droplets of blood. And in the corner lies a mattress, filthy and stained, the stuffing seeping from open wounds in the ticking in a wheat-colored pile, while around the mattress are candle stubs and empty condom wrappers, along with the wilted and shriveled pale snakes of used condoms, clear evidence of what the room has been used for after the trailer was abandoned.
But it is on the mattress that we spot a stain that is quite telling…out, out, damn spot…a pool of fresh blood that is smeared across the striped ticking, the bright crimson standing out against the duller stains of the mattress' history; fresh, but not so fresh that it hasn't started to dry to a darker maroon shade at the edges of the smeared stain. And the two of us utter epithets beneath our breath as we exchange horrified looks, slowly backing out of that room and into the hallway, heading for the last room we have yet to clear, the bathroom, knowing exactly what hellish incident happened in that bedroom, for the stain on the mattress and the matching stain on the suspect's jeans tell the whole sordid story, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out he raped that little girl here, right in the same room that was once a child's room, right in sight of the growth-chart giraffe's wide eyes and the frolicking nursery rhyme characters…and how truly grotesque that really is.
As we creep down the hall with creaking footsteps, a sudden gust of wind grabs the trailer, shaking it and rattling it, moaning spook-low through the broken windows in a spectral sound that raises our hackles even higher than they're already raised, our eyes huge as if we're playing in a particularly gruesome Abbott and Costello movie…Abbott And Costello Meet The Creepy-Ass Pedophile. We halt in the doorway of the avacado-green bathroom, flashlights playing across the shattered frosted glass shower door, the brown-stained tub and the matching stained toilet full of things we don't want to think about, the mirror above the green double sinks cracked, shards of the glass lying in the wells of the sinks. Next to me, my partner heaves a sigh of relief, for there's no sign of the little girl, and so I can tell he's hoping that perhaps she's still alive, either escaped or released from her kidnapper after he raped her, and he grabs the sleeve of my coat, jerking his head in a gesture for me to follow him out of the trailer. But something…something about the vanity cabinet beneath the sink catches my eye; perhaps it's the way the double doors are pushed shut whereas the rest of the cabinet doors in the entire trailer are standing wide open or off their hinges; perhaps it's the reddish smear that is faint against the dark wood; perhaps it's just a sixth sense that there is something out of place here, but carefully, I kneel down and ease one of the doors open with gloved fingers, the rusted hinge squeaking loudly in protest, and there…
There she is, crammed into that small space, the cool lighted beams of our flashlights picking delicately across her, and next to me, my partner retches and hurries from the hallway, his footsteps bouncing erratically through the trailer as he flees to vomit, and I…I am left alone with her, her small naked body curled upright in a fetal position, her tiny feet bound with a brown leather belt that also binds around her thin wrists, a black plastic garbage bag taped around her head, mottled bruises and blood covering her pale skin in grotesque viscous smears, her little hands clasped beneath her bowed chin as if she is praying…but there is no God…not here anyway, not with the naked and brutally raped body of a murdered ten-year-old girl and certainly not with the horrified cop who kneels before her, asking himself what kind of fucking deity lets such a cruel and callous and hellish thing happen her…to other little kids, for that matter? I don't bother to reach in and touch her, checking her for a pulse, for it's clear she's dead, the plastic bag molded tightly to her face as she tried to draw breath into her lungs in a futile effort to live, and on the cabinet floor beneath her, her blood is pooled, a thin skim over the top of it, and I close my eyes, hating the stupid and neglectful mother who allowed a predator to abuse her child, hating the man out in the squad car who kidnapped her and brought her here to perform his perversions on her before killing her, hating a society that breeds these kinds of sick bastards, but most of all, I hate God…for where the fuck was He when this child was stolen and driven down here to this trash heap of a residence, when that monster beat her and stripped her and stuck his dick inside of her, brutally taking the last of her innocence away in the few moments of life left to her…how could God sit by and callously listen to her screams and cries as she pleaded for that monster to let her go, as she pleaded for him to quit hurting her, as she pleaded for her life while he bound her hands and feet, then taped that bag over her head, watching her die a cruel death with malicious pleasure, her small lungs fighting for fresh air as she gasped for breath beneath that suffocating black plastic?
No, there is no God…not here, anyway. Just evil and sorrow and pure black hate.
And then…then I reach in and put gentle light fingers on her arm, the latex glove a numb layer that doesn't quite keep out the fact that her body is still ever-so-slightly warm, and I whisper, "I'm sorry," from between shaking lips, for even though I'm aware that her soul is already gone, mercifully fleeing to Heaven, I feel like whatever is left of her here on earth should feel at least one last touch of human kindness, if even from a sickened and saddened cop that is trying not to rage, trying not to go outside and shoot that bastard sitting handcuffed in the squad car, trying…
Trying hard not to weep.
Bitterness roils at the back of my throat and I come to my feet then, my knees creaking in complaint, and I slowly make my way out of the trailer to await the arrival of the homicide dicks to begin processing the scene, feeling like an old man as I climb down the rickety metal staircase of the trailer and cross the weedy lot, my eyes adjusting to the dull watery early morning hour, a misting rain falling from a gun-metal grey sky, the sight of the plastic playground equipment and other kiddy toys looking so incongruously out of place here, their bright happy colors on the emerald-green grass seeming so wrong in a place where an innocent child died a brutal and vicious death, her small body carelessly wadded up and shoved beneath the bathroom vanity like so much garbage. It seems like hours we spent inside that trailer, but when I glance at my watch, I see it's only been about ten minutes or so, and a pall hangs over us, my green-gilled partner, the ashen-faced other officer keeping watch over the perp in the backseat, and me, the wind slinging the misty rain into our faces as we blink at one another, our shared horror silencing us, for in the face of such evil, what can you say? The if-onlies circle about our brains like vultures on carrion, if only the mother had realized her daughter was gone and reported it sooner; if only she hadn't hooked up with a pedophile to begin with, if only we'd looked harder. And I keep it to myself for now that if only that tip leading us to the perp's location had come in sooner than it did, we might have gotten here in time to at least maybe save her, if not from the rape, perhaps from the murder, for only I am aware that her body was still slightly warm when I touched her, indicating that the bastard kept her alive all that time to perform his sick perversions on her before tiring of her and killing her only a couple of hours prior to our arrival.
"You know what tomorrow is?" my partner asks in a hollow, haunted voice as we stand mutely clustered there on the gravel roadway, awaiting the arrival of the homicide team. "It's Easter." And the irony hits us hard, for yes, we've forgotten in the heat of all this that tomorrow is the holiday of bunnies and baby chicks and candy eggs, of atonement and forgiveness, of Life and Death and the Resurrection, of Jesus crucified on the cross for the sins of the world, but we know…we know on this pale watery dawn that there is no Life, only Death, and there sure as hell ain't no Resurrection, for Jesus could die a thousand deaths on the cross, and it will never make up for the horrific sin cast upon that helpless, innocent little girl. And then, it's all we can do to keep from reaching in and grabbing the asshole as he sits in the backseat of the squad car with that smug smirk still plastered across his ugly mug, yanking his sorry ass out and shooting him first in the balls and the pecker, watching as he suffers in howling painful agony for a bit before shooting him right in the middle of that sick little smirk, turning it into a rictus of death for him. But, the three of us are not judge, jury and executioner and it's not up to us to decide the fate of the evil fucking bastard, it'll be either up to a judge or a jury made up of twelve honest citizens, who will hopefully find the asshole guilty and lock his ass away forever, where he can never hurt another child again.
And after we're released from the scene and sent back to the station, we give our statements to the homicide dicks about what we heard the monster say when we pulled him out of the truck and what we found in that little trailer of horrors, reliving it all once again for record's sake, and during the interview, my partner gets angry and punches one of the filing cabinets in the room, bloodying his hand but not breaking it, and no one reprimands him, for we all feel the same fucking way, like punching the shit out of something in frustration and rage over the innocence lost in the last 24 hours. Then he goes home to his wife and daughter to hug them extra hard, and I go home to my own empty house and hug the bottle of whiskey I keep in the kitchen cupboard extra hard, stepping into the shower, trying and trying and trying like hell to wash that stink of the filthy trailer and that horror…that pure evil…off of me, ridding my skin of the film of grime and my nose of the sour stench, but no amount of soap and water will rid my memory of what I've seen, for it will live on in my nightmares for years to come, seeing that battered and bloody body of that poor little girl lying crumpled inside of a bathroom cabinet…and I finally weep then, the tears that I kept from falling at the scene falling now, my head bowed beneath the stinging spray of the shower as I cry…for her, for my fellow officers, for myself, my heart broken as my tears try to cleanse my soul of what ghastly hell I have seen today.
Speaking of nightmares, imagine pulling up to the scene of an accident where a young mother of four, late for an appointment early one morning, hits an elderly couple driving a 1975 Cadillac sedan head-on at speeds of over 90 mph on the highway, the violent force of the crash ripping the engine block of her little Ford Maverick completely free of the frame, tossing it out into the middle of the road like it's a mere tin can, while the rest of the car winds up several yards away in the ditch. Fluids and tire rubber from both vehicles paint dark ominous paths across the white pavement, steam rising into the chilly February air from the mangled cars, the sound of rescuers shouting directions and the Hurst tools and the Ajax cutters as they cut into the vehicles muted only slightly by the soft hiss of water as firefighters manning reel lines wash down in a rainbow-colored spray the gasoline leaking from the cars, in order to prevent an explosion.
The grim faces of the firefighters and paramedics clustered around the old couple's Cadillac tell the story of the tragedy of that bright sunny morning…the elderly man is impaled on the steering wheel, his chest crushed clear to his spine, his brittle ribcage shattering on impact with the sturdy and unforgiving column, and his neck has snapped too, his head twisted at a grotesquely inhuman angle as fear rictuses his face, blood dripping from his shocked-open mouth, his eyeglasses literally crushed into his forehead and eye sockets from where he hit the windshield, leaving a starred splash of blood, skin and hair behind on the glass. Next to him, his wife moans in agony as they amputate her foot from beneath the dash where it's pinned, the sound of the saw as it grinds through her flesh and bone very sickening, and she weeps, not only from the pain of the saw eating away at her as it tries to free her, but also from the loss of her husband, the man she has loved since she was sixteen, the man she has spent 65 years of a lifetime with but will spend no more years or months or weeks or days with him after this morning, and no amount of MS IV can take away that kind of pain, it comes from the broken heart, from the wounded soul. Her neck is stiff in the white c-collar splint and blood coats her face from numerous cuts and abrasions, her left arm hanging limply from a clearly dislocated shoulder socket, her right arm shattered in two places, the bone sticking yellow-white up through her pale creped skin, and while her other foot remains miraculously free, her fibula is clearly smashed, the impact crushing the bones of her foot and leg, compacting them and pounding them nearly into nothing more than powder. And all of us, including her, know that the effort to save her is futile, for her body is too elderly and fragile to withstand such traumatic injuries, and she will die en route to the hospital, but the paramedics work desperately to save her anyway, it's not in their nature to let Death win so easily. It shocks me just how violent the crash really was too, for that huge expanse of hood space that was on those 1970s Caddys is all compacted up so tightly that the engine rests nearly on top of the driver's compartment. In fact, it would take quite awhile to get it peeled away, so the firefighters have pulled it back far enough to allow their medics in to work, stabilizing it so it doesn't fall on them as they gamely try to save the life of the elderly woman.
Shaking my head in horror that hasn't quite sunk in yet, I have to get away from the amputation scene before I puke from the smell of hot metal and seared skin and the sound of that saw screaming through bone, so I make my way over to the crumpled hulk of the other car and am even more horrified by what I see there, swearing underneath my breath at the terrible sight that meets my eyes, running my words together in a silent plea…ohjesusmaryandjoseph…but I know that it's too late, no one will hear my prayer, they fall on God's deaf ears, for He doesn't give a damn right now, He's on a coffee break. I stare, my stomach churning and my mind trying to gamely comprehend what I see before me in gory, ghastly technicolor, and I repeat that mantra-prayer again…ohjesusmaryandjoseph…for the woman's four small children were in the car with her, all of them unrestrained, save for the tiny four-month old baby in the the safety seat. On impact with the other vehicle, the mother's body became a missile inside the car, bouncing violently around and landing on the baby girl, smashing into the infant's body so hard, it has literally exploded on impact, leaving absolutely nothing that even resembles a baby in that seat that was supposed to protect her. Another young daughter has been impaled on the crumpled door frame, her small body hanging lifeless from the sharp metal that pierces her skin, sticking up through her limp rag doll form like pins in a ghastly butterfly display, her blood dripping on the pavement below, her body swaying slightly as the paramedics scramble to save her mother, who is lying partially ejected out the rear windshield onto the trunk of her car, miraculously still alive, but barely, her body broken and bloodied. And another small miracle…if there truly were any miracles in this wreck…another daughter is gravely injured but also still alive, thrown to the floorboards of the backseat, gravity and centrifugal force pinning her there. I send up a small prayer…ohthankyougod…and I don't give a damn whether He hears it or not this time, I'm just glad that out of this gruesome wreck, at least a couple of people are left still alive. One of the firefighters hands me a yellow sheet, gesturing silently to the child impaled grotesquely on the door frame, and I unfold it, the plastic rustling in my hands as I drape it gently over her small form, tucking it in so it won't flutter in the wind, shielding her body from the bright sun overhead and the eyes of the curious onlookers who remind me much of vultures eyeing carrion.
And then, just as I'm remembering that someone said she had four kids in the car with her and I've found only three, one of the firefighters waves me over to what I initially thought was a clump of debris from the car, pointing out the last child to me, her little boy…and there is no prayer on my lips as the firefighter and I exchange horrified looks at what lies at our feet, the firefighter's grizzled and lined face going pale beneath the brim of his black helmet, for this child is the worst of them all. He was flung out of the vehicle and gotten entangled in the undercarriage, being dragged along the unforgiving pavement as the car spun, reduced to nothing more than a bag of bloody broken bones and shredded hamburger that doesn't even look like a child. I help the firefighter gently cover the tiny form up with a yellow sheet in one last gesture of tender caring for a child who can no longer feel it, then I make my way over to the nearest ditch on suddenly wobbly legs…the sound of the elderly woman screaming and the young mother moaning and her small daughter crying ringing in my ears; the red and blue and amber lights of the emergency vehicles strobing brightly across my vision; the smell of motor oil and gasoline and metal blood and gruesome death thick in my nose, and then…then I puke my guts out until my sides ache and I can't breathe, everything rushing out of me in a heaving force nearly as violent as the car wreck was, and when I'm done, I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand and get back to work, because there's a lot to be done yet out here and somebody has to do it. Thanking God that my partner is out sick today so he hasn't had to witness this, I pretend not to notice the silent tears streaming down the faces of the other officers and emergency personnel, just as they pretend not to see mine, all of us weeping at the goddamned fucking senselessness of it…for what a horrific, terrible tragedy to happen on such a bright sunny day that held the promise of so much, at least up until someone decided to speed because they were late for an appointment, thereby depriving five innocent people of all the bright sunny days that were left to them for rest of their lives.
And I am the one that has to go tell the husband of the young mother that his wife and remaining daughter are in critical condition at the local hospital, while his other three children, along with an elderly couple, are dead in the wreck that was the mother's fault because she was speeding at over 90 miles per hour when she lost control of her car, turning it into a dangerous and deadly weapon…but I cannot tell him that, he has enough grief and tragedy riding on his shoulders and he doesn't need any more. As he denies what I'm telling him with firm conviction, for his wife and children are only late…don't I know that?...for his wife was often one who liked to stop and see friends and visit for awhile, and surely that's where she's at, surely she and his kids will be pulling into the driveway any moment now, and what kind of cruel joke is this I'm trying to play on him? And when I keep shaking my head and telling him the truth, it finally sinks in that no, his wife didn't stop off to chat or visit someone, that no, she and the kids will not be pulling into the driveway any minute now, they will not be coming home any longer, at least not the same way they left it this morning, alive and cheerful and happy and unbroken…and he collapses then, breaking himself, his heart and his soul shattering as he realizes that life will never ever be the same for him any longer.
As he weeps and denies and rants at God and me and anyone else he can turn his sorrowful anger on, I try to comfort him as best I can in my own stilted way, for that mantra of keeping up the stiff upper lip is supposed to work here, but that stiff upper lip can't help but tremble a bit as I think that in the space of a minute and someone's impatience, this man's whole world has been cruelly changed forever…he will never hear the happy laughter of his children as they play on the red and blue striped swing set in the backyard, and he will never play catch again with his son, trying to teach him how to throw that wicked fastball that his own father taught him. He will never sit through tea parties with his daughters, sipping imaginary tea with them as they pretend to be princesses in kingdoms they made up in their minds, their teddy bears and dollies their loyal subjects. He won't see three of his children grow up, shepherding them through elementary school and junior high, then the rigors of high school, watching proudly as they graduate, going on to college and a career, marriages of their own and then grandkids. I try to tell him that at least two miracles did come out of the wreck, that his wife and other daughter are still alive, albeit tenuously at the moment, but it's cold comfort to him, for his family of six has now been suddenly and violently reduced to three, fate and speed subtracting from him what made him whole, and he knows that even if his wife and daughter survive, the healing process for them will be arduous and taxing, both physically and mentally, as both of them face long and grueling months of rehabilitation therapy.
And as I drive the man to the hospital to see what remains of his family, he asks me in a quiet plea to drive him past where the wreck happened so he can see for himself where his two little daughters and small son breathed their last breaths in the moments before the crash, and I gently decline, for he doesn't need to see that, at least not right now. While the bodies have been cut free and transported to the morgue and the mangled cars have been removed to the police garage for further investigation and the highway reopened to traffic, the scars of the wreck are still fresh on the roadway…the streaks of black rubber that was laid down when both drivers tried to stop, the smears of the leaked fluids staining the pavement, the shards of glass and metal sparkling like diamonds and gemstones in the sunlight, the grass in the ditches alongside the road tramped down from tire tracks of the rescue vehicles and the emergency personnel as they worked the scene, the bits of medical trash that litter the area from the frantic attempts to save the elderly woman and the young mother, along with the surviving daughter. I escort the man into the hospital and sit with him until other family arrives to take up the vigil, then I leave, offering the man my condolences and telling him that if he needs anything, to call the number on the card I give him. He takes it with a quiet thanks and the promise that if he does need anything, he will certainly call, but he knows and I know that he won't, for why would you want to see the man who came to tell you that the life you once knew is now no more, stripped bare and devastated, replaced by a new reality that is scary and painful and full of sorrow.
And when I get off shift, I drive by the accident scene myself, pulling off to the shoulder of the road and parking, getting out of my car to stand there next to it, my eyes taking in what scars are left while my soul senses the ghosts that remain, the deceased left behind as they try vainly to figure out why one minute they were laughing over an old family joke or telling a little sister to stop touching them and stay on their own side of the seat, while the next minute they're just gone, staring at what was left of their mangled bodies and trying to make sense of it all. As the traffic whooshes by me, I take in a deep breath that still smells of motor oil and gasoline and antifreeze and blood, the rememory of the frantic hustle and bustle of the accident scene vivid in my mind. I spot something glittering at my feet and I reach down, picking it up. It's the hood emblem from the Caddy, the metal chilled in the crisp February air, the wreath and the badge dinged and damaged but still whole, and I close fingers around it, preparing to fling it into the farm field beyond the ditch, but then…then I gently lay it back down where I found it, for how dare I disturb the hallowed ground and resting place of those that died here this morning. Then, haunted by the goddamned fucking senselessness of it all, I get back into my car and drive to the local cop bar and hand my keys off to a fellow off-duty co-worker who'll see that I get home safely as I proceed to get utterly and thoroughly drunk, just so I can forget what hellish carnage I've seen today, at least for a little while.
And it's not just the cases involving kids that get to us over time, there's the day-in-day-out melodramas that play out in small epic bursts of time, like the elderly couple that are beaten and robbed of their meager possessions by their son who was seeking drug money to support his habit; or the thirty year old prostitute who looked fifty, found dead in a sleazy motel room, brutally stabbed to death by the last john she'd ever pick up; or the eighteen year old kid found in a flophouse, cold and stiff and dead, a needle still sticking out of his arm, the pleasurable drug he sent coursing through his vein to get high killing him instead; or the drunk driver who can't understand why we're arresting him as he's emerged unscathed from a wreck that has claimed his passenger's life, for he only had a beer…or fifteen…and surely that wasn't enough to make him drunk; or the woman we pull over for speeding launching into a raging tirade about how she doesn't deserve a ticket, we should be out catching the REAL crooks and not her; or the career alcoholics we pick up day after day after day on public intox charges, reeking of booze and sweat and desperation as they try to escape whatever misery is in their lives; or the suicide we handle, the man despondent over losing his job and falling deep into debt, so he takes his shotgun down to the basement and blows his brains out all over the walls and the ceiling, leaving his screaming wife to find his body and his children wondering why Daddy killed himself when he always told them that suicide wasn't the way out of life's problems; or the thousands upon thousands of other calls that range from the humorous to the annoying to the downright ghastly that we take in the course of any given shift.
And then…then comes that day when everything changes in a flashing heartbeat second, when nothing will ever be the same again. We pull up outside of the rural residence of a man who has been suspected of vandalizing his neighbor's farmhouse, my partner telling me how proud he is that his little nine-year-old daughter got the lead part in her school's spring musical and he's taking the opening night off from work so he can go see her perform, and then time seems to slow down yet speeds up so fast as the windshield suddenly shatters into a million little pieces, raining diamond glints of glass in on us, and something wet splashes onto my face and my mind scrambles to make sense of it in that moment of confusion, my eyes swinging towards the house we're in front of, and in the doorway of the home stands a man, something glinting and shiny and metallic in his hands as he brings them up before darting back inside the house. There is a split-second of startled realization…ohmygodhesgotafuckinggun!...and I scrabble wildly for the door handle with one hand while fumbling for my service weapon with the other, shouting at my partner that he's got a gun as I clumsily dump myself out onto the grey ribbon of sunbaked gravel driveway. The movies and television shows make it look so easy, the fake cops diving out of their cars and landing perfectly on one knee to take up position behind the door of the squad, guns poised to fire back, but in real life it's not that simple…your mind is going a thousand miles a minute as you frantically try to think of where the best spot for cover is, if there's another shooter or if he's the only one, if you can get your weapon lined up in time to get a shot off at him, if you or your partner is hurt, how soon somebody can get there to help save your ass, if there's any other possible human targets he might decide to shoot at, did I remember to wear clean underwear like my mother always told me?...and all those things and more are going through my mind as I scoot backwards on shaky legs, crouched down and using the door as a shield, but knowing that it offers minimal protection at best, so I scurry around to the trunk of the squad, my eyes never leaving the front door of that house. I thumb my radio mike that is attached to my shoulder epaulet and call out in a squeaky panicked voice that sounds like Mickey Mouse on helium that we have come under fire at this 'see subject' call and we need backup out here NOW. Barely hearing dispatch acknowledge me, I risk a glance at the driver's side of the squad, expecting to see my partner crouched down there in the grass, but he's still in the squad car, so I quickly duckwalk to his door and open it to see what's wrong and…and…
Oh my god.
I thumb my mike again and screech out that I need an ambulance dispatched, there's an officer down at my location, but even as I hear dispatch respond and begin toning out the EMTs and ambulance personnel over the multi-band radio in the squad, even as I hear someone…my sergeant, a co-worker, I can't remember who…ask me for an update on the situation and what direction they need to come in from so as not to meet the same fate we have, even as I hear the sirens wailing in the distance, heralding and harkening the arrival of the cavalry, even as I hear the blood thumping wildly in my head and my breath rasping harshly in my throat, I know…I know…
And there is no more time to think on that, there is no time for me to mourn, for I catch movement out of the shattered windshield, the front door of the house swinging open once more, ejecting out the crazy man with the .12 gauge shotgun that just blew my partner's head off, and I jerk my Glock up with shaking hands that seem strangely steady, my finger sweating over the trigger as I line the suspect up in my sights, and as he raises the shotgun to shoot at me, eons and eternities pass from the moment that I pull the trigger twice, hitting him in the head and the heart, to the moment he drops to the ground in a crumpled heap, the shotgun falling away into the grass. Gun still drawn, finger still on the trigger, I get to my feet, my eyes never leaving the man's body as I make my way over to him on leaden zombie feet. Somewhere in the distant background I hear shouts and sirens and cars coming to a halt, but I pay no mind to that, I'm focused on the suspect on the ground, and as I reach him, I see that he is dead, my bullets hitting the targets like I intended, for I sure as hell didn't win that sharpshooter medal that's pinned to my uniform by being the best-looking cop on the range that day. He stares up at the sunny blue sky with cold dead eyes, and I stare down at him with cold dead eyes, for instead of feeling elated and victorious that I shot and killed the bastard that murdered my partner, I feel…
For I just killed a man.
And even though I know I was justified in shooting him, it doesn't make me feel any better, it makes me feel like I'm a murderer, just like he was.
Someone puts a hand on my shoulder, leaning his face in to shout at me, asking me if I'm alright, and I flinch away from him as other officers hurry in to secure the shotgun and the dead suspect and the rest of what is now a crime scene. The man in my face…my sergeant…asks me again if I'm alright as he gently takes my service weapon away from me, and in a daze, I tell him I'm okay, but I think my partner's hurt pretty bad…then I remember that my partner is dead and so at the outright silliness of that statement, I begin to giggle, the sound escaping from between my shaking lips in high-pitched hysteria, and instead of slapping me like they do in the movies, my sergeant leads me by the elbow over to a nearby ambulance, and the giggles abruptly end as I goggle in amazement at all the array of squad cars that are parked haphazardly in the gravel drive…when did all of them get here?...for not just city cops arrived as reinforcements, but also Highway Patrol and Sheriff's Deputies, all of them responding immediately to the 'shots fired, officer down' call I vaguely remember putting out oh so long ago.
More like five minutes ago.
Such an eternity between life as I once knew it to life as it is now, with a dead partner and a man I killed with my own weapon at my own hand.
My sergeant seats me on the bumper of the ambulance, looking up with a nod at the paramedic, mouthing the word 'shock' to him. The kindly medic asks me if I'm hurt anywhere, for I have blood on my face and my uniform, and I mechanically think for a moment, my sluggish brain taking catalogue of all my body parts and organs, finding them intact and working fine, then it dawns on me that I'm wearing my partner's blood on me and yes oh yes, shock does set in then, the adrenaline leaving my body in a rapid rush, making me shiver despite the sweat on my face, making me weak and shaky, feeling like I've gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Something bubbles up in my throat and I barely have time to lurch away from the rig before I throw up, acid stomach contents spewing out of me in a violent rush that brings tears to my eyes, and I feel someone's hand on my back, a voice gently calming me that I just barely hear through the roaring in my ears. When the spell subsides, I straighten back up, coughing and trying to breathe, and I see the face of my sergeant through the cataract haze of tears as he speaks to me in a low, soothing tone. He guides me back to the ambulance and orders me to sit, even though he really doesn't have to, my legs are so watery-weak I doubt I could have stood on them for much longer. Using my palm, I swipe at the tears, brushing them away as he tells me what will happen next…the shooting team will be coming out to begin the investigation, I am being immediately placed on administrative leave until they are through and they have cleared me to return to duty, and I will be walked through the situation as it happened minute by minute, then I will be taken to the station for an interview. Other officers…co-workers and strangers alike…stop by to ask me if I'm okay, concern and compassion in their eyes and their voices, and yet I can also see them thinking that they're glad it wasn't one of them that lost their partner and had to shoot and kill the guy who murdered him, because they certainly don't wish to be in my shoes at this point in time.
No cop does, after all. We don't put on that badge so we can go out and gun people down just for the hell of it. Most cops in their entire careers will never be forced to shoot and kill someone, but I am one of the unlucky ones who's become a dual statistic…I have shot someone in the line of duty and I've lost a partner in the line of duty. And it's not a statistic I'm proud to be, either.
And so the suits arrive to begin their investigation, and even though they know me and I know them, I can't help but feel like a suspect, a bug under a microscope as they walk me through the incident as it played out. Somehow I manage to get through it without puking again or collapsing, and I manage not to break down in tears when I spot the yellow sheet-covered body of my partner in the squad that has the window shattered out of it, and I manage to get through the interview back at the station, deftly answering the questions that they ask that are designed to trip me and trap me, as if what I've done wasn't justified. I relive it for them, relive it for my superiors, relive it when I close my eyes, replaying it in fast-motion, replaying it in slow-motion, wondering each time just when the fuck things went wrong so fast…one minute my partner was telling me about his little girl getting the part in her school's spring musical, the next he's dead, and the next I'm shooting and killing the man who murdered him. Minutes turned into hours turned into terrified mere seconds in a single day.
After what seems like years of questioning, I'm finally released to go home, and I do, turning down the offer of a ride home, wanting to be alone to process things. At home, I take a shower to wash the horror of the day from me, then I crawl into bed, but I'm afraid to go to sleep, for I know if I do, I will relive the whole thing over again in my nightmares, so I lie awake, staring at the ceiling, the darkness hiding a multitude of sins, my own included, and I hate God, I curse Him for the goddamned senseless tragedy of this situation, of leaving a wife a widow and a child fatherless, of killing off a good man before his time. I hate the man who killed him, a middle-aged man with a history of bipolar disease and paranoid schizophrenia who wasn't taking his medicines to control his illnesses at the time of the shooting. But most of all, I hate myself. I feel responsible for my partner's death, even though the investigation will reveal that we had no chance whatsoever, the man had been tipped off we were coming and so he lay in wait to ambush us, thinking us the enemies, whatever enemies he had in his diseased mind. And it's no solace to my soul to learn that his family had tried to have him committed to a mental health institution a month prior to this incident, but a judge overruled their request, deeming the man no threat to himself or others, feeling that if he were locked away in a hospital somewhere, it would be depriving him of his rights and freedoms.
And so the man turned around and deprived my partner of his life.
And it's not something I can ever forgive, let alone forget.
Why, you might ask, do we do it, why do we put ourselves through such torment and trauma and misery, forcing ourselves to see a side of human nature that most people never witness their entire lives? Why do we expose ourselves to such danger and possible death when there are much safer jobs to take on that don't require one to deal with domestic disturbances, angry traffic offenders, sexual predators, gruesome car wrecks, ghastly murders, and all the millions of other little sagas that play out each shift?
Well, some of us feel a calling for the job, like a harkening to the priesthood, but without the benevolent deity, while others follow in the footsteps of a family member who's also been a cop, carrying on a proud tradition from generation to generation. Yet others go into law enforcement as a way to give back to society, to feel like they're helping people, they're doing something noble with their lives. But all of us do it for the same single reason when you get right down to it…
We do it because we want to.
After all, I never know what kind of excitement each shift will bring, and it's a damn sight better than being stuck behind a desk in some boring grey cubicle, following the orders of some boring grey boss, leading some boring grey life until you die. And not all of what we do is sad and depressing and cruel, for there's the good things that go along with the job, like the feeling of satisfaction I get when I know I've helped someone, like the young woman who stops me in the supermarket while I'm shopping and thanks me for saving her life, for two years ago she was in a violent relationship and I gave her the boost she needed to extricate herself from it by giving her a ride to the women's shelter and the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. She tells me she and her children are enjoying a normal life now, one free of violence and threats and fear, one that she is proud of achieving on her own through her own hard work. Or there's the lost little boy that I reunite with his frantic parents who've feared the worse, that he was snatched by a predator, but I find the youngster playing in a backyard two blocks away, and I take him home, to much tears and cries of joy from his parents, and maybe a few little tears of my own, for it's one case of a missing kid that turned out like it should…happy. Or there's that serial rapist that I help apprehend, putting him behind bars so he can terrorize women no longer, and there's the drunk driver that I arrest, getting him off the street before he kills himself or others. There's the feeling of satisfaction I get when I pull someone over for a routine traffic stop and find out he's hauling quite the cadre of drugs in his vehicle, and in arresting him, I put away another dope dealer who's peddling his wares to our kids. There's the joy that I feel when I'm talking to a group of schoolkids who listen to me with avid interest, drinking in my every word with respect and curiosity, asking questions about the job, and I look at them and their bright shiny eager little faces and wonder how many of them will be inspired by my speech today to go into law enforcement when they get older, taking up the badge with as much fervor as I once did.
Like the young officer who died today did.
The man who was my partner.
I ask you to think for a moment about him, the man who lost his life in the line of duty…he might have been that faceless cop you accused of trying to make his 'quota' when he issued you a speeding ticket; he may have been that generic uniform that you griped was 'hassling you' when he stopped by to ask you to keep your stereo turned down. He might have been that 'lousy fucking pig' who put the handcuffs on you because you were driving drunk, he might have been that officer that you got irritated with for making you late for work as he directed traffic around an accident on the expressway you were taking. He might have been all of those things, but he was something greater…
He was somebody's son.
He was somebody's brother.
He was somebody's husband.
And he was somebody's father.
And he died today, just because he was doing his job.
This man made the supreme sacrifice of laying his life down in the line of duty, and I ask that you please stop and think about that…really THINK about it. And then…
Then say 'thank you'…to him, to all law enforcement and other emergency personnel that are there for you when you need them, ready to risk their lives for yours, ready to die for you if it saves you from death yourself. Say it with respect and kindness and sincerity to the next police officer you see…look them in the eye and tell them how much you appreciate them working to keep the streets save for your children, for keeping the peace for you, for arresting those that would do harm to you, for being there in an emergency when you've needed help, for laying down their lives when they've had to.
Just two little words.
It's easy to do and it costs you absolutely nothing…and it'll make that officer's day, I can guarantee it.
Because behind that shiny metal badge is a human being, just like you. It can't shield us from the sorrow and the anger and the tragedy that goes with the job. The badge is just that…a badge. It's not a cast-iron fortress, it's not a war-shield, it's not a safety net…
It's just a piece of tin.
Remember that, too.
I know I do, whenever I pin it on.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.