Everything I know about being tough I learned from an old woman

17Sep12

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about being tough. Unlike most other cops, I don’t consider myself especially tough. I’ve always been short and skinny, and never had the attitude that I was tougher than everyone else. Well, maybe I did for about one week when I first became a cop. But then I yelled at a big muscular guy to turn around so I could handcuff him, and he said “No.” So I learned real quick that I can’t always order people around, I have to talk to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m a pushover. I’ve arrested many guys who were way bigger and scarier than I’ll ever be, and oddly enough some of those guys didn’t want to me arrest them. Plus I’ve had plenty of bumps, bruises and broken bones from fights and accidents. I’ve been shot at and nearly blown up, and never freaked out too badly about it. But I’m not tough, especially not compared to some people I’ve dealt with.

It’s important to remember that most of us cops were brought up in decent homes by decent families. We probably didn’t experience much conflict as children, and most of what we’ve experienced as adults has been by choice, usually from martial arts or military service. Therefore, we don’t have the same mentality about injuries that some other people have. We didn’t grow up getting beaten severely, or seeing friends and family shot or stabbed. When someone gets shot or stabbed, we think it’s pretty serious. But in our line of work, we see many victims who don’t worry too much about it.

On the street I was continually amazed at the reactions of people in tougher neighborhoods when they were severely injured and didn’t die. I worked a robbery where the victim was shot in the forehead, cheek and ankle by a suspect with a 9mm pistol. The victim ran about 500 yards before he passed out in front of someone’s door, and is still alive. One very calm, composed young woman stood in front of me and told me about the fight she had just been in with another woman, but didn’t mention that she had been shot through the thigh until she was several minutes into the story (I hadn’t noticed the blood running down her leg). Another robbery victim who had been shot through the sternum and upper arm woke up, just after I said on the radio that I thought he was dead, and complained, “This is the fifth time I’ve been shot!”

One of the sad half truth/half jokes I’ve made is, “If a street thug gets shot in the face, run over and set on fire, he’ll walk away from it. If a cop gets stabbed in the pinky toe with a paper clip, he’ll bleed out in the ambulance.” It just seems like injuries affect us more, because we think they’re supposed to. And there’s one example of this kind of “screw it, getting shot is no big deal” toughness that I remember more than any other.

So there I was, minding my own business. . .

. . . and I received a call about a rollover accident on the freeway. This was at about 1 a.m., early on a foggy Sunday morning. Saturday night drunks were still all over the road. I arrived at the wreck and saw an older pickup lying on its roof. Two ambulances and several police cars were already there, and a man and woman from the truck had already been loaded into the ambulances. Paramedics screeched away and we stayed there to hold the scene for accident investigators.

This wreck was pretty bad. The truck had rolled several times, and it was apparent that the driver’s head had been outside the window as it rolled. Officers who had arrived before me told me the driver was an older woman and the passenger was her husband. The husband might survive, but things looked bad for the driver.

Several other officers and I spent the next half hour or so playing freeway tag with speeding drivers. Not only was it a foggy Saturday night, but the accident was on the downside of a hill. People driving through the fog didn’t see us until they crested the hill, usually at around 85 miles per hour. Drivers saw us blocking two lanes and swerved around us at the last minute, or jammed on the brakes and skidded past the scene. We put a police car on the upside of the hill as a warning, but it was ignored. Most of us stayed away from our cars near the high occupancy vehicle lane, ready to jump the wall if a drunk decided to smash into a police car. Accident investigators rushed to take measurements and photos so we could get the hell out of there.

A call from the hospital brought the accident investigation to a halt. “Hold up, guys. They just found a bullet in the driver’s head, and she’s not going to make it.” The scene changed instantly from an accident to a murder. For us, this meant dodging cars for another couple of hours as we waited for homicide investigators and evidence techs to conduct their investigation at the scene.

After what seemed like a long time, homicide investigators arrived. We got updates as they hurried to process the scene: the driver had died, her husband hadn’t regained consciousness. There were no known witnesses. No weapon had been recovered from the vehicle. If the husband didn’t survive and give a statement, we’d have a hell of a hard time figuring out what happened.

After about two hours on the scene, the investigators finally finished. By this time most of us had had to run for our lives from near-accidents a few times. When we got the word to clear the scene, I watched officers sprint to their patrol cars so they could get out of there before someone hit them. I sprinted after them, and was one of the last guys to get off the scene. We survived, nobody got run over.

I didn’t hear anything else about the murder that night. Several days later we got an update from homicide. The victim’s husband had woken up, and was interviewed in his hospital room. A detective asked him, “How’d your wife get shot?”

He answered, “What are you talking about? Nobody shot my wife.”

“Yes someone did. She had a bullet in her head.”

“Oh yeah, that. She told me she got shot in the head about ten years ago, before we got married. She never went to the doctor or nothing, though.”

I’m sure the detective thought, this is the stupidest murder defense I’ve ever heard. But the guy wouldn’t budge from his story. The detectives were going to have to wait for information from the autopsy.

A short time later, the autopsy results came back. The woman had died from injuries received in the accident. Yes, she had been shot in the head. . . years earlier. The wound was old and surrounded by scar tissue. This woman took a bullet through the skull into her brain, never bothered to get it treated, and went on living another ten years until she finally died in that wreck.

No matter how many times I go to war or how many years I spend on the street, I don’t think I’ll ever be as tough as that woman was.



4 Responses to “Everything I know about being tough I learned from an old woman”

  1. Whats up cousin?? I just wanted to tell you congratulations on the book, and that I enjoy reading your blog very much….I like how you express your point of view, as well the unique details that are used to capture the moments for the reader. I look forward to reading more!! Take care Chris!

  2. 3 Manal Broeckelmann

    Chris,
    Great interview and story!


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