The nightmare that almost was

15Oct12

We often see stories in the media of police officers doing something stupid, illegal or questionable. Contrary to what some believe, I do not automatically assume everything all cops do is right. I’ve been a police officer almost twenty years, and I know honest cops can make honest mistakes, and bad cops do bad things. Sometimes even a cop who is a good guy does something that’s just plain wrong. However, I don’t accept every “bad cop” story as bible truth, because I know there are times we do everything right, and the outcome still looks horrible in the media. That almost happened to me one night, and that “what might have been” moment has had a huge impact on my actions and beliefs for the last seventeen years.

There I was, minding my own business, and I got dispatched to a house for a “welfare check”. A man had called from a neighboring city to report that his mother wasn’t answering the phone. She was elderly and having health problems, and I expected to find her passed away in her bed. Having found a badly decomposed body inside a house once already, I didn’t look forward to entering this house. But it was my call, so I headed over.

I arrived at around 7:00 p.m. and saw a car in the driveway, porch light on and a light on inside the house. I walked up, yelled “Police!” and rang the doorbell several times. No answer. I knocked on the door, then on several windows. No answer. I cringed. There was no odor of decomposition outside, but I knew once I got inside the stench would be awful.

I walked around the house until I found an unlocked window, pulled the screen off and opened it. Still no smell of decay. I yelled into the house, “Police, is anyone inside?” No response, so I got on the radio and advised dispatch that I was making entry. Then I yelled “Police! Police!” and climbed over the windowsill into the house.

Only one light was on, in the living room. I had climbed into a hallway window, and I yelled “Police! Anyone home?” as I slowly walked down the hall. Nobody answered, and I didn’t smell anything. I turned the corner into the living room, still announcing who I was. Other than me, the house was silent.

I walked into the living room, shining my flashlight all around. Everything in the house was in order, no evidence that anything was wrong. I saw an open door at the back of the living room, with no light on in the room behind. I shined my light through the doorway, and saw the old woman lying motionless on a bed, eyes open and staring straight up. That wasn’t a surprise. Something that was surprising, however, was next to her on the bed.

A young girl, maybe three or four years old, was lying motionless next to her. Her head was turned toward me, but she showed no signs of life. What the hell?, I wondered. Nobody had told me anything about a little girl in the house. And were they both dead? How the hell did that happen?

I yelled, “Police! Are you okay?” and lowered my flashlight beam onto the girl’s face. Neither of them moved or answered, but the girl squinted. Okay, I thought, at least the girl is alive. But she’s probably been stuck in here with this dead woman for who knows how long. I called out “Hello, police!” again, and stepped toward the bedroom.

In a flash, the old woman sat up, covered her ears and screamed, “I don’t want you here! Get out of my house! I don’t believe you’re the police anyway!” Then she lay back down.

I froze, not just surprised but shocked at her outburst, and at the fact that she was alive. For several seconds I just stood there, not sure what to do. This was about a year after I became a cop, and I was still quite the rookie. I wondered, should I get on the radio and ask for a sergeant? Should I try talking to the woman, to convince her I really was the police? Did the woman have Alzheimer’s? She obviously didn’t have a good grasp on reality. Was the little girl in danger if she stayed with her?

There were probably several good options I could have chosen. Instead, I mumbled, “Uh, okay,” and backed into the hallway. I turned and headed to the window I had come in through, climbed back out, closed the window and replaced the screen. Then I got into my police car and drove to the station.

I walked into the dispatch room and told the dispatcher what had just happened. I know I had a confused, unsure look on my face as I spoke to her. She had been a dispatcher longer than I had been a cop, but she had never heard of a situation like that either. I asked her to call the woman’s family and have them come to the station. It turned out they were already on the way.

The woman’s son arrived a short time later. As soon as he came inside and told me who he was, I tried and failed to be diplomatic about the situation. My first awkward, poorly presented question was a blunt, “Uh…does your mother have Alzheimer’s or something?”

The man grimaced, nodded and said, “I don’t know. But that’s what we’re thinking.”

I asked, “Who was the little girl in the house?”

The man looked a little embarrassed. “That’s my daughter. I probably should have told you she was there.”

That was an understatement. I answered, “Yeah, you probably should have. But it’s alright, she looked fine.” Then I told him I’d follow him back to the house.

An odd look came over the man’s face. I didn’t know what to make of it. He looked away for a few moments, then met my eyes with what was now a plainly sheepish expression. He dropped his head a little, and said something that left me truly speechless.

“Officer, there’s something else I should have told you. My mother keeps a loaded .357 Magnum on the nightstand next to her bed.”

I stared at him in silence for a long moment. He looked back, ashamed. I stepped away, closed my eyes and took a long breath. This poor old woman, in the process of losing her mind, had a pistol within arm’s reach when I walked into her house.

My reaction to the woman sitting up and screaming had been a moment of paralysis; now, my mind went a million miles an hour as I imagined what could have happened. And one undeniable truth stood out: If I had entered that house, after clearly announcing that I was the police, and had then been shot at, I would have shot back.

The way that incident would probably have unfolded, the first indication of danger would have been gunshots and muzzle flash coming from inside a darkened room. I would have believed that whoever was shooting at me knew I was the police. And muzzle flash in a dark room is an identifiable target. So I would have shot back. An elderly woman possibly suffering from Alzheimer’s, firing a six shot revolver at me from across a room in the dark, would probably have missed. With my recent pistol training and a fifteen round magazine, I probably wouldn’t have missed. And I could have killed an elderly woman and little girl.

I imagined then, as I imagine now, how the media would have reported the incident. “Rookie police officer kills child and elderly woman in woman’s own home”. . . “Son asks police to check on his mother, officer kills her instead”. . . “Sick, elderly woman and her toddler granddaughter gunned down in bed by trigger-happy cop”. . . and who knew what else.

If the facts of the case ever reached the media, they wouldn’t be reported until months or years later, in a one-paragraph blurb on a back page. “The police department claims the officer went to the home at the family’s request, but the family’s attorney won’t comment until after the lawsuit is concluded. A department spokesman insists a recording of radio traffic proves the officer notified dispatch that he was entering the house, but the alleged tape hasn’t been released to the public. Officer Hernandez claims he clearly identified himself as a police officer several times, but no witnesses corroborate his statement. . .” I was certain then, as I am now, that no newspaper or television statement would ever paint my actions in a favorable light, despite the fact that I had followed every applicable law and departmental policy to the letter. 

When I got myself back together, I had a very brief and uncomfortable talk with the woman’s son. I was pissed off. How the hell do you ask the police to check on your mother, and forget to mention that your toddler daughter is in there with her, she’s possibly suffering from dementia AND she keeps a loaded pistol beside her bed? He decided to go to his mother’s house without me. Maybe I should have gone, but I didn’t. Apparently, nothing happened. We never got a call about an elderly woman shooting her son at that address.

Since then, every time I see an inflammatory headline about a police shooting or hear “Cop shoots unarmed man in back! Film at 11!” on TV, I make a clear decision to withhold judgment until I hear actual facts. Not emotional, attention-grabbing propaganda, not a slanted statement from an ex-con “community activist”, not tearful statements from parents about what a wonderful church-going boy their son was. Those things are smoke and noise that cloud the truth, and media outlets know it. But emotional, subjective crap makes money, so that’s what the media shows the public.

I ignore all that and wait for actual facts. If the facts show the officer was truly wrong (as we saw in Houston last week), then I accept that and have no sympathy. If the facts show the officer was honestly doing his job and made the best decision he could based on what he perceived at the time, and that decision turned out to be wrong, then I’m on his or her side. Because that officer could have been me.

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10 Responses to “The nightmare that almost was”

  1. Chris – Again – a post that reads as if I were there in the old woman’s house wondering what the heck was going on. It gives me chills to think about the information the son with-held from you and how tragically this could have turned out for all concerned. You are right on in weighing in on all fronts before making your conclusions on what’s printed in the media. Thanks for another wonderful and informative post.

    • Sheri, I’m not sure how I missed this earlier, but I just saw that you’re a former B&N book buyer and a professional book reviewer. If you have any advice for how I can get more reviews or wider distribution for my book, please let me know. Thank you again for following my blog and for the feedback.

  2. Sheri,

    Thank you for your comments. This incident has stuck with me for many years, and I reflect on it whenever I hear a story about a police officer (or soldier) that sounds terrible but maybe doesn’t explain all the factors involved.

  3. 4 Aesop

    A very wise police desk sergeant once explained to me in my youth the addage that “No matter how flat the pancake, there’s always two sides.”

    It is a moral than never loses its truth.

    • Exactly. That’s why I haven’t jumped on the “those cops at Dorner’s cabin screwed up” bandwagon. I know that just because something looks bad, that doesn’t mean it is bad.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and for the quote. I’m sure I’ll have to use it someday.

      Chris

  4. It’s hard to learn to not second guess the other guys when you weren’t there for the shoot/don’t shoot decision, but it’s necessary. These days, I put a lot of effort into not making a judgement until I know more. Sadly, many of the people I talk with don’t do the same thing.

    • Yup. If I had been shot at and fired back, I’d STILL be getting crucified over it, almost 20 years later.

      • 8 Mike

        On the other hand, if the woman had shot you she’d have spent the rest of her life in prison. Regardless of if she didn’t hear you when you shouted “police” (maybe she had bad hearing, or the TV up loud), or if the robbers in the neighborhood were known to yell “police,” too.

        Far as I see it, some situations are just nasty and complex, and only end up well by good luck. And whatever gets reported about them will never resemble the truth. Everyone deserves a fair trial, but they’ll never get it in the court of public opinion. 😦

        • With her mental state and age, I doubt she would have spent even a day in jail. That poor woman wasn’t perceiving reality, and it wasn’t her fault. Hell, if she had shot me even I wouldn’t want her in jail.

          For a little more info, as far as I can tell she could hear fine, which is why she sat up and covered her ears. There was no TV on. You’re right that some situations just suck, and all we can hope for is to make them suck not quite as bad as they could. I did have some good luck that night. And you’re also right about public opinion, and the difficulty of getting the actual truth during an investigation. Everyone gives their own version of events, and often there’s a definite angle to be worked.

          That was one of those experiences that will always give me the chills.

          Thanks for commenting, Mike.

          Chris

  5. 10 Justice06RR

    Wow, that really could’ve turned out into a nightmare. But thanks to your professionalism and how well you handled it (and partially to luck), its good to hear nothing came out of it. Its definitely one of those experiences that make you scratch your head and ask yourself “what if?”

    Police related events we hear about in the media can be confusing and inaccurate. Hard to tell sometimes why some cops shot first and asked questions later, instead of the opposite. But those of us who are only speculating do not know the facts. Unfortunately if a situation does look bad because of what a cop(s) has done, it paints a bad picture for the rest of the officers.

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing!


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