What Police Work is Really Like, Episode V: Dreams and Effects

29Apr13

Early in my career I worked my first fatality accident. Four innocent people were killed by a drunk, legally blind ex-convict who passed out going 90 miles per hour. He crossed a median, drove onto the wrong side of the highway and hit a small car head-on. The victims were all medical professionals going to a wedding.

When I arrived, the drunk’s van was smashed and smoking. The drunk was laying face-down on the shoulder in a small pool of blood, moaning and trying to roll over. The victims’ car, a nearly-unrecognizable mass of twisted steel and plastic, was sideways in the road. A dead man and three dead women were crushed inside. I saw only hair from the woman in the front passenger seat; the impact had pushed the dash almost completely over her head.

Dozens of Good Samaritans had stopped to help. Most of them ran to me screaming as I stepped out of my car. One pleaded with me to help the driver of another car the drunk had sideswiped. I ran to that car and saw the dazed driver bleeding from an arm injury.

I wasn’t sure what to do, or even where to start. The accident scene was almost overwhelming, and I had to fight the urge to freeze into inertia. I forced myself to talk on the radio. Other officers showed up, and we got the scene under control.

That wreck shook me up. I often traveled on that same stretch of highway with my family. And to that point, the violent deaths I had seen and heard of weren’t innocents. They were people who had done something stupid that dramatically increased their chances of death.

This story isn’t about that accident, though. It’s about something that happened eight days later.

I was on patrol in a small town, a couple of hours into a twelve hour shift. The evening was quiet. Nine p.m. or so, a few weeks before Christmas.

Then dispatch broadcast, “Accident, 300 Crockett. EMS is en route.”

I was on the other side of town. Crockett was a quiet residential street, so I figured the accident was probably a minor fender-bender. I acknowledged dispatch, turned around and headed that way. Another officer, a sergeant and I were on duty. Someone else would probably get there first.

A minute later the sergeant was on the radio announcing “I’ve arrived.” Ten seconds later he said, “Contact a Justice of the Peace.”

I glanced at the radio in surprise. A Justice of the Peace was required to pronounce someone dead; calling a JP meant the accident was a fatality.

I sped through town, rushed into the neighborhood and turned onto 300 Crockett. The street was full of emergency vehicles. As usually happens on accident calls, EMS had been dispatched before police. Several volunteer firefighters and an ambulance had arrived first. The ambulance, one police car and ten or so pickup trucks with emergency lights were scattered down the block. But I didn’t see any wrecked civilian vehicles.

I slowly began to weave my way through the emergency vehicles, looking for the wreck. Volunteer firefighters stood around doing nothing. That was strange. Most volunteer firefighters get way too excited, even on minor calls like grass fires. I used to joke that they didn’t need sirens on their pickups because they drove to every call with their heads out the window, screaming the entire way. But the firefighters on Crockett were just standing there, silent and slack.

I passed the ambulance. The back doors were open, paramedics stood quietly outside. A woman sat on the curb behind the ambulance, shuddering violently, shrieking and hugging a small child.

I crept down the street. On my right a civilian vehicle sat in a grassy field with its lights on. I took a close look at it. No damage, nobody around it. I kept going.

I weaved past a few more vehicles and reached the other end of the block. No wreck. I got out of my car and looked back down the block. What the hell is going on? Where’s the accident? I looked at the houses to see if a car had run into one. Nothing I could see.

Across the street from the houses was the empty field where the one civilian vehicle was parked. There was literally no other vehicle around that could have been involved. I decided, That has to be it. I strode to the car, raised my flashlight and turned it on.

When I turned on my flashlight, the beam fell on the back seat floorboard. In the circle of light lay a child’s head. I froze. For several seconds I just stood there looking at it.

I can’t be seeing what I know I’m seeing.

In blog posts and novels I’ve described situations where people watched some horrible tragedy unfold, but refused to believe it. This was one of those situations. I knew I was looking at a child’s head, but didn’t accept it. He has to be stuck between the seat and door, with just his head sticking into the back seat. Moments later, I realized my mental gymnastics weren’t working. No, that can’t be right. The head is turned the wrong way.

I leaned over and looked in the front seat. Under a thin yellow body blanket, the bloody outline of a headless little body was clearly visible. A deflated and bloody air bag hung from the dash.

The accident eight days earlier had readied me for this. I accepted what I was seeing. This is an air bag decapitation. I turned around, walked to my car to grab my clipboard and report forms, and got to work.

Eventually we found out what happened. A grandmother had been driving around looking at Christmas lights. She had been drinking a little and had taken over-the-counter cold medication. She wasn’t legally intoxicated, but the alcohol and medication had an effect. Her nephew and grandson were unsecured in the front seat.

The woman accidentally ran a stop sign. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, since no other cars were around. She later told me she thought she would just drive straight through and keep going.

Unfortunately, it was a T-intersection. She ran into a curb, which was more like a small concrete slope. The car bounced up, then came back down and hit the grass. One of those impacts caused the air bags to blow. Her two year old grandson was decapitated.

There was no way to look at that lifeless body without thinking about my own child, who was also two years old. While I managed to do my job that night, I was deeply affected by that child’s death. Another officer on the scene, who had a one year old, later told me, “When we were on that scene the only thing I could think about was my damn daughter.”

A few days later, I had a rare, police work-inspired bad dream. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of dreams about my weapon not firing during a shootout. Every cop I’ve talked to about it has had similar dreams. Mine didn’t stop until I finally managed to shoot a suspect during one.

This dream was different, though. It wasn’t a nightmare, and wasn’t about me being unable to handle a dangerous situation. It was just bad, and unforgettable.

In this dream I was walking around carrying a dead little boy. I walked to different people with the little boy, but didn’t say anything to them. I don’t know why I was showing them the boy. Maybe I just wanted them to feel what I felt the night I worked that accident.

A truism in law enforcement is that cops hate anyone who hurts a child. We can stand around laughing on murder scenes if the victim is an adult. But the death of a child is completely different.

I know of a deputy who arrived on a trailer fire. Two women with eight kids between them had decided to go out clubbing, so they locked their kids inside and nailed the windows shut. One of the kids started a fire, and only the oldest child escaped. The deputy stood outside helplessly, listening to seven children scream in terror as they burned to death. He quit police work soon afterward.

I know of another incident where a man went to his estranged wife’s house and took their two young children outside at gunpoint. He killed one child just as officers arrived, and killed the second child in front of them. One of those officers quit and moved to another city. When one of his police friends contacted him, the former officer said he didn’t ever want to think about police work, and asked his friend never to contact him again.

So why am I telling these stories now? I just wanted to talk about something that’s been on my mind lately. I’m not trying to prove anything.

In the last few months, Americans have learned how evil humans can be. In Newtown, Connecticut last December and Boston two weeks ago, first responders and brave civilians saw things that will remain with them the rest of their lives. Seeing evil with your own eyes is different than reading about it or watching news reports. The sorrow, fury and frustration most Americans felt as they heard news of the massacre and bombing is really nothing compared to the feelings of those who were there.

I wrote this essay to ask the public for a little understanding. Not for pity, not money, just understanding. The police in Newtown and Boston, along with other first responders and private citizens, saw and experienced something every decent human hopes they’ll never have to. Those men and women will forever feel the scar left by that experience.

I just thought, in light of the tragedies we’ve experienced recently, this was a story worth telling and point worth making. And besides that, I wanted to get it off my chest.

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29 Responses to “What Police Work is Really Like, Episode V: Dreams and Effects”

  1. Wow, this was a pretty powerful read Chris….It is gruesome, but it is life, and in this instance, YOUR life, and it must be hard to talk about. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Another good one Chris. True accidents, such as a tree falling on a house, sudden floods and things like that brought sorrow when it involved kids. Preventable things like drunk drivers, cell phone and texting drivers, child abuse or neglect brings outrage, frustration and often contempt. The ones I had the greatest trouble with were child molesters and sexual predators, especially sadists, who worked to maximize the terror and pain of their victims. Those calls more than any other tested the self discipline and honor to follow the rule of law and not engage in “street justice”. Two calls I worked still haunt me over twenty years later.
    Someone must deal with it and thank God that some do, in spite of the personal cost, especially in light of those who cannot comprehend that there is truly evil that exists among us.

    • Juli,

      There’s another call I worked that involved a child that has bothered me for almost my entire career. I need to write about that one for LET.

      Thanks and it’s always nice to read your comments.

      • Very much my pleasure Chris, it’s the least I could do since I get so much enjoyment out of your writing! I think it’s a great idea to write the article on that call for LET. Writing is very much a therapeutic activity. I think it will also help others to better understand dealing with such atrocities and tragedies. It is a very hard thing to come to grips that sometimes we can’t save or protect the most innocent. Sometimes all we can do is do our best to catch the bad guys and help pick up the pieces.

  3. 6 Scott Timmons

    Chris,

    Once again, you have hit the nail on the head. The only part you left untouched is the other long term effects (besides the ones that quit), like the increased potential for alcoholism, marital difficulties, and other undesirable side effects. Sounds a lot like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, doesn’t it? I’ve watched a number of good careers go south for exactly this reason. Of course, cops in general as well as the agencies they work for don’t like to talk about it much less admit human frailty.

    Btw, don’t ever let anyone convince you that you lack writing talent. The best writers stir human emotion and make their readers feel the story. You do that very well. (I am writing this today because I know already I’ll miss some sleep tonight visiting with some of my own demons that you writing has reawakened.)

    I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t swallow the dreams and thoughts and just “conti nue mission.” If you don’t talk about it with someone and get it out of your system it will eat you from the inside like a cancer and eventually ruin your life. And you appear in line for a double dose.

    Keep writing, take care and keep up the good fight,

    Lt. ST

    • Scott,

      What you said is one of the reasons I’ve never started drinking. I’ve already got the combat vet and street cop parts down, now all I need is alcoholic and divorced to fit the stereotype.

      I’ve talked to people about the combat stuff. I don’t have PTSD, but I knew before I deployed that there would be effects afterward. I was right; when I came home I needed to work out some of the normal feelings that any combat vet has. It helped a lot. But I’ve never spent much time talking about the stuff I’ve seen as a cop. Which is stupid, because the cop stuff has gone on for a lot longer.

      Hopefully there’s no double dose. But it’s something to think about.

      Thanks and take care out there in Yankee country (everything north of Dallas is Yankee country).

  4. 8 delftsman3

    Great post, Chris. It brought back memories from being on the job I’s just as soon forget, but it also reminded me of why I have some of the opinions I hold today.

    There IS such a thing as just plain pure EVIL in the world; and those that try to deny it’s existence arein for a great shock sooner or later. Better to ackowledge it’s existence and try to prepare against it as best you can.

    • Thanks Delfts. Something that’s been amazing to me is how many stories I had put out of my mind, and only remembered when I started writing. And you’re right, those experiences formed many of my opinions.

      About evil, you’d think we’d all know by now that it really exists. Willful blindness is a bitch, isn’t it?

  5. 10 Angela

    Chris- I remember you talking to me about this shortly after it happened. So tragic. As a nurse, I’ve seen some horrible things but not as a first responder …….and I hope I never do.

  6. One of the best reasons for telling the stories is to finally take them out of the dark corners of the mind, where they can grow, burrow around, and do all kinds of mischief, and instead, take them out in the light of day, take them apart and put them back together to understand what they really were, how they worked, and take away the fear of that thing hiding back in the recesses of darkness.

    There was a scene in the movie “Uncommon Valor” where Gene Hackman’s character talks about his dreams of Korea with a heavily PTSD-afflicted Vietnam tunnel rat. He talks about always seeing the faces of the frozen dead strapped to fenders and on the backs of trucks on the withdrawal from Chosin in his dreams, and the Vietnam vet asks him if the faces ever stopped coming.

    “No. But I made friends with them.” was the answer.

    In twenty years of the ER, doing CPR on infants and young children while parents look on either screaming or silently terror-stricken, I still have yet to come up with a better one.

    Feel free to clean out the attic anytime.

    • I’m curious what effect some of this stuff will have on me later. I like to think I’ve got everything under control, but I know stuff pops up when you least expect it. I don’t have nightmares or avoidance, nothing is really bothering me during day to day life. But I know some things are still there, waiting to hit me.

      Thanks for commenting, Aesop. Share your stories here, I’d like to hear them.

  7. 14 Paul

    I’m not a cop or first responder. I have been in a couple had situations that lucky for me closed with happy ending. One , was saving a kid from drowning, and almost killing myself in the process, the other was a riot ha took place out in the parking lot when I was working security at a bar. Those event have stayed with me like a movie, and just as vivid. I can’t imagine having to remember such tragedy, particularly involving children. I’m sure many police officers and first responder will have similar nightmares about the Boston Bombings. I do have two concerns; however, about he aftermath of the Boston bombing. Fist of all, through all of of anger, and as much as it irritates me personally, the suspects that are American citizens, no mater what the circumstances of their citizenship, assuming it is legit, means they have rights. They have a right to an attorney, and a trial. I have read a lot about how they should be prosecuted as an enemy combatant or in some other way that strips the kid specifically of his rights. Let us NOT forget the present this would set, or the slippery slope that would allow the govenment to classify ANY citizen as such, no matter if they were born in Chechnia or Omaha Nebraska. These terrorists need to be stopped before they are allowed access, and surely before granted citizenship. We also need to be careful who we allow in under refugee status, and if they have histories, it needs to be looked into. With the conflicts and civil war in the Arab Spring, this concerns me.

    Secondly, in the wake of the bombimgs, we saw martial law, and how to house searches by gun point of police is military tactical gear, weapons, and mannerisms. I will agree there were some extenuating circumstances considering the suspects were supposedly throwing bombing at police. I am however very concerned at how some of the residents were treated. It didnt look voluntary to me. Similarly, to the situation in CA, with police shooting u iInnocent people trying to find dormer, there were apparently a lot of stray bullets.

    My point being, that even with the stress of being a police officer, no matter if it’s a tragic incident, a terrorist attack, or annoying domestic call, the police need to remeber who they serve, and what there real job is which is to keep and make people safe. Scaring the shit out of everyon, and busting down doors without legal authorization isn’t helping the PR battle they are already losing with the public. I for one can deal with some attitude at a traffic stop, and I not going to set a stage for YouTube by trying to irritate a cop by refusing to give me ID simply because I can. I like to wave and greet cops in my neighborhood, even if they too look at me funny. Perhaps that they are suprised says it all – and I’m just a normal 30 something dude.

    I appreciate your blogs.

    • 15 Angela

      Paul,

      These Boston idiots weren’t just throwing bombs at police, everyone was a target. Inconvenience me anytime if it means keeping people safe. Had police let everyone roam the streets at will and someone would’ve gotten injured or killed, the police would’ve been blamed and most likely sued. This was a damned it you do damned if you don’t scenerario.
      Police are always being second guessed.

    • Paul,

      Some of the searches didn’t look voluntary to me either. I don’t think this was (exactly) martial law, but it was an overreach at the very least. If we handle the aftermath correctly, in LE we’ll find out what went wrong and institute safeguards to prevent it from happening again. You’re right that we don’t do ourselves any favors if we use “exigent circumstances” to justify USC violations.

      My gut feeling about Boston/Watertown is that most officers did everything right, and most residents were grateful. But I’m sure there were abuses, and they need to be examined and addressed.

      Thanks for the comments, Paul.

  8. 17 Heath

    Your writing continues to amaze me, Chris.

  9. I don’t often drop comments here even though I read pretty much everything you post. Maybe it’s because I just don’t have the words. In any case, I just wanted to thank you for telling stories that make me rethink and re-evaluate my perspectives on so many issues. Keep up the great writing.

  10. 21 Becky

    This is the first time I have read your work. Amazing work and you are a very good writer. Your story can’t be any more true!!!!! I worked in a police agency in the north for 6.5 yrs prior to moving to the south. I started at an early age. The calls I have been on, seen, and the people I have dealt with…there are no words. I work again for another agency now for almost 5 yrs. I love what I do. Your story can’t be more accurate.
    I have seen fatality accidents, homicides,suicides, came upon a man beating his wife with a hammer to the head, child deaths/homicides and many officers injured on the job. I have been shot at, beat up,stabbed with needles, hit by cars, written tickets where they have caused riots where my coworkers and myself were injured and got sent to the hosp….too many stories to tell….etc…
    I have also seen officers quit for the same reasons. There are many times I wake up with nightmares/anxiety and some things I never get out my head. I would try very hard not to show emotion let alone tears in front of the public or my coworkers. I just hold it all in. I was told I had a mild case of PTSD…I don’t know about that but my biggest problem is I learned not to trust. So much negativity, I don’t seem to have faith in humanity anymore. Hard for me to say and admit and not proud of it, but I noticed the calls you go on, people who call for help are the ones, not all the time…but are trying to cause you harm when you get there. So many emotions from one call to another!!!!! You almost have to be a robot and show no emotion. But, I LOVE to help people and try to do right by them.
    Though we choose to do the job we do, I like to look at it as giving back to the community. I agree that Law Enforcement/First Responders could use some understanding from the public and you did an excellent job getting it off your chest

  11. 22 Becky

    And THANK YOU so much for your service!!!!!! It is so appreciated!!!!!!!!

    • Becky,

      Thanks for your comments. It sounds like you could write a good book, or just blog your personal stories like I do. I’ve also worked several agencies, from a 10 man department to a huge city’s department, and I’ve seen a lot. Sometimes I look back and feel kind of stupid for waiting so long to start talking about it.

      I decided a ways back not to become an emotionless robot. I’ve known a few guys who became that way, and they weren’t pleasant people to be around.

      Thanks for reading, and please stay safe out there.

  12. 24 SPEMack

    Chris, good, moving read. Thanks for posting. I’ve always found it odd that out of Afghanistan and a couple of dozen tornado clean ups, the only thing that has ever troubled me in my dreams is an auto accident I stumbled upon while working as a Boy Scout summer camp staffer. Looking at a mangled family in a burning station wagon, knowing that between the four Eagle Scouts we could do nothing other than wait for the fire dept. to arrive was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever experience.

    • Mack,

      I’m going to write another story, about a fire scene I was on years ago. I know exactly what you mean about watching and feeling helpless.

  13. The death of children is always a tragedy; violent death of children even more so. When one is forced to confront the intentional, violent death of a child, that is truly staring evil in the face.
    Those experiences are a reminder that no matter how capable, how trained, how ready we may be, we cannot always protect those that most deserve protection. Nothing will make a hard man break down faster.
    The ghosts from years past can come back in the night and eat us whole unless we make our peace with them.
    Thank you so much for trying to make your peace. Hopefully you inspire others to do the same.

    • Shepherd,

      Thank you. You’re right that no matter how tough anyone is, certain things can still break them. Seeing children harmed is one of those things. And if we’re unfortunate enough to be exposed to that, we MUST get it out into the open.

  14. 28 Harold Edwards

    WOW!! Chris several things came to mind when I read this. First was that you are a very talented writer, the next thing was feeling the emotions from the similar scenes I have been on. I teach at our academy, and each time before I finish a class I encourage those young, soon to be officers, to be prepared for seeing the worst things they can imagine, and then to talk to someone, anyone, so that it affects them to a lesser degree.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    God Bless
    Harold

    • Thanks Harold. Keep spreading wisdom to cadets, they need to hear it. Way too many people think cop life is like a cop show. Cadets need a dose of reality.


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