What Police Work is Really Like, Episode V: Dreams and Effects
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.
Filed under: Cops, What Police Work is Really Like | 29 Comments
Tags: Boston bombing, newtown, police