Spring has sprung here in Berkeley. Along with the overflowing storm drains, wet cardboard and tent cities, we have become the place of media “money shots”. Lots of verbal and physical brawling grace this town. Spit flying, fists landing and blood flowing. I have watched as humankind detiorates beautifully. As a peace officer, I see slices of human deterioration everyday.
Most recently, I worked, watched and waded into crowds of defiant individuals. At home, my ears were ringing all night from the flash bangs, M-80s and some homemade improvised Red Bull can explosives.
It’s surreal to watch and listen to people screaming at each other. I mean, I have heard quite a bit of it over the years but on much smaller scales. Do the opposing sides really think anything is accomplished? Do sticks, bottles, bricks and bear spray help the cause? Spread the political messages? Make a difference?
A young man was stabbed in the chest. Another individual was whacked over the head by an opposing view – the twenty something – who knows what the world needs to truly achieve peace.
As my ears continue to ring, I look to bloody teeth. I hear a barrage of angry sentiment. I ponder free speech. I think of Tibetan bells and people who talk about peace.
Oh I am quite certain nearly every law enforcement officer has heard, “Don’t you have anything better to do?! “Why aren’t you out catching murderers or rapists?!”
And Yes. I am also quite certain that most of us would welcome taking predators and murders out of the communities we serve everyday. (Although that would imply that in the city I serve, we would have 1000s of them amongst the 120 odd thousand population) No doubt about it. Those types of arrests are satisfying, invigorating and what many of us signed up to do. Or had illusions we were signing up to do.
Truth is though, in between the gun toting gang members, rapists and child molesters, there are so many other demands. How ’bout all those who prey on every pharmacy, bookstore, electronics and grocery store in town and steal. All shift long, every shift of the week. Scattered in the stacks of calls for police services, are the thieves. And woweee, thieves take up so much time. (yes, it is that time people blame us for not spending on the “more important things” we should be doing) Cosmetics, razors, shampoo, body wash, baby formula, batteries, meat, pasta, wine, and hard liquor. You name it, someone has stolen it.
When I was the PIO (Public Information Officer) I would review dozens of police reports looking for interesting tidbits. Quirky stories. Fodder for slow news days. Burglaries and shoplifting are sometimes entertaining. The woman who tried to get away with 5 pounds of steak and 8 pounds of shrimp in her pants. Surf and turf dinner party tonight? The guy who took Preparation H, Medamucil and Immodium. Yes. For real. No joke. You name it, someone has stolen it.
Then there are the loss prevention staff whose job it is to spot the “people behaving badly.” Some of them take up even more police time than the shoplifters. These motivated security employees will run after suspects for blocks and blocks. They will call 911 yelling into cell phones, all out of breath and barely understandable. Some will tackle thieves over a couple cans of Red Bull and a bag of beef jerky. I’d like to generalize and say these security guards are wanna be cops, but that doesn’t always ring true. Too much media, maybe too many video games? “Sergeant, I saw the perpetrator take the product off the shelf and conceal it in his pants. I pursued the perpetrator on foot and apprehended him.” Who talks like that?! I have never uttered the word perpetrator except when telling a story like this one. I often worry for these guys. Only takes a gun or knife in the hands of one of these “perpetrators” to change the story.
What else takes police time, you ask? Oh, falls on city property, welfare checks, abandoned cars, found _____ (fill in the blank), alarms – cars, houses, businesses, traffic hazards, mental health. Blah blah.
AND yes – gun toting gang members, if we are lucky. Or it is unlucky?
Years ago, my niece Sophie coined a phrase that still resonates with me. “Aunt Mary, Off Topic.” It was directed at me. I know I have shared once or more that I go off on tangents quite often. I am way more focused at work. In uniform, I am able to make a quick decision, negotiate with savvy, drive Code 3 without plowing into the seemily immortal high school students at lunchtime. When I am off duty, I get off track. Think I just did it again…
Ok so, my family got a 8 week old puppy in November 2015. I flew down to San Diego and picked her up as a surprise for our daughter. Not wanting to have an animal companion named after a candy or cookie, we gave our 8 year old three names to choose from. She picked the name Olive.
I forgot to mention that someone promised our child a puppy before that December Holiday season. I think I rolled my eyes, sighed, crossed my arms across my chest and stomped my feet all at once. An over 50 tantrum. I felt it wasn’t a great time, for those 2 maybe, but not for me. Do you know how much an 8 week old puppy needs to go out to pee and poop? In the wee hours too?! Training? I knew it was going to be my gig. “You are so much better at that stuff honey.” ” But I promised her…”
The last couple years haven’t been easy. My resiliency has waned. My capacity to compartmentalize has taken a dump as well. Age? Length in the job? The overall policing and political climate in recent years? Yup, definitely some of those and a whole bunch more.
I started to joke that our little Shitzu is my emotional support animal. I have given to “Paws and Stripes” and watched media pieces about service animals and emotional support animals. I truly get it now. There is something so simple and so wonderful about petting an animal. Holding Olive. I adore the exquisite way that Olive rubs her sweet heat against my leg, the way she stares up at me when I scoop her up, the meditative way in which she scurries out across the yard to fetch the ball over and over. The unconditional love. I feel my anxiety soften and my mind slow.
Standing at the back, I saw the passage of time. I saw the heads of some of the men and women that I worked with over the years. A few of them had even retired a few years after I was hired. Nearly 20 years ago. So hard to imagine it. I remember when I was a new cop, a rookie, in field training, that a group of them wore these cute dinosaur pins on their uniforms. Those pins were an unofficial badge of honor. An arrival to an elite group. The veterans. The older guard. The old boys.
I stood at the back at this memorial for a man, a former Chief, who had given me a chance. A chance that has become a 22 year career. It struck me hard when I heard he had died. He was only 66 years old.
I had arrived a bit late on the rainy Friday afternoon, but felt more at ease in the rear of the small chapel. I could see some of my past at the City of Berkeley Police Department so easily, but they couldn’t see me.
I bowed my head with respect and with reverence. I shed a few tears. Not only for Chief Butler, (rest his soul) but for those whose heads I saw now. Not all of them were supportive of women or me, but I found the endearing qualities in most of them in order to negotiate many challenging times. Despite our differences, in some ways, we were…and are…the same.
Too many to count. So many ways. Some appear peaceful. Free from the demons. Free from depression, anxiety, despondency and fear. Free from pain.
I leave every one of these calls changed in ways that are likely too difficult to explain. I absolutely loathe when an individual does it in his/her home. As I often say, no one should have to see a loved one that way.
Over the years, I have read last words hastily written on paper, computer screens with instructions, warning notes on doors and apology signs to first responders. Most writing has a “I am sorry” once, twice, ten times in it. Then there are the very organized, those who guide us through the home with arrows and have left an array of letters addressed individually to family and friends. They leave out contracts for funeral and cremation services fully paid and financial paperwork or portfolios. They believe they are easing the burden.
There are couples who lie side by side on the couch, legs outstretched with the now all too familiar plastic bags over their heads and the nitros oxide tanks propped nearby. Those hit me deeply, viscerally. What conversations did they have or words did they utter to each other before they fell asleep forever?
A recent incident that troubled me was a 60 something man who printed out a crude diagram from the Internet showing where one needs to point the barrel of the gun on the side of your head to kill yourself instantly. He lay on the bathroom floor, the gun nearby as well as a hand held mirror and the diagram. I imagine he saw himself before he pulled the trigger. He wanted to get it right. He did.
I had coffee with someone today who gave me hope. I ordered buttered toast (Acme bread) and a latte. During our long conversation, I got a $43 parking ticket, but the time (and cite) was worth it. The person I was with had listened intently about my work and my perspective about policing.
I have tried desperately not to be an OCD, high achieving workaholic in recent years but as many of us know well, some habits are too hard to break. I have tried to care less and see less and worry about the future of my department less. Some habits… I know, I said that already.
I believe that some peace officers forget what their roles are. They rail on about what others should care about, what the community, local politicians, state government – even the President should do when it comes to laws and incarceration and social issues. Granted, frustration deepens with exposure and cops have been asked to be too many things in contemporary society. Some just want “to catch bad guys.” Isn’t that what we signed up for they ask? Well, maybe.
We have parents that call because their 9 year old is refusing to go to school. How do you think that fosters better community/cop relations? We spend hours documenting non criminal traffic collisions for insurance companies. We manage more mental health issues than imaginable and wait for ambulances that are overburdened.
Somedays when the beeper goes out that signals a hot call – Robbery, Man or Woman with Gun, Someone Waving a Knife, a Shooting – you can hear the excitement either in the hallway or on the radio. Sometimes these calls are just easier, just more satisfying and community just appreciates our role in them more.
Community had called because she was weeping in public and appeared to have wet her pants. When a man stopped to check on her, she told him that she had no reason to live anymore. She wanted to die. The caller estimated her age (or was it a dispatcher typo?) at 92 years old.
I am a worst case scenario peace officer. Over the years, I do “what if” scenarios as I am driving around. What if someone jumps out from behind that dumpster with a machete? Shotgun? I then do visualization and practice in my head as to what I will do and say. Yes, I have practiced verbally to myself in the patrol car too.
So I am off to a welfare check of a suicidal 92 year old. I certainly don’t want to tackle an older person even if she is about to dash into oncoming traffic. Or grab her too hard even if it is for her safety …or would it be ? Does she have an organic process taking place? Dementia maybe? Just really sad? I could definitely digress regarding experiences with older community members.
I find her on a busy part of Downtown Berkeley sitting next to a bank. Definitely not 92. She’s taller and bigger than me. She looks pretty able bodied. She has a purse and other bags around her. She has layers of clothing. She is suicidal. “What if…?!”
I often feel a friction on patrol. It comes on when engaging individuals on calls for service. It is the friction between sensitivity and suspicion, compassion and questioning, “What if” and ….?
I begin to speak with her and she has tears streaming down her cheeks. She is recently homeless. Her family stole her Social Security. She had a dog that she left in St. Louis when she visited over the holidays. She has no reason to live anymore. Some community members are watching our interaction.
The friction starts. What is the truth? Does she have a weapon in her purse? Is this a suicide by cop? My sensitivity and compassion have always been a big part of who I am. They have only deepened over the years in doing this job. But there is that friction again. For as much compassion as I may have, I just can’t make assumptions in this work.
Some veteran officers will tell you that they can gauge individuals. It comes with experience. Yes, I have those instincts too, but I won’t let my guard down. Never underestimate small children or older people. They can kill you too. The gun will kill you regardless of the hands it may be in.
I am actively listening and watching her hands. I stand casually with my gun side away. I remember that even if a quarter of what she is sharing is true, she has reasons to cry.
Those We Have Lost
The Year In Review
The Stories That Moved Us in 2016
Let’s Take a Look At What Happened
These pieces are predictable at the end of each year. Seems like every media outlet has some version of these retrospectives, these obits to the previous year.
I have always had challenges with goodbyes. Hence the title of my end of 2016 blog post – No Goodbyes. In my home we say, “See you soon.” It is a phrase of expectation, of something good to look forward to. “Goodbye” has such finality.
While I was on vacation, I focused on the simpliest things. I held those I love. I took longer dog walks. I read the inscriptions on the sidewalks. I looked skyward at night. I drank my coffee more slowly. I wore flip flops in the rain. I refused to say goodbye to 2016. I said hi to 2017 instead.
Uncomfortable to admit, but for as much introspection that I swim in, I hadn’t realized how very much I was in need of a break.
A much welcome break. Two weeks of vacation. On paper I am off duty, but in my head, not so much.
We are in San Francisco for Holiday Tea and an overnight stay. I always try to unplug. I tear at the cord. I wrap it around my hands and yank with as much strength as I can muster.
I was doing pretty well taking in the gingerbread house and the holiday wreaths. I stared at all the lights and stood by the enormous tree and smiled for too many photos. At bedtime, I whispered to my daughter as the others fell off to sleep in the other big bed. I was devising strategies to slow her mind down from all the excitement.
Then the sirens started. It was nearly midnight. We were 18 stories up. It was a beautiful clear, cold night. More sirens. I imagined the possible crimes below. The homeless man and woman who had been shot and killed the previous night. I imagined the overdoses. The purses torn from women’s shoulders as they left the theatre. The smashed car windows tourists would find when they returned from dinner. Then I worried for the officers, heading further into the darkness.
I close my eyes. I suck in the air and exhale as slowly as I can. I take in the sweetness of my daughter’s breathing. She is finally in deep slumber. I need that too. The sirens fade off. It has been much harder of late to unplug. Perhaps my yanking strength has dipped.