Animals Matter

General

I never hunted as a child or adult. No slingshots, bows and arrows or Super Soakers. Wait. Pretty sure we didn’t have those kind of water guns when I was little. The Girl Scouts didn’t have badges for dealing with deer that attack community members and their small dogs.

 Wild turkeys blocking traffic, swarming bees, raccoons in the shower… With no veterinary or wildlife training, little to no resources to call upon or tools to use, I have approached these calls for my service in earnest, problem solving the best I can. There have been many firsts for me in my job. 

Death Marks The Spot (2004) 

“S6 from Adam ___, Channel 2.  S6 go to 2…”
Oh Dread. I had seen the call holding on the MDT. Animal matters. I can’t stand them, and why does this officer always have to call me??! Composure, Mary. You are supposed to be in charge. In charge. I worry about that on the way over too. Some calls I take my time to drive the distance. Not the exigent ones, not the gotta get it done quick ones, mind you. Just the ones I have the time. The responses in which I am called upon to make an uncomfortable decision. This would be one of them. I just need an extra 30 seconds to think.

The animal was sitting in the middle of the road. Some soul had placed a construction clapboard barrier in front of the animal to shield it from cars or oncoming traffic of any sort. That was kind of ’em. It took me a few seconds to scope out the officer who was standing in the shadows nearby, as far as he could reasonably get from the animal and still be doing “his duty.” This is going to be great, I thought with sarcasm.

Me – “Hey.. Oh, It doesn’t look too good, huh?”
Officer – “Nope Sarge. He’s been bleeding out of his mouth.” 
This officer drones. He has that kind of slow, deliberate voice that makes you want to jolt him, and get him to react. 

Me – “Did you try to nudge it a little and see if it will walk away?”

Officer – “I’m not getting close to that thing. It probably has rabies or something.”
Super. He’s afraid of it. The frustration at my impending decision, the creature’s inevitable doom was
compounded by my officer.

Me – “Noone says you have to touch it. Just see if we can coax it out of the street.”
He stands there and glances at me, then at the animal and back to me. All right, I get to take charge.

I walk over to get a closer look. I hadn’t been real close to an opossum in a long time, infact in the moment; I was trying to remember how to spell it. He/she was hunched over, deep red blood dripping steadily from the mouth, the pool on the asphalt growing. Ugh. I take out my ASP (expandable baton) and get as close as I was comfortable. Hmmm. What if he/she lunges at me suddenly. Isn’t that what they do? Play dead? I am spooked now. Super.

I started to be a teacher, a trainer, a mentor. A Sergeant. Here are our choices. I began to process out loud. “I’d prefer if there was a way that it could leave on it’s own power and curl up somewhere and die if that’s what it is going to do.” I hear my own worry. I used IT when I spoke to the officer. The he/she was in my private thoughts, my private process.

He/she wasn’t moving anywhere and gave me a low hiss or growl, although that may have been my imagination. I scanned the neighborhood and thought of the eventual crack in the night, the piercing blow to the quiet. I got the catchpole from my trunk, reacquainted myself with it so I was ready and headed to the animal. I slipped the noose easily over its head as I had made the loop real big. Then I cinched with trepidation till it was just about snug. The opossum started to resist, fight even, and I knew I had to cinch it tighter or my plan was for naught, and my officer would witness my failure. I tightened it. Was he/she choking? Aw geez, this is awful. Keep it together, Mary. This is a task. I had no idea of right and wrong. All I could feel was pain, remorse, my own pain for being in this position. As he/she tussled against the rope, I looked about for a safe spot to dispatch this animal. Just say shoot, will ya?! Sometimes our PC (politically correct) Berkeley language sounds ridiculous. Challenging! No, we have them at gunpoint, Dammit. What is so wrong with the truth, I hear myself thinking.

Now his claws are out, he has stiffened all fours, as I drag him along the roadway. He’s trying to dig in, get away from me. I can’t stand this. I drag him up to the traffic turnaround and feel a small measure of relief that I cannot hear his claws against the concrete anymore. This is a soft place. It even smells better. Redwood chips, I think. Ok, we are here. The officer has followed along.

“So..Are you ordering me to shoot it, Sarge?” the officer asks. Frustration again. I think soften, Mary, before I answer. I think this is difficult for him too, and all I have been thinking about is the animal and myself. “I am not ordering you to do it, I am giving you supervisory approval as the animal is clearly suffering.” I am nearly quoting our Use of Deadly Force policy. “You want me to do it?”, he asks. “Yes. Yes. I can’t ’cause I am holding the catchpole, ok? First call upstairs and advise them that we will be dispatching an animal in this area so if they get any calls from community members regarding loud reports/gunshots.”

I look to this officer who is standing there with his Smith & Wesson poised. “I’m going to shoot at the heart, right behind the shoulder blade. If it wasn’t so late, I would call my Dad and he would do it for us. He knows how to do this stuff. He would take a stick and there is a way to whack it on the back of the head.” I thought about this officer, his dad, he the son of someone prepared to shoot an animal in the midst of the city.

I waited. I had no ear protection and it was going to be loud. I hoped for only a few shots because I loathe gunshots without muffs on. I turn my head, my arm stretched to its capacity with the catchpole and possum it’s extension. I feel small, a child awaiting a fright. Unable to close my eyes or ears tight enough to get away. At the last moment, I tilt my head to the left onto my shoulder in hopes of shielding at least one ear from the explosion. Pow! When the sound dissipates, I look to the creature, writhing. The officer is still poised assessing whether he needs to shoot again. This is just the death, the twist of life leaving. The tail is the last to settle. We both lean forward like curious kids, apprehensive that the animal is still breathing. No, it’s gone.

“Get a bag. We have to pick the body up and you’ll have to drop it at the animal shelter.” The officer ambles off to his patrol car after holstering his gun, and I stand alone looking at the animal. I did that. I had to decide its fate. Why me? I remembered the dragging from moments before. I was hurting him/her, I know it. I was getting sick to my stomach. The officer returned with a paper bag, and I lifted the possum with the catchpole, all the dead weight awkward to maneuver above the bag. I watch liquid pour from the animal as I drop it into the bag. Urine.

Suddenly we hear a voice. A man in his pajamas was walking sheepishly towards us. I was hunched over trying to get the noose loose and I turned in my slumped posture to acknowledge the man. “I heard a gunshot,” he says softly. “Sir, that was only us,” I reply. Only us, now that sounded stupid, awkward, like oh, it’s just a common thing us peace officers capping off rounds and shooting animals about town. Pajama man continued as he drew closer, “That was a tranquilizer gun right?” I could feel a twinge of rage. Don’t make me have to own this. Justify this to you. I haven’t even had time to deal with it myself. Dammit. I quickly ponder a lie. It would be so easy, but no, the truth is easy too. My job is about telling the truth. I talk to him for a few minutes, sharing diplomatically the options we have. NONE, I think silently. He seems resolved to my explanation finally. “Sir, do you happen to have a big trash bag we can have?” It’s my officer. He doesn’t seem to understand that we are fortunate that this community member is not rallying the neighborhood group to confront us regarding our inhumanity. “Sure Officer. I’ll go get one.” This man trots back a half a minute later and hands us what looks like a white tall kitchen trash bag. It’ll have to do. “Thank you sir. And have a good night,” I offer. “Ok Officers, night” he says as he retreats into the darkness.

Midday in March

General

  

I could feel the sweat finding its way to the small of my back. The soft places that the sun has yet to touch. It is warm for a March day and violence greeted us at the very start of our shift. No time to settle in, look skyward or think about whether I should take a small container of blueberries with me in the car today. Seems silly, I know, but it is these things that can make my day. Reality is that if my water bottle is cold, my coffee to go is hot or my blueberries were chilled, I can’t count on any of it being worth it after hours locked in a hot patrol car. 

Some say they become immune to the violence. I don’t know what that feels like. It has to go somewhere. The blood on roadways and sidewalks, the screaming, the crowds that gather and the questions. Maybe that is another reason that tepid coffee, warm water and hot blueberries aren’t satisfying. I zig zag across the intersection, ever mindful of not stepping on any evidence. I unravel a big roll of yellow crime scene tape and stretch it in front of a woman with a toddler in a stroller. “I need you all to step back please. Please. Step back…Thank you.”, I say. 

I have been here before. This place. The weight of these moments familiar. People often trip upon a scene like this, amble up and it goes something like this – “Excuse me. Officer?  Can I ask you a question? Did something happen?” I waited for it. She looked at me and I returned what felt like a disappointed half smile. It’s not even noon. The woman turns the stroller and leans down to check on the child. She doesn’t want to know. Sometimes I think it is better that way. 

You Never Know When It is Good Bye

Facing Death

I have known too many women and men living on the streets in my career. Some are dead now. Either natural causes – maybe cancer or old age. Others the victims of violence. Still others have disappeared. Once in awhile I hear a story on the street about someone. “Sergeant Mary, did you hear ——passed?” I ask where and how. I am curious, but hope it is not some dreadful tale. Once in awhile, an officer will say, “Hey, Mary, remember so and so? Whatever happened to him?”

This is a piece about one of those people living on the Berkeley streets. I wish her end could have been different.

Winter Salvia

 

Ave Maria

I was standing watching the flames when she seemed to appear out of nowhere. “I’m going to get John some soup, ” she said in that gravely voice of hers. I knew her voice right away. I pulled my turtleneck up over my mouth and nose to shield me from the smoke of the house fire. In a muffled voice, I reply, “Ok. It’s probably better to get away from this chaos anyway. This smoke is bothering me, so it must be bothering you, eh?” She didn’t answer and instantly she was gone. Walking east on Addison likely. This was her stomping ground after all.

The officer’s voice on the radio was so troubled, that I knew the scene must be bloody or otherwise difficult. When I drove up, I saw the body crumpled in the roadway, slightly on its side. With the clothing in layers, I didn’t recognize her. I sucked in air through my nose as I often do to calm me in these moments, and exhaled very slowly. I drew closer and saw the head. Her head, I would come to find out. The officer yelled at me, “It’s Maria King, Sarge.” I bend closer, tilt my head ever so slightly and still cannot process what I see.

This moment of pause, this process, has happened so many times to me over the years. The sights. The sounds. The smells. The imagery. The events. The things that the brain fights with because it has not had to deal with before. Then all of it becomes indelible.

Her face is unrecognizable, not merely because of the blood but by how deformed it was. She was gurgling, fighting to breathe through the mess in her nose, mouth and eyes. But…I just saw her last night at the fire, I whisper out loud to no one but myself. Dammit. What the hell?  Who the hell? Who in God’s name would do this?!

The dispatcher had said that a witness said he saw “someone jumping on what appeared to be a body.” I was baffled. Angry. Intent then. Three of us kneeled over her. Two were trained paramedics as well as cops so they were doing what they could for her. I held a flashlight above the mess, still not fully comprehending her condition.

Officers were dashing in various directions. The officer’s initial broadcast sending the right amount of importance and urgency. I was next barking directions. Officers made detentions and eventually arrested three young men, one with blood on his boots.

Everyone on duty at the time seemed to have some experience with Maria at some point. It became personal. Each reflected on some encounter with her. At times she was angry. It was mostly alcoholic belligerence. Some describe how tiny she was. I heard one officer say, “Anyone who could do this is a true monster.”

Why Bother?

General

  

 
I have always told others that I only learn enough to get by when it comes to technology. Some of the officers I supervise don’t even know a world without computers. When I tell them that I paid someone $1 a page to type my papers in college, they look at me like I am a wing nut. Wing nut – now that is a term I learned on the street. I have gotten quite an education there. Sometimes about technology. 

I am going off on a tangent. I digress. I offer a preamble. How about a disclaimer? I type with 3 fingers. Oh my, am I making excuses? I am famous for all of the above. 

So… I won’t make any promises with respect to this blog. I have jotted in a kinda stream of consciousness fashion. I cannot guarantee polished grammar or Elements of Style stuff. I can’t promise uplifting content, but you may find it worthwhile nonetheless.

I am watching some videos to learn WordPress so I can add some groovy media. Mind you, I am doing this under the covers in the dark after work at night. Not my usual method of decompressing, and yet, it helps me fall asleep. 

Be Careful What You Wish For

General

  

Experiencing children while in a police uniform runs the gamut. I have written so much about this over the years. When I was in the police academy, I looked forward to going to a preschool in uniform, sitting in one of those small chairs and talking to a class. I got that wish. I have sat in many chairs, both big and small in 20 years.

Things are Not as Small As They Appear

(Sometime in 1996) 

I sit on a tiny chair in a Montessori school. The circle around me is complete with 25 or so curious faces. The variety of the little ones’ clothing makes me smile. The boy with the misshapen hand knit sweater. The girl with the tie dye t-shirt. 

The group is fascinated by my uniform, but mostly my duty belt. I stand up and try to do a show and tell of sorts. Geez, how do I answer these questions? Why do you carry a gun? Can I touch it? Well, no. I try to talk about gun safety for a bit. They are only 5 years old. 

The group seems to be inching closer, but maybe it is the sudden discomfort, the burden I feel. What’s that?! A boy points to my pepper spray. Another interrupts. Mom says if I am bad, you will take me away. How I loathe that. If he needs me, will he fear me? I gently explain to him that would not be so. I am relieved when another asks if all my stuff is heavy. Well, yes it is. I think about how my pelvic bones know all too well. 

Have you shot anybody? Where do they learn all this ? I desperately want to preserve their innocence. Scoop them all up to protect them from their futures. Do you have a bulletproof vest? Yup, I say as I unzip my uniform shirt a bit and thump on my chest. Some giggle. I think about the vest. What it represents. It is heavy. It does not breathe. The sweat drips down my chest and the center of my back. 

I regard the group as I talk. Their small hands and crossed legs. Twins that look at each other periodically. The tie dyed girl’s poise as if she has heard all of this before. The ones who can’t get their eyes off my gun as the moments pass. I hear an adult’s voice. Please show your appreciation for Officer Mary, class. The group claps and I say goodbye. I learn from them. I learn more about myself. 

Starting Here

General

I saw an encampment as I headed towards the freeway. I thought – For as much as things change, they remain the same. Not sure who told me that but it stuck. It sticks now. Everything is far more complicated than sound bites, smartphone video and SOCOs. (Single Overriding Communication Objectives)

I am not all that special. I am a Police Officer. A Peace Officer. A Sergeant. A woman. 54 years old. Looking over my shoulder at an extraordinarily wonderful and wretched 20 year career. 

I unburied a box from under my house recently and dumped the pile on the kitchen table. So many envelopes and notebooks and napkins and pieces of paper of various sizes. Years of writing about being a City of Berkeley police officer. I have thought about a blog more than twice. I used to keep most of my work related feelings to myself, sharing a bit of writing with only a choice few. I guess I think now that if I can touch one person, share a story that resonates or expose some humanity under blue wool, then I may make a difference?

I want to start, but the starting is hard. Few pages have dates. There are so many stories – those in that pile and those that have fallen far from memory. This is a pile of years of sporadic writing about my work. Glimpses of life and death. Funny and bittersweet memory. 

This seems an opportune time to make an obligatory disclaimer – I do not speak for my agency or my city. I will fend off the urge to get political, but I may get personal. I will try to keep current colleagues in my stories anonymous. I will try not to speak for cop culture or women or women cops or women cops over 50. I won’t speak for good cops or bad cops or all of those in between. I only speak for me. 

The starting is harder than I thought. 

Yes, for as much as things change, they do remain the same. Again, cops are conversation. Not sure that will ever change. Yes, I passed an encampment as I headed towards the freeway. I can’t help but look because I always see familiar faces. 

Elmwood Morning (years ago)

Facing Death

I have said that I leave each death changed in some way. Natural, unnatural, old, young, violent… As a Sergeant in the city of Berkeley, California for over 12 years, (and an officer for 8 years before that) I have gone to far too many. The deaths in which we force our way into a home or apartment as part of our community care taking role because someone has not seen a loved one or heard from him/her in (fill in the blank) days, weeks. Then there are the suicides, the homicides. I imagine I will share more of these moments, but for now, I uncovered this. Although there is no date on this piece, I know I wrote this when I was a newer Sergeant, maybe in 2003 or 4 –

Elmwood Morning

I had seen it before. Hands over her mouth. An impending scream that is stifled to gasps as she approaches the room. “Mom…Noooooooo…” “I made you salmon for lunch today.” She kneels close. Hands outstretched. Suspended with indecision. The indecision that comes with grief. Should I touch?

Her mom is on her back on the floor, covered with a blanket to her throat. Tubes still in her mouth, eyes half open. I stand at a distance. I feel oppressed by the uniform, the weight I carry, the belt, the officialdom, and my own emotion.

She turns to me, still on her knees, and I know the questions before she asks. “We have to wait for the Coroner to give a release. As soon as we get that, Officer —— is handling that, we can give her dignity – your mom dignity. We can get her off the floor and place her in your care.”

In the first years of being a police officer, I learned that word choice is powerful in this work, particularly with death. No matter the spirituality, “the body” feels wrong. I also came to know what officers are outwardly uncomfortable with death, don’t want to stay in the room, although they should. The officers who seem uncaring and officious and yet it is their own way of protecting themselves from what scares them. I allow them to do their paperwork and phone calls while I do the talking. I do the touching. Hands on an arm or back. Softly pulling those back who wish to fall on their loved ones. It is the least and the most I can do.

The daughter stays on the floor – fielding phone calls. “Mom’s dead.” She says it many times. I try not to look too much. I know I cannot offer the comfort she wants or needs. “I am talking to Mary and —- – the police officers,” she tells someone. Its sounds strangely personal and sweet and I am thankful that I have used our first names. More family arrives and the grief is magnified by 2, by 4. I linger beyond what I should.

When the Coroner gives the release, I enter the small room, this time alone, as the family talks and hugs outside. I put gloves on and look to the mom. I remove the intubation tube myself. At first, I am frightened. I pull gently and what air – what life – pulls out with it. Unpleasant. The sound something unforgettable. I wipe her mouth. Her jaw is misshapen by the passage of time. I hold her chin and push up ever so slightly hoping to make it…appear normal? Peaceful perhaps? I am not successful. I peel off the gloves and drop them in a bin nearby. I stand with my eyes closed – a ritual I have come to know. I take in the stillness. Offer reverence for her life, this woman, this mother I do not know. Reverence to she who is loved. I find the nursing home staff and ask them to place her in her bed and leave.