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.