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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.