As I sit to write these words, reminiscence makes my soft organs harden and my spine and shoulder blades feel like an embedded crucifix. The tightness and weight ebb and flow, then, like the tides, recede and flood in unharnessed condition.
I am a retired policeman whose police-academy graduation glee was resolutely abated like the last stop for a passenger train; you come in fast and hard, only to be halted by absolute finality staring back at you. After regrouping and recharging, the only alternative is to reverse course. Well, that may be easy for a train’s intangible existence. It isn’t for a human donning a police uniform.
A calling. Midnight shift started with the perfunctory police ritual: roll call. I was caught up in my city’s crime trends and which bad-asses were creating havoc on our streets. “Hot” (stolen) car bulletins were handed out. Then, via police radio, dispatchers sounded the emergency-alert tone, hastening the entire room of cops to their police cruisers parked at the police compound. Off I went, with my field training officer (FTO) in tow. I was caught up in the thrill of reality and ran ahead.
With these images tattooed on my brain cells, I had to compose my police report.
That is a definite no-no in police training modules. Staying close garners the atta-boys, not being out of view. But I received credit for a “go get ‘em” attitude — something police trainers look for from new police officers.
No time to inspect the police vehicle. I hurried to the address provided by police dispatchers. I trained and practiced emergency vehicle operations course (EVOC) maneuvering at the police academy, but this was the real deal. With sirens blaring and emergency red/blue/white lights washing over the landscape in the dusky night, I rocketed to the address. My new leather duty belt squeaked as all snuggly fastened new leather does.
I ascended the stairs to a second-story apartment, whose door was wide open. I heard sobbing and some screaming, so I hurried. But city firefighter/paramedics occupied the stairs, slowly and somberly descending with life-saving equipment in hand. Although we’re public safety buddies, their dour expressions met my gaze, and not a single word was spoken. A silent transfer of responsibility, I suppose. Their job was done, and ours was about to start. That footage was a part of the big picture.
Upon entry into the tiny apartment, there it was for my eyes to see and never release—a five-year-old boy’s left arm dangled from under a snow-white sheet. His tiny body lay motionless, lifeless on the family couch. EKG leads, a tracheostomy tube, gauze, and other medical paraphernalia were strewn about the floor, scattered as far and wide as my thoughts were at that moment. Then the discreet nudge from my police trainer. To my right shoulder, he said, “You good? Let’s go, get your pen out. You won’t be taking any more calls tonight.” The fire department captain came back in and briefed me in a whisper. “We did all we could for quite a while. His mom and dad said they just got him home from the hospital this morning.” That was it; he walked out to his awaiting fire/rescue crew.
My very first call as a rookie officer defined my career, bluntly. An obnoxiously hard knock resoundingly tested my mettle: Is this calling for you or not?
A response. Moments lapsed. I wrote down whatever came to my mind and loosely sketched what I saw.
Lifting that white sheet was the heaviest choice my muscles ever endured.
“Investigate every death as if it were a homicide until you can rule out murder,” echoed the police-academy instructor’s voice in my brain. Then, after condolences, I knew I had to inquire of grieving parents, scrutinize every single syllable they uttered, and note each gesture and expression they exuded. Both of them stood as one, in mutual embrace, visibly and audibly shattered with dire heartache from unspeakable loss. I had to document it all, paint a picture with words so that detectives could pick up the ball and see this horror all the way through to the autopsy.
Judgments felt like the weight of Jupiter. I hated myself for having to engender suspicion, yet I knew it was a dynamic of not only policing but of human nature. My pen recorded the defunct life of a child, his last moments in the family car, and which parent placed him gently on the couch where he breathed innocence until no more exhalations came. I recall thinking, “Kindergarten will have one less child.” I hated myself for having that thought.
That 12-hour shift never really ended. This I know.
We are all connected. It is said we are all connected in a few ways. During this particular police call, I found this to be numbingly true. Several days after his death, the boy’s autopsy report came back — adverse effects stemming from prescription-based contraindications.
The deceased child whose physician was deemed culpable for his death was the exact same doctor who performed minor surgery on my one-year-old daughter just a year prior to this incident. The dead child’s father worked at the cancer hospital where I was a cancer patient (before and after this incident). The dead child’s mom was a deli server at the supermarket where I purchased lunch meats for my children. The FTO who was responsible for training me at the time was enduring the pains of a divorce as he witnessed my struggles; he subsequently leaned on me for support throughout his eventual dissolution of marriage.
The decedent’s mom, dad, and I remain good friends. Hugs are showered when we greet each other whenever and wherever we meet. Their only other child, a four-year-old girl at the time of this incident who may not remember having a sibling, suffers autism. My daughter, who was operated on by the physician who erred/caused the young boy’s death, also has autism.
Sometimes in police culture, there is nothing you can do about the worst-case scenario you are expected to remedy.
Lasting effects of law enforcement. It’s not only a human thing. It’s not only a cop thing. It’s a thing whereby the choice to be a cop jabs at the human psyche and scrapes at the human soul. Yet one has the option of countering the hits with all things good. Some believe self-sacrifice comes with a price. Others believe there is no price for self-sacrifice; giving begets receiving. The word sacrifice implies a giving up of something.
Without expectation, cops invest in humanity. Exponentially, dividends materialize in the most unexpected ways, such as my writing these words for your eyes and minds to absorb. Years since that little boy’s death way back when, my senses are acutely alive with the sobbing sounds and soul-scorching screams of his mom, the stay-strong posture exuded by his dad, the smells of their home, the neon pink shirt his sister wore, her thick-lens prescription glasses, the slate-blue carpeting that the boy’s unfeeling slender fingers touched.
With these images tattooed on my brain cells, I had to compose my police report. “Let’s go write it up,” my police trainer said unenviably. A paradox — what I thought would be hard to write was easy, stemming from the imagery crisply seared on my brain.
Take into context that these inexplicable circumstances occur every day, all around the nation, all across the globe, with cops whose families idle at home waiting for their return. Include the context of a family man or woman whose return home is burdened by something indelibly etched on the human psyche and whose loved ones are stacked on the couch or loveseat, somewhat peripheral, like fans in bleachers waiting to see if their favorite team is exuding a winning spirit or one of emotional paralysis.
I suspect it is similar for that physician who erringly prescribed medication that contraindicated in that young lad’s system, causing adverse effects culminating in a child’s demise.
Sometimes in police culture, there is nothing you can do about the worst-case scenario you are expected to remedy, and you carry it (or it carries you) infinitely. As I mentioned earlier, that 12-hour shift never concluded, nor did my angst at realizing I could do nothing for a child who needed saving.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would re-experience and relive a similar episode in my police career roughly three years later. It also involved a five-year-old boy whose body I watched whittle away by the ravages of cancer. His family became my family. In his few years of life, he admired cops and wished to “be a policeman some day.”
Broadcast by print and TV media, we were able to fulfill that wish, swearing him in a few months before his final breath. Police shoulder patches (his personal favorites from a collection I assembled) are buried in his earthly casket.
Being a cop is akin to roaming society with a tightly fitting completed puzzle tucked under your arm … until it loosens from public service and becomes a jumble along the way. You try to hold it together, hold steadfast its integrity … for the next call. And that is what compels me to do it all over — to try and try again.
Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.