I worked a lot of overtime but once because of overtime, I missed my son’s baseball game. The only one glad to see me when I got home was our dog.
I once was chastised by my sergeant for driving through a red light after stopping, it was on a backup call. The irony is that he had thirteen on duty collisions and once used the pit maneuver decades before it was approved. He said he didn’t want me to follow his example?
The news crew shows up at a homicide scene and films the sheet covered body. They then leave and come back when the coroner wheels the body into the back of the van hours later. Admit it—how many times have you seen the dead body on a gurney being wheeled to the coroners van on TV?
Here’s something really ironic: officers are involved in a shooting or major use of force. Suddenly politicians, college professors, and the media become experts on how the officers should have handled the situation. This is of course, weeks or months after a commission investigation. They also have all the information and make their analyses in a calm environment. No adrenaline, bad lighting, or stress. They have never been a cop or faced the danger that they just judged. They usually recommend more training for cops.
Train the public. Clue, if you point a toy or BB gun at a cop you’re going to get shot.
Next: How some cops deal with the sights, sounds and smells we encounter! Hal
The following post is somewhat out of order. So much for best laid plans…
Hal is beginning a series on types of calls. I don’t know what came before this one so we are starting anew and will post one every week for the next six weeks. Enjoy!
By Hal Collier
If you found my last Ramblings depressing, this one won’t cheer you up. I usually like to write about the fun and sometimes exciting side of police work. This is a darker side that most cops dread—death. I’ve put off writing about death for over a year and even waited for the holidays to pass.
I’ll admit that most cops won’t shed a tear when some dirt bag gets killed trying to rob a liquor store that is owned by a gun carrying NRA member. Drug overdoses where the hype still has the syringe sticking out of his arm won’t even cause a rookie to blink. The news media always makes a big deal out of cops giving each other a high five after surviving a “my life or your death” shooting. You will never see the news show an emotional cop who just had to tell a family member that their loved one is not coming home.
Death Notifications: That task usually falls to the coroner but when the deceased passed away in another state, the coroner needs someone to make arraignments for the body. They call the local police and ask them to inform a family member also known as a Death Notification. If it’s a homicide the Detectives will make the notifications because they have questions for the surviving family members, like did you know he was a gang member or mass murderer?
Some notifications go easy, the recipient already knew that their uncle had died, or expected the news any day. Some didn’t care, but asked if they were in the will. Most were very difficult. A complete stranger in uniform comes to your house, often in the middle of the night and knocks on your door. The cop gives you the worst news imaginable and then leaves. If he’s a rookie, he probably says something stupid like, “Have a nice day” because he doesn’t know what else to say.
The most difficult one I handled was telling a women at 3 A.M. that her husband had been killed in an auto accident in Bakersfield. First, she wouldn’t open the door to us, she didn’t believe we were the police. Then she wanted to see where we parked our police car, and when I moved our black and white to below her apartment window she called 911. She thought we were impersonating police officers. It took us 30 minutes to get inside her apartment and sit her down and tell her the news. It’s been 35 years and I’m still not over that one.
The first look you get when you knock on someone’s door is panic. They see two cops standing at their door and asking to speak to Mr. or Mrs. Whatever. They know it’s not good news. They want to know what you want right away. Death Notifications rule # 1: you don’t tell them on the front porch that their only son or daughter has died. All react differently, some faint and injure themselves, some attack the messenger, the cops, but almost all are in some form of denial. It’s best to get them inside sitting down and out of public view. You don’t need the nosey next door neighbor butting in.
Ok, you’ve broken the news that they’ll never forget. Trust me you’ll never find the right words. There aren’t any right words. You offer your sympathies and if they’re alone, you offer to call someone to come stay with them. Then you leave, feeling like a piece of crap. Heaven help the next traffic violator who pisses you off.
It doesn’t make much difference how much experience you have or how compassionate you are, death notifications suck. Some people don’t understand why cops drink, have a high divorce rate or commit suicide.
Next and thank goodness, my last on death, I’ll discuss “Welfare Checks.” Welfare Checks can be a hodge podge of outcomes. Some bad, some good and some of them sort of amusing.
Sheriff’s departments–at least in California–are charged with criminal, contract, correctional and civil matters. In addition to performing law enforcement duties, they must serve eviction notices, bank and property levies, and small claims. They also staff court security as well as county jails. Some counties, like Marin, require their deputies to work in the jail before being assigned to patrol. Deputies I’ve talked to about this have mixed reviews. Some like knowing who the criminals are before they get in a patrol car. Others don’t want to be confined all day themselves. There are the counties, like Sonoma, which is staffed by classified employees called “correctional officers”. Unless they test for deputy, they will spend their entire careers in the jail.
Even before the economy tanked, municipalities found themselves in fiscal trouble. Police protection is expensive for many reasons, not the least of which is that it must provide 24/7 service. In the past two decades, Sonoma County has provided contract police services with two cities-Windsor and, most recently, Sonoma. They serve in the same capacity as a municipal department but because of their resources, can often do it cheaper. Marin County Sheriff’s Department has taken over almost all police and fire dispatching.
Deputies in rural areas such as Mono County are called upon for coroner duties. Specific certification is required before assuming those responsibilities. Please note the difference here between a Coroner and a Medical Examiner. Often, a coroner is a deputy or an elected official and is mostly found in rural areas, while a medical examiner is at minimum a medical doctor, hopefully with a background in forensic pathology. Metropolitan areas can generate funding to support this pricey level of expertise, while boondocks agencies and thinner population bases cannot. If you write a story that involves a death-anywhere-it’s best to check a similar jurisdiction to see what kind of system they have. Nothing can shoot your credibility in the foot like a “local” medical examiner in the middle of Death Valley. FYI-Death Valley has one of the highest suicide statistics in the country-just because of its name. People travel from all over the US to do themselves in at Zabriske Point. Inyo County Sheriff patrols that area but relies on out of the area ME’s-such as Las Vegas, Nevada.
Back to Sheriff’s Departments: Deputies are a different breed from city cops–as any city cop will tell you! They do things by their own rules, maybe even tending toward aggressiveness. I think there is a reasonable explanation for this. When I worked for Sonoma County SO, I knew that the logistics for patrolling 1,769 square miles (minus the 7 incorporated cities who have their own departments) with about 275 deputies (never all on at the same time) would be cause for delay if more units were needed. I often saw back-up cars with an eta of 30 plus minutes. Any deputy in a hot situation would need to be a bit of a “cowboy” to survive. If you cannot, you don’t belong in a patrol car on the Sonoma Coast or in the remote hills of the Geysers or the multitude of vineyards. If you want some interesting reading, check out the history tab of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department. Many stories, there!
This is one of the reasons I chose Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department as the setting for my first book. These are tough people who use the ingenuity that God gave them, sometimes with force.
They get the job done.
Next week, we’ll talk about Public Safety Departments, California Highway Patrol, State Police, the Marshal’s office and more.