By Vail Bello, retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy
It’s inevitable. For that last 35 years, whenever a cop in the Bay Area dies, someone asks me “Did you know him?” It’s not out of ignorance; it’s almost always out of care. It’s usually from a friend or family member, and as of late, as my virtual community grows, it can come from a Facebook acquaintance. Usually my answer is no. But that’s not a real answer. The truth is, yes, I did. I may not have ever met the man, but I know him.
I know what he did. I know what it took for him to even be in that patrol car, the selection process, the testing, the academy, the hiring process. I know that part. And I know the sacrifices he made to do that job. I know how people said to him, and say now “Well, you CHOSE that job, you KNOW the risks”.
I know that. I know the countless birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays with family’s he missed, and he will now never have again. I know the drifting apart from friends who will always be friends, but can’t, …don’t understand the job, the shift work, the mandatory overtime. It’s inevitable. I know how the circle becomes smaller, because frankly, good, caring people don’t know how it is, don’t understand.
I know how he did his job for more than a paycheck. I know he did it to protect those who can’t protect themselves, who aren’t big enough or strong enough to help themselves. I know how he would go to countless, unsolvable situations, and solve them. Or at least de-escalate them for a night, just to keep the peace.
I know the times he had to look a grieving mother in the eyes and tell her there was no hope for her daughter, that her child was never coming home. I know how he had to stay strong when everyone else around him was panicking, or fighting, or grieving.
I know how he stood tall. I know what it means to run to the gunfire when everyone else is running away. I know what kind of fortitude that took.
I know the sheepdog. I know what it was like for him to put on armor, a gun, a Taser, and 20 other pounds of defensive tools to prepare for the possibility of a life and death battle EVERY DAY….and I know how his brothers and sisters feel today when they know he lost that last battle.
I know he won’t be forgotten. I know his deeds will live on through his brothers and sisters in Blue, Green, and Tan. I know that his sacrifice wasn’t necessary, that it should never happen, but happen it does.
So did I know him? I believe I did.
In the last Ramblings I discussed being G.P. General Public. That just means that I don’t have an automatic source of information from my former employer because I retired. I’m still a cop and will be until I die!
I spent thirty-five years developing that cop sixth sense. My training and experience made me a product of my environment. I still sit with my back to a wall facing the door at restaurants. I still open doors with my left hand, leaving my gun hand free, although I’ll admit that I don’t carry my gun everywhere anymore.
I go shopping with my wife and I see shoplifters. I have gotten away from seeing blatant traffic violations and screaming, “Where’s a cop when you need him?” I can drive past a donut shop and not want to stop for a cup of coffee; I still don’t eat donuts. I’ll admit that I drink Starbucks coffee now with the sissy sleeve so you don’t burn your hand, but when I order coffee it’s still only one word, COFFEE. No half this, half that and no squirts or splashes of anything else.
So, what does a retired cop do to pass the time, known as the “Golden Years?” It depends on the cop. Some retire after twenty years and take a second job. They get their smaller pension and collect a paycheck as well. I had lunch with a retired cop the other day and he was collecting four pensions. Twenty years with LAPD, and three other smaller pensions. Before you call some investigative news team, he earned every pension. .
Others spent thirty-five years with LAPD to draw a bigger pension and retire for good. Some higher-ranking officers retire from LAPD and become Chiefs of Police for other departments. Quite a few start their own businesses, usually police-related. Security, private investigation, personal bodyguard. Then there’s that strange group of officers who write books, following in the footsteps of Joseph Wambaugh.
A lot of cops retire and travel. They spend time with their spouses to make up for the time they missed while working. Sadly, some die within five years due to the stress and challenges of a difficult job. Many retired cops have disability pensions and others just have bad backs, worn-out knees, or post-traumatic stress. Yea, just like a war veteran.
I still have police dreams, you know the ones where your gun won’t fire, or you can’t run away from danger.
Some get divorced and their spouse takes half of their pension. So much for that long-range financial plan. Some care for an elderly parent or ill spouse.
What do those that retire for good do? Some of us became childcare experts. Hopefully, not our own, but the grandkids. I have changed more diapers since I retired than I did when my own kids were toddlers. I have watched more Disney Channel shows than Walt ever did. I can sing the entire song, “Hot Potato,” from the Wiggles. I have bought large sets of Lego’s and Lincoln Logs, again!!! Who threw out my old sets and while I’m at it, where the hell are my baseball cards?
I have dressed a Bratz Doll with my granddaughter as well as armed Luke Skywalker with a light saber for my grandsons. Bus service, to and from school also includes stops at McDonald’s, Jamba Juice, and Burger King.
A lot of cops catch up on home repairs and some learn to cook, without a microwave oven. I mean cook, not BBQ. They just don’t have their own cooking shows, yet. Others garden and some do nothing but attend retirement lunches. More on retirement lunches later!
A large group can’t wait to get out of Los Angeles or California. Cops tend to move to areas that have life styles more conducive to the politics of cops. They also have a desire to save their pension checks from tax collectors in states that will double dip. Double dip means that some states will tax your pension, after California has already taxed it. Ouch!!!
Retired cops change after they retire. Some grow long hair or wild mustaches, most of us don’t shave everyday unless we want sex, which is not the priority it once was. I once was given spare change while standing in line at Taco Bell!! I guess I needed a shave and a haircut. What the hell, I ordered an extra taco. Retired cops don’t care about being politically correct anymore so be careful if you ask for their honest opinion. You’ll get it and a lecture as well.
A lot of retired cops fish, hunt and golf more than our spouses like, but then I have spent more time shopping than I ever did when I was on the job. Did I mention that I see crooks in every aisle of a store?
The first few years after retirement I would stop by the station where I spent thirty-three years and say hi to old partners. Later, I didn’t know anyone and they didn’t know me. Once some rookie cop wanted to direct me to the senior citizen building. Most retired cops will tell you they don’t miss the job but really miss the partners. Partners bond for life. I few years ago I attended a Hollywood reunion and after five minutes, old partners I hadn’t seen in a decade were my best friends again. The internet lets you stay connected.
A growing trend among retired cops is retirement reunions or monthly lunches. A group of cops living in a geographical area will meet once a month and have breakfast or lunch. Some groups meet every three or four months but have a three day party. Some meet in Las Vegas, Laughlin, Idaho, Montana, or Missouri. A lot meet in L.A. or surrounding counties once a month. Some will drive 50/60 miles for a meal with old cops. That police experience is a bond that never leaves you. It gives us a chance to tell those stories that our spouses don’t want to hear again. One story sparks a memory and then another story is told. The good thing about retired cops is that their memory has failed them and you can tell the same story every month.
Retirement is good but the road to get there was great. Hal
As Mike Dettling progressed in his reserve officer training, we had the opportunity to ride together quite frequently. One Friday night, dispatch sent us to the Lucky Market Shopping Center to check for a possible DWI that was supposedly cruising around the parking lot. The person who reported it described the suspect’s vehicle as a dark colored, Ford 4X4 pickup truck with roof mounted off-road lights.
On the way, we talked about how there happened to be a small bar located right next to the supermarket. I figured that our suspect was either coming from or going to it. Coincidentally, on the other side of the bar were the offices of a local advertising newspaper. My wife had a job there as a typesetter and I mentioned to Mike that she was working that night.
Being a Friday night, , the parking lot was chock-a-block full when we arrived with all sorts of vehicles belonging to folks rushing to buy groceries for their Friday night parties. We thought the likelihood of finding this one particular vehicle among all that traffic to be on the slim to none side. I no sooner finished saying this to Mike, when I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed that the vehicle behind us was all but riding our bumper. I did a double take when I realized, it was the truck we’d been searching for.
“Mike, I think he’s behind us.”
He whipped his head around and exclaimed, “No shit?”
Okay, so fortune dropped him almost into our laps, but now we had to figure out how to get behind the pickup to make a traffic stop. It took a few minutes to find a spot to pull over and let him pass by us. As soon as we were in back of him, I flipped on the emergency lights. We got a little tense when the truck kept on going. We followed as he maneuvered around to the back of the market, apparently oblivious to our presence. He continued to creep along at no more than 10 MPH and nearly collided with a perfectly innocent dumpster. Finally, I flipped the siren on just briefly to get his attention and at last, he slowed to a stop. The spot he chose happened to be in front of the window where my wife’s workstation was located. As Mike let dispatch know our location, it occurred to me that this might be a nice show for her and her co-workers.
As that old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Mike moved up along the passenger side of the truck while I did likewise on the driver’s side. I could smell the alcohol from his breath through his open window before I even reached the back of the cab. I had stopped just to the rear of the door and had just finished asking the driver for his license, when Mike called out the last thing any officer wants to hear.
To this day, I don’t recall pulling my sidearm out of the holster. I only remember pointing it at the back of the driver’s head and quietly telling him that if he so much as sneezed, it would his last one. Mike was also pointing his weapon at the driver. He told me that it was right under the driver’s seat. I quickly requested a clear radio channel and a back up unit, letting dispatch know that the driver had a gun. While we waited for the other unit, I suddenly hoped that my wife wasn’t watching.
Up until then, it had been a slow, boring Friday night. So naturally, every officer even remotely close by responded to back us up. After two cars rolled up with lights and siren blaring, I let dispatch know that we had sufficient help. Once everyone took up safe positions behind cover, I ordered the driver to get out, keeping his hands raised, of course. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised when right as he got out he did a face plant onto the asphalt. The prospect of his getting to back up unaided seemed problematic. While the other officers covered us, Mike and I helped him to his feet and the handcuffed him. Once I patted him down for any weapons, one of the other officers took him to the front end of my car.
Now that the driver’s door was open, I could see the wooden grips of a revolver sticking out, ever so slightly, from under the front of the driver’s seat. There was no way I could have seen it from my side of the truck, even if I had been 6’6” tall, instead of 5’8” and had been standing right in front of the door. How Mike managed to see it from the other side was a wonder.
When I pulled it out, I’m not sure whose eyes were wider; Mike’s or mine. The gun was a loaded, chrome .44 Magnum revolver. You know, the one about which Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan said, “This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off so you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
Yeah, that .44 Magnum revolver.
I unloaded the gun and gave it Mike to take as evidence. Then, I went back to talk with the driver. His physical symptoms of intoxication were plainly obvious even to the most casual observer. His clothes were disheveled, his breath reeked of alcohol and his eyes had more red lines than a Rand McNally road atlas. He was unsteady on his feet to the point that he had to lean against my car for balance. His speech was so slurred, it was questionable whether he was speaking English.
Not surprisingly, he was less than enthusiastic about our having stopped him and launched into a loud, vicious tirade about the police constantly harassing him. Aside from being “loaded”, the fact that he had two recent convictions for DWI on his driving record explained a good deal of his sour disposition toward us. Before I had a chance to get any further into my DWI investigation, he made it clear that he wasn’t taking any “drunk” tests. He groused about passing them the last time and still went to jail. That was fine with me because I had seen enough to articulate the needed probable cause to arrest him for driving under the influence of alcohol. Of course, there were also the additional concealed and loaded weapon charges as an added bonus for him. On went the handcuffs and we offered him a comfortable seat in the back of our patrol car.
Before I closed the door, I asked him why he had a loaded gun under his seat. His surly reply was, “for protection, of course”. Naturally, I was then just a wee bit curious what he needed he needed protection from.
He looked up at me, through his glazed, watery eyes and said rather emphatically, “From shit like this.”
I don’t know about Mike, but that gave me a slight case of the “willies” that I could well have gone without that or any other night.
On the way home, at around 3:00 AM, I started wondering how much my wife saw of what went on outside her window and if she was going to be upset or worried. When I got there, she was awake and asked me how the night went. I thought she was being funny.
“Well, what did you think?” I asked.
“Think about what?”
“The drunk driver Mike and I stopped right in front of the window where your workstation is.”
“Oh, I was at a different station tonight. Didn’t see a thing.”
Just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, she added, “But everyone else who saw it, told me all about the big gun that you found under the seat.”
With that, she turned out her nightstand light and went to sleep while I stood there feeling “had”.
As for Mike, despite that boundless energy of his, he had reacted in the calm manner of a seasoned officer. He didn’t second-guess what he saw, didn’t hesitate to take action and took the appropriate response. Mike didn’t stay a reserve officer with us for very long; the Department hired him as a regular, full-time officer.
Very early in my police career, one of my training officers hammered home a crucial aspect of officer safety. When an encounter devolves into a physical altercation and fists are flying, it is essential to remember there is always at least one gun available to the attacker and that’s my own gun. This is one of the primary reasons that when an officer becomes embroiled in a fight, as Hal so eloquently stated it in one of his recent stories, “we don’t fight fair—we fight to win as fast as possible.” There is no greater mortal fear than having a suspect gain control of your weapon. When that happens, the outcome is usually fatal to one or both parties involved and perhaps others as well. This is why an officer treats every fight as being for all the marbles.
One fall evening, dispatch sent me to check a report of a man down in front of Petaluma Valley Hospital. When I got there, I found a young man, who appeared to be in his early twenties, lying on the grass right by the hospital’s sign. He had no obvious injuries that I could see and though he seemed conscious, he was unresponsive to any external stimulus. I didn’t smell any odor that would indicate he was drunk, so that left some type of medical, mental or pharmaceutical issue. As the saying goes, “The lights were on but nobody was home.” I requested an ambulance to have the paramedics evaluate him.
Once they got there and checked the young man, they radioed the Emergency Room to consult with the on-duty physician. Since it was unclear what was causing his condition, we loaded him into the ambulance. All these years later, I can’t recall precisely why, but I locked up my patrol car and rode in back of the ambulance while it covered the short distance to the back of the hospital, where the ER entrance was located. As safety protocol dictated, the paramedics restrained him to the gurney with its safety belts. No sooner had the back doors to the ambulance closed and we got underway than the kid began trashing about and let loose a series of inhuman shrieks. I had seen this sort of reaction in people with severe head trauma but there wasn’t a mark on him.
Suddenly, he did a great impression of King Kong, ripping free one of the gurney straps from its anchor point. I immediately suspected he might be on PCP, a very nasty drug that hyper stimulates you, often instilling unbridled aggression and super-natural strength. In seconds, he freed his other arm and began swinging wild punches at us while trying to free his legs from the other straps. Much of what happened in those next few moments is still a bit of a blur. I vaguely recall hearing the driver call for more police units. I remember being alarmed at the number of things in the ambulance he could use as weapons. I was about to find that was the least of my worries.
My adrenaline spiked after when a well-placed kick connected, bouncing me off one of the equipment cabinets. An instant later, he was tugging on my Beretta, trying to pull it out from the holster. Words cannot convey to you what I felt at that moment. In a flash, everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. I was experiencing time compression, a phenomenon that frequently occurs in such critical incidents. I realized that not only was my life in danger but so were those of both paramedics; I was responsible for their safety. As my mind raced to formulate a strategy, instinct and training took over. I yelled a warning that he was trying to pull my gun from my holster. The driver slammed on the brakes thinking that would be helpful. All it did was add to the chaos. The ensuing tangle of bodies eliminated any chance of reaching my back-up gun in my ankle holster.
Thankfully, I was wearing a state of the art safety holster, designed to prevent someone from pulling my pistol out, particularly from the front, which was exactly what he was trying to do. That bought me time. I don’t recall making the conscious decision to do so but I put all of my 140 pounds of brawn behind a punch that I delivered to the left side of his jaw. It was the first time I had ever punched someone in the face and it stunned him just enough that he released his grip on my gun. All three of us piled on top of him and held him down on the gurney. About then, the back doors opened and two more officers jumped inside. The five of us quickly trussed him up better than any Thanksgiving turkey, using every strap we could find.
He was still shrieking and violently thrashing about when we delivered him to the ER a few minutes later. The doctor put him in a darkened, quiet room, still strapped to the gurney. Reducing all external stimuli was the recommended way to treat someone reacting violently to PCP. I honestly don’t recall what happened to him after that.
Fortunately, I had a hell of a good Sergeant that night. He had me park my car at the hospital and then drove us to Denny’s. I had a very bad case of motor mouth – I couldn’t stop talking and my hands shook seeming to move about of their own volition. It took a while for all that adrenaline to bleed off. I was also lucky in that I was about to go on my days off. With that in mind, my Sergeant told me to write up my report of the incident and then go home; he would take care of everything else. Three days later, I was back on the job.
So yes, when cops fight, the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window. Absent a Taser, the most effective and safest tactic to neutralize a physically combative suspect is pretty much along the lines of General Schwarzkopf’s strategy in the first Gulf War; use overwhelming numerical superiority to make the opponent realize his position is untenable and more importantly, unwinnable.