Dealing with death - One cop's perspective
There's a weird thing about police work. It never stops.
While some officers work smaller areas, towns, cities, or middle of nowhere, there is still something to do. Calls to be handled, complaints to be listened to, reports to be filed. Always something needing to be done or someone needing something.
As you move into larger cities or municipalities or departments the shift seems to go from things needing to be done to things needing to be done NOW.
Traffic crashes, burglaries, crime scenes, stolen car recoveries, complaints and reports as usual and then, as population density increases so does violent crime. Seems that the closer and denser people are to each other, the more the violence potential increases. Sprinkle in low employment, poor services, deserts of all types, and you have created society's powder keg of violence.
And with violence comes death. And usually violent deaths.
Any cop who has handled a murder scene, or their first dead body, they'll be able to recall in vivid detail things most people would ignore. Being a trained observer means finding details in the casual encounters, high stress situations, or a scene where the victim isn't going anywhere but the morgue. Because we can visually process a scene of violence longer than let's say a fleeing suspect, the details are ingrained more.
I can tell you my first dead body in detail. The smell, sights, the way the body fell, even the eyes. Despite having been deceased for a couple days, the victim's eyes still stick out to me. Having died of health related illness it was a calm scene.
My first murder I can remember wondering how the victim got so tangled up in a bicycle the victim was riding. The refreshments that were just purchased and being enjoyed mixing into the jumbled mess of body and bicycle.
Every murder scene an officer goes on they take away some memory. Large or small, they'll remember something. I'm sure at times things will blend together, maybe multiple scenes become one as details blur together as time dilutes, but some imprint is burned and saved.
What about when the victim is still alive?
What about when that mound of flesh is still breathing?
I know I've ways been one to try to keep a victim I'm sure isnt going to make it (usually they don't) in the present. Keep their mind on something stupid and trivial. Things like current sports events, where they went to school, kids, a spouse, family, hobbies, anything to keep them conscious and alert.
The worst feeling is the feeling of helplessness. Every cop knows when they show up there isn't much to be done. Whether too many holes to plug and not enough bandages, or the human body has sustained such an incredible amount of trauma its only a matter of time, we know. Sometimes all we can do is try.
Throw on some rubber gloves, maybe cut off some clothing and try.
But on those days where it seems to never end...
When the scene is secure and the white sheet is spread out over the body...
When the ambulance takes off as soon as they can...
We turn around, remove the rubber gloves, throw them away and go to the next call.
We walk away to the wailing of family and friends knowing we did what we could, or did nothing knowing there was nothing we could do. Now with another image burned.
Holes where they shouldn't be.
Smells of gun powder.
The smell of a fresh dead body.
The death gargle.
I always remember the eyes. Some wide open, some half shut, some looking at me, some looking at nothing in particular, some pleading as life leaves their body, some even missing, but always the eyes. There is a story told by every person with just their eyes. Past pains, past triumphs, or even their current situation, the eyes tell a story.
But I'm sure every cop picks up something that reaches out to them in the darkest of moments when on-duty.
I can recall blood from a victim that slowly swirled through a puddle. It was striking, the contrast between the dark puddle and the bright red blood, slightly beautiful in its meandering through the water. Or the beautiful wild flowers that surrounded an overdose victim. Or, yes, even humor can be found.
While cops can face a lot of horrific and terrible stuff, it is the common bond of death, since we all eventually die, that can allow a complete stranger to leave an impression or ingrain an image on who we are as an officer.
It's no secret that prolonged exposure to trauma, like death or bad scenes, can injure an individual, especially first responders and military, it's how it is process that has the greatest impact. Its should be of no surprise that police have a high rate of suicide. It's the dark, dirty secret that is finally (it seems) being pushed into the spotlight and exposed. Along with the taboo of weakness associated with mental health being broken, the issues of facing death can take a more poetic seat in a cop's life.
While on scene we may seen nonchalant, cold, or uncaring as we "brush off" the call and go to the next one, but know that we have to. Processing death as a cop is something done in the drive home, at the gym, as we go for a walk or run, at lunch or even on the way to the next call, but it is never done on scene.
It wouldn't be fair to the victim, the victim's family, or to other officers. And every cop processes death in a different way, some seemingly unaffected by it. So we process when we can and continue to carry the burden of policing as we continue on to the next job. Just know that burden may not be as heavy as yours, but it is there and it weighs.
To any other officer out there. My email is open. And if not me, seek the help you need. There is no shame in asking for help, whether peer-to-peer or with a professional. You don't need to carry the burden of policing alone, confused and in it's current state in your mind. Staying safe isn't just an on-the-street thing, it's also staying safe in your mind and especially in those dark places and dark times.