I have seen acts of violence in both my military and LEO careers and been involved in investigations that are what no other words can describe as anything other than “evil”, pure insidious evil. Things that I have lightly touched on in other articles, but don’t fully detail or describe in words. I have found that putting some of these memories to words is not the healthiest of things for me to do. Somethings I have learned, are best left packed away, not ignored or false beliefs they did not happen, just left packed away. They were appreciated and recognized for what they are or were, learned from and then packed up mentally and placed in a part of my psyche for just such things. If ever addressed again, it will be with professionals, or for court or to help other victims, but never for storytelling or entertainment, as if they could be.
Just like asking “why”? I stopped asking “why” a great number of years ago after witnessing a particularly brutal and horrific death of a baby at her mother's hands.
I am a man of faith, I have a firm grip on my belief, on my GOD and his word. As a result of my belief in GOD I must also believe in Satan, in “evil”. You can not believe in one without the other. To do so would be like believing in day without night, or light without dark. Many share my belief, but many also do not. But even without this belief, these cases and things I allude to do not become anymore explainable than they are now. In fact, they become even more a mystery. How a human being can perpetrate these acts of violence upon others, upon small children and elderly is beyond the human mind, heart and soul to comprehend, at least mine anyway. I have heard some say that in dealing with the most evil of offenders, that for them, it’s a good thing some people do have a belief in GOD, for if they did not, if there were no eternal and final judgements for their actions, if taking life was no more significant than stepping on a spider... encounters might just have a completely different outcome for some.
In last weeks article, I spoke of mentally and emotionally bringing criminals home with me in terms of family interactions, in interrogations of my children rather than talking and conversing with them. In making myself in many ways a victim also, or minimizing my families negative events and things that happened to them, comparing them to victims I had encountered. Thank goodness by the time I started my duties as a detective a few number of years passed and a lot of personal and professional growth had taken place with much better coping mechanisms and skills having replaced the trying times of my early career.
Often with child physical and or sexual abuse investigations, what caused my early days of agitation, the normalcy of family life, actually became the coping mechanisms of these later days and duties.
After spending hours or sometimes days and weeks investigating insidious physical or sexual acts upon a young innocent child would spin my head alternating between thoughts of extreme violence against the offender to total compassion & love, with my heart breaking for the victim. Often times about the same age as my own daughter or son. In addition many times they
involved in the same interests and sometimes even going to the same school as they did! Although no one in my family ever did, nor ever will know who or when this occurred.
I would take moments during these mental and emotional assaults to phone home in an attempt to ground myself in the real world of my life, of my family. What once would result in my chastisement of others in bringing up the fact that I forgot to take out the trash, because of course in my rookie mind, that’s not important after what I have seen or done, now was a welcome breath of reality air, of normalcy. I referred to these times as needing a normal.
Well... like with medicine and pants, there is no one size fits all. My new approach to staying sane worked like a champ, on-duty. And although I was no longer bringing criminals home with me, I was many times unbeknownst to me, bringing the victims.
In response to my early days in policing, my wife had, I believe as a matter of marital survival, handled most if not all day to day family events and issues. While I don’t believe the intention was to keep things from me, the result of her attempts to keep things calmer, by handling most of them and shielding me from negative ones, coupled with my then poor responses to them, led to some issues I should have known and taken an interest and active role in, but did not.
This “out of touch” effect added to bringing some victims home with me led to the opposite person walking in the front doorstep home at the end of a shift. In many ways, I went from Al Bundy of Married with Children TV fame to Gandhi walking in the door.
Not only was I not over-reacting, I was not reacting at all. When I saw my children or others in my life making poor decisions, like we all have at one time or another, I not only didn’t call them on it, I made excuses for them, if not openly and verbally, at least in my own mind, and would act, or more often than not, did not act based on them. I saw victims in the faces of my loved ones, and the sorrow I felt for them translated to pity and not holding them accountable for negative behavior or actions.
I’ve learned that it’s a balancing act. As a police officer, you see and deal with your fellow human beings most times at their worst. Sometimes at their best, but at the very least almost always at a time, and in a manner that almost no other person or occupation affords or grants. Paramedics, GOD love them, often are called to the scene after the carnage, who in turn clean and dress many of the wounds and injuries prior to medical and hospital staff interaction, who clean and dress even more before family sees them. Judges, juries and the press, and by extension, the public see offenders cleaned up and wearing their Sunday “defendant” best. And of course, there is the foundation of our laws and society being “innocent until proven guilty”. I support all of this, but I also saw with my own eyes or felt with my own body the violence via the actions of this “innocent until proven guilty” individual.
Then there are the violent domestic’s, the abused and the abuser. Not to be sexist, but as you can guess, most times it’s the wife or female partner who is abused by the husband or male partner. There is not a police officer I know of that has not been at one time or another pled with by the wife to not arrest her husband, all while spitting the blood out of her mouth from the broken teeth, or split lip she received just a bit earlier from the man now sporting the police brand of bracelets and being led to the squad car. Or worse, many officers, myself included have been physically attacked by the abused wife or woman for arresting her husband or male partner and doing so with black eyes and broken ribs. These are the ones who you know are
going to not only bail him out of jail but welcome him back home. And I’m sad to say that these are many times the same ones who you respond to when they have later been killed by the one they are pleading with you now not to arrest.
This too affects your home life, seeing the worse in these family disagreements, these arguments on steroids that have gone completely sideways causes you to rethink the arguments you have, or will have with your spouse. Many times it’s a positive thing, you learn what’s really important, and what’s not. What’s worth fighting for and what’s not. But sometimes you're so skittish about things going off the rails, or the violence you saw perpetrated upon others leaves you speechless when you should raise a point, leaves you rolling over and doing nothing when in fact something should be done. Constructive and open communication, even if in the form of a disagreement is a requirement of a healthy relationship. Many times when carried too far the effect is burying issues, letting them fester until they blow up out of proportion, which ironically is exactly the thing you were trying to avoid in the first place.
Contrary to popular TV cop show stereotypes and public opinion, police officers do not have the highest divorce rate, that believe it or not is reserved for Dancers and Choreographers at 43.5%, but still, at 15.1% it’s high enough. Who you bring home with you, and how you interact with your family as a police officer can greatly reduce the risk of being part of this statistic. Not saying anything when you should is just as bad and saying the wrong thing when you shouldn’t.
For the partner of this new flower child Gandhi of peace love and happiness, who’s afraid to rock the marital boat, it puts an undue strain and burden on. Not only have you learned new coping, but you are also fighting the guilty feelings of your prior bad behavior or responses.
As a result spouses and partners find themselves having to handle, either willingly or because the cop partner did not or won’t, daily family issues and normally only the negative ones. In my case being previously lumped in with Attila the Hun, who learned to calm down and keep things in perspective, but who then became almost obsessed with peace and tranquility at all costs, not only left my wife wondering if she married a multiple personality nut job, but also left her having to almost single-handedly deal with negative family issues.
The point is, although the compartmentalization that police officers learn, either intentionally, or just a flat-out survival skill does help get them through the day. It allows you to go from call to call without the emotional baggage of prior calls, negative or positive. But either way, the compartment you placed these feelings into, it’s still you. And when you go home at the end of the shift, it’s still there, and it will affect you and your interaction with family, loved ones, and friends. In the end, the only one that my family wants to see walk through the door is me, not the criminal, not the victim, just me.
In a healthy relationship they, and the police officer have to acknowledge that a criminal or a victim may have hitched a ride mentally and emotionally, that it may require a little extra understanding, compassion, and \ or communication, but it’s you they love to see come home and for many officers it is this very family that gives them the strength, endurance, and reason for doing what they do. It’s a mutual support system.
At one point in time, I came home after dealing with a suicide of a young girl. While all suicides are sad, this one was particularly so. When I arrived home, my wife who was pregnant with my daughter, was in tears. It seems that one of our cats had jumped up and knocked over a lit
candle, spraying the wall with hot wax. (The cat was fine by the way). Without saying a word I got to work and removed all the wax and cleaned the wall. My wife was very pleased and thanked me. The next morning she was reading the paper and saw an article addressing both the suicide the day before and a statement in which I was quoted. She put 2 and 2 together and became much more appreciative of the fact that although my day was more emotionally draining than the cat candle incident as it has become known, I none the less cleaned the wax and did not mention my day.
This was in stark contrast to the early days of my career in which I would have not only talked about this event but also probably said something snarky about getting a grip on yourself, it’s wax on a wall - no one died.
While this sounds very stoic, it’s not healthy. Too many compartmentalizations without addressing it can and does lead to a build-up of stress, unresolved issue and to a degree, trauma. At the very least saying something such like, hey I’ve had a pretty rough day, I need some time to get a handle on this, I need some downtime, or I would like to talk to you about it. Something to validate your feelings, address them and then you can pack them away without open and lingering issues.
Black humor is also a coping mechanism employed by not just police officers, but quite a few occupations that involve emotional stress or trauma. I know a female Medical Examiner (ME) who of course deals with death on a daily basis. She maintained a large aquarium filled with beautiful fish in her office. After watching them a bit, I noted that they shook some within the bubbles, but never really swam around. She then told me that they were all dead, stuffed and positioned in the tank and attached to a fishing line to the bottom of the tank to keep them from floating about. She said what other kind of fish would a ME have? By the way she was single and often complained about finding it hard to date... I don’t think she appreciated my critique that she smelled like death and kept dead stuffed fish as pets!
Next week: When it all goes wrong.
About the Author: Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.