LAW ENFORCEMENT AND DEATH
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The job of a cop is really tough. Each day he or she must realize their job could lead to a disaster. Each day they deal with others in the most negative way. Stress is a constant part of their lives. When it comes time to try and treat the stress it is usually done in a social setting involving other law enforcement personnel.
The police often see people at their worst. They might be stopping someone for speeding. They must carefully approach the car while watching for any unusual hand or body movement. They are acutely aware of other police officers being killed doing the same thing. The confrontation is negative. The speeder is delayed in their journey and the ticket is going to be costly. The cop must come on strong to insure they are in command of the scene. The death potential is riding on the hip. The firearm is ready at any moment in case there is a strange move made, such as reaching toward and into the glove compartment. There will be no friendship here!
A 14-year-old places a shotgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. The pellets and the gas from the shell literally remove the top of the kid's head. Blood and brain matter are splattered all over the room. The police officer arrives, notes the carnage, and takes charge of the grizzly scene. It's tough for him to eat meatballs and Lasagna for the next few days.
Two girls are killed in an automobile accident. The officer makes the report and then must notify the family of the tragic deaths. Members of the family respond to the late-night door bell and know immediately the messenger is bringing bad news. How does the cop deal with the family's emotional catharsis that follows?
Isn't it a great profession when many of your "clients" are psychopaths? Psychopaths (now kindly referred to as "sociopaths") present an interesting personality for law enforcement. Since they have a faulty conscience development, their fear of death is at a very low level. They are usually highly intelligent. They are not neurotic or psychotic, and rarely are found in mental institutions. Their personalities are intact and they function on a level of normalcy. Because they lack ethical moral judgment they are commonly confronted by the police. Many wind up in jail. Because psychopaths have very little anxiety or guilt they often avoid detection. Top all this off with they're egocentric, impulsive, fun-loving at another's expense, hedonistic, and a having little or no regard for authority. You have a most delightful police adversary. Psychopaths can even get away with lying on a polygraph! Many of the past and present world leaders were constitutional psychopaths!
I constructed a list of the characteristics of psychopaths for class and asked the students to carefully look over the list in order to determine how many of the traits each had as part of their own personality. The 13 traits were:
A few students would admit to possessing some of the traits, but each year they did indicate they knew other students that were probably psychopaths.
The police, as a rule, must maintain a facade of immortality. They must suppress the fear of death in order to perform their job well. They must enter a shoot out or barroom brawl with a attitude of invincibility. It's not long before they develop a real "attitude problem." It's no wonder there is a high divorce and suicide rate amongst law enforcement personnel.
Two police officers visited the Death Ed class each year. The first account is from Sgt/Det. Brad Burchell who was on the New Paltz Police force. Here is an account of what Sgt. Burchell told the students about his job:
Q. Where do you carry your gun?
Brad: I carry it on my side.
Q. Have you ever drawn the gun and for what reason?
Brad: I have, and if a police officer draws his gun it's because he intends to shoot someone. What comes to mind is a case where years ago I had to chase a guy on his motorcycle. I was in a car. I brought the case to a conclusion when he fell off the motorcycle. As he got off the motorcycle, he took off his helmet. The guy was about 6' 5" and weighed about 250 pounds. There was no doubt in my mind he was going to throw it or hit me over the head with the helmet. Just like that my gun was in my hand and I did not have to think twice about it. I told him to put the helmet down and if he didn't I would shoot him. There is no doubt in my mind I would have shot him. He put it down.
Q. have you ever had to shoot anyone?
Q. Do you have any idea how you would feel if you did?
Brad: I would probably feel pretty bad about it. But, from my training and what I have witnessed I think if I shot someone justifiably I would get over it.
Q. What is the first thing you do when you arrive at the scene of a terrible accident?
Brad: The first thing is to position your vehicle so you don't interfere and cause more accidents. Next you check to see if anyone is injured and needs help. If there are injuries then we call for the ambulance. The next thing is to secure the accident scene with flares.
Q. What was the worst accident you've experienced?
Brad: Every year it seems I come in and give you the latest of the worst ones. Still, the worst one was the airplane accident in the orchard near here. I can still remember the smell and that was 2 years ago. There was the smell of the gasoline and the smell of death - blood, decay and internal organs. We got to the scene very fast. Within ten minutes we were on the scene and then had to find it. Once we got to it flies were already there. How you actually identified what was what was by the location of the flies. When you saw flies you would look a little closer and say, "Oh wow! That looks like a hand, or an arm, or something." These two guys were totally mangled. The ambulance people - I have had16 years on the job and I don't do this kind of crap - went in and removed the body. The police were involved because they were looking for the cause of the crash, and at that point we had no idea why the crash occurred or who was in the plane. The body removal got down to the point where one of the girls from the Rescue Squad walked over to stretcher and placed an arm in the body bag. I do not know how she did it. To me: forget it, let someone else do it.
Q. What is your level of the fear of death?
Brad: Let's put it this way: Generally, police walk down the street with a bullseye on their back. That's why they wear bullet-proof vests. There is a constant concern in the back of your mind there is someone out there that wants to shoot you. Let's say you are driving down the road and happen to run a stop sign. In your mind it is no big deal and you really didn't do anything wrong. The police officer pulls you over. He doesn't know who you are. He doesn't know where you've been. Maybe you've just robbed a bank up the street. Maybe you are on drugs or are transporting a large amount of drugs. Maybe you have just killed your mother and father. Or, maybe you are out for a drive and just missed the sign. The officer is concern about where you are coming from. He comes up to your car and may have his hands on his gun. If you come bolting out of the car you're probably going to have the gun shoved in your face. He is fearful of you and you may be fearful of him. The level of fear may be intense for the officer. Also, the officer has taken away your freedom. Until the officer determines who you are and what your doing he will not relax.
Q. On the board is a list of the personality traits one finds in a psychopath. If you would look them over and determine if you have encountered such an individual in your police career.
Brad: This represents a real dangerous person. We have some of these walking down Main Street. The best liars are the people that are very smart. I've had kids take a polygraph test, and the polygraph operator has come out and said, "The kid's lying but I can't prove it. He's very good and does not register on the machine, but through conversation I know the kid is lying." I have not had personal experience with violent psychopaths, but have known other investigators that have. There was a fellow that killed a woman in the Catskill area. There was an all-points bulletin put out and he was caught going into Canada near Buffalo. He was wearing a blond-haired wig. When they took it off they found it was the woman's scalp.
Q. Isn't it possible you have dealt with psychopaths and not known it?
Brad: If they are very good liars and very good at covering up and keeping things to themselves, we might not know it. We get people that are very defiant of the police. They may refer to their rights. If we arrest you there are no more rights. I am taking you away. You are in custody. When I tell you to sit down you better sit down. If I tell you to stand over there for fingerprinting and photographing that's what you had better do. If you don't do it the judge will order you to do it. If you still don't do it the judge will sentence you to jail until you agree to do it.
Q. If they don't do what you ask you don't take them to a judge really. Don't you use force such as handcuffs and beatings.
Brad: We do not beat them up! Sometimes we have held the victim's hand for fingerprinting. But if that doesn't work, then it is up to the court. The judge may hold him in sort of a contempt of court charge and the guy will sit in jail until he complies. Once he gets to jail, the first thing they want to do is fingerprint and photograph him there. I can't speak for what goes on in the jail, but I haven't heard of too many people coming out of there without being fingerprinted and photographed.
Q. Let's talk about suicide.
Brad: Has anyone in this class known anyone that has committed suicide? Attempted? (There were hands raised at this point.) You know someone in this area? (Student answers.) Okay - I don't want to talk about someone that somebody might know about. We had a call a couple of years ago. There was a brother and sister living together. She was going to college and he was working. He became depressed at 29. He propped up the pillows in his bed. She gets up in the morning and looks in. Thinking he was asleep she left and returned at noon. She pulled the covers back and finds the pillows with several envelopes. They were addressed to different people. One was addressed to the police department. She opened the letter to the police, and the one to herself. She came to find out he was going to do something bad. He left a brief description of where he will be found. She called the police and gave us only the letter addressed to us. She said nothing about the other letters. We opened the letter and discovered he would be located in a specific area of New Paltz. Another officer and myself went to the area and could find nothing. About 15 minutes later the sister admits to having the other letters. With the rest of the information we are able to locate his car. The car is parked near a stream and a pond. I walked over to the pond and found a rifle case, a plastic bag with a wallet and driver's license laid out neatly so I could read it. It was his name. There was a rope tied to a tree next to the pond which lead into the water. Across the pond there was a large tire inner tube. Near the pond's edge there was one set of sneaker footprints going into the water. When I tugged he was at the end of it. The shotgun was attached to the end of the rope. He had a car jack tied around his neck. His one eye was off to the side of his face. He just did it up. What we think he did, was to sit on the innertube, floated out to the middle of the pond, put the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. Everything was well thought out. We didn't have to go in the water. Evidently he had an inoperable back problem that was very painful and it would get worse. About one month earlier he had gone into work , used one of their word processors, and typed up all these notes over one month before the suicide. At the last minute he wrote another note and put it in the plastic bag. It read, "Should you find me still alive, no one is to do anything to resuscitate me." If we had found him alive we would have resuscitated him. If need be, he could complain about it later.
Q. That suicide did not seem to bother you that much. Have there been some that have?
Brad: They all bother me to some degree. Where this kid killed himself was a pond where I used to go to park and do paper work. I can't do that anymore. When I drive past that pond and I remember that's where I fished that kid out. Probably one of his eyeballs is still laying down at the bottom of the lake somewhere. He ripped his head right open. There was a suicide on Mt. Rest Road involving a forty-year old. The police got a call about a man sleeping next to a car in a parking lot. The first squad car called for me and the Medical Examiner's Office. I pulled in the parking lot and noticed a pair of glasses near where I parked my car. One lens was broken and the frame was bent. There was red tissue, brain matter laying in an area that was quite wide. The guy laid on the ground with the shotgun on his chest. It split him wide open. His eyes were over here. There was nothing really visible. He had a hat on that we found nearby. It had a hole in it. He used a 12 gauge. It's been several years now so I don't remember his reason. He left letters to his family. It was terrible. There was stuff all over the place. When walking from here to there you had to walk this way and than that way so you wouldn't step on anything.
(There are photos of the suicide above and of a hanging. They are quite graphic and not pleasant to view. If you must, Click Here)
Q. What after-effects did you have?
Brad: Police go into a protective mode of joking when they are at scenes like this. Saying things like, "He really blew his top." is a defensive mechanism. Instead of sitting there crying you have to make fun of these things.
Q. Are you able to sleep at night? Were you able to eat dinner.
Brad: Oh yeah! You don't go home and have spaghetti dinner. You don't want that. You are always bothered and it's not pleasant. I've been to suicides where people have hung themselves. It's really gross. If you ever saw a hanging you would never hang yourself. The first thing that happens is your tongue comes out of your mouth. It's really a miserable way to go. And, if it's done near a tree there are scuff marks showing that the person changed his mind at the last minute.
To show how the elimination of the suppression of death, and the return of the fear of death, can cause a police officer to do an about face, I invited an ex-State Trooper, William Bender, to the Death Education class. He has spoken to many of the classes over the years. Here is his interesting account:
"I don't know how many years I've come to speak here, but I thoroughly enjoy it. I hope to be able to answer some of your questions.
"I grew up here in New Paltz. I always wanted to be a State police officer. I was able to take the exam and was appointed at the age of 21. I went to the police academy in Albany in 1970. When I was through with my training I was stationed in Troop K which is on the eastern side of the Hudson River.
"The particular incident I am going to relate was a tenant/landlord dispute at which time I got shotgunned. It was a sunny Saturday morning in September. We were still in short sleeve shirts. I got a radio call to stop at the station for a complaint. The sergeant told me there was a fellow down the road who called from a building complex and has had a serious argument with a tenant about a dog in his apartment. He was a little concerned because he grabbed a shotgun from behind the door and he left. He said he was going to come back and 'do you.'
"So, I went down in order to speak to this gentleman. (You have to keep in mind you get an awful lot of domestic calls and you get an awful lot of people threatening other people. About 99% never transpire.) The building superintendent was visibly shaken by this guy. He said, 'I went in there and his dog was crapping all over the floor and it was drawing roaches. We are getting complaints from the other tenants. You've got to get rid of the dog or we are going to get rid of you.' The guy went into a tirade and grabbed a shovel he had in the house and starting breaking up all the sheetrock. The landlord said he kind of backed off and then the guy reached behind the door and came out with a shotgun. The landlord said, 'I thought he was going to shoot me, but he walked past me and out to his car and then he drove away. This guy is whacked and I don't know what he is going to do.'
"I went over to see what he had done to the apartment. With that, who comes driving into the apartment complex? The gentleman in his little, red, VW Bug. The landlord shouts, 'That's him! He's back.' So, he drove right past us and did not acknowledge us at all. I had an unmarked State Police car. He went over and parked. I immediately got into the police car and drove in behind him. The door of the Volkswagen opened. The first thing I see come out of the front seat is the butt end of a shotgun which, of course, is not a very good sign. I walked around the front door of my car and I'm right next to the left front fender of the car with the Volkswagen in front of me. Now he gets out of the car and he's holding the shotgun. I unholstered my service revolver and tell him it is the State Police and whatever is bothering him, we could talk about it, and to put the shotgun down. There he stood with the gun at arms length and doesn't move, and doesn't say anything. I didn't know if the guy was deaf or whatever. There are little kids all around on tricycles and there were people playing football. They are all stopped now. They heard the argument and saw this guy come back. Now they are going see the confrontation between the big, bad policeman and the guy who raised all the fuss. So, now they are all watching. I decided to point my gun at him because this guy is either deaf or he has something else on his mind.
"The next thing I feel - have you ever been hit in the head with a baseball, that's basically what it felt like. What it turned out to be was the guy had spun around and he fired a shot at me. He just spun around and took his best shot, and it turned out his best shot was his best shot. He blindly fired it. He hit me and knocked me down on my back. He hit me in the head and he hit me in the hand, which happened to have my service revolver in it. He hit the hand with the gun and the rest of the shot came back and hit me in the head. So, the next thing I remember is that I'm on the ground and I'm bleeding. I remembered this guy had a shotgun and how close he was to me. Now I can see very little because I had been hit in the head with a shotgun from about 18 to 20 feet away. So, you say, 'This is the end of the story, it's just a matter of time before I bleed to death.' Then I hear this guy grumbling and swearing at me. He was using four-letter words. I start wiping my eyes so I could see a little bit. I looked down and my index finger is dangling off my hand. My gun is destroyed, the trigger guard is bent down. I thought it might still work. I looked up at him and he looked down at me, and I point my gun at him and he points his gun at me. Of course my gun didn't work. With his gun aimed at my chest, it goes 'click.' At that instant an off-duty police officer from the community comes over and he has a gun. He tells the guy to not move and the guy throws the gun down. I go off to the hospital and he gets arrested.
"He had a 5-shot Browning automatic gun that every time you fired a round it would eject two live rounds onto the ground. It turned out the first shot hit me and the second shot went up into the trees. Of course, I didn't hear the second shot because my ears were still ringing from the first shot. He had fired 2 shots and ejected all of his live ammunition. After I got shot I crawled back into the car because my biggest concern was if this guy shot me, who might he shoot next. I called the station and in a very calm voice asked them to send an ambulance because I had been shot. In disbelief the dispatcher asked me to repeat my last transmission. I again said, 'Would you call me an ambulance because I've been shot!'
"Later the police laboratory determined from 18 feet away there was a 17 inch pattern. What saved my life was my gun being out in front of me. The majority of shot hit that object and it was diverted away from my face. The shot hit my forehead and slivers hit the gun, shaved off, and hit me in the eyes. Had I not had the gun up, at the very least, I would have been blind. And, I think chances are, with the velocity it would have gone behind my eyes and into my brain and probably killed. In the hospital I had surgery to my hand and lost the end of the index finger. My face required plastic surgery because I looked like Frankenstein.
"Most importantly was my realization, and I guess the point of this course is about death and confronting death, that these things can happen to you and not just to other people. They happen suddenly and, in this case, over very stupid things. Of course, when you are a police officer you spend a lot of time chasing criminals. The majority of police get killed in these types of instances. With domestic disputes situations can suddenly turn volatile. The average person thinks the police get killed in bank robberies and murders.
"It took me about 6 months to recover and go back to work. I went back to Albany as a counselor at the Police Academy, and to retrain. Without an index finger I couldn't shoot a gun any longer so I had to retrain using my middle finger. This left only two fingers to hold on to the grip of the gun. At that time we were using 357 Magnums which we don't use any longer. Now we use 9 millimeter's which don't have as much kick. I spent a lot of hours shooting the gun and then going to pick it up off the floor. Eventually I was able to build up my hand to the point where I was able to re-qualify.
"When I woke up in the hospital and found out they were playing the US Open, and the world was still going on, whether I had all my bills paid was immaterial. The most important thing I had was my life. It made an awful lot of things that I worried about in the past inconsequential. And now I have a tendency to blow things off that other people get excited about. After the incident there was a lot of soul-searching. All of a sudden the realization comes that I am not Superman, not invincible, and bullets don't bounce off. When you are young and idealistic you get these attitudes when you go into police service. I had to decide whether this was something I really wanted to do. As time went by I felt my priorities started to change a little bit. I became a little less interested in putting my life on the line. That eventually resulted in my decision to retire. Of course, it was enhanced by the fact arthritis set into my joints and my hand was so beaten up that cold weather used to bother it. I found I wasn't as efficient with it using the firearms. That made me think if I was not as proficient I might not do as well the second time. I didn't want to take that chance.
"I did go back on the road for about 4 years. I went inside for the cold weather because the cold would really bothered my hand. I couldn't grab anybody or hold on to anyone. During the last year I was totally inside. The deterioration of the hand caused this. The fact that I survived, and the fact that I was able to relate the story to the powers to be in the State Police who said I did a lot of things that I was trained to do, led me to believe that I saved my own life. The steps that I took, such as having the car between him and I, having the gun up in front of my face, andconfronting him in the proper manner allowed me to protect myself. If I believed in the fact that I was well-trained I could probably go out and continue to do the job.
"I was married to a woman that was not completely impressed with my police career to begin with. She thought it was dangerous work and the weekends and holidays were bad. She is no longer my wife, by the way, we divorced in 1982. That was probably a factor. Because I was shot not only did she have to deal with that, but she had to deal with my desire to go back on the road, my rehabilitation, and my desire to continue, pressurized it even more which was not a good situation. She wanted me to stay inside and come home for more holidays and weekends. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to go back out on the road and do what I used to do.
"The guy who shot me went to trial and got 18 years to life. He is still in a State prison. He was 48 years old and an IBM engineer with no prior criminal history. He was reported to have a nasty temper. I guess he tried to convince me of that. His defense at his trial was temporary insanity. He claimed he heard voices, etc. The jury did not buy it. The fact he tried to finish me off after first shooting me soured them on the idea he was insane. He is eligible for parole in 1995. I check on him periodically to make sure he is still in jail and he hasn't died. After the shooting I never talked to the man. I was intent on putting him away so he wouldn't hurt anybody."
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