The Worst Day   no comments

Earlier this year, I contributed a chapter to Ed Nowicki’s anthology of police stories, called American Blue. Below is the true story I wrote for that book.

This is a story of the worst day of my life, and what has come of it since.

I have now been out of professional law enforcement longer than I was in. In the intervening years, everyone who knows me is aware that I remain passionate about policing as a profession. Since I didn’t complete a traditional 20- or 30-year “career,” many were confused as to why I would leave something I loved so much. I haven’t told the story to all that many people. Many of the cops who worked with me closely are not entirely aware what caused me to leave.

The graveyard watch that began the evening of June 8, 1989—my 36th birthday—was unusual to begin with. It was warm that night. Reno, Nevada gets hot in the summer, but people who don’t live there forget that the city is almost a mile above sea level. With less atmosphere overhead, the heat of the day bleeds off quickly and a difference of more than 50 degrees F between day and night is common. This was going to be a short-sleeve, sweat-under-the-body-armor night.

A look around the briefing room caused me to wonder why so many people were late. When the lieutenant began to call the roll, there were only seven people in the room, including him. The graveyard watch was typically 15-20 officers and supervisors, divided into teams over three districts of the city. For reasons never explained to me—questions that included the word “why” usually went unanswered—the majority of the watch had the night off. I had never seen so few officers deployed.

My assignment was to the south district. Each team of a sergeant and six to eight officers worked a patrol district and watch. Every team included at least one field training officer (FTO), and I was the one for this team. On this night, the “team” consisted of me and one K-9 handler and his dog. We would be keeping a close eye on where one another was and what we were doing, since we were effectively each other’s only backup.

Once we hit the street, things were quiet. On any other night, I would be looking for drunk drivers, but a DUI arrest would make me unavailable for up to three hours. I put on blinders and concentrated on activities from which I could break off quickly if someone needed cover.

A little after 0200, I was dispatched to an all-night gas station that included a small convenience store. The cashier who was ending his shift came up short on his cash drawer. This wasn’t the first time, and the store owner had come down to investigate personally. He believed his employee was skimming money from the till. I interviewed the clerk and the owner and was coming to the same conclusion, but I didn’t think there was probable cause for an arrest, and the owner didn’t want to sign a complaint at that time. I was close to completing the crime report face sheet when the call came in.

“Sam-181 and any other unit available, armed robbery just occurred from a cab at the 7-11, Neil and Peckham. Hispanic male suspect was armed with a small blue steel revolver, last seen on foot northbound. Sam-181, Neil and Peckham.”

I acknowledged the call and said, “Gotta go!” to the folks at the gas station. A quarter of a mile east of the gas station, I could turn onto the freeway and take the next exit for a dogleg onto Neil Road, or I could do the same thing on Airport Blvd., which ran alongside the freeway. I decided on Airport Blvd.—one less traffic signal.

Between me and Airport Blvd. was one complex intersection, just west of the airport’s main entrance. It was equipped with a “cluster” traffic signal, where drivers wanting to make left turns could see a standard red, yellow, or green light alongside a second column of lights with a green left turn arrow replacing the round green light. A green arrow meant they had the right of way to turn left, but a round green light meant they could turn left only if the way was clear. There had been at least two left turn-right of way accidents at that intersection each month since the new signals were installed.

There was no oncoming or same-direction traffic on the six-lane-wide street as I punched it coming out of the gas station driveway. Department policy on the use of emergency lights and siren was very restrictive and required reporting over the radio that you were Code 3 from Point X to Point Y. Almost without exception, that report was immediately followed by a supervisor’s order to shut down, because that made them sound proactive. Nearly everyone just got to calls as quickly as they could without their lights or sirens that would betray their sense of urgency.

I saw three bright green lights, one over each lane, as I approached the intersection. There was one car in the oncoming left turn lane, but I had the right of way to proceed. As I entered the intersection, I saw the oncoming car turn into my path. I clearly recall thinking, “I’ll never be able to stop in time.”

The impact of my Plymouth Gran Fury’s front end into the passenger side of the compact car made a dull but loud DOOMP, followed by a FWAP that sounded like the world’s largest paper grocery bag being snapped open. Then everything was silent.

I don’t think I was unconscious, but I was disoriented for a few seconds. When I came to my senses, the car and all of its electronics were dead. My dark blue uniform was covered in something that looked like cornstarch, and there was this yellow burlap-looking cloth covering my lap, still attached to the steering wheel. That was the airbag, which accounted for that big FWAP sound. I had grit in my mouth, the remains of two broken front teeth. All my other body parts seemed to be attached and functional. Even my glasses were still on my face.

I unlatched the seat belt and forced the car door open. It was never going to close again. Patrol unit 890813 was End of Watch. I took out my portable radio and reported that I had been involved in a collision, giving the intersection. I didn’t see anyone in or around the other car, and I ran to the other side of it to check for its occupants. A middle-aged woman, the driver, was sitting on the curb. I asked her if she was all right, and she replied, “Where’s my mother? My mother was in the car!” At first, I thought she was confused from the collision, but I ran over to the other side of the car to check again. I found Mom. The passenger door had failed from the broadside impact, and the woman had been thrown out. She hit her head on the base of one of the traffic signals, and one look told me no medical intervention would bring her back.

I walked back to the curb and sat down next to the driver. She asked, “My mother’s dead, isn’t she?” I thought a moment before I answered, deciding “I would want to know.”

“Yes, she’s dead.”

“Thank you for being honest with me.”

“Might as well. You and I are going to remember this moment for the rest of our lives.”

She went on to tell me that her mother “didn’t believe in seat belts.” Instead of fastening the belt, she would draw it across her and then hold the buckle near the latch, so it would appear she was wearing it. The three independent investigations differed in many ways, but all indicated that the crash was survivable, if all the occupants had worn seat belts.

The first responder to reach the scene was our lieutenant. Having ascended via political connections as opposed to competence or leadership potential, I did not regard him as a role model. The other driver, now starting the grieving process, started to cry and said, “My mother’s dead!” The lieutenant replied, “Look, we don’t know that yet.” I ended this exchange by saying, “Yes, we do. I checked.” I walked back to what was left of my car.

The passenger door was still functional, and I sat in the right seat while paramedics, fire trucks and highway patrol cars arrived. The NHP was going to handle the “official” accident investigation, as it involved a city vehicle and employee. I didn’t have anything to do. I briefly considered taking the shotgun out of the upright rack in front of me, and using it to blow my head off. The internal debate was interrupted when Adam, a fellow patrol officer, walked up. I stood to meet him, and without a word, he wrapped his arms around me. This might have looked a little gay, but Adam’s silent expression of caring may have saved my life.

An NHP sergeant whom I had known since my rookie days was called out to take me through the process. She drove me to the ER and apologized for having to ask me to provide three blood specimens, a half hour apart. This was to establish, by extrapolation, my blood alcohol/drug level at the time of the crash. I told her not to apologize for doing her job, knowing that had I refused, someone (probably several someones) would have been called in to take the blood by force. A physician examined me and found nothing wrong, other than my broken teeth and a silver dollar-size patch of skin on the back of one hand that had been flayed off by the airbag. It was still clinging, otherwise intact. A nurse cleaned it and put it back in place, covering it with a big Band-Aid. It didn’t even leave a scar.

The sole remaining member of my patrol team met me at the hospital to drive me back to the station. All of my “war bag” gear was evidence now, so I wouldn’t see it for a while. My captain had been called in, and was there to tell me I was on admin leave with pay until further notice. The captain was cut from the same cloth as the lieutenant, albeit with more IQ points. I was a burr under his saddle for asking embarrassing questions, so I figured he was salivating at the thought of having something he could use to destroy my career.

It didn’t take long to confirm this. I got word about a week later that the department was going to go for termination. There had been three independent accident investigations: NHP’s, my own department’s, and one from a consulting outfit in California. They estimated my speed at the time of braking at 74, 52 and 47 miles per hour, respectively. The street was posted at 35 mph.

Although the department was trying to have my head on a pike, the brotherhood closed ranks around me. Not a day went by that I didn’t get a visit, a phone call, a card, or some other reminder that what happened to me could have happened to any one of them, on any day. No matter what, I was still okay where they were concerned.

I hit bottom about two weeks after the accident. Commemorating the passing of an officer from my department, there was an annual memorial ceremony at a monument built at a city park. Officers from around the state who had passed in the previous year were remembered, and all local police agencies attended. On the morning of the ceremony, I went to the station locker room and started polishing my brass and shining my leather for the ceremony. My plan was to get into uniform, attend the ceremony, then change out afterward and go home. Word that I was in the station got around quickly. Several officers stopped by to put in a good word. The last one to visit was a deputy chief. He told me, “The chief has ordered you not to appear in uniform for any reason, until directed otherwise.” How nice he couldn’t be bothered to tell me himself.

I attended the ceremony that afternoon, but in coat and tie, standing with the civilians. The chief and his fellow chairborne rangers stood in the first rank of uniformed officers, the gold braid of their dress blouses gleaming in the sun. Not one of them had more than five years on the street, most considerably less. I wondered if any of them had bothered to wear a gun. When the proceedings were over, I started to cry as I walked away. This was noticed, and several officers tried to comfort me. The problem is that anyone could see that they were cops, and I was no longer one of them.

Due mostly to the inconsistencies of the three speed estimates, the chief eventually backed off of the termination penalty, ordering instead that I be suspended without pay for a month. I was and am stubborn, and fought this all the way to arbitration. I have replayed those arbitration proceedings in my head a thousand times, introducing evidence I didn’t think of, and asking questions that would have ended the matter solely through humiliation of the witness. But I didn’t do that, and the decision didn’t go my way.

That process took almost two years to resolve. I came back to work in the interim, but things weren’t the same. Part of me bought the chief’s line that I was a reckless cop whose thoughtless actions had killed an innocent person, a person I was supposed to be protecting. I had dishonored the badge, and in my world, that was unforgivable.

Before, I had been proactive. Now I did either reckless, dangerous things, or nothing at all. I stopped wearing my body armor. I refused to take on new trainees. I didn’t want them to be poisoned by their association with me. The only path to redemption was to get killed on the street, because dead cops are always heroes. I often considered going End of Watch via my patrol shotgun, but I didn’t want my fellow cops to find me and have to deal with my brains on the headliner. I spent many hours sitting in parking lots, drinking convenience store coffee, seeing nothing as I stared through the windshield.

A prosecutor I knew was appointed to the judicial bench, and he was allowed to hire his own bailiffs. He asked me if I wanted to work for him. It seemed like a good solution at the time. I went to work in the same building, wearing a coat and tie instead of a uniform. But the court hallway overlooked the police motor pool, and every day I watched the graveyard troops return from patrol in the morning, and the swing shift cops roll out in the afternoon. I was like a starving man looking in the window of a restaurant.

I left the court when the new chief of police—one of the aforementioned “rangers”—promised my judge that I could return to the PD. He lied. Moreover, he saw that I was blackballed from every outfit in the area.

In the intervening years, I have been a college instructor, a trainer, and an editor, all the time affiliated in some way with law enforcement. There has not been a day that I didn’t wish I was back in a patrol car, chasing the radio, training rookies, and busting drunk drivers.

My wife died a few years ago. I spent a lot of time with a counselor who has a gift for getting to the core of a problem. She told me, “You’re grieving your wife, to be sure. But you’ve been grieving the loss of this job for much longer than that. You’re working your way through your wife’s passing, but you’re stuck in the loss of your badge.”

I made the mistake of allowing police work to define me. Without it, there’s not enough left to make a whole person. It’s possible that I’ll get right with this someday and be able to move on. One can always hope.

Written by Tim Dees on August 17th, 2011

Public employee retirees: bend over   no comments

Posted at 5:51 am in Police life,Public policy

I’ve gotten involved in a number of discussions recently concerning public employee pensions. Public employees are being demonized in the media because they have jobs that are less threatened than those in the private sector, in many cases they make more money than their private sector counterparts, and they enjoy much more generous pensions.

At the same time, the public employees—especially those within shouting distance of retirement—are getting antsy over the prospect of that long-awaited pension being reduced or eliminated entirely because of a deficient retirement fund. Public employee retirement funds are not quite as bad off as Social Security, but the profile is the same. The proportion of retirees to active workers is growing, and contributions to the funds are insufficient to make them self-sustaining. Retirees are being paid with money from active workers, and by the time the active workers reach retirement, there won’t be anything left for them. In fact, the retirees may see their own payouts reduced or eliminated before all the dust settles.

Those who held up their end of the bargain are justifiably upset. They worked for 20 or 30 years with the promise of a livable and secure income on retirement. Most view the prospect of having their retirement benefits cut or eliminated as a betrayal and a breach of contract. I don’t blame them for feeling that way. I receive a monthly retirement benefit, and I’ve collected far more than I or my employer contributed to the fund. My benefit isn’t enough for me to live on by itself, but I didn’t put in the full 20 or 30 years to earn the necessary credits to qualify for that, either.

Breach of contract or not, moral or legal obligation or not, the problem is the same. There isn’t enough money to pay those benefits. The analogy of the family that has triple-mortgaged the house, spent their savings and maxed out the credit cards is a good one. Even if they can borrow more money, they’re still living beyond their means and the ultimate outcome will be default. Once that happens, it doesn’t matter if the money was spent on luxury vacations, gambling, college tuition, or medical bills. The money is gone, and unless they drastically cut back on spending and pay down the debt, the end will be catastrophic.

That’s where we are with public employee pensions. Yes, the cops and firefighters and teachers and heavy equipment operators did their jobs and were promised retirement benefits, but someone screwed up and the money isn’t there to fund them. It’s not right, it’s not fair. It’s also the way things are.

Lawmakers who aren’t already facing this problem will, in many cases, be doing so soon: do we fund retirement benefits, or do we fund ongoing programs like police and fire protection, water treatment, highway maintenance? I think it’s clear which is the greater priority for the greater good. The public employee retiree is going to get screwed. It’s not right, but I haven’t seen a viable solution proposed by anyone from any political persuasion.

Written by Tim Dees on August 13th, 2011

2011 PSWA Conference   1 comment

Posted at 1:57 pm in Uncategorized

I’m back from the 2011 conference of the Public Safety Writers Association, held July 14-17 in Las Vegas. This was our best conference yet, and I know many are looking forward to next year’s event.

I promised the members in attendance that I would post the video clips and PowerPoint files I used and were presented by others at the conference. Here they are:

The video clips of what I call “iconic police monologues” from movies and TV shows are available here.

The PowerPoint files used by the various presenters are loaded into the file library of the policewriter group at Yahoo! Groups. Any member of the policewriter listserv can get access.I have also loaded low-res versions of the photos I took to the photo library of the same group. I used low-res versions to save file space and upload time. If you would like a high-res copy of any of the pictures, let me know and I will send it to you.

The humorous PowerPoints I showed before each session began are here.

The video introductions that were modeled on the logo screens from various film studios were produced through a service called VipID.com. When I tried to bring up the site just now, a page there advises that there has been some breakup of the people who ran the site, and it has been moved to iVipID.com. The content seems to be the same, and my login credentials worked as they did on the other site, so I assume it’s more or less the same product. I suppose I am ruining some of the “magic” by revealing how I created those intro files, but the truth is that the process is not much more complicated than filling in blanks for each clip. There is a small cost involved if you want a high-res, non-watermarked clip to use, but it’s quite reasonable. I think all of the clips I made for the conference cost a total of around $8.00.

Here are the intro video clips:

To download any or all of these, right-click on the item above and choose “Save File As” or “Save Target As” in the context menu.

Written by Tim Dees on July 19th, 2011