The thing about chicken is that it tastes like rattlesnake meat. Or frog legs. Some have even said that the taste of chicken reminds them of eating snails. The point is that food along with social issues can be regarded from different perspectives. Sometimes these perceptions become polarized, and that’s when trouble begins. This is the case of the police-related shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Although the articles in “Ready Room” address a variety of subjects, there is a common theme throughout: in police work as in life itself, when an event takes place it is imperative to keep in mind that there are always two sides to every story. Always. Even if further investigation reveals that one side of a given story is like a bucket of water that’s been peppered by birdshot, it is still essential to regard both points of view before reaching any conclusions.
Sadly, this is what’s lacking in the Ferguson case and Certainly Not News and other irresponsible media not only fail to view the story from alternate outlooks, they stoke the flames instead in their efforts to attract viewers. Worse still, they give air-time to a certain pompous commentator of questionable moral and ethical character, but fail to highlight the fact that the dead teen was a felony suspect who had been trying to get the cop’s handgun from him to do . . . something that teenagers should not be doing.
Some say the teen is a victim while others maintain that he willingly placed himself in a hazardous position that ended in tragedy. I’ll hold final judgment in abeyance until the cop in question has been given a fair shake by the media, and after he’s had his day in a court of law rather than in a court of public opinion. But I will say this: there’s a doctrine known as “probable cause.” It means that a set of facts and circumstance can lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime did occur, is occurring or is about to occur—and that a particular person is responsible for that crime. Probable cause is critical to police work. Without it, cops can’t make arrests for serious felonies that they didn’t witness.
And based upon probable cause, I’m betting the cop didn’t believe the kid was anywhere close to being chicken . . . but was more like a rattlesnake.
It’s vacation time! Please come back to “Ready Room – A Site for Cops and Writers” on August 24!
It’s gone. The mojo that once made us vibrant made its exit while all eyes were averted. Want proof? Just look at the panic that set in the other day when Facebook went down for about an hour, and people nationwide called police departments to do something about it.
It’s crazy . . . and downright scary.
How did we devolve so far so soon from a nation of pioneers and their descendants—men and women who fought in wars, taught our children and built roads, bridges and buildings? All we build now are devices that let us sit more comfortably for hours while we squander our time not in anything useful, but in social media or reality TV.
Ah yes, TV. When people aren’t screaming and scheming against one another, they’re sobbing about their inadequacies. Or take the new commercial that “tells” viewers they can probably do a few things well . . . except parallel park. Sadly, the ad was dead-on. Even worse, remember the spate of stuck accelerators on SUVs a couple of years ago? People were driving along the freeway when the accelerator stuck. Suddenly they’re screaming down the road at 90 mph, unable to stop. So what do they do? Why, they get on their cell phones and call 911, then plead with a disembodied operators to help them. One such stuck-accelerator caller was a cop who had been doing 90 for twenty minutes and had already burned his brakes up, and pleaded with someone on 911 to help him make the problem go away. Meanwhile I’m watching this on the news and I’m shouting, “For crying out loud, people . . . just shift the friggin’ transmission into neutral.”
And I could almost hear them respond with, “Huh? Neutral? What’s that?”
What’s that? That is the loss of mojo—a quality we had in abundance until the 1970s when men were men, women didn’t wear tattoos and kids could find the USA on a world map. Those same men and women married and raised five or so kids. And forget about politically correct comments about the social problems that existed—we’re talkin’ mojo here and nothing else. Because the fact was that men were the bread-winners while wives usually stayed home and raised the kids. As for the kids, the older ones had the responsibility of looking after the younger ones, not only because it reduced mom’s workload but because this duty prepared the kids for parenthood. Dads made $8,000 to $10,000, homes rarely had A/C and neither did most cars. Nor did they have automatic transmissions, power steering or power brakes. Those were all options and if you wanted an automatic transmission you shelled out $450 to have one—a lot of money when your annual salary was only eight grand.
But at least we were self-reliant. People knew how to drive a stick shift because that’s all we had, and so the whole idea of shifting into neutral to disengage the motive power was the self-evident solution to a stuck accelerator. Parallel parking? It was a common skill because we were taught how to parallel park. It was that, or else the driving examiner didn’t issue you a license. Of course in those days most businesses were located downtown and parking was at a premium, so we had to know how to jockey our car in between two others. It’s different today. Main Street has lost out to huge malls with vast expanses of available parking. Now we simply point that huge Dodge Ram with its automatic transmission, air-conditioned cab, navigation system, Bluetooth, 6-CD changer and amped-up stereo system to the nearest mall and edge that baby into the first parking space we see—actually, the first two or three spaces, since that’s what these hogs need—and that’s it. “Parallel park? What’s that?”
We knew how to read road maps, carried change in our pockets to make phone calls from public booths, and when friends got together for meals they discussed what they’d read in the newspapers. Today we rely on that shout-contest known as CNN for our worldview and when we meet with friends at a restaurant, it’s only to fiddle with our smart phones instead of talking to each other.
Yep, we’ve lost our mojo and now depend on others to solve our daily problems. Our accelerator is stuck? God forbid we should work the problem and resolve it. Hell, no. Let’s dial 911 and ask a twentysomething boy or girl how to stop our runaway car. Sadly, this reliance on getting others to walk us through a problem isn’t limited to John Q. Public. During a training session for supervisory federal agents some years ago, the instructor divided the class into “consultation groups” and provided this scenario: “You’re inside a building that’s been rocked by an explosion. Explain how you will handle the problems you’ll encounter.” So we broke into our groups and at the end of the “consultations” I was shocked when 95% of these supervisory agents stood and said they would dial 911 for guidance.
Really? You’re the people who’re supposed to be the leaders. You should be designating someone else to call for help while you tend to the injured while simultaneously leading others to safety—but you’d rather call 911 and ask someone to work your problem for you? Because this reflects the extent to which our society has devolved. We panic when faced with problems, both life-threatening and those that pose no danger—and then we call 911 to take care of us . . . or to solve Facebook’s technical problem.
Arguably even worse, we’re hearing another complaint these days—it’s the “us” against “them’ thing. For example, a recent documentary on America’s disaster plans touched upon the COOP—the Continuity Of Operations Plan. Government officials must plan and prepare for disasters. That’s a given, and a portion of the plans must include “command and control.” Translated, it means someone’s gotta be designated to make decisions and be given a staff to assist them—and they need to be alive in order to help the rest of us. But some guy in the documentary expressed his venomous opinion that our nation’s COOP only provides shelters for “elite politicians,” leaving the rest of us 300 million Americans to fend for ourselves in the event of a nuclear or biological disaster.
Come on, does anyone really think we have the financial resources to build shelters for 300 million people? As for those elite politicians? Hell, each of us is capable of running for office. That’ll guarantee a place in one of those shelters. Otherwise we stock our homes with emergency supplies and take first aid courses to help ourselves and our families in the event of a major catastrophe, as we did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Taking care of ourselves—what a novel idea. Now that’s mojo, and it’s time we reacquired it.
Writers know that being a cop is tough; that it can be boring and mind-numbing. There’s paperwork. The five seconds it takes to make a routine arrest can mean five hours of report writing. There are also car chases, hold-up alarms and bar fights. These don’t happen often but when they do cops get the chance to test their skills. But there’s another challenge that cops don’t want to face yet must deal with all too often. They’re the death notifications, and cops and writers need to know how to handle them.
You’re at the scene of a horrific auto accident—car vs. pedestrian. A young man stepped in front of a SUV doing sixty. The fire engine and ambulance sirens have long since faded. The medical examiner has declared the teen—or what’s left of him—dead. “PSA,” she mutters while gesturing at the dismembered corpse. “PSA – Person Scattered About.” It’s a grisly scene and some make grim jokes to keep sane. The body is removed. The elderly driver of the SUV is taken to the ER after he complains of chest pains. The accident reconstructionist has taken his photos and measurements, and the wrecker has tugged the SUV onto its lift-back for removal to a storage facility. There the car will be weighed and gone over with infinite care. But others will do that. In the meantime you’ve got a job to perform, one that must be done with infinite care—you’ve got to notify the young man’s parents that their nineteen year old son, the star lacrosse player and straight-A student, is dead.
Now what? Unfortunately, there is no best way to handle a death notification. There are only tired-and-proven ways, and bad ways.
The prevailing wisdom dispensed in police academies more than thirty years ago suggested it was best to keep it brief. Tell the survivors what they’ve already surmised after answering that 3:00 a.m. knock at the door. You say, “Good morning, sir.” Then you lock eyes with the mother. “Good morning, ma’am.” You give a slight nod toward the mother because mothers always know. Always. Then you verify that you’re talking to the right parents—if there is such thing as “right” in this situation. You ask, “Is your son William Smith?” The father fidgets with his glasses while the mother keeps her eyes on yours. Finally, you begin. “Your son was involved in an automobile accident a short time ago.” Then you tell them. “I’m sorry. He’s dead.”
Just like that.
And you’ve shattered the parents’ world.
All cops knew the job was dangerous when they pinned on the badge—and writers know it too. But this is a danger that cops prefer not to deal with, yet they have no choice. It’s going to happen, again and again. So what is the “better” way to handle this—whether in real life or on the pages of fiction?
Begin with mind-set. A cop has to get his or her mind in a proper mode for dealing with the pain that’s about to come for the survivors as well as for the cop. First, you resort to the comfort of routine. You stop for a cup of coffee. Not that you need the caffeine; you’re already amped. But you stop anyway. You take that first sip, then grimace and say, “Ugh” whether you mean it or not, and toss it in the trash can. Then you start your cruiser and head toward an address that’s much closer than you hoped, robbing you of the time you still need to prepare yourself.
Here’s the thing. And it’s important. We’re not being robbed. If anything, we’re about to become the robber—the cruel thief of someone’s dreams for their child. So we begin by losing the self-pity. This is all about the survivors, not us. We think back on previous notifications and ask, “How did those come off? What lessons did I learn?” And then we’re there; we’ve arrived at the house on the darkened street at 3:00 a.m., and before we know it we’re knocking on the door. Now what?
- Introduce yourself. It’s obvious from your uniform that you’re a cop but if there’s ever a time to personalize yourself, this is it. “Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I’m Trooper Brown and I need to speak with you.”
- Next. Verify. You’ve got the victim’s license but you still make sure. “Is William Smith your son?” You should confirm the date of birth and ask for a brief physical description. Once you’re sure, you tell them. “Your son was involved in an automobile accident a short time ago.” Be precise. Don’t use terms such as “crash” or “pile-up.” Saying “automobile accident” instead of “crash” provides them with a brief moment to understand that something has happened—and your use of professional language helps prepare them for the dreaded news they still hope isn’t about to come.
- Then you tell them. Clear, concise and to the point. You get it out, because you don’t want to prolong their agony. Still, you need to make it clear. “I’m sorry. Your son is dead.” In this fashion you let them know that there are no false hopes to cling to. You didn’t say, “He’s been hurt and um, they took him to a hospital and um, the doctors worked on him but um . . .”
- And then you provide pertinent details and offer assistance. You might call a neighbor or a spiritual adviser. Perhaps you can have a taxi bring them to wherever the body of their son has been taken.
- More often than not, the survivors will whisper, “Thank you,” and quietly close the door. That’s it. You’ve completed the task. You return to your cruiser, notify communications that the next-of-kin have been informed, then drive off with your thoughts.
Try to Avoid
- Don’t begin with, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this . . .” Again, this duty is all about them, not you. Don’t diminish the dignity they seek by implying that this is a chore and that you’re sorry that you would rather not be there.
- Avoid a mix-up. Confirm the address and the people involved. Sounds simple, but horror stories abound where an officer knocks on the wrong door. As soon as someone answers the officer blurts, “Sorry to be the one to tell you this but your wife’s just been killed. ‘Bye now.”
- Maintain eye contact. This is a painful moment but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. More importantly, this is when professional peace officers can demonstrate the compassionate side of law enforcement. Once again, the instant a mother sees you standing there, they know and will watch your eyes for clues. Don’t look away. Instead, give ‘em your eyes along with the compassion that’s in them. She will understand. She might not ever thank you personally or verbalize the message that’s transpired, but at least you’ve acknowledged the dignity of her soul; at least you’ve given her a portion of yours.
- If asked for details about a violent death or, for example, a suicide, don’t say, “Your daughter just killed herself.” Offer facts instead. “Neighbors heard a shot and called the local police. They arrived and found her on the bed with a revolver in her hand. They’re still investigating.” It’s not much, but at least you’ve avoided categorizing this as a suicide, a notion that can be more painful than news of the death itself. And—it might not be a suicide. That’s why it’s still under investigation. As Sgt. Friday said, “Just the facts, sir.”
- Should you knock on a neighbor’s door first, on the chance that they’re friends of the family that you’re about to give the news to? Probably not. Even if you’re personally aware of a close relationship between the neighbors, it’s not a good idea to involve an outside party. You’re there for an official purpose—to notify next-of-kin of a death—and certain social machineries will begin to grind once you’ve given them “the word.” Keep others out of it at first, but suggest to the survivors that they call someone for comfort.
- The death scene might have been so gruesome that you’ve gotten blood on your uniform. You’re going to clean-up first, of course. But in the confusion, and when you’ve got other issues on your mind, you might not have a chance. Explain the problem to another officer and ask him or her to make the notification for you.
Then you write your report. Or as a writer, you create that scene. If done properly, both the cop and the writer have shown something—professionalism, creativity in the approach, and an authentic portrayal of a sad reality. And, the cop and the writer have shown compassion. It’s why cops wear the badge; it’s why people read the stories that writers create.
Thanks to Putin the cold war is heating up. Earlier this week a Russian-built surface to air missile blasted a civilian airliner from the sky, killing all 298 aboard. Now the saber-rattling has begun with eerie echoes of the show of sabers that resulted in the outbreak of World War One. That was in August 1914 – 100 years ago. I posted this article sometime back and its relevance to current events is obvious. Here’s the article:
There’s a community on this planet that’s been targeted by nuclear missiles countless times. The targeting isn’t a computer simulation or the conceptual paradigm of some faceless think-tank. The place I speak of is real, and if missiles are ever made ready to fly in Korea or the Middle East, residents of Kwajalein Atoll should be on the short-list of talk-show experts. I should know. I’m among the few who’ve lived there.
Kwajalein is an isolated chain of coral islands buried deep within the Central Pacific. It’s a genuine tropical paradise whose several islands possess exotic, wonderfully textured names, such as Omelek, Gagan and Illeginni. Coconut palms sway in balmy breezes and furiously blue, green and turquoise waters compete with talcum powder beaches for the eye’s favor. Tranquility runs rampant.
Kwajalein is all this and more; Kwajalein is also a target. The United States test-fires its ICBMs—Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles—at Kwaj, and the tracking and telemetry equipment that sprout from beneath the palms possess equally alien appellations—Altair and Tradex and Super Radot, among them.
The end of the Cold War supposedly meant freedom from nuclear death; all that has changed thanks to North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. But Kwajalein is an isolated lagoon, and isolation cushions the impact of current events. The tests command everyone’s attention, and discussions are matter-of-fact. Missions are routinely announced in the island paper. Warning, the announcements begin; a hazard area will be in effect in the lagoon’s mid-atoll corridor tonight due to incoming MIRVs. MIRVs—Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles—are the warheads, and up to ten of these City Busters can be packed into a single ICBM. Just be sure to substitute dummy warheads for the real thing, and fire away.
Open the pod bay door, HAL.
On a battlefield soldiers yell, “Incoming!” to warn of inbound artillery. On Kwajalein however, the announcement of a mission means it’s time to form “incoming parties.” It means groups of five to fifteen lug ice chests and barbecue grills to the nearest beach; they snap open cans of beer as cooks slap hamburger patties down to sizzle. The talk is festive, and laughter mingles freely with the intoxicating blend of burgers and bougainvillea. The smiles on faces bronzed deep by the constant sun are radiant; the trades blow cool air across the parties. Day-glo Frisbees and tattered footballs fly between leaping youths. Giggly children chase each other as watchful parents keep sight of them
Daylight eventually capitulates to dusk, and as the time for the missile re-entry draws near the athletics, the banter and particularly the laughter fade away. It’s as if a Fourth of July crowd has grown silent in anticipation of that first cluster of iridescent reds, blues and shimmering golden spiders. The revelers search the sky.
Fourth of July crowds can see their rockets being launched, but Kwajalein’s rockets take off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, 5000 miles away. There is no whoosh, only an odd star that suddenly appears seventy-five miles overhead among the constellations. With a heart stopping jolt it blossoms into a super-nova. The beach partiers watch raptly as the MIRVs streak toward their targets at more than 13,000 mph.
There are no “ooohs” or “ahhhs.”
The MIRVs race toward their targets with streaks of white-hot vapor trailing behind each. Three, four, five of them zip past, and all the natural similes are there I suppose—that an angry Thor has been roused from perpetual slumber, or that God Himself has thrust His hand into the great pickle barrel that we call the Pacific Ocean.
The MIRVs strike the lagoon with furious kinetic energy. Sometimes in their wake there is this—a murmuring sound, a desiccated sigh that travels across the lagoon on the backs of the trades. That noise is haunting. It is every freight train or crying child or howling wolf that leaps, fleetingly, from the recesses of our memories.
The whispers eventually fade. A tentative burst of applause is followed by scattered talk of nuclear blackmail. The crowds move away. Conversations are muted. Many in the crowd are withdrawn, their faces grim. Mothers and fathers hug their offspring with something more than simple tenderness; they seem to engulf their children as though their arms are protective shields. The gesture, born of instinct, is so inadequate. The children, too, are hushed. They neither laugh nor shout as they had moments earlier, but look to their parents for a reassurance that does not exist.
It is impossible not to think of T.S. Eliot:
. . . This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper . . .
The crowd disappears. The party—this one at least—is over.