I was honoured, last night, to be recognized during the 2017 Surrey Detachment OIC’s (Officer In Charge) awards. The awards are designed to give recognition to both police officers and civilians who have performed admirably, either in a single incident or over a long project/investigation.
I was recognized twice (I think the record for the evening was four times). One of my awards was an Officer’s Commendation for what I gladly describe as one of my proudest moments. An individual, with a propensity to act poorly, did a large number of very bad things, which culminated in him stealing a car with a seven week old baby inside. I was part of the team that located the missing child and later arrested the bad guy. I look back on that as one of my best days as a street cop, and as I stood up with the other members of the team who all did good work, my heart felt full and I could not keep a smile off my face.
The other award, a certificate of appreciation, is hard for me to look at.
In the Autumn of 2011 I was the first supervisor on scene for the murder of a young woman. While the other moment is one of my best, this particular incident is easily the worst I have experienced in my career.
There were supposed to be three of us getting recognized at the same time, but the other two members couldn’t make it, and I was alone when they called my name and I marched to the center of the stage. The 2nd in command of the Detachment read out a brief description of what I had done, and why I was being commended, and I had to struggle to keep the tears from my eyes as I remembered the incident, how I felt about it then, and how I still feel about it now. I only kept it together because I could see my spouse, Sayeh, in the audience…as well as the fact that I didn’t want to cry in front of a room full of cops.
Immediately after the incident, I was a wreck and remained that way for weeks. I had nightmares, and was diagnosed with PTSD, and struggled with both the anger and despair I felt about the incident. Ultimately, the only thing that really allowed me to process the incident and manage my feelings, was to write about it.
As any storyteller will tell you, the best therapy is the written word, either writing or reading, and I turned to the page for relief. I wrote it out long hand, and was forced to work in small sessions because I got so upset (and by upset I mean furiously angry), over the incident that I couldn’t keep it up for long. Eventually I finished it, then typed it out and edited it (mostly for grammar, as the content was etched on my mind like a stone tablet), and then submitted it to a contest – mostly so I could force someone else to read it. Much to my infinite surprise it won the contest.
When I wrote the piece, I found closure. Then, when I won that contest, I found validity; all those feelings that I had bottled and carried around with me for years were recognized as valid and worth talking about. The emotions I felt, and spilled out onto the page, were something that other people identified with, and allowed to touch them. It was the thing I needed to reclaim my sanity.
Now, as I think about how I felt getting that award last night, I feel compelled to share it again.
Blood In Her Hair
The acrid tang of gun-smoke still hung in the dark air as I scrambled out of my patrol car.
“I found her,” Dan shouted from across the rooftop parking lot.
“Grab a first aid kit,” I told Vanessa, another of my people, as I ran across the black-top towards where Dan crouched between two parked cars.
We’d gotten a 9-1-1 call about five minutes earlier, of a man shooting at someone from a vehicle, and then driving away at high speed. That ‘someone’, I quickly discovered, was a slender eighteen year old girl.
I knew she was still alive because she made eye contact with me. They would have been beautiful, her eyes, any other time, but now they were wide, and wet, and terrified.
“We need to get her out in the open,” I told Dan, then reached down to take a hold of her. She was so small I was able to lift her with one hand, grasping the belt looped through her jeans, and pulled her from between the two cars.
Vanessa slid to her knees beside me and yanked open the first aid kit, scattering the contents around us. We began to assess the girl as best we knew how, and found she had so many holes in her we didn’t have enough hands to plug them. Her hair, lustrous and shining beneath the orange glow of the street lamps, was now slick with her own blood.
As Vanessa pulled handfuls of gauze pads from the first aid kit and pressed them against the worst of the girl’s wounds, I reached up to touch her forehead. I wanted to tell her she’d be all right, and she was not alone, and try to give her some comfort and we struggled to hold her broken body together. But her eyes had become vacant and unfocused, drifting above my head instead of fixed on my face. I pressed my fingers beneath the arching line of her jaw, covering my hand to the wrist with the dark blood in her hair, but I felt no pulse and knew she was gone.
“Dan, grab the mask and start some breaths,” I said. “I’ll do the compressions.” I placed my hand on the flat spot between her breasts and was struck again by how small she was; my hand covered the width of her chest, my fingers resting on the hard ridges of her rib cage. I started CPR, trying to keep her heart pumping, and had to push hardly at all to reach the depth we needed. I counted out loud, telling Dan when to breathe for her. As Dan blew air into her through the breathing mask, causing her tiny body to inflate, I shouted into the shoulder mic of my portable radio, asking again for the medics. Without listening for a reply, I lost myself in the rhythm of the compressions and tried not to look at her cold, unfixed eyes.
After what seems like hours, but was probably more like ten minutes, I felt a set of strong hands pull at my shoulder. I turned to see several teams of medics and firefighters surrounding us, and I stood stiffly, gratefully, to get out of their way.
Now that someone else was taking care of the girl, I went about the tasks of securing the scene. Every few minutes I’d lean over the shoulder of the medic in charge and ask for an update. At first she ignored me, but eventually looked up and simply shook her head. The pace of her team didn’t slow, but it was apparent that they worked without any hope. Within a few minutes of their arrival, the medics had the girl loaded into an ambulance and drove off with their sirens blaring.
The next two hours passed in a blur of frantic questions and shouted orders, but eventually several other cops, with more stripes on their shoulders than me, arrived to take command of the scene and I was allowed to go.
I got back into my patrol car and made my slow, painful way across the city. I didn’t have a mark on me – other than broad splotches of the girl’s blood – but I hurt. The sight of that child’s death, the knowledge that I was the last face she’d ever look at, cut me in a way I’d never felt and left me crippled.
At the detachment, I staggered into my office to slump in my chair and let my head hang towards my knees. I felt as though I wanted to cry, the sobs gathering like storm clouds in the center of my chest, and I focused on keeping my breaths even so the tears would not flow.
A pair of booted feet appeared in front of me, and I looked up. My sergeant, Curtis, was shrugging into his uniform coat, the look on his face suggesting he was about to march to his own hanging.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“The boss just called,” he said, referring to our staff sergeant. “The girl’s family just showed up at the hospital and the emergency room staff don’t want to tell them their kid is dead. I have to go and do it.”
The last thing I wanted to do was face that child’s family, but I could not let Curtis haul this burden alone. I stood up and grabbed my own coat.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Curtis didn’t even try and refuse, and led the way to his truck.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the waiting room of the hospital. It was filled with anxiety-strained faces, and they crowded around Curtis and I as we walked in. The girl’s father, a dignified man in his later years, stepped past the other family members to face us, his back straight and his hands clasped in front of him. Curtis introduced us, and the child’s father cleared his throat.
“One of my daughter’s friends called us and said she had been hurt. You have news?”
Curtis started to speak, but his voice caught, and he shook his head. I stepped forward a little, until the front of my shoulder touched the back of his arm, so he would know I was there, and was with him in this.
The corners of my eyes stung as Curtis blew out a big breath through puffed cheeks.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your daughter is dead.”
The iron that had been holding the older man’s back straight drained away, and he aged visibly in the space of a heartbeat. Around him, his family dissolved into wails of sorrow.
“We know who did this!” the child’s mother screamed. “It was him! We knew he would hurt her. We knew!”
The girl’s father looked at my face for a moment, and then turned towards the wall. “My daughter was a gift from God,” he said. “Now God has taken her back.”
I called our main office to have a victim services counsellor attend the hospital, while Curtis explained as much to the family as he could. When we’d done all we were allowed, we turned to go, and leave the family to their grief.
Before I could leave the room, the child’s mother lunged at me, seizing my face in her hands.
“My daughter still needs you,” she shouted, her voice growing in both pitch and volume. “Don’t leave her!” She stood on her toes and pulled my face down until our noses were almost touching. “Please, I beg you, bring me vengeance!”
As her husband gathered her up and pulled her away, I could offer no answer. I didn’t have enough breath to speak. I could only nod and keep my teeth together as I followed Curtis from the room.
In the years between then and now I have carried that girl’s ghost and borne the burden of my own grief over her death. Justice has been done for her and her family – although the thirst for vengeance will have to remain unfulfilled – and I hope with that justice we can all find a measure of peace.
In all my years as a street cop, I have never had anything affect me as deeply as that girl’s death. I did not know her, but I feel, strangely, as though I have grown to love her. I will gladly carry her memory, because it is a constant reminder of how dear the cost of anger and violence can be, but I hope, by telling her story, that her ghost will leave me be.
As you walk through the hard miles in your life, remember that it is better to let something out than to hold it in. And there is always someone on the other end of that page who will be interested in hearing what you have to say.
As always, thanks for reading.