Police in New England examine a murder scene. This may be par for the course in our profession, but it takes time to get used to being around dead bodies. As a trainer, you’re in a great position to introduce the concept of death as it pertains to police work to ensure that your officers take their jobs and their training as seriously as it deserves. PHOTOS by Mark C. Ide
Harold & Maude
FEATURED IN TRAINING
A young Marine looks out at the landing zone where a number of body bags await removal. Inside one is a close friend.
A parolee robs a fast food restaurant. As the police close in on him, he places a handgun against his head and sends a bullet into his brain.
A pair of officers drive frantically to the emergency room. While one steers the car, the other desperately gives CPR to a child fished from a swimming pool moments before.
At the end of a pursuit, a suspect raises his gun at police officers. He’s killed when they respond with lethal force.
A terminally ill man kisses his wife of many years as she sleeps and goes outside. There he puts a rifle in his mouth and presses the trigger.
A street cop finds the victim of a shooting screaming and bleeding profusely. Deep red blood is spurting from the carotid artery, washing across his uniform. All the way to the emergency room he’s using his fingers to try to plug the wounded artery. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, the victim dies moments after arriving.
Incidents such as these frame an officer’s outlook on the inevitability that we will all pass on. Some of the examples are forever seared into our minds. Other events—for example, those involving violent predatory criminals, murders and pedophiles—might be viewed as God’s own justice.
Few professions experience such a wide spectrum of lives ending. They accumulate in our lives and thoughts. As the years pass, each officer develops their own way of dealing with death’s reality. This approach may be healthy and mature or delusional and denial-driven. We see just how vulnerable we all are. Sometimes we’ll use gallows humor as a defense mechanism to manage what we witness. It’s reflected in our terminology: “whacked,” “dead right there,” “blown away” and “wasted” are among our many euphemisms for dead.
Meet Harold & Maude
A movie that’s stayed with me from my youth is Harold & Maude. I must admit, I didn’t fully understand it until later. (By then I had helped to carry two friends to their graves. One was a KIA Marine from Vietnam and the other was a police officer who died tragically.)
In this black comedy, Harold is a young man intrigued by death. However, he’s too immature to really understand the finality that comes with it. Harold routinely stages realistic—but fake—suicides. Often, these take place in front of his horrified mother and even prospective girlfriends.
Eventually, Harold meets Maude. This takes place during graveside services for someone they don’t know. Each came independently, just because there was a funeral. A chance conversation unearths a common bond. But while Harold is a picture of youth, Maude is at the other end of the spectrum, well into her 80s. She’s not from another decade, she’s from another century.
Maude guides Harold toward a more mature perspective on death: not a glorification of death, nor is it morbid. There’s just an acceptance that it will happen. Along with some great laughs, she helps him—and by extension you and me—face the fact that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.
Looking back on it now, there was no Maude equivalent to help me understand as a cop what I’d see in the years to come. I had some exposure in the Marines, but at that time, the emphasis was on killing communists in Vietnam or—when death struck too close to home—holding it all in like a good John Wayne disciple. When I became a cop, this topic continued to go unspoken. There was no real preparation for this inevitability and neither the academy nor my FTO really addressed it.
Pull Up a Chair
Later on, I perpetuated this lack of acknowledgement as an FTO: I had a trainee who’d never really dealt with even a benign form of death. One morning, we were sent on a death call. The grandmother had just died of natural causes. According to the family, she’d lived the coveted full and rewarding life, but had been in failing health. It was just her time.
The trainee had a hard time dealing with this. By then, the family had withdrawn to the living room to make the necessary arrangements. In the kitchen with the old woman still at her last breakfast, he asked if he could go outside to write the report in our car. His first exposure to the passing of another human being had rattled him.
Instead of granting this request, I pulled out an empty chair and had him sit down at the table next to the departed. I told him to stay there until the report was done and we were relieved by the mortuary’s representatives. We then moved on to the next call.
I now know I missed a foundational training opportunity. I should have talked it through with him. It might have helped develop a street cop’s acceptance of our final fate. He eventually left police work, and I’ve sometimes wondered if this experience wasn’t contributory.
It Comes With the Job
Although it’s more convenient for trainers to avoid addressing this issue as I did that day, it’s a mistake. For several reasons, this topic should be discussed.