"The dispatcher is your lifeline," Jenny said on the way. "If you're out on something like a traffic stop and it goes bad, your dispatcher is the only person who can get someone to you." I'd discover that for myself a few hours later.
The entire city of San Diego is served by only one dispatcher at any given time. One person handles all calls to 911 made from a cell phone (it is assumed that mobile callers are on the road -- 911 calls made from landlines are tracked and routed to the local police department), and that same person is responsible for managing all the communication among the officers on patrol. "One? Only one?" I kept asking in disbelief. Apparently they're hiring. "We need more bodies," she said. "We can use all the help we can get."
We pulled over north of the E Street exit on the 805 South. Jenny said I could step outside, but she warned me to stand as far off the shoulder as possible. Two women stood chatting on the dirt next to a light pole. On the shoulder were two slightly dented cars, innocuous-looking white and blue sedans that I assumed belonged to the ladies. A white sports car was in front of the first two (I could just make out the dark hair of a man sitting in the driver's seat), and last in line was a patrol car whose left side was so bashed in that it clearly wouldn't be going anywhere for a while.
Apparently there had been a minor collision involving the two women, and when the officer arrived he parked behind them. He was leaning on the hood of his car filling out a TCR (traffic collision report) when he heard a skid and then felt the impact in his hands as another vehicle slammed into his patrol car. The officer could have been seriously injured or killed. Earlier Jenny had confessed to me that "I am more afraid of getting run over or hit by a car than I am of getting in a physical altercation or getting shot at."
Fortunately no one was badly injured, but I asked Jenny how she handles the gore when a really bad accident occurs. She never gets queasy at the scene, she said: "You have a job to do, and you have to get that done." Though bloodshed seems "surreal," officers are much too busy trying to clear the road and transport the injured to a hospital to ponder the cruel whims of fate.
"My adrenaline keeps me going. When I first arrive at an accident, my actions are automatic." But afterward, when the work is done, she starts to wonder: who is the mother who just lost a child? Who is the child who just lost a mother or father? "The worst part is when I put myself in the situation and I think, what if that was someone I loved? What if my children lost me?"
Sometimes the tragedies do touch painfully close to home. We had pulled over to talk, and turning toward me Jenny sniffled as she wedged a finger beneath her sunglasses to wipe away a hidden tear. Two years ago, she had just finished making lunch plans with her husband when she heard the dispatcher say there was a motorcycle down on the 163. She initially assumed it was a civilian. Scott was on a motorcycle, but she didn't think he could have reached the location the dispatcher had mentioned, given where he had been when they spoke. When the dispatcher announced it was a CHP officer that was down, Jenny raced to the scene. Frantic, she racked her brain wondering who it could be as the dispatcher ran through a roll call of all the officers on duty.
"I remember pulling up on the southbound side -- the accident was on the northbound -- and stopping in the center divide. I couldn't get over the wall, couldn't bring myself to do it." Jenny no longer bothered to wipe away her tears now. "Scott walked over to me and I asked who it was. When he told me it was Dean, the first thing I thought of was his family, his kids, who's going to tell his wife?" Officer Dean Beattie had been on the verge of retiring. "He talked about his family constantly, and then just like that -- gone.... He was so close to spending the rest of his life not worrying."
At the funeral, "sturdy and strong" men who rarely show emotion, men Jenny spent most of her time with, cried when the bagpipes played. "Death is something you're never prepared to deal with," she said again. Jenny pulled a uniformed sleeve across her cheek. "The reality of life and how fast it can come and go really hits you when you realize that you're not invincible."
By one in the afternoon, when we headed back to the ranch, this diva was withering away from hunger. At headquarters Jenny introduced me to Officer John Nevarez, who I'd be riding with that afternoon. While John was busy finishing a memo, I gulped down a cold Lipton Brisk, enjoying the lighthearted banter that officers indulge in as they go about their business. Schedules were posted on a wall next to a tall stack of internal mailboxes. I wrote an obscenity-filled note on my flower-stamped stationery and dropped it in Brad's box.
John stood up when he was ready to go. He had brought his lunch (why didn't I think of that?), but he offered to save his sandwich and dine with me instead, so we headed for Panda Express. An hour later, with food and caffeine working their magic on my weary body, I was ready to hit the road again. We climbed into the patrol car and were immediately summoned to an accident on the ramp leading to Interstate 8 from 15 South. That wasn't on our beat -- at the afternoon briefing John had chosen Beat 11, covering the 805 freeway from the 94 to the 163 -- but when there's an accident, officers from all beats come to help.