I don't know exactly when I decided to get into law enforcement. It's not like i'm one of those guys who knew ever since he could think that he was "born to be a cop.” I’m not even sure why I got into it. I mean, I’ve got a list of all the standard stuff that I could rattle off: to help people, to catch bad guys, the challenge, room for advancement, the steady paycheck... they all seem superficial. Even the retired cop father figure who played a big part in raising me... too pat. Leastways, they don’t work for me anymore.
But then I’ve changed a bit in the last four and a half years. Life changes people. Seeing life at an extremely accelerated pace, as is the case in my line of work, changes you very drastically, very quickly and ultimately can leave you sitting somewhere with your head spinning, trying to figure out exactly who you are and where you fit into the whole scheme of things.
I whipped my little pickup into the parking lot of my apartment complex, jumped out, and grabbed my tool bucket from the bed. As I headed over toward the mailbox, I tried to decide if I should get cleaned up and spend some time with Susan or go to the gym first.
I dropped my tools off on the doorstep and continued on to the mail box. On my way back, I flipped through all the junk mail and some bills; then I saw it. A small envelope with the city seal on it. I tore it open and read it:
“You have been accepted to the San Diego Police Department Regional Law Enforcement Academy. Please contact your background investigator as soon as possible for further information.”
I just smiled a little, took a moment to feel the sun on my face, and thought, well, here I go — this is going to be really different. No more of this construction crap. No more slaving over a trowel in the blazing sun day after day, coming home covered with dirt, sweat, and half-dried cement crackling and falling off of the bends of my knees and arms as I walk. No more ten-hour days behind a 90-pound jackhammer. I’m saved.
I went inside and told Susan. She was happy for me. And since we were newlyweds with a baby on the way, it was good to know we could look forward to a steady paycheck in the near future. She never did express any of the common fears that some officers’ wives have, the kind of stuff you see on television all the time. You know, the lady is up in the middle of the night wringing her sheets and bawling her eyes out for fear that she’ll never see her husband again. Susan has told me since that it’s because she has confidence in me. Or maybe she’s just a bit naive. At any rate, I was on my way. The course was set. If I didn’t screw up, I was going to be a cop.
I needed to get to the gym, to blow off some steam and relax. As I walked in, I saw a couple of my buddies over in the corner. Navigating my way through the maze of machines and barbells, I waved the notice in the air, “Yeah, that’s right, uh-huh, you are looking at one of San Diego’s Finest,” I said proudly.
"Get out of here, you’re not really gonna do it. Let me see that,” one of the guys said as he snatched the letter out of my hand. “You’re crazy, man, you’re crazy.” A couple of others gathered around and started joking with me and congratulating me. One of the guys I knew only as Jerry walked up and asked what was going on. I told him that I had just received my notice to the police academy. “You’re kidding,” he said, “I just got my notice last week. When are you going?” “I don’t know, it doesn’t say,” I replied. He grabbed the notice and examined it. “Sure it does,” he said, “right here, the 110th Police Academy, that’s the one I’m going to.” This is great, I thought; what a coincidence.
Jerry and I started to spend more time together. We had a lot in common. We were both fanatical about our physical fitness, and we were both going to the police academy. Our lives were consumed by those two things. What else was there? Of course, I had a wife and so did he. But right then, getting through that academy was top priority — and not just stumbling through. Jerry and I had a common goal, to get the top honors for physical fitness. If one of us didn’t get it, it would only be because the other edged him out. We ran together in the mornings and lifted weights at night for two, sometimes three hours. Afterwards, we went to one or the other’s house for well-planned meals and a blender full of protein drink. Although we were spending much more time together, the conversation stayed pretty much within the boundaries that had been set in the gym. We spoke of delts and lats, curls and presses, told manly jokes, and generally talked about the same tough-young-guys macho topics. Then we went our own ways, with neither one of us asking much about the other except what time the next workout was. The tracks had been laid, the borders posted. It was not as if we made a conscious decision not to talk about anything personal, it just wasn’t consistent with what we were... or thought we were.
Throughout our days in the academy, we continued our relationship in the style we had mutually set and accepted. Even if we had wanted to, we didn’t really have time to discuss some of the thoughts and feelings we were experiencing as we learned how to shoot, fight, stop the bleeding, and such. The academy came and went, and we did finish one and two in the fitness honors. Afterwards, we had a great celebration. It all happened so fast. It seemed like we were just out running on the beach, and this was all a dream.
I remember so clearly one time Jerry and I were running along the cliffs of Black’s Beach. I teased him a bit for gawking and told him all about how to “look without looking like you’re looking” (I was such a man of the world). His head was on a swivel and his eyes were wide as he sheepishly explained that they didn’t have places like this back in Michigan. His face was so open, so unpretentious. I gave him a good-natured shove, and we took off down the beach at an ungodly pace. We ran with such ferocity that people began to lift their heads up from their beach towels to see if something was wrong. We just thundered on, eating up the beach in large sections. The wind, sweat, and the resistance of running in the sand felt more like something to lean on than a strain, like a long-needed stretch. God, it was good to be young!
Soon enough, Jerry was heading out to Southeast San Diego and I was going to Logan Heights. How altogether appropriate; after all, we were “tough guys.” We were happy with our assignments and shared our excitement. We were young, tough, and we were cops — everything we wanted to be. The world looked bright.
The first few months on duty, everything was new, exciting, and foreign: The feeling of sitting behind the wheel of a black-and-white; having an army of veteran cops come on the radio to ask where you want them, just because you were the first one on the scene; having someone call you sir for the first time — things you would never have expected.
One surprising lesson had to do with the familiar buzzwords “personal space.” In the United States more than almost anywhere else, personal space is very real, very definite, and very large. We spend our childhoods learning that we keep our hands to ourselves and a lifetime trying to avoid bumping into one another in line at the supermarket. But now as a policeman, not only did I have to enter people’s personal space, but I actually had to enter their homes, put my hands on them in front of their families, and move them around or even take them away with me.
And I learned quickly that the work is a lot about judgment. Not everyone a policeman deals with is some big, hairy gorilla in the process of hurting someone. People seem to think good guys have a big G on their foreheads and the bad guys have a B. More likely, I might be settling a domestic dispute between a businessman just home from work who got into an argument with his wife. He could be standing in the doorway to the kitchen, loosening his tie, when she starts laying into him about why he is always coming home late. He starts screaming back, and I tell him to shut up for a second. I’ll see the stress meter rise on his face as he turns and walks into the kitchen. I know that he is probably going in there to cool down, but I also see a dish drainer full of steak knives. I can’t afford to take the chance that he has gone over the edge and might pick one up. So I grab him. Now he wonders why the hell I am putting my hands on him and treating him like a “common criminal.” It’s a numbers game, and you do what you have to within reason to put the odds in your favor. Keeping people away from steak knives is just one way you do that.
It’s a fine line when words no longer work and you have to put your hands on someone. It took some getting used to. And that leads into another area — the use of force. Once I had to help a security guard arrest a shoplifter who had become violent when the guard tried to stop him from leaving the store. When I arrived at the scene, the fight was on. I tried to pull the guy off the guard, but he was big, strong, and angry. I ended up using a carotid neck restraint (some people call it a sleeper hold). I got a good hold, and after rolling around a bit and bashing against the wall a few times, he started to pass out.
A crowd was gathering, and I had no backup. Someone said, “Let him go, man, he’s not fighting. Chill out.” I have to admit, it looks pretty wicked when you’re on someone’s back with your arm around his neck. So at the time I thought, “Yeah, all right, maybe I can ease up a bit." I told the suspect, “All right, man, I’m gonna let you loose if you can stop fighting.” Wrong. As soon as I relaxed, he came alive, fighting twice as hard. When you feel yourself losing consciousness, your will to survive kicks in. It’s a natural instinct. Ultimately, I got him. But I ended up with a back injury, some desk duty answering phones, and a new perspective on when a fight is over. The fight is over when the cuffs are on.
After a few months, the job became more fun. I got better at it, felt more comfortable. I constantly re-evaluated how I dealt with people. I became more aggressive. As my confidence grew, I began to look harder for the serious incidents, going to places where I knew I could get into a good foot pursuit, looking forward to the “hot calls." I loved the challenge. I was in the best shape of my life and making good money doing a job I loved.
The first time I saw that police work was not a game was just eight months after graduating from the academy. I was in a room on the sixth floor of the UCSD Medical Center, looking at Jerry as he lay in a coma with a bullet hole exactly in the middle of his forehead.
The call came too early one morning. Jerry had been shot during a foot pursuit out in Southeast. “Damn,” I said, “I gotta get down to the hospital and see him. Where did he get hit?” “You don’t understand,” the caller said, “Jerry got shot in the head. He is in a coma.”
I heard what he was saying, but it just didn’t sink in. I kept thinking Jerry had taken a round in the arm or something.
In the same way that kids think that nothing bad could ever happen to them,
I felt that Jerry was invincible. I can recall sitting at the academy orientation, looking across the auditorium, thinking, “Someone in here is probably going to die at the hands of another.” And of all the people in there, even me, Jerry was the very last person I would have picked.
He was so vibrant, so alive. Nothing was real until I saw him lying in that hospital bed.
Jerry, the fighter I knew, kept fighting, clinging to life for weeks. Late at night in the hospital hallway, I spoke with his wife and family and learned so much more about him. We spoke softly in a waiting room strewn with sleeping bags and full of friends and relatives praying for a shred of news, a thread, something to hang some hope on. I learned there was not just one side, but many sides to Jerry that I had never seen. He was a caring man. He was a writer and an artist, a thoughtful man, full of ideas.
Reflecting on the time we spent together, I could see all those things had been there; I just hadn’t picked up on them. I even remembered his saying something about art — once. I passed over it. Traveling at speed, details — regardless of their clarity or significance — become blurred. I missed out because I was too busy interacting as a tough guy. I took it for granted that this was what Jerry wanted, that this was all he was about. I guess he assumed the same about me. I saw and learned those things in a hospital hallway when it was too late to learn them from him. Valuable lessons often cost far too much.
It was about 2:45 in the morning and I had just finished lunch when the call came out... so familiar, so simple, as if someone were asking me to pass them a nine-sixteenths wrench.
"Is there a unit to respond to a jumper on the Coronado Bridge?"
"Five twenty-three John, responding from close," I said and screwed the top back on my Thermos and tossed it into my lunchbox.
I was only a block away, and within a few seconds I was flogging the big Ford down National Avenue toward the bridge. I flew past a small mom-and-pop market on the south side and had just about reached the bridge ramp when the dispatcher advised that the jumper, a woman, was now talking to a 911 operator on a pay phone in front of the market. I pulled a quick U-turn and headed back eastbound.
I first saw her as I approached the intersection of National and Dewey Street. I thought there might have been a mistake; she was leaning against the market wall and seemed to be talking casually on the phone. I turned the corner and eased the car to the west curb of Dewey. I got out of the car and slowly crossed the street toward her. She was about 30 years old, medium height, with a nice figure, and was dressed as casually as her demeanor appeared.
As I approached her, the young woman noticed me for the first time.
Right then, from that moment on, the whole scene took on a weird aura, like a set for some kind of live theater; the streetlights created the same kind of warm glow and shadows. The area seemed somehow enclosed and separate from the rest of the world, like being indoors. Even the air seemed to thicken and warm like some kind of membrane that now connected me to everything inside the invisible borders of the scene. I had taken this same walk many times before, approached someone who threatened suicide. This just felt different. It was the way she looked at me. I can honestly say I saw what would best be described as the fear of God in her eyes. I tried to shake it off and continued toward her.
She dropped the receiver and moved away from me, hugging the wall. I radioed for another unit to cut her off as she moved east along the sidewalk. Her posture reminded me of Spiderman, with her body hunched up like a cat ready to spring and her hands clinging to the wall in a hand-over-hand motion. In the background I heard the dispatcher say that her name was Karen. I tried to talk to her. I called her by her name... no response. It was as if she saw me but beyond that was completely out of touch.
A second two-man unit arrived. Greg Hackett and Brian Hubbard stopped their patrol car just to the east of Karen, and Greg walked along the curbline toward her. Brian stayed at the car to prevent her from fleeing eastbound. I kept trying to engage her in some kind of conversation as Greg moved in on her. Suddenly, she plunged her hand into her front pants pocket, poking her finger into the material and said, "Don’t come any closer, I've got a gun.” No sooner did Greg tell dispatch that she was armed than she pulled her empty hand out of the pocket. "Disregard," Greg advised. "She doesn’t have a gun. Let’s take her, Hoffman." He moved to step up onto the sidewalk, and I started to tell him to wait.
I couldn’t see if she had anything hidden in her loose, oversized shirt. Before I could get the words out, Karen reached into the waistband of her shorts, pulled out a huge, black .357 Magnum revolver, and put it to her temple.
"Oh, shit," I thought as I dove behind a nearby car for cover. It wasn’t an "Oh, my God!" kind of "oh shit." It was more like the kind that lies somewhere between discovering that you have just locked your only set of keys in your car and the realization that you have pulled out in front of someone and are waiting for the inevitable crash.
I drew my gun and steadied my hand on the trunk of the beat-up Chevy Nova I was using for cover. Greg had drawn his gun and moved back behind his patrol car. Karen started moving back westbound on the sidewalk, in my direction. I kept moving to keep the car between her and me. She continued about 15 yards down the sidewalk, past the pay phone on the corner, and stopped in the middle of the intersection just short of my patrol car.
I didn’t want to leave the old green Nova. I had grown rather fond of it, the heavy metal panels and all. But there was nobody covering the west, and Karen was not going to stick around. I moved up closer. I was about 15 feet away from her, crouched behind the tiny aluminum post that held up the pay phone. I tried to make myself as small as possible as I peered over my handgun and said, "I want to help you." I was suddenly struck with the dilemma of how the hell to convince Karen that I was there to help her while I was pointing my gun at her.
On television, these scenarios are always presented as if a person irrational enough to kill himself poses no danger to the cops trying to talk him out of it.
The cops always drop their weapons, walk up to the armed man, and start trying to talk him out of using the gun on himself, as if that were the only concern.
I know it’s just television, but people buy into that stuff. As I dismissed any thoughts of putting my gun down, Karen put the barrel of hers in her mouth and cocked the hammer back. "This is it," I thought. "Here she goes. This lady is not fooling around.”
By then another officer had arrived.
Jim Mason pulled his patrol car into the middle of the intersection just north of where Karen stood. He got behind the hood of his car and was joined by Greg.
I continued trying to talk Karen into putting the gun down. It was still cocked, but at least she had taken it out of her mouth and moved it to her neck (for what that was worth). She kept screaming, "You don’t believe I’ll do it! You don’t think it’s loaded!” Of course I believed it was loaded. I was so close I could see the bullets in the cylinder.
This was not working. She was supposed to give me something to work with, start telling me about her terrible boyfriend, her lost job... something.
"Listen, Karen, is there someone I can get for you ... anyone, is there someone you want to talk to?"
"Pat, I want to talk to Pat.”
Yes! I thought. Now we were getting somewhere. "Who is Pat? Where can I get ahold of Pat?"
"She was on the phone. I want to talk to Pat!” she screamed, suddenly getting hysterical and putting the gun back in her mouth.
I reached around the front of the phone, trying not to expose any more of myself than necessary, and dialed 911 by touch.
“I need to talk to Pat,” I said to the emergency operator.
“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t work like that. Whoever gets — ”
“Listen! I’m a cop, and I’m looking at a lady with a gun in her mouth! The only person she’ll talk to is Pat. Now damn it, go get her!”
When Pat finally came on the line, Karen refused to talk to her. Pat was able to give me Karen's last name, though, and I turned it over to dispatch to start researching. It wasn’t long until the dispatcher filled us in on Karen, bit by bit. Apparently, she was a frequent flyer. She had been talked down off of the Union Bank Building two or three times and off of the bridge at least twice. I don’t know if that is why I was so confident that I would ultimately talk her out of it or if it was because I, too, am a victim of years of television.
Early on, we had positioned ourselves so that we formed a loose perimeter shaped like a triangle with about 45 feet on each side. As the hours ticked by, we tried everything to get Karen to put the gun down. Jim finally got her to talk about her boyfriend. She continued to fade in and out of reality. When she became paranoid and hysterical and began looking for demons under cars or on the nearby rooftops, I could feel the energy, sense the urgency. At one particularly tense point, Jim resorted to talking very graphically about Karen’s sex life with her boyfriend. There was nothing we wouldn’t say, nothing sounded inappropriate if it bought us some more time.
Karen became more and more dangerous. She approached the car Jim and Greg were using as cover and began pounding the cocked gun on the hood and roof. It was now just after dawn, and residents were waking up and gathering outside to see what was happening. It was increasingly difficult to keep them out of the “hot zone,” and the situation took on a new sense of urgency. We had been talking to Karen for over four hours and had been at extreme risk the entire time, but we now faced the very real possibility that she might crank off a round that could travel two blocks and take out a child walking to school. Time was no longer on our side. I often had to leave my position of cover to drag some resident looky-loo out of the line of fire. I would be crouched behind a car and look up to see some guy standing out in the open, right next to me, as casually as if he were watching a TV rerun of The Rookies.
Were they so used to guns that they didn’t care, or were they just stupid?
Throughout the night, Karen had tested the boundaries we had set for her, but now she was acting brazenly, and it appeared that she was really contemplating leaving. She even got into my police car at one point, only to discover that I had removed the keys.
She promptly got out and smashed the rear window with my baton. We thought about using a taser gun, but we could not get close enough. When it seemed that all possible options had been exhausted, when it looked like a tragic decision was going to have to be made, one officer made a last-ditch suggestion. “Flash-bangs” (stun grenades) would be thrown against the wall of the market behind Karen. The idea was to stun her long enough for a police dog to rush in and grab the gun. It was very risky but the only alternative.
I was still about 15 feet from Karen, crouched behind a car. She was extremely agitated, pacing back and forth and waving the gun in the air. I heard the order given to throw the flash-bangs. Stun grenades won’t hurt a person, but they make a hell of a noise. When I heard the order given, I put my gun in my holster, put my fingers in my ears, and got as low as I could.
The last thing I remember was in slow motion. Karen looked straight at me with an extremely perplexed expression. Her face looked so familiar to me. I had come to know it so well throughout the night. Karen had, in a way, become a part of me. Her expression seemed to say, "I have been out here with this gun all night, and you were never concerned about your ears before, what’s up?” Then suddenly a shocked look swept over her, she knew something was different, something was going on. She had been so hypervigilant all night long, and now she had missed something. She whipped her head around just in time to see the two flash-bangs in midarc. She grabbed the barrel of the gun with her left hand, placed it against her head, and squatted down to the ground. The flash-bangs went off simultaneously, and five cops, a police dog, and paramedics rushed to Karen’s side.
I knew before I ever reached Karen that she had pulled the trigger. In those first fleeting seconds, I thought, “Wait — this just happened — we can fix this if we act quick.” But the bubble had burst. Karen was gone. I had seen many dead people since becoming a cop, and I always assumed that seeing someone die would be just a half step away from that. I could not have been more wrong. It would have been no more shocking to me if Karen had physically disappeared. My head was spinning. I searched for something familiar to steady my thoughts. Someone handed me a roll of yellow police tape. I looked at it in my hand for a moment — clicked — and looped it around a nearby telephone pole.
Susan, our son Josh, and I sat on the bleachers at the Del Mar Fair and ate cinnamon rolls while we watched some kids with weird haircuts do supernatural things on skateboards. When the show ended, Susan took Josh to the bathroom to wash his hands and I noticed a woman sitting on a bench on the other side of the stage. She was smiling and talking to a baby in a stroller. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where. Definitely not somebody I had arrested. Church maybe? Trying not to seem too obvious, I got up to get a closer look. I leaned up against a telephone pole about 20 feet away and racked my brain while I waited for Susan and Josh.
Then a name came to me... Leslie Meyers. The woman was Leslie Meyers’s sister. A few months earlier, I had been speeding up the Coronado Bridge to a call of a possible jumper. About halfway across, I saw a small, orange compact car stopped in the far right lane and two teenage girls staring into the water. The girls had been driving behind the orange compact and were forced to stop when it did. They watched in horror as a young woman got out of the car, walked to the side of the bridge, and without hesitation climbed over the three-foot guardrail and fell hundreds of feet into the bay.
I radioed for the harbor patrol to respond then searched through the orange car to try to find out who the woman was, to see if she had left a note.
I was surprised to find that the car was immaculate. There were no chewing gum wrappers, no dropped coins between the seats. I didn’t find any misplaced scraps of paper with addresses or phone numbers on the floor or old packets of fast-food condiments in the glove box. I did find a wallet, though, placed exactly in the middle of the front passenger seat. It contained a couple of credit cards, a driver's license, and some business cards, all of which were neatly placed in slots of their own. I looked at the license and saw the picture of a very attractive 21-year-old woman. Her name was Leslie Meyers. I didn't understand it. Why would someone who had all the appearance of having it together do something like this? A recent romantic breakup? Drugs maybe?
I ordered a tow-truck and scanned the water while I waited for it to arrive. I hoped somehow to see something from 20 stories up that the harbor patrol missed at water level. I saw nothing but sea gulls and an occasional harbor cruiser.
After Leslie's car was moved, I went into the tollbooth office and tried to locate her next of kin. One of the business cards had the telephone number of a psychiatrist from County Mental Health. After the usual county run-around, I finally spoke to the doctor. I told him who I was and asked if he had been treating a young woman named Leslie Meyers.
"I'm sorry, sir, but I’m not allowed to release information of that nature,” he said quite professionally.
"Doctor,” I repeated slowly, “I am a San Diego police officer; I’m at the Coronado Bridge. It... appears that Leslie has jumped.”
There was silence for a moment.
"No, not Leslie,” the doctor said hoarsely, his professional tone and composure gone. “Are you sure?” Suddenly, he sounded much younger.
“We haven’t found her body yet, but we are pretty certain it was Leslie.”
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I just saw her this afternoon. Everything seemed fine. Leslie was happier than I have seen her in a long time. She said that her audio-hallucinations were less frequent; we even discussed cutting down on the medication. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
He told me that Leslie had been a student at UCSD and seven months ago had begun to suffer from severe depression and hallucinations. He said Leslie had been staying at a board and care rehabilitation center and told me whom I could contact there.
I went to the home and met the couple who ran it. They showed me into the dim little bedroom they had made into their office. As I told them what had happened, I saw the hurt in their faces; this is what they dreaded most. The couple asked some of the residents when they had last seen Leslie. They told me she had come home from her doctor’s appointment at the usual time and went up to her room. She came back downstairs a short time later with a new outfit on and her makeup carefully applied. Leslie had appeared to be in an unusually good mood as she told them that she’d be back in a bit and headed out the front door. That was the last time they saw her.
The couple said that Leslie’s parents were out of town but she had a sister who lived in El Cajon. Coincidentally, her sister lived about a half a mile from my home.
I hated this. Even when it wasn’t a death. Having to tell a person that a loved one has been in an accident is hard enough. But this was the worst. I stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and rang the bell. I thought, “What is going to go through these people’s minds when they open the door and see me standing on their front steps?” A young man in his early 30s opened the door. He had a perplexed look on his face. Perhaps he had seen my badge and realized that I had come all the way from San Diego.
“Good evening, sir,” I said. “Do you know a Leslie Meyers?”
“Yes, I do, officer. She is my wife’s sister. What’s the problem?” The worry was building on his face.
Not knowing who else was in the house, I asked him to step outside so we could talk. He didn’t take his eyes off of me for an instant as he closed the door behind him. Now, what to say. I thought for a second, then realized that it didn’t much matter how I said it.
“Leslie jumped off of the Coronado Bridge a couple of hours ago.”
“Oh no... no,” he said, “not now.”
“Would you like to be alone to tell your wife, or would you like me to stay?”
“No, come on in, please.”
As we walked into the living room, I saw Leslie’s sister sitting on the couch holding her one-day-old baby. She searched back and forth from her husband’s face to mine.
“Nicole, honey,” he said as he sat down beside her. “It's Leslie. She jumped off the Coronado Bridge.”
I headed back to my beat and didn’t do another thing the rest of the night. I kept thinking about Leslie’s sister on the couch, crying and clutching her newborn baby. She never did cry hysterically; she just sobbed, as if somehow she always knew this would happen. It was actually worse than just telling someone that a loved one had died. I had to tell her that Leslie had taken her own life. And I couldn’t even tell her, absolutely, that Leslie was dead. After all, one woman had jumped and survived —- one out of 27. Nicole would have to bear the pain of the death, but without Leslie’s body, she could never put it behind her. I began to understand how the families of soldiers missing in action must feel.
I watched Nicole at the fair, sitting there in the sun with her baby, now about six months old. I watched her smile as her shoulder-length hair tickled the laughing child when she leaned forward to talk to him. I wondered if perhaps she was enjoying a moment free of hurt and anguish. I decided to leave before she recognized me, but Nicole looked up and caught me staring.
I felt like a reminder or an intruder, and I wondered if seeing me brought it all back. What could I do? I couldn’t just walk away. Susan and Josh walked up, and I stumbled through introductions. What do you say — “Nicole, this is my wife Susan. Susan, this is Nicole; her sister is the one that jumped off the bridge”? I asked how the baby was, how her family was doing, and awkwardly scurried off feeling like the Grim Reaper.
After that, I became more aware of the changes that had taken place in me because of the job, wondering if the cost was too high. I saw in my encounter with Nicole a symbol of what I had become to many of the people I contacted, to the families of people who had been hurt or killed. It didn’t bother me that I put criminals behind bars, but even criminals have wives and children.
I thought about the times I had looked into the eyes of a child as I hauled his father off in handcuffs. To the accident victim, I’m not the guy who administered first aid or kept the oncoming traffic from running them over while the paramedics did their thing. I’m just another blurred element of a bad nightmare, my uniform a road sign to exactly how serious their situation is. And the woman who was the victim of spousal abuse, as she reflects back, doesn’t say, “Remember that officer who stopped my husband when he was beating me?” She says, “Remember the night I had to call the cops?” Even when I’m not the cause of the hurt or the bearer of bad news, I am at the very least an integral part of somebody’s bad day. After a while, that begins to bother you.
I figured it was about time I started working on my degree again, so I signed up for an algebra class at the local community college. I sat there in one of those terribly uncomfortable contraptions with the seat and the desk attached and waited for class to start. About three minutes after the hour, a burly man in his late 30s, wearing blue jeans and an untucked Pendleton, strolled to the front of the class. He didn’t look like a teacher. He was too casual, too laid back. His slightly graying hair was a bit over his ears, and he had an arrowhead hanging around his neck. A freaking arrowhead!
The teacher introduced himself as Lee Johnson and asked that we simply call him by his first name. Right off I noticed that he had an honest smile and a contagious laugh. He had been a student at Grossmont College after he got out of the Army. He then went on to get a psychology degree at San Diego State and had spent the last five years teaching in New Zealand and Australia.
I had planned to go to the SWAT academy at about mid-semester, so I approached Lee after class and asked him if he would have a problem with my missing a week of class. He looked straight into my face for a moment, sized me up, then said, “Nope, not if you can hang with it.” This is gonna be a piece of cake, I thought, as I slipped Lee into my slot for gullible, bleeding-heart, megaliberal academics. About two weeks later, when I was falling behind, Lee agreed to meet me for coffee after class to give me a bit of help.
I selected a booth where I could see the door and the cash register, and we ordered our food. I had a bran muffin and several glasses of water while Lee inhaled the cholesterol special — a huge Denver omelet smothered with Tabasco sauce, several greasy sausage links, hash brown potatoes, and enough coffee to keep me awake for a week.
He and I were very different, almost opposites. But surprisingly, I found him very easy to talk to, and before I knew it, I was sharing adventures and experiences that I normally would not think of talking about with someone I had just met. He was so reasonable. He didn’t hold the sort of dreamland philosophies about the world that I had grown to know as typical of academics.
I’m talking about full-grown men who are so anti-violence that they would give a 15-year-old gang member their wallet just because he asked for it and they felt it was consistent with their role as victim.
Lee told me about some of his own experiences: a fight he got into in the Army where he was almost beaten to death, getting arrested in Georgia at 17 for hopping freights across the United States, spending six months on horseback in the outback of Australia, to name a few. Yeah, this guy was for real, all right, and we hit it off like a couple of old war veterans who had just finished showing off their best scars.
It wasn’t long before we began to discuss police work. It has a way of overshadowing everything and working its way into conversation. He was fairly open-minded but did hold some stereotypes and views that I felt were a bit off base. I offered to take him on a ride-along in Logan Heights to give him a firsthand view. It took him a couple of weeks to commit to it, but ultimately he accepted. He told me later he was evaluating me to see if I was the kind of guy that would go and get us both “in it deep’’ trying to impress him.
I was working graveyard, nine at night until seven in the morning. We cleared lineup at about 9:30, and I familiarized Lee with the radio and other safety equipment. I explained to him that police work was actually fairly safe, statistically. “I hope the night isn’t too boring,’’ I said, as I handed him a bulletproof vest to put on. He looked at me for a moment, paused, and then asked, “Is it uncomfortable?’’ “Not nearly as uncomfortable as a bullet.’’ “Yeah, all right then,’’ he said with a little chuckle,
“I think I’ll wear it.’’
The night was fairly routine; we took a couple of drunks to detox, settled some family disputes, and shooed off some transients lurking in an alley waiting for a crumb of rock cocaine. They are so haunting, their faces so gaunt, their eyes so distant and hollow. If I had chosen to look for the cocaine pipe each one of them no doubt had behind his ear like some carpenter’s pencil, I could have arrested them all for possession of drug paraphernalia. “Go be homeless in some other alley,’’ I told them, the sense in taking them to jail beyond my grasp.
We went to some loud-music calls, took a burglary report, nothing that really hooked me. Then we got a call to go evaluate a possible stabbing up at Physicians and Surgeons Hospital. When we got there I saw an older black man in his 60s lying on a hospital bed in the emergency room. He had a patch on his eye and was moaning a bit. The man had been involved in an argument with his 25-year-old son, who picked up a screwdriver and stuck it in his eye. Lee looked at me and said, “That guy needs to be dealt with.’’ I thought how strange it was that I could still feel exactly the same sentiment as Lee in the exact measure, even after four years on the job — even after all I had seen. Even though I knew from experience that the victim had probably been fighting over a piece of rock cocaine, I could still see the inherent badness of a person who would do an old man like that.
Lee and I pulled out of the hospital parking lot to go find the man’s son. We were headed east on Imperial Avenue.
As we approached an intersection, I heard some arguing off to my right. I slowed down a bit and without turning my head could see a couple of people on the front porch of a house on the corner. I knew that sometimes you have to act like you don’t see an incident at first or the people involved will just put on a show for you. You don’t change how you respond, you just don’t want to add fuel to the fire by letting them know they have an audience. As we got abreast of the house, the altercation escalated. One man had the other by the neck or shirt and was slamming him against the side of the house. The guy being battered was screaming so hysterically that at first both Lee and I thought it was a woman being beaten.
I whipped the car around and told the police dispatcher that I had a battery going on at 29th and Imperial and asked her to send another unit. I pulled the car to the curb across from the house, jumped out, and sprinted across the street toward the two people.
As I approached, the aggressor had his back to me. He was still throttling the other man when I called out to him and asked him to show me his hands. He turned around, and I saw that he had a number of items in his hands: a shirt, a lighter, and a few other small things that I couldn’t make out. I was concerned that he might have a weapon under the shirt, so I told him again to drop the stuff and show me his hands. He ignored me, and by this time I was within a few feet of him. I knew that if he had a weapon, from this distance I’d be his. I figured at least if I had ahold of him I would have some control, so I stepped onto the porch and pulled him down onto the lawn.
I had him face down on the grass with my knee on his back and one handcuff on when I heard the voice of yet a third person coming from inside the front doorway of the house.
"Let that nigger go.”
I turned back and tried to look through the screen door. There was no porch light and no lights on inside the house.
By the dim glow of a nearby streetlight, I could barely make out a figure behind the screen door. Just then, Lee stepped up onto the sidewalk.
"There is a guy behind the door,” he said.
"Yeah, I see him.”
Then suddenly, bam! Something swept over the entire scene, just as it had in the standoff with Karen under the bridge.
Lee sensed it too and later described it as being as if someone had slammed a giant glass cake cover over the area. I felt suddenly removed from what was happening, as if I were watching a movie, but I was still acutely aware of what was going on. Everything seemed to slow down, and though the scene was actually quite hectic, I had time to think in great detail. I thought, "Hmmm, this guy is behind the door making threats; what can he do from there?” They didn’t sound like idle threats, and yet he wasn’t coming outside. The only thing I could think was that he had a gun.
I got up, unholstered my gun, and began to walk slowly to the right of the screen door. As I moved to the right, I saw what looked like a pistol in the man’s hand. I continued to move to get a better view through the screen. Then I heard the voice behind the door, as if it were coming from very far away: "I said let that nigger go.” At the same time I thought, "Yeah, that is a gun, and he is not just standing at the door waving it; he is tracking me.” I knew that because, in an effort to get a better view into the doorway, I had moved about ten feet to the right of where I had first seen the gun, but I was still looking directly into what I now recognized as a gun barrel.
Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency. I wasn’t frantic, but I knew that there was no time for "Stop! Police!” or any other bullshit. This was it, this was the one thing cops always wonder if they can do and never know until they have to do it. I brought my gun up and fired two quick rounds at the figure in the doorway. At the same time, I saw the muzzle blast from his gun. His round went off between my two; he was not reacting to me. He had made up his mind to take me out long before I fired on him.
I was amazed at how much time I had to think while the incident was going down. After the man behind the door fired his gun, I thought, "Yeah, I knew he had a gun.” I had been sure — sure enough to take a man’s life over it — but it was still reassuring to see that muzzle blast. I remember being so calm and focused on what I was doing that I could even think how weird it was to be glad that a man was shooting at me. It was all part of the strange aura that I now know takes over critical incidents like this. It is a good feeling in some strange way; not at all unlike a dream. You are so focused that there is absolutely no sense of fear. The ground feels soft, as if it gives a bit under your feet. Sounds are muffled, but you're completely aware of them.
After I realized that he had shot at me, I began to squeeze off round after round into the doorway. I can vividly remember that the bullets sounded like someone hitting a pillow with a baseball bat. I couldn’t see if I had hit the shooter, if he had rolled back away from the door, or if he was standing right there trying to clear a jammed gun. I just continued firing. I thought, "Okay, I cleared my holster without any problems, I’m firing steady, squeezing off my rounds, and nobody in the world can stand in that doorway right now.” I was buying time.
I fired 15 rounds. The last 13 went into the wall where the man had been standing. I never knew he went down, I couldn’t see.
When I had nearly emptied the magazine of my gun, I turned and ran toward my police car for cover. As I turned, I was shocked to see Lee still standing on the sidewalk, just a few feet from me. I can’t even say for sure that everyone I work with would stick by my side in a firefight. Lee stood there without the benefit of any training, with no street experience, without even a weapon to protect himself. Later he played it down by saying, “Where the hell else was I supposed to go in Logan Heights in the middle of the night? I figured I was as safe there as anywhere.”
As I ran across the street, I radioed, “Cover now, shots fired at 29 and Imperial.” Lee and I met behind the car. “That guy had a gun!” I said.
“Had a gun, hell. The son of a bitch shot at you,” Lee blurted, his words stumbling over one another.
“That’s right, he did. Could you see the muzzle blast?”
“Hell, yeah, I saw it!” he said. I dropped the empty magazine out of my gun and put in a new one.
I heard the unmistakable sound of a round being racked into a shotgun and looked up to see that Lee had removed the shotgun from the car and was standing up pointing it at the door. He was using the light bar on top of the car to steady it.
Instantly I thought to tell him to put it back; then I looked around and saw that no other officers had arrived yet. For all I knew, there could have been a whole pack of guys in the house. I didn’t even know whether the shooter had been hit. “Get a little lower,” I said. Lee saw that I was crouched behind the front wheel and suddenly realized that his whole midsection was exposed through the windows of the car. He quickly moved to the rear of the car and laid the shotgun over the trunk, mimicking what I was doing on the hood.
I thought, “Man, I hope I got him.” Then I thought, what an awful thing to wish you had taken a life. I felt sickened that I could get that caught up. Then I realized that it was only because I needed to know that I had done well, I needed to know that if I had to do it again, I would come out alive.
While we were waiting for additional units to arrive, the aggressor lay motionless on the front lawn where he had been while the bullets were flying over his head. He must have been there for 20 minutes before SWAT got him out of there. The man who had been battered was up on the porch looking for all the world like a big tuna on the deck of some ship. He was flopping all over the place screaming, “Oh, Jesus!
Please, God, don’t let me die! Oh, please don’t shoot me! Oh, God!” SWAT finally got him to come down off of the porch and dragged him to safety as well. After the shooting, Lee and I were immediately separated. I had my gun taken for evidence, and a series of pictures were taken.
As it turned out, the shooter had been the aggressor’s dad and was trying to prevent me from arresting him. He denied ever having known that I was an officer, telling homicide investigators that he just saw some big blond son of a bitch on his son, trying to handcuff him, and he wanted it stopped (never mind that I was in full uniform and my police car was parked right in front of his house). While we had his house surrounded, with all exits covered, he called 911 and told the operator that the mystery shooter had run out the back door.
Officers found a gun that he had allegedly used a year earlier to assault his girlfriend. It was stuffed under the cushion of a large chair in the living room. One round was missing, and it had recently been fired. The guy I was trying to handcuff later admitted seeing his father at the door with the gun and said that when he heard his dad say, “Let that nigger go or I’ll blow your head off,” he told him that it was the police and to put the gun down.
The suspect was originally charged with attempted murder of a police officer. He ultimately ended up not with attempted murder of a police officer, not attempted murder of any kind, not even assault with a deadly weapon, or the felony section for brandishing a weapon in a rude and threatening manner while in the presence of a peace officer. He was given the opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanor conviction of brandishing a weapon in a rude and threatening manner (a violation that would get you a ticket if you were on the street) in exchange for signing a piece of paper saying that he would not sue the city for his injuries. It was explained to me later that a jury would never have convicted an old man like that who had been awakened in the middle of the night... this was how things were done. I felt better, especially after I convinced them not to give him his gun back.
I was interviewed by homicide for a few hours, then went home. I walked in the door and picked up my little three-year-old son. He hugged me — no, clung to me — for about 15 minutes. He didn’t say anything, just held me... almost as if he could sense something he was too young to understand. Occasionally, I reminisce about how it felt to go home at the end of that night and hold my son, and I realize that sometimes that’s all the justice you get. And after a while, that’s enough. □
(Andrew Hoffman is a patrolman with the San Diego Police Department. All other names in the story have been changed.)