By Clint W. McKean
Sworn Officer, Hobbs PD, seven years
I had been on patrol on my own for about two years. I was in the phase of career where I wasn’t a rookie anymore, and I thought I already knew just about everything there was to know about law enforcement.
I had gotten past the initial shock of seeing my first dead person, homicide victim, child abuse case, and so on. I had made it through all of these situations and thought I was pretty “hard.”
I had survived my first fight, high-speed pursuit, drug raid, and ass chewing from my lieutenant. You hear stories of how police officers lose sleep and have to seek counseling due to the trauma and stress of the job. I had made it through all of this and never felt depression, anger, or sleeplessness. You had to be hard to be a police officer, and the guys who experienced those things were just not cut out for the job. This was my considered opinion after my first two years. My perception of the job and maybe more importantly my perception of myself was about to change.
It was a nice summer evening in August and I was working the swing shift (two to ten p.m.). It had been uneventful, and I was heading home for my lunch break. A call from the dispatcher came over the radio of a female down, unconscious and not breathing. I was only about two blocks from the address. All I could think was, “Damn it. I’m going to miss my lunch break again.” It was probably some elderly lady who had passed away and I was going to catch another report and be stuck on scene all night waiting for the coroner to show up. It was my job, though, and I knew this is what I had signed up for, so I responded.
I beat the paramedics to the scene by several minutes. For a cop, this is not always ideal. Sometimes you roll up into a situation that you’re not capable of handling, because you do not have the medical expertise needed. You carry a gun and not a trauma kit. Applying pressure to a bleeding wound or starting CPR is just about all you are trained to do as a police officer.
When I rolled up on this scene it was different. The only thing I saw was a little boy—we’ll call him “Johnny.” Johnny was sitting on the front porch with his face in his hands. Johnny was nine years old and looked to be your typical little boy, dirty blue jeans and sweaty hair, a bicycle sitting next to him. I assumed that Johnny’s grandfather or grandmother had passed away. As an inexperienced cop you seem to jump to conclusions and think you have it figured out before you even have any of the facts. In your mind you think you know everything because you made it past rookie year. All Johnny could tell me was that it was all his fault. Over and over again Johnny kept saying it was his fault. “I knew I shouldn’t have left her and went outside to ride my bike.” I wasn’t real sure what I had on my hands at this point and asked Johnny where she was. Johnny still crying and without lifting his head pointed in the front door of the house. In the master bedroom I found a thirty-year-old woman hanging lifeless from the ceiling fan with a rope around her neck. It was apparent that she was dead.
I returned to Johnny on the front porch. He was still sitting and crying in his hands. I wanted to comfort him, but I needed to find out if this was suicide or homicide or if the woman was even his
mother. I placed my hand on Johnny’s back and asked him what had happened. His mother’s boyfriend called on the telephone and broke up with her, Johnny said. His mother was very upset and he just wanted to get out of the house, so he went outside to ride his bicycle for a while until his mom calmed down. I’ll never forget Johnny’s anger at himself as he shouted at me, “I knew I shouldn’t have left her alone. I should have stayed with her. She was crying!”
I had never been so speechless in my entire life. I knew there was nothing I could say or do that would provide comfort or relief to Johnny at this point. As a police officer you always think that you have the answers and will be able to provide help to a child in time of need, but I had nothing in my arsenal to help Johnny with his pain.
Johnny was blaming himself for the selfishness and death of his mother. I’m not one to preach, but for a mother to kill herself and leave that sight and responsibility for her son to live and deal with is unconscionable.
Once the dust had settled and things were winding down, I began to feel something I had never felt up to this point in my career. I was totally helpless. What could I do? What could I say? The hard, terrible answer was: Nothing. I could only watch.
I’ll never forget Johnny sitting in the backseat of the detective’s unmarked cruiser. No family could be located for the boy, and the only thing we had was a counselor from the state. The counselor was trying to help Johnny, but his face was turned away from her with the deepest, blankest stare I had ever seen. I will never forget his face with the mud created from the tears running down his dirty little cheeks. On the inside I was crying, but I had to be “hard” around my peers. In some ways, I have never stopped crying for
Johnny on the inside; I have never forgotten that I’m not a god, that I don’t have all the answers.
In this one night on the job I learned more about life and myself than I had in the previous two years of my career, or probably any of the years that followed. Throughout my career in law enforcement I was involved in homicide investigations, narcotics investigations, numerous high-speed chases, and two officer-involved shootings, but none of it had the impact on my heart as the night that I found little Johnny sitting on the porch with his tear-soaked face in his hands blaming himself for his mother’s senseless death.
All of the training had not prepared me for this. I remember sitting in those critical incident stress classes they give you in the academy thinking, this is ridiculous. Why don’t they just teach us what we need and let us out on the street? Now I was thinking maybe I should have paid a little more attention. I lost sleep for the first time since becoming a cop. I started to wonder whether I was just one of those “soft guys” who wasn’t cut out for the job. Surely that wasn’t possible. This reaction must be normal. Just go home, have a few beers, and it will all go away.
Now I know that this is why cops struggle with alcoholism at an alarmingly high rate. Too often we can’t admit that something bothered us, got us down, made us helpless. We don’t want to be looked upon as soft by the other officers, and it’s so hard to admit that something is eating away at our mind and heart and soul. So we drown our feelings in a bottle.
I was no different. I had to take a hard look at myself and my career. I had to face the fact that being tough and capable meant doing my level best, facing my fears and uncertainties honestly. It was a tough process, and scary, too.
None of the emotions I was feeling, though, would ever compare to what little Johnny would endure for the rest of his life. I often think of him, of where he is and what has become of him.
I will have Johnny sitting on the porch with his face in his hands engraved in my memory forever.