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Dream haunted: A young cop's close call clarifies an instructor's startling statement
How "When I dream, I dream of killing" began to make sense
“When I dream, I dream of killing.”
When a firearms trainer with one of Canada’s largest departments was a recruit and heard that stark statement from his academy instructor, “I almost fell off my chair,” he recalls.
The instructor had nearly 20 years on patrol and SWAT, was highly decorated and respected throughout the department, “a switched-on, determined, and driven cop.” Yet when he heard the instructor make the statement, “I thought he was insane, maybe some kind of sociopath” because of his calm and candid description of the images of mortal combat that intruded on his sleep.
Then one night after about three years on the job, the young officer and a partner approached what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill domestic, “just two people yelling, no threats of death and no pleas for help.”
That call proved to be a crystallizing event for that officer, who’s now 36 with a decade on the street. It’s vividly reconstructed as part of a no-holds-barred, page-turner of a book called The Wolf and the Sheepdog, which lays bare the feelings — from helplessness to fury to exhilaration — that cops experience in the “strange, perverted, and twisted situations” they confront and deal with.
The author calls himself “John Smith” and because of a promise to the brass, he doesn’t name his agency. But that’s all he holds back. Across a six-month period, he told PoliceOne recently, “I came home at 4 a.m., fired up my computer, and wrote about experiences that were at the top of my mental filing cabinet. You don’t realize how much you have tucked away until you start writing about it. You poke a hole in the dam and it comes out like a flood.”
The result is 386 printed pages of riveting text. Some of it may be disturbing to civilians unaccustomed to violence, or to some administrators teetering on the tightrope of political correctness. But for street cops, it has the feel of the real.
Take that “routine” domestic between a petty thug and his girlfriend that Smith now characterizes as “a huge wake-up moment”, and the lessons learned from it that he shared during a recent conversation.
After he and his partner forced their way inside the couple’s dwelling, Smith got what he sensed was a volley of lies as he questioned the male about the reason for the raucous wrangling that provoked a call from neighbors.
“He wipes his hands through his hair,” Smith writes. “Not good, he is getting nervous. His palms are sweating and he wants to dry them off. He... is getting prepped for a fight.... You cannot fight with sweaty hands.”
Smith asked for some ID. The male picked a black leather jacket off of a couch in the living room and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket. “I see nothing that would indicate a weapon hidden in the pockets. No heavy sagging from the weight of a gun, no stiff lines from a knife. But... I know he is trying to hide something... He runs his hands through his hair again as he tosses his jacket onto a brown leather recliner.
“I got him! I now know his hiding spot. The recliner. He walked from the couch, away from me, and then tossed his jacket onto the recliner. People are lazy by nature. They do not want to use extra energy unless they are trying to hide something. He just gave up the game without even knowing that his actions told me the whole story...”
A radio check revealed, along with a sheet of criminal offenses, that the male had an outstanding warrant for an unpaid traffic fine. With evident relief, he quickly agreed to go to the station with the officers to settle the matter. Suspicious, Smith “kindly” offered to pick up his jacket for him because it was cold outside and to slip his license in the coat’s pocket.
“Then, with the best theatrical ‘Oops,’ I drop his identification onto the recliner… right into the side of the cushion... I pull back the cushion to get it out, and I see what the mystery prize is. A bundle of cash, a bag of white powder, and another bag of chipped-up crack cocaine. Bingo!”
Smith’s partner seized the suspect and told him he was under arrest. The male’s girlfriend, nearby in the kitchen, “just looks like she has seen a ghost... My skin tightens on my neck, making the hair on the back of it feel like it is standing up. My internal instincts are telling me that something is going to go bad. My subconscious is reading body language from her that my conscious brain is not telling me...
“I want to close the distance on her...so I can control her. I feel like I am floating across the room in slow motion... My eyes zoom in on an item on the table that was covered before by a newspaper. I see the black handle of a kitchen knife. Now I see what my subconscious was picking up on. Her eyes were constantly glancing at it but I was not able to see the knife handle from my angle.... I yell out ‘Knife’ at the top of my lungs but it comes out like a small screech....”
Just two feet from her, too close for him to draw before she can attack, “she swings at me in a wild roundhouse punch, the blade cutting a deadly path through the air towards my face.... She wants to kill me so that she can kill my partner... I want to kill. I want to kill her.”
He thrusted up his left forearm to block her punch. “The blade comes to a thundering halt as her arm is stopped. I can see the tip of the knife right in front of my left eye. I can see the serrations...even read the maker’s brand....
“I use the few inches between us to chamber for the blow.... I target the inside of her chest. I want my energy to stop when my elbow is inside of her chest cavity....
“My right elbow contacts her sternum.... I can feel the popping as ribs dislocate…. I can feel hot, damp air rush onto my face as I force all the air out of her lungs. The force of my blow is now snapping ribs and crushing her lungs. The energy is pushing her internal organs...her heart expels all the blood that was just madly rushing through it... Her arms lash forward in recoil....
“I don’t stop though... I send my left elbow into her face.... Her mass of skin, bone, and flesh make way for my strike. I hear the knife hit the floor.... I see her body fall back in slow motion.... I can see that her eyes are rolling back as her hair flows around her head. I have never hit anyone as hard as I have hit her....
“I wonder if I have killed her.... I do not care; in fact I am happy when I see her limp body hit the cold linoleum floor.” His attacker was “pretty f**ked up” but she did survive. Smith writes, “I am happy to be alive.... She tried to take my life and I should have taken hers. We are both lucky tonight....”
He concludes the detailed chapter that he devotes to this episode: “Years have passed since that fight. I lie in bed awake from a dream that raised me from my sleep. I walked through that very house, following the very same path of events that occurred. I can smell the cooking that was on the stove, the odor of open beer and cigarettes filling my senses.
“But this time, like all other times I dreamt of what happened, I kill her. I have lived the experience dozens of times. I have stabbed her with my duty knife, I have shot her with my sidearm, and I have struck her harder and in more vital areas. In each dream I am victorious, I have killed her for wanting to kill me.
“I dream of killing.”
Smith uses this incident in his teaching now, along with other encounters from his book. And like the instructor whose stability he once questioned in naïve days gone by, he openly admits to dreaming about inflicting mortal wounds.
“I want officers to understand that dreams can be an important part of how your mind processes a life-threatening event,” he says. “They’re a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Even disturbing dreams can have a purpose.”
For example, officers often report dreaming of being in a gunfight in which their gun won’t fire or the bullets just dribble out ineffectively. “Your brain may subconsciously be trying to get you back on the range, getting you to practice so you’re more confident with your gun,” Smith says.
“Whenever I dream of killing I know that it is normal, in fact healthy for me to do so. The thing that keeps me sane is this knowledge, passed on to me by that instructor who became my mentor.”
Other lessons he draws from that domestic confrontation include these:
1. Beware of overconfidence
“When that call happened, I was getting into the groove of being a cop. I thought I had my shit together after a few years on the street. That was a big reality check. However experienced you are, you’ve got to continually work on your tactics, your skills, and your mental alertness to keep on top of things. There should never be any point where you feel you don’t need to learn anything more.”
2. Trust your “Spidey sense”
“That’s that crawly, creepy sensation you get when you feel something’s wrong but you don’t know what. I felt it with the girlfriend in the kitchen, but instead of disengaging a bit, buying a little time to assess the situation and distance enough perhaps to access my firearm, I closed in and opened myself up for her surprise attack. Your subconscious often picks up on cues you’re missing. Listen to it.”
3. Never underestimate females
“The guy at that call seemed to be the jittery one, and I got fixated on him. As old a mistake as it is, I thought that because she was a woman she wouldn’t be as big a threat to me.”
As Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute points out in his seminars, “dependent personalities” can be on a par with psychopaths in terms of dangerousness once a relationship they’re invested in is threatened. Females in abusive domestic arrangements often typify this personality type, and a critical moment that can catapult them into a murderous rage can be when their partner is placed under arrest and is about to be taken away.
4. Cultivate a debriefing partner
Smith’s wife is also a police officer, so she proved to be a compassionate listener. She understood when he arrived home after the knife threat, wired, pacing the house, unable to sleep. When his hands started to shake as he told her what happened, she reassured him that it was just a side effect from the adrenalin dump of fighting for his life.
“I could tell her what happened without fear of being judged,” he says. “As we talked, I could feel an inner storm release and a calm warmth flow back into me. Having someone you can talk to honestly is a great help in decompressing.”
5. Write out your experiences
“I’m not formally educated in writing,” Smith says, “but I found writing to be very therapeutic. Push the envelope, write what you feel about the things that happen to you. Getting to your feelings is the hardest part, but in the end it’s also the best.”
6. Train at being magnificent
“The more you train, the more you’ll learn and the better prepared you’ll feel for any event and its aftermath. Knowledge is truly your strength.
“From that wake-up call, I realized that I will never master all aspects of hand-to-hand fighting and gun craft, but I can concentrate on becoming a master. When we train we should focus on being magnificent, so that when the time comes and we are functioning on adrenalin and stress, we can at least be mediocre. That is the reality of combat.”