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Words can build or destroy a career

When I didn't pull the trigger, and everyone survived, my actions were still picked apart and derided

Editor's Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from Maggie Tygart, a field training officer and weapons instructor who lives with PTSD. Tygart recollects a life-changing call in which she approached a disturbed teen on the path to vengeance. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story. 

By Maggie Tygart
PoliceOne Special Guest Contributor

You probably don’t know me, but I might be like you or someone you know. Neither my name, nor my department, my church, my color, my sex, where I was raised — none of my anything really matters.

However, I know our culture, so I will tell you a little bit about the accomplishments I’ve enjoyed — in spite of my PTSD. I am a parent, a spouse, a member of the honor guard, a field training officer, a weapons instructor, a former member of the bike patrol, commander of my department’s crisis negotiation team, co-coordinator for the crisis intervention team, a critical incident debrief facilitator, and a former local committee member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, among other endeavors.

My entire adult life has been dedicated to the service of others. At 18 years old I joined the military. The recruiter tried to talk me into being a KC-135 boom operator, but I wanted to be a military police officer. The recruiter thought I was nuts. Military police officer it was. After my years in the military, I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked for a children’s organization before becoming a civilian police officer.

The Incident
While on patrol one afternoon, I was dispatched to locate a “teenage boy” who was “upset and walking to a school to confront some students who had been picking on him.”

In actuality, he was a severely disturbed 19-year-old with a long and violent psychiatric history. He was on his way to attack his alleged tormenters and then use that event as a catalyst for suicide by cop.

My first clue there might be a problem was his demeanor and clothing choice. Black trench coat despite the heat. Walking with such a long stride that the average person would have to jog to keep up with him. Long, wild hair dyed an unnatural shade of orange. A hump on his back.

In other words, he was easy to find. With each hand buried deep in his trench coat pockets, he squared off and sneered. His eyes looked angry, he bared his teeth, and his posture let me know that it was about to go down. When I told him to take his hands out of his pockets, he obliged, and just like that — my life changed.

Relax, no one dies in this story.

I saw the shimmer of metal in his right fist as it was coming out of his pocket and I reacted. I drew my gun as I ran a zigzag pattern and with my other hand keyed my radio yelling our ten-code for officer assistance. In my mind everything slowed down and I could hear the blade of the serrated buck-knife cutting the air like special effects from a movie. I saw the knife when it flew by, missing my right side by a couple of inches. It hit the ground a distance away and slid to a stop. I left it because I didn’t want to lose sight of him. I yelled to some people to get inside their house as I ran back toward the humpback. He ignored my commands. As the tunnel vision took hold, I couldn’t even process why he was stuck and struggling with the trench coat.

I quickly realized the “hump” was a machete that had been in a homemade sling under his coat. I remember the way the trigger felt as I was starting to squeeze. I was yelling at him, but I could hear his mother screaming, too.

“Oh please don’t shoot my son!” she yelled. She’d been following him from a distance the whole time. When I came upon her son, she had started panicking and screaming as the events between he and I transpired.

I didn’t shoot.

It seemed right.

The Aftermath
Neither of us was physically injured that day. I mean, he was sprayed with OC and struck by a couple of patrol vehicles before we pig-piled him, but he was OK.

I buried the comments people made to me — I buried them inside.

I’m fine, I thought. I should just toughen up. Who cares what people say?

Oh, I got my award for bravery, and I appreciated the plaque with the broken screw and crooked certificate. It hangs on my wall today — but let me be clear, the words hurt, and when I have a tough day, I still hear them sometimes. It didn’t make sense to be both ridiculed and awarded. It both took something away from me and gave me something else.

“Hey aren’t you the cop who almost got killed?” or “Hey, great job for keeping that guy alive. You must have been scared to death,” said no one ever. One thousand words, just like this article, sometimes ring in my ears to this day.

“Why didn’t you pick up the knife? I would have shot him. Why didn’t you shoot him? Other cops could have gotten killed because of you. You should have stood there and ducked, blah, blah, blah.”

Those words turned into, “Hey do you remember the call where so-and-so ran over the guy with the machete?”

I used to get fired up over those questions.

The Lesson
Oh, those words.

Ten years later, screams can be a trigger. Just as I heard his mother screaming, I too, hear the biting comments of some of my colleagues, and people who lost a golden opportunity to mentor me because they helped ruin me with words.

To some extent, I let them. I thought my answers were not good enough, because when I tried to explain, I got trampled with more words. However, I alone am responsible for my thoughts, my feelings, and my actions.

The best I can hope for you is that I may be a positive influence by demonstrating that words matter. Your words matter. Choose them wisely.

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