Misfire

I pulled my patrol car into the long graveled parking lot of the park.  Looking down it, one simecop2de, ran parallel with a retaining wall for small lake.  The other side, thick woods, making it difficult to see through. I could see the light blue Honda station wagon was backed in, facing me and the only entrance/exit.  Tactilely, this is about the worst case scenario to roll up on an armed suspect.  There was no way of getting close to him without being seen.

About an hour before coming across this blue Honda station wagon, I had met with a woman, whom had called 911 to report her husband as suicidal and missing. The wife was, a 5’0″ middle aged Asian woman with salt and peppered hair and aging skin.  After talking with her and listening to how she alone had kept her husband alive after countless suicide attempts, I began to think her premature signs of aging was due to the stress her husband had put on her.  She explained how time after time, she had found him hanging from a thin rope in their garage or lifeless on the floor after taking a handful of pills.  How she was there for him to recover, lovingly and non-judgmental.  She said with empathy and pain in her eyes, “He just wants to die, he is not of this world and the world is against him in every way.”  She was nervous because she had found a receipt for a shotgun and one buckshot shell for said shotgun.  It was bought at a local pawn shop the day before.  His wife told me the last time he tried to kill himself he went to the park and tried to hang himself from a tree, adding “He likes pretty places.”

As I drove around with my pessimistic training officer for the day, a burnt out 20-year sergeant, large beer belly, black and gray curly hair with some type of skin disorder. His skin was always ashy, making his uniform look dirty. He would tell you war stories about his career and scratch both arms like a junkie needing a fix.  Causing his dry skin to take flight and cover everything around him.  He was tired of everything, everyone and talked non stop about an on-duty car crash he had been involved in, leaving him temporally dead for a few minutes.  The lady whom pulled left in front of his patrol car was killed.  He constantly said how he wished his heart had never started again and now refused to wear a seatbelt or a bullet proof vest. He told me in so many words that I was wasting his time, because the “asshole” went to the mountains to kill himself. 

I learned really fast that this is not the type of person you want as your cover officer on a man with a gun.  As I started down the parking lot, driving straight at the car, keeping the motor between him and us.  When I got within 40 feet of his car, I could now clearly see the license plate and was able to confirm that the man sitting in the drivers seat was our guy.  He was motionless, as he looked down into his lap.

When I realized it was him, I was really excited that I had found him, proving my sergeant wrong. But like a kid who catches a fish twice his size, I immediately felt overwhelmed and wasn’t really sure what to do.  I mean, this guy had a gun!

I watched as he started to fish around with his hands, reaching fast and deep in front of him, making his head dip down and around each side of the steering wheel.  When his head came back up, I could see that his face was pail white, he was looking right at me as I yelled over the PA, “Stop! Don’t move! Don’t move, show me your fucking hands, NOW!!”

My training officer was starting to get out of the patrol car with his hands up saying, “Come on buddy. It’s okay.” I felt the cold rush of adrenalin come over my body and my bullet proof vest was now constricting my breathing. I could only see him as tunnel vision had set in, almost like a filter, only allowing his face to be seen.

Feeling like a fish in a fish bowl, I flew open my door, pulled my pistol and took a position between the open door and the drivers seat. Still yelling “Stop, don’t move!  Show me your hands!” Quickly, he jerked the barrel of the shotgun up and into his mouth.  I remember thinking, “Fuck, he is going to do it!” Fuck, I don’t want to see this!”  I was instantly sick, and like a train wreck, and for my safety, I continued to force myself to stay in the game, with my pistol pointed at his head, yelling for him to drop the weapon.

With his lips around the barrel of the shotgun, I watch helplessly as his head jerk back… And nothing…  He just sat there for a second, and then pulled it from his mouth.  He inspected the gun, and put the barrel back into his mouth and appeared to try it again.  Nothing, the gun didn’t go off.  My sergeant was now about 10′ from the car, his gun still holstered and hands in the air, he was approaching the car, taking half steps and saying, “Come on buddy… It’s okay, give me the gun.” 

Right then, I could see the expression on the guys face change from sadness to anger.  His eyes narrowed and lips tightened as he flew the door open and leveled the shotgun right at us. I still had my gun pointed at his head and was now squeezing the trigger of my Glock .40. At that moment, I could see my sergeants figure step directly in front of the barrel of my gun, as he closed the gap between the man and us. He was now standing nearly directly in front of me. Still using the car as a shield, I had no shot, so I dove down to the gravel, and watched as my sergeant walked up to the car and take the shotgun out of the mans hands.

It only takes 6 to 7 pounds of pressure on the trigger of the Glock model 23 to make it fire. Police officers are trained to squeeze the trigger, applying the 6 to 7 pounds of pressure until the firing pin is released and sent forward to strike the primer of the bullet, causing the black powder to explode, sending the 11.7g ball of led at the target. As the bullet travels down the threaded barrel, putting a twist on the round.  Much like a spiral on a football, giving it more stability as it travels at about 1000 feet per second.  To put in in perspective, in theory it could travel one mile in about five seconds.  

At this moment, I became sick at my stomach and started to shake.  I had almost squeezed a round off into this mans head. And my crazy ass sergeant nearly got his head blown off.  For just a moment, I laid there in amazement and shock.  My sergeant pulled the man from the car and I patted him down for more weapons.  Non were found. I pulled my handcuffs out and started to cuff the man, when my sergeant told me to stop, adding, “He isn’t a criminal, he just wants to die.”  I remember looking at my sergeant with amazement and complete disappointment as I cuffed the man and sat him in the gravel of the parking lot.

I opened the chamber of the 12 gage shotgun to clear it and noticed the primer of the bullet had been struck by the firing pin,  leaving a distinct imprint.  It had failed to fire at least once or twice.  My sergeant told the now distraught man he had better learn more about weapons if he was going to be successful at ending his life and called him a pussy.

I remember the mans face like it was yesterday.  His entire face was droopy, with a lack of life around his eyes, cheeks and mouth.  He looked so sad and depressed.  I remember my anger for him pointing a gun at me being replaced with feeling sadness for this mans desire to end his own life.

So, what ever became of my sergeant? He left that department a couple of years later, unceremoniously.  He ended up being a police chief for a small department south of Denver.  About five years ago I heard about how he and his wife were having an argument when he pulled a service pistol and shot himself, right in the head. Permanently scaring his wife, who was a police officer too.  He did this and right in front of her.

And the man who wanted to end his life so bad.  I saw him and his wife a couple of years ago.  I remember him looking happy as he was holding hands with his wife, walking down a sidewalk.  They had a little girl, about three years old, she was pulling on him yelling “Daddy, daddy…”

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My first encounter with death…up close and personal.

July 1999. I had been a police officer for about three years now, and I was working a DUI shift, when at about 1:00 AM, my police radio blared, “Motorcycle crash, with injuries.”  I was in the area, and responded with my lights and siren.

When I pulled up on the seen, I observed a Ducati performance style bike on its side with the headlight still on.  As I approached, I identified a man in his early 20’s sitting on the curb sobbing uncontrollably. The man was wearing a sharp black suit, and had stylish black hair, cropped on the sides and long on top. It’s strange the things you remember.  I asked him what I believed to be a logical question at the time, “Are you okay?” He began yelling at me and said, “I just killed my best friend, fuck no, I’m not okay!”

I then realized I had completely overlooked another person lying at the man’s feet. He was face down and positioned in what I refer to as the Superman pose…wearing the same black suit.

I immediately checked for signs of life. “Yes!!!” I thought to myself, “he’s breathing and he has a heartbeat.”  I thought that maybe he just got knocked out from the crash. That’s when I noticed his breathing pattern was not right. A gargled, labored breathing that sounded really really bad.

This was the first time I experienced what I now know as ‘Agonal Respiration’, or the ‘death rattle’. Agonal breathing is an abnormal pattern of breathing and brainstem reflex characterized by gasping, labored breathing, accompanied by strange vocalizations and myoclonus.” Bad news.

As I started to sweep the coagulated blood from his mouth, I noticed little balls of yellowish-white stuff in his hair and ears.  Then I saw he had a defined imprint on his forehead from the impact of the fall.

The agonal breathing continued, and because no one had ever told me about this before, I assumed his breathing was simply inhibited or obstructed from the blood in his mouth.  So, I continued to sweep the blood from his mouth with my gloved hand, and began reassuring him that help was on the way.

The horrible gurgling sound began to slow, and then stopped altogether. This silence was quickly replaced with the sound of the ambulance arriving at the scene. As the ambulance arrived, I realized the young man died…he died as I talked to him, willing him to hold on, as I held his head in my hands. I had just witnessed death…up close and personal, and unfortunately, this would not be the last time.

I remember asking myself, “What the fuck just happened?!”  I was overtaken by my emotions, I mean, no one ever told me death was like this. I had no clue it could be so drawn out and graphic. Death was no longer just a word in my vocabulary…it was real now, and it lives within me. It haunts me and gets replayed through my memories at the most random times. Sometimes, when I get into bed I’ll naturally stretch out in the superman position, and that is all it takes to spark those memories, and I find myself instantly taken back to that night. The sounds and smells are still so real…17yrs later.

Graphic, I know. But this is the direction I must travel with my blog to illustrate how real these situations are, and the emotions people are faced with. For there are only two ways to gain true perspective on a situation: 1) Experience it firsthand, and 2) Learn from someone that has.

My hope is to spark a conversation around the emotional survival of our nation’s first responders and warriors. If I am doing this right, you should be asking yourself, “So, how the hell do cops, warriors, paramedics and firefighters deal with this shit?”

Honestly, we don’t…I truly believe we have a learned defense system…kind of a personal process we go through to avoid accepting the realities of the trauma we are faced with. I call it “Conditioned Apathy”. It’s a practice of consciously and subconsciously decreasing our capacity to experience empathy. By compartmentalizing and suppressing these types of memories, as well as unintentionally dehumanizing people, we enable ourselves to operate in these crazy situations without making an emotional connection. We become desensitized.

To finish my story, I thought it necessary to share some background information about the scene I witnessed on that warm summer night.  The driver of the motorcycle was the best man at his friend’s wedding earlier in the day. The passenger who died was his childhood friend. The wedding party had just gotten back to the house when the passenger had asked to go for a ride around the block.  They had been drinking, and the driver had overshot the corner.  When they hit the curb, the passenger flew over the driver, hitting his unprotected head center mass on a tree, six inches in diameter. Those little balls of yellowish-white stuff in his hair and ear…you can imagine my pain when I found out what that was. The driver later plead guilty to DUI, and also to killing his friend.

Next week, I will tell you some stories about “Little Philip”… a kind and compassionate kid. Maintaining my commitment to transparency, I’ll even tell you about that time I cried in Marine boot camp…  yeah… that happened.

Until next week…less screen time and more face time, my friends.

Confessions of a Recovering Cop

copmeAs political leaders only provide knee-jerk reactions to community members fighting for voice, reform, and justice; in response to what they perceive as a resist police state. I do believe we, as a Nation are at what could be a tipping point. As the list of unarmed African Americans being killed by the police grows, citizens and police forces alike are demanding meaningful reform. And while our Nations community leaders and politicians debate over what this reform should look like, the list grows. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Samuel DuBose – are just a few names of the most recent high-profile killings by the police.

To me; Meaningful Reform, does not mean more body cameras. I wholeheartedly believe it means an all new way of selecting, training and mentoring our nation’s police officers.

So, what is my purpose here? Simply stated. I want to provide the non-law enforcement, consumer of traditional mass and social medias the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a 20-year medically retired veteran of police work.

Like most stories, I feel compelled to start from the very beginning. To tell you who I was a child. My dreams, my fears, outline and highlight the influences that formed this man today. But first, for the sake of transparency, I’ll share my first experience with death, up close and personal.

Following this post, I will continue to share my personal and professional experiences in life.

***Warning and Disclaimer*** Statements I make within this blog are my opinion, as I do my best to pull information from reliable sources. I WILL use:

– Profanity
– Sexual content
– Overly graphic, disturbing or offensive language
– Vulgar or abusive language

You have the right to agree or disagree with me; I do not care. Please do not assume you know my stance on any subject. I am doing my best to remain natural as I walk through this minefield of political, racial, economic and social issues. So please, do not continue to follow me if this does not sound like something you want to read. Please feel free to write me at phil.saraff@gmail.com. We can have a meaningful discussion.

My end goal is to help create social discussion, by highlighting the cause and effects of the current state of the culture of law enforcement. By the nature of the topic of this blog, I realize some may be offended, disagree or even maybe want to punch me in the face. Honestly, I do not care. And if that is the case, please feel free to stop reading my posts.

My blog is dedicated to every one of us. May we increase our capacity for empathy and create global compassion as it is the glue that holds society together. More face time and less screen time.
Philip Saraff CEO – 720.883.4105
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