Police aren’t like other people–not after a year on the job. Urban cops live in what amounts to a parallel world, in the city we all know but somehow a different city, sordid, hidden from the respectable middle-class, dangerous, peopled by creatures who seem barely human. It changes them.
Cops see the grotesque, the inexplicable, the scarcely credible. On a hot night in August we found the guy in the bushes near National Airport who two weeks earlier, having lost his girlfriend, had put a bullet through his head. The stench was awful, a rancid sick reek. The guy’s face was sliding off his skull and his spine was a white rod visible through his chest. Some of the cops were breathing through their mouths to avoid gagging.
They hide in black humor.
“Think CPR would help?” someone asked.
Months later one of them told me, “The only way I kept from puking was, no way was I going to do it in front of a reporter.”
A cop sees people at their worst, even good people: the banker, stopped for speeding, huffing and puffing about how important he is; the woman hiking her skirt and flirting; others lying, lying, lying. A cop never goes where good things are happening. A woman doesn’t call 911 to say that her husband hasn’t had a drink in five years, the kids aced their SATs, and she passed her mammogram. He goes into homes on domestic calls and finds couples glaring at each other in hatred while the kids cry in the corner because mommy and daddy are fighting.
So much of the cop world is ugly. You answer a check-on-welfare call and find an old woman passed out on the floor with her husband wandering around bumping off walls. Really: Dazed shuffle, bump, startle, turn and shuffle till he hits another wall. Maybe dementia, maybe Alzheimer’s.
Or maybe knows he’s losing his wife of fifty years, and just turned his head off.
Fire-department med-techs arrive. The woman’s blood pressure is 310/180. You could rupture a truck tire with that. They carry her out. “Pressure’s rising,” says the paramedic in the ambulance.
DOA in progress. She’s not going to last. The radio says a gang fight is developing, so off you go.
How does a cop handle it? It never stops. You go to the hospital to interview the rape victim, age fifteen, because you need a description. She’s sobbing hysterically, half out of her mind. They’re sedating her. The dirtball really knocked her around: bad facial bruises, split lip. Every cell in your body wants to find the guy and beat him until he doesn’t have an intact bone. Brutality has its appeal. It really does.
You have to turn off, not get involved.
Americans are insulated from death. Cops see a lot of it. So do others in the street trades: shock-trauma surgeons, ambulance crews, fire departments, ER nurses. It isn’t pretty movie-death. It’s the grandmother who stroked out in the bathtub three days ago, and the flies beat you to her. It’s the teenage Cambodian gang-shot in the head, still breathing, with brain tissue swelling out of the hole like obscene lips.
DOA in progress.
You turn off. You have to. I remember a wreck at a brightly-lit intersection in suburban Maryland. Some idiot had been speeding real bad and flipped his pickup. He didn’t roll it–the sides weren’t scratched. The truck went airborne and landed on the top. The driver came out the windshield.
There were a dozen squad cars and several ambulances. The street was blocked off with police tape. The bar lights on the squads flashed red-blue red-blue. The med-techs, two guys and a gal, were working on what was left of the driver.
DOA in progress. Red mush was coming out of his mouth and they were trying to intubate him and pump his chest at the same time. Waste of time. They knew it. You gotta try. It’s one of the rules.
Another med-tech, a woman, knew the cop I was with. She smiled and called to him. I remember the question: “Bob! How’s your wife?” They chatted. Ten feet behind her the rest of her team were losing this guy. Pump, pump, pump. The woman in the group dived into a medical bag for something that wouldn’t work either with the tight, controlled speed they get when everything is on the line. And we were laughing and telling stories.
Self-preservation. Do the job, but don’t get involved.
The kids are the worst. Old people are going to die anyway. Adults–well, they’re all grown up. But the ones that really get to cops are kids deliberately hurt. Lots of cops refuse to work in kid-abuse units because, they say, “I’m afraid I’d kill somebody.”
There a cop learns things he doesn’t want to know. He learns, for example, that if you splash boiling water on a three-year-old girl, you get pink swollen splotches. If you hold her hands under boiling water, you get puffy pink lines of demarcation between burned and unburned flesh. These are called “immersion cuffs.”
It happens. Usually the mother does it. Men commit far more crime, and almost all of the violent crime, but women do more of the child abuse. Their dirtball boyfriends do a lot of it too.
You don’t have to ride long in a squad before you recognize that “scum” is a real social category. It isn’t a politically correct category. You can’t speak of scum in newspapers. They exist.
For example, the derelicts who urinate on the sidewalk in plain sight of children, or break into an unoccupied house and live there, using one room as a toilet. The child-molesters. And worse: The couple (it happened, right here in the nation’s capital) who kept their small daughter tied up for months, causing rope-burn on unhealed rope-burns, tortured her, fed her so little that she was thirty-nine pounds underweight, and then stuffed her in a closet, tied in a jacket with the hood turned around backward. She suffocated.
Scum. They’re a cops world.