November 22, 2008

Steve Pomper

Damned Either Way.


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Well, here we go again.


     A police officer answers a call while at home off duty, to come into work and risk his life and safety to help save a suicidal stranger and for his efforts he gets hammered by some media and second-guessed by local politicians. What a strange way to say thank you.

     The other day a detective, with whom I’d worked for several years in patrol, was called out to engage a forty-eight year old suicidal man apparently preparing to jump off the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. The detective serves voluntarily as a hostage negotiator and often responds to such incidents. I know this detective to be an exceedingly competent and empathetic officer.

     During the two-hour effort to keep a distraught man from taking his own life, the man maintained a precarious perch on the outside of the bridge railing, but was rapidly losing his hand-hold. The detective attempted a last-ditch effort to secure him to the railing with handcuffs, but the man pulled away, kicked out from the bridge, lost his grip and plummeted to his death. Now the cop, after hours of trying to communicate with the man who hadn’t spoken a single word, has to live with this horrific image and his own personal second-guessing.

     There’s far too much emphasis on, “happy endings,” these days, but this is real life—no one is guaranteed a happy ending; cops know this better than most. Too often the prevailing attitude is, if something goes wrong, it’s the officer’s fault. The suspect refuses to drop the gun or knife and the officer is forced to kill him; of course it’s the officer’s fault for not defusing the situation or disarming the suspect—or my personal favorite: for not shooting to wound. Or, the severely depressed man refuses to listen to reason and succeeds in committing suicide; of course it’s the officer’s fault for not convincing the man that life is worth living after all.

     Listen up folks: some people are unreachable, some folks suffer from severe mental illness, and, listen especially carefully to this reality: some folks are just plain evil. My point is, not every situation can be remedied peacefully. In fact, if you think about it for a moment, isn’t that why the police exist? If every situation had an easy, non-violent solution, we wouldn’t need the police—anyone could do it.

     My friend is now being second-guessed about his methods in attempting to rescue this man, who was obviously intent on ending his life. Any officer will tell you that even though we learn that there are certain commonalities in similar situations, each situation, and individual, is different, and you can’t predict anything with complete accuracy. The media, administrators, and politicians have days, weeks, and months to dissect what the officer had seconds to decide. And since the police no longer enjoy society’s benefit of the doubt, the situation is discouraging for cops.

     Folks who create or exacerbate this situation by armchair-quarterbacking officers, will suffer along with the rest of society when potential officers choose different career paths, and if/when those who do enter the profession, along with those of us already here, hesitate in similar situations in the future. It’s just human nature to run through that mental rolodex of acquired knowledge for those situations we’d best avoid. What happens when that officer hesitates to pull his gun on an armed suspect, or hesitates to even attempt to prevent a person from hurting themselves for fear of appearing to have assisted the person in committing suicide?

     Think! Think! Think! As a society we have to think seriously about our attitudes toward our cops. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t—quite literally in this case. The cops stand off and the guy jumps: “The cops didn’t do anything!” The cops attempt to rescue the guy and he slips, falls, jumps—whatever: “The cops killed the guy!”

     How can the cops ever win?


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