April 25, 2017
I’ve finally picked up the pen and started to address the events of 2016. This was the hardest year in the career of nearly every active officer in the metro area, due to the duty-related deaths of five officers.
That year brought about events that I never thought I would see. That year caused me to question my career choice more than any other series of events to date. I shed more tears in 2016 than ever, and my children pleaded with me to find another job.
I will never be able to find the words to adequately explain the wide range of emotions and the personal challenges I and my colleagues faced that year. But one of the reasons I started this blog was to shed some light on the human side of policing, so I’m going to do my best.
I’m hesitant to even try this, because I don’t want to do anything to take attention from the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, or to provide publicity for the suspects, or to make this about ME. But it’s fair to say that I feel I have a duty to share these experiences for the next generation of officers, and for anyone who is curious what it is like to wear a badge for a living. As officers, I think it’s important for us to remind people that we are human also, with all of the same problems and weaknesses as everyone else. And with the current climate of anti-police sentiment, it’s important that we counteract all of the negative publicity and remind the world that 99% of officers are doing the right thing, and paying the price, 99% of the time.
November 2, 2016, was an unusually warm night. We had the windows to our condo open. I lay awake listening to my stomach rumble, having consumed dinner that did not agree with me at a local Thai restaurant. It was around 1:00 a.m. and the night was still and quiet.
As I lay there, thinking about all of the things I had to do the next day, and wondering if I would ever get to sleep, a strange noise interrupted my reverie. It sounded like someone pounding on a door in our complex. Was somebody coming home from the bar (on a TUESDAY night?) and having trouble finding their condo? Was someone knocking on OUR door for some reason? Neither scenario made sense, because the sound was too faint. I checked my phone and determined that I hadn’t missed any calls. Then I shrugged it off and eventually fell asleep.
I slept soundly, having no idea about the horrible events that were unfolding just a few miles away. 2016 had already been a very challenging year for central Iowa law enforcement officers. In March, two Des Moines police officers were killed on Interstate 80 when a drunk and drugged driver slammed into their vehicle head-on. All parties involved, including the prisoner the officers were transporting, were killed. I was surprised how much that event impacted me, even though I did not know the officers personally. I assisted with shutting down the interstate several times as motorcades transported the fallen officers’ caskets around town. I’ll never forget how I felt when I first saw the white hearse, carrying officer Susan Farrell, traversing our city. That was when the whole incident really hit home for me, and I was overcome with emotion, thinking about the officer’s husband (also a local officer), and two young children.
I was in a “funk” for a few weeks after that, just feeling depressed and wishing there was something I could have done to help or prevent the tragedy from happening. That’s the thing about cops, most of us are “action” people, and we want to be involved when the stuff hits the fan. We tend to feel a little guilty about being off-duty when our colleagues need help.
I was just starting to feel better when I received a call from a fellow officer on the evening of August 3rd, informing me of the death of West Des Moines officer Shawn Miller. Shawn was killed in a crash while leaving the Dallas County courthouse on his personal motorcycle. I had known Shawn well, and had recently served on the day shift with him. Our paths crossed frequently, and we assisted each other on calls from time to time because or cities are right next to each other. He was one of the nicest people and best officers I have ever known, and I was deeply troubled by his death.
It is very rare for Iowa to lose an officer feloniously in the line of duty. During the years that I served as a reserve officer, I often participated in an annual memorial service, during Police Week in May, where we read the names of all the officers killed across the U.S. in the prior year. I don’t recall ever reading the name of an Iowa officer. That all changed in April of 2011, when Keokuk County Sgt. Eric Stein was shot and killed by a deranged man. In September of 2013, Rockwell City officer Jamie Buenting was killed during a standoff with a suspect. I was one of several thousand officers who attended that funeral. There were no dry eyes in the high school gym as the fallen officer’s young daughter read a letter she had written to her dad, and the officer’s father threw himself on the casket as it was wheeled to the waiting hearse.
But now it was November, and I had finally fallen asleep. My cell phone rang around 5:30 that morning, and I was greeted by an automated message advising that all Urbandale schools were closed for the day. It’s interesting how fast our brains work, as I recall wondering about the different scenarios that could cause the entire school district to close (absent a blizzard). I couldn’t come up with anything.
But what I heard next left me in total shock and disbelief: the robotic voice on the other end informed me that two Urbandale police officers had been killed overnight at 70th and Aurora.
I could not believe what I had just heard. At first I wasn’t sure if I was even fully awake, I guess I hoped that I was dreaming. All sorts of violence had been occurring against police officers lately around the country, but this was literally in my back yard. I had lived and worked in Urbandale off and on for nearly 30 years, and had done a long stint as a reserve police officer there, and nothing like that had ever happened before. Officers had been involved in two shooting incidents during that time, but other that they had hardly even had an officer INJURED, let alone killed. Then it dawned on me that the dead officers were likely friends of mine. I started to get choked up. It had already been such a bad year.
I grabbed my cell phone, and texts and Facebook messages were already coming in. My phone is programmed to go silent at night, with only a select few contacts able to ring through, so I had missed all of this. Details were still very sketchy at that point. I quickly learned that one Urbandale officer, and one Des Moines police sergeant had been gunned down around 1:00 a.m. that night. The suspect was still at large. That was about it.
My initial gut reaction to hearing the updated news was thinking that we were at WAR. This may seem melodramatic, but certain authors within the law enforcement community had been saying that there was a war going on against the police in America. I never really bought in to that. But now it was really hitting home. A slightly different time, at a slightly different location, and that could have been ME laying dead in a patrol car riddled with bullet holes.
I called a co-worker, knowing that he would be awake and would have the full scoop. I learned the names of the two fallen officers. The only solace I took from the news was that I did not know either officer. For better or worse, it is always a relief to learn that nobody you knew personally is the victim of a tragedy. I had had visions in my head of who the fallen officers could be, based on the time of night and knowing the shifts that my colleagues worked. Any small comfort I may have taken from not having a personal acquaintance with my two fallen comrades was short-lived, as I pondered what would need to happen next.
Thoughts and emotions raced through my head. This can’t be happening. This is not supposed to happen HERE. Soon I was overcome with anger. Somebody was out there killing us. I told my co-worker that I was heading out the door, and we agreed to meet at the station right away. I really wanted to do something about this, to be a part of the effort, to contribute. A familiar sense of guilt returned, just like when the two Des Moines officers were killed on the interstate. Why did they have to die, when I was home asleep in bed? If only I had been there, perhaps I could have done something to prevent this. These emotions are not fueled by ego, they are fueled by the desire that most cops have to be involved in the job of keeping the community safe. The only way to do that is to suit up and hit the pavement.
As I threw on some clothes, I was faced with another conundrum: my girlfriend was asleep in the next room, oblivious to all of this. There was a gunman on the loose out there, trying to kill us. All of the books and articles about being in a relationship with a cop claim that there is some sort of heightened sense of awareness in police families about a cop’s mortality. The whole thing about “whenever an officer heads out the door to work, his family never knows if he will return,” and so forth. But I’ve never dwelled on that. Life can be dangerous for anyone who walks out their front door, and there are plenty of jobs much more dangerous than ours. But for the first time in my career, I was walking out the door knowing that there was a strong chance I would be in a gunfight today. The shooter was still out there. We were going to hunt for him, and we weren’t going home until this thing was over.
My eyes wandered to the safe where I keep my valuables. It contained the engagement ring that I planned to present to my girlfriend when I proposed to her at dinner in a few days. I considered waking her up now, and asking her to marry me before I headed out. I couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to me today, and having her never know about the ring and what I had planned.
But I decided to wait. I woke her up and briefly explained what was happening. She was obviously distraught, but I hurried out the door before we could discuss anything. I told her I’d call her as soon as I could.