I did a story this week that surprised me. And, I have to say, after more than 16 years covering crime, that doesn't happen very often.
The story was about a young man who'd just gotten out of prison in June after serving time for second degree murder and he was arrested for stabbing someone several times. No, sad to say, none of that surprised me.
I dug out the old files on the 19-98 murder case and discovered the young man had refused to pull over for police. An officer saw him driving without his lights on and he ignored her police lights, so she thought he was drunk. He sped up right before an intersection, ran a red light and slammed into a car. The young woman driving that car, 24 year old Rebecca Williams, was killed instantly. Her parents were and still are, devastated.
I called the officer who was trying to pull over that young man 10 years ago and asked if she remembered the case.
This is what surprised me.
Not only did she remember it, but, she has thought about it every single day since and it still makes her cry. She spent a lot of time blaming herself for Rebecca's death. She even checked the young man's prison status over the years, to make sure he was still behind bars. She was so traumatized by that one experience, she almost gave up police work. She'd only been on the job five years at the time. When I interviewed her about the case, she could barely talk about it. She is so sorry it happened and so sorry for Rebecca's family. She was consumed with the what-if's, how she could've changed it, prevented it, controlled it. But, of course, it was out of her control and what's what makes it so hard to take.
It took this officer a long, long time, but she finally realized she wasn't to blame; the young man was. He was drunk that night and high on drugs too. You have to wonder, had she not tried to pull him over, would he have killed a whole family. We'll never know.
What struck me about all this is how little thought we citizens give to the trauma officers suffer on the job. Whether they see a murder happen before their eyes, or they work a terribly troubling crime (like the baby who was eaten alive by a dog recently) or they nearly die themselves, it can change them forever. It's almost like we think of officers as robots and expect them to deal with all these things with a blank face and a closed heart, but, they don't. They take these traumas home and it affects their sleep, their family lives and their futures.
Officers encounter things most of us can't imagine and yet, are expected to blow it off, get back to work and not let it bother them. But, it does. They often need counseling and support and help and may never be the same. I think this side of police work is something we fail to recognize, but we need to. We need to understand the heartache, the guilt, the helplessness they feel. We need to remember that despite their uniform, training and badge, they are real and fragile human beings, just like the rest of us.