“When things go wrong, don’t go with them.” – Elvis Presley
On January 18, 1970, I put on a suit and turned my necktie the way my Father had taught me. I entered the new home of the Los Padres Police Department at 155 Fortune Avenue and began my law enforcement career working as a part-time, general purpose clerk. My initial assignment was to spend three months in each of the major divisions of the department and learn as much as I could about their functions while looking for every opportunity to contribute.
Working in the Administrative Services Division, I had the opportunity to observe a day in the life of a crime report as it travelled from the hands of the officer who wrote it, on to the sergeant who would approve it or send it back for corrections. Then, it went to the records clerk who pulled data from it for required city, state, and federal statistical analysis. The report would then be sent to the appropriate unit for follow-up investigation or final disposition.
If the investigators identified and built a case against a suspect, it would go to the district attorney on a referral for charges and an arrest warrant, which would then come back to the police department to be served by the case investigator or, if he had a good relationship with the officer who first wrote paper on the case, the warrant might go out to the field to be served by that cop – a reward for a job well done.
Working below ground in the communications center, I got to know the four people who sat around a set of tables pushed together and covered with telephones and a manual call-routing system. The phones rang steadily but rarely urgently. Most calls were reporting traffic accidents, streetlights that had burned out, potholes that needed repair, and drunken husbands who were raising Hell with the wife and kids.
But the occasional hot call did come in and when it did, the dispatch staff responded with a cool, professional detachment that made a phenomenal impression on me and would come to help define the way I handled stressful situations throughout the rest of my life.
Much can be learned about a person by the way their voice changes over the radio, the telephone, or in face-to-face confrontations under the stress of a life-or-death situation.
After the first month underground, which saw me doing paperwork and a wide range of gopher-tasks, the shift supervisors in the communications center assigned me to work the phones and radios on the public works lines.
Soon after, I was taking general calls from the public and routing them to the appropriate dispatch station. When an honest-to-goodness emergency call would come in, it was amazing to hear and feel the panic and sense of urgency in the voice of the caller. And it was even more amazing to witness how the quality and quantity of actual effective communication could dramatically improve based on nothing other than the call-taker’s ability to calm the person through the active role-modeling of a patient, controlled and focused demeanor characterized by a clear, conversational tone that conveyed empathy, understanding, and a singular focus on the individual who needed help. To say that emergency service dispatchers are honest-to-goodness life savers is no exaggeration.
Working with the Uniformed Services Division meant going on endless ride-alongs with uniformed officers in marked patrol cars as they worked their assigned beats on day, swing, and midnight shifts on weekdays and weekends. That, too, provided a phenomenal opportunity to study how people communicate with each other – or don’t – under circumstances ranging from the mundane (providing directions to City Hall) to the extreme (commanding a robbery suspect to comply with orders at gunpoint). I had the chance to observe how both the presence and the absence of stress brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. It gave me the opportunity to chart a path that would (hopefully) build on the former and limit the latter. It also gave me a chance to put life and death into a new perspective
On a swing shift during a hot spell in the summer of 1970, the officer I was riding with was dispatched to a report of a possible dead body in an apartment on the east side of Los Padres along the west frontage road to the Santa Lucia Freeway south of Golden Hills Road.
On our arrival, we were met by the apartment complex manager who told us he had been receiving complaints of a strong stench coming from one of the units and when he knocked to investigate, there was no answer. He let himself in with a master key and found a body in the bedroom. He backed out and called the police.
The manager escorted us to the second story apartment, opened the door, and stood aside. We were hit hard in the face by the horrible combination of smells that accompany the decomposition of a human body.
It was unimaginably bad. In subsequent years, I watched as others would retch and vomit because of that smell.
While I found the odor repulsive, I was able to function. On the drive to the apartment, the cop I was with did a great job of prepping me on what we might expect to find on this type of call. He warned me that it could smell worse than anything my mind could imagine and that if I kept my breathing shallow and slow, it would help. It did.
The body lay diagonally across a freshly made bed. The duvet was a burgundy and black paisley-type print. The only clue to the body’s gender was offered by the clothes it was wearing; a dress that was stretched to near bursting by the swelling of the corpse. The skin was mottled shades of black, brown, and purple. It almost matched the duvet.
She had been dead for days in a sealed apartment where the temperature was in the mid to high eighties throughout the day. Her purse was on the floor beside the bed. The officer picked it up and looked through it. He pulled out the wallet and opened it to her driver’s license. He showed it to me and I found myself looking at the image of a woman who had made lunch for me more times than I could count. She was the mother of a child-hood friend who lived several blocks from our family home. Now, divorced, alone in an apartment, and dead, her body bore no resemblance to the happy face depicted on the license or in my memories of years past.
There was no note, no explanation, just a half-empty bottle of prescription sleeping pills next to a glass of water on the nightstand next to the bed.
A part of me wondered if I should ask for a moment of silence and say a prayer for the dearly departed. But I didn’t. There was work to be done. The room had to be checked to ensure this was a suicide and not some ruse to cover a murder. There were photographs and measurements that had to be taken. All the nearby apartments needed to be checked to see if anyone saw or heard anything suspicious over the last few days. There were notifications and arrangements to be made. The medical examiner had to be called out to do an independent investigation and then take custody of the body.
I watched every step in the process and helped wherever I could, with focused intent but also with a sense of detachment that enabled me to do what the officer asked of me.
That sense of detachment kept me from getting wrapped around the axle of grief over the loss of this woman who I had such fond memories of.
I would not have been able to explain it at the time, but this was a good lesson in walking the fine line between compassionate humanity and bureaucratic efficiency.