July 23, 2011

Literature Corner: You're a F****** Hero!

For this edition of the Literature Corner, we present a tale of booze, possible rape, and, well, booze. We also introduce readers to the gritty reality of the legal system where no good deed goes unpunished, the guilty often get away with it and the real victims are the public.

Language Warning: Police officers often pick up some of the habits and language of the street. After I left police work, I had to watch myself lest some of the more colorful expressions accidentally leak out into the English classroom. But it makes no sense to have cops talking like 19th century British librarians, so I've compromised a bit. I suspect you'll survive it.

072311: You're A F****** Hero!

Commendations are odd things in law enforcement. In many ways, they serve the same purpose as medals in the military: they’re supposed to encourage and reward exceptional performance and devotion to duty, even heroism. Hand them out to the average and they lose their value. Some big police organizations hand out actual metal medals, but for many, a written commendation serves the same purpose.

I’ve seen a few justifiably awarded commendations, but many are handed out for dubious heroism. There was the case of the officer who was commended for finding a lost infant. In reality, he literally grabbed the kid out of the arms of the officer who actually found her and rushed to the parent’s front door to play the hero. The street guys knew he did that kind of thing all the time. The brass thought he was grand. Then there was the case of the officer who got a commendation just because he was doing a pretty decent job in general (the chief really liked him)!

The weather was odd--not quite one thing or another. It was near 0° and very humid. The wind chill was at least 15° below, but the humidity, oddly, made it feel much warmer. When the occasional gusts of wind passed, a frigid mist immediately followed. It was the kind of deceptive weather that sometimes kills unwary drunks. So I was patrolling the downtown alleys looking for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t look out for themselves.

On the midnight shift, the downtown patrol district was always busy, mostly due to drunks, idiots and idiot drunks. The district was smaller in area than all of the other districts, but had a higher concentration of bars, restaurants, 24 hour quick shops and other night life attractions than just about anyplace in town. Throw in the Civic Center, several major and minor motels, quite a bit of low rent housing and the river that ran through the heart of town, and things were always interesting.

It was about 0130--the bars closed at 0200--and my much-abused van creaked with annoyance as I drove up the steep ramp from the street into the alley behind the Oasis Lounge in the heart of downtown. Civilian police agencies are much like the military. Both have a strict rank structure. Both have a love of uniforms and shiny goodies to hang on them, and both have a kind of irrational, institutional rigidity. The higher cops climb on the rank ladder, the greater love they tend to have for uniforms and shiny baubles. Rigid
hierarchies tend to have reasons for what they do, but sometimes the reasons make no sense. Forcing people to unwaveringly follow rules no matter the circumstance is foolish and sometimes dangerous.

And so it was that the officer who patrolled the downtown district was stuck driving a full sized van. But not just any van, a van with expanded metal grating over the windows--inside--to keep angry drunks from smashing the glass. Why a full sized van? The primary, rigidly hierarchical reason was that it was easier to toss large numbers of drunks into a full sized van than a more maneuverable mini van. This made a sort of sense, even if no one could remember ever carrying more than two or three drunks at a time. The secondary, and institutionally the more important, reason was that it had always been done that way.

What did not make any sense was that the expanded metal wasn’t easily removable. To clean the inside of the windows, it was necessary to remove handfuls of huge sheet metal screws only to try to replace them in the holes in the thin body sheet metal that had long ago been stripped. It didn’t make sense to even try to clean the windows, which got dirtier and dirtier. Not only that, the grating really cut down on the driver’s ability to see. The brilliance of putting the least maneuverable vehicle possible, with the worst driver visibility and a plethora of blind spots, in the highest traffic area in town was a disgusting, dangerous irony to the cops who had to drive the ugly beast, but sheer beauty to administrators who saw the vehicle as a rolling police billboard. And besides, it had always been done that way! Nobody remembered exactly why.

As the suspension of the van finally settled down, I crept down the alley, taking the time to really see, not just to look. As the rear of the Oasis Lounge appeared I noticed two people at the back wall of the bar, near the closed door. They were moving very slowly and were oblivious to me, so I stopped and watched. It’s always smart to observe animals in their natural habitat for a time before interacting with them.

"What the...?" I thought. "Nah, they can’t be..." but they were. She was on her back on the frozen ground, her pants and underwear down around her ankles. He was just rising and was clumsily trying to tuck various personal items back into his ragged and filthy jeans. I hopped out of the van and walked slowly toward them, watching carefully for any sign of weapons or hostility. There were two possibilities: these folks were exploring the joys of true love in an arctic environment, or I had stumbled onto a rape just after the festivities ceased. I called for backup--just in case it wasn’t true, icy love.

I recognized them. He was Willy Williams, 50-something and a stone alcoholic. He probably hadn’t seen a dentist in the last 30 years, and his teeth--not to mention his breath--eloquently testified to that fact. He hadn’t shaved in weeks, and he was badly underdressed for the weather with only jeans, a t-shirt and a pull over sweatshirt. All of these items were, of course, ragged and dirty, covered with stains of, well, stains of just about anything. I was glad that it was so cold; at least I couldn’t smell him--much. How did I know how Willy smelled? He hung out at the Oasis--he was one of my regular customers.

She was Louise Haggerty, also a dedicated alcoholic. She was about Willy’s age and had been divorced and remarried--at least twice--to another alcoholic who was nowhere in sight. Louise might have been pretty once, but not for a long time. For all she knew, muscle tone was a song by the Village People. Her skin hung on her saggy frame like a wet washcloth. Street cops often get the opportunity to see people naked, but the overwhelming majority are best left unseen. Doctors are right; most people look a lot better with their clothes on.

Louise and Willy were homeless in the sense that neither of them had a place of their own, but they always managed to find somewhere to sleep and hang out when they weren’t at the Oasis, which was whenever it was open. That’s how it was with most of the technically “homeless.”

Seeing the two of them together, particularly in this situation, worried me. I’d never seen them hanging together, and I had no reason to think they were an item. Rape was looking more and more likely, if for no reason other than both of their pants were still somewhere between their ankles and waists. They were Olympic class drunk.

“Willy; what’s up?” I asked, standing just out of arm’s reach. People aren't always as drunk as they look at first glance.

“Unnngh, snort,” Willy replied without looking up. He was working very hard to pull up and fasten his jeans and it was taking all of his seriously limited concentration and coordination. He wasn’t making it; I wasn’t about to help. A long streamer of drool ran over his limp lower lip and oozed onto his sleeve.

“Willy! What’s going on? What are you and Louise doing?” Willy looked upward in my general direction. His half closed eyes weren’t about to focus on me. “Police, Willy. I’m the Police. What’d you do; what happened to Louise?”

Willy stared over my left shoulder and grinned like the village idiot. “Weez? I don’ do no ding dawk--Weez? Smuffin’ smark. . .” Willy replied and returned his attention to his zipper, which was obviously technology far beyond his present abilities.

For a moment I wasn’t sure if he was just playing drunk, or if he was actually as drunk as he seemed, but he suddenly hacked and snorted, his eyes rolled back in his head--just like in slapstick comedies--and Willy went face down in the gravel before I could catch him.

My backup arrived just in time to see Willy bounce and lay still. I told her we might have a rape and had her watch Willy, who wasn’t moving, but was drooling like mad. I ordered an ambulance. I walked over to Louise, who was just barely conscious. Her eyes were unfocused and glassy, and she would occasionally grunt and jerkily move her forearms and fingers, apparently trying to reach her pants. She didn’t have a prayer.

“Louise? Louise! Police. I’m the Police. What happened? Are you OK? What did Willy do?” I asked. She didn’t respond at all. She was even more drunk than Willy--if that was possible.

“Hey Sue,” I called to my backup. “Would you…?” I nodded toward Louise and her pants.

“Oh man,” Sue said, shaking her head in disgust as she pulled on some latex gloves.

“I’ll keep an eye on Willy,” I said, smiling lamely. Unless safety is an issue, male officers do their best to avoid touching women. Whenever female officers are available they do the honors, so Sue knew what she had to do. We were both used to dealing with all kinds of human messes, but you never enjoy it.

Sue wrestled the panties and pants into place. Louise just kept grunting and jerking a little this way and that. She was completely out of it.

“Gross! You owe me one,” Sue exclaimed, dubiously regarding the palms of her gloves.

“My pleasure,” I replied.

“It sure isn't mine. What’s the story again?” Sue asked, gingerly removing and wadding up the gloves.

“Not much. I pulled up just as he was getting to his feet. She hasn’t moved and he went gravel diving just as you showed up.”

“Either of them say anything?” Sue asked.

“Nah. They’re really drunk, even for them. I’m worried about Louise. Her alcohol level might be toxic. I think I’ll go get some blankets out of the van…” and I was interrupted by the rattling rumble of the diesel powered ambulance turning into the alley. Seconds later, they pulled up and we directed them as they backed up toward Willy and Louise, the back up alarm blaring. Those things are really annoying. I suppose that’s the point.

Candy, the paramedic driving the rig, climbed down and smiled. “What’s up? Dispatch said something about a rape victim?”

Cops and paramedics generally have good relationships. They all know each other and each other’s reputations. They know their jobs and how to help each other, when necessary, and when to back away.

I explained what I’d seen. “Willy went face down before I could catch him, and we’re going to have to do a rape kit on Louise no matter what. We need to transport them both to the ER in any case. We’ll get Willy checked out and take him to Detox later. We’ll have you do the kit on Louise and see what happens after that; OK?”

“No prob. Give us a hand getting these two on gurneys, will you?”

We quickly loaded them up. I was a little worried about frostbite. I had no idea how long the two of them had been outside and they weren’t talking. I mentioned it to Candy.

Sue called the crime scene guys. She’d stick around until they arrived. I hopped into the warm ambulance. Willy was strapped down and Steve, the other paramedic, was cleaning up several scrapes on his face. He was still out cold.

“What do you think?” Steve asked. “I’d guess he’s a 3-8.” Steve was guessing that Willy was nearly four times the legal intoxication limit for driving.

“Nah. 4-3, easy,” I replied.

“We’ll see.” Steve laughed and wiped up a streamer of drool oozing from the left side of Willy’s mouth. The hospital did blood alcohol levels on everyone who might have been drinking, which caused Emergency Room BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) betting pools--a quarter a guess, winner take all.

“Hey, look at this,” Candy said, motioning for me. Candy gently touched her latex gloved fingertip to Louise’s open, unfocused eyeball. Amazing. Human beings have a built- in protective eye reflex. Move anything too close and the reflex takes over, blinking, moving the head, anything to avoid damage. But Louise’s nervous system was so suppressed even that reflex wasn’t working. That was something you didn’t see every day.

“4-5?” Steve asked.

“5-4,” I replied. Steve shook his head and laughed. Candy was too busy working on Louise to pay much attention.

At around 5-0--sometimes less--alcohol can be fatal. To the average person, the occasional drinker, that amount of alcohol in the blood can kill, first time, every time. But highly trained experienced alcoholics at the peak of their conditioning can handle it--usually. After all, if your normal, everyday blood alcohol content is at least three times the legal limit, a 5-0 is just a deeper than usual buzz. They’d both live, and anyway, the booze had damaged their brains decades ago. Still, this level of intoxication wasn’t helping the few brain cells they had left.

I had problems: I needed to interview both of them. One problem was that even if Willy confessed to rape, his BAC was going to be so high that any competent defense attorney would argue that he had no idea which planet he was on, let alone what he was confessing to. On the other hand, if I didn’t talk to him soon, when he sobered up, he might honestly have no memory at all of what happened; blackouts are common in Willy’s drinking league. To interview him, I would have to Mirandize him. After all, he was in my custody--no way was he going home--and I was going to ask him questions aimed at getting him to confess to a felony. Even if he waived his rights (surprisingly, most folks do), any defense attorney would argue that he was so drunk he couldn’t knowingly and intelligently waive them, and he’d probably be right.

Most people badly misunderstand Miranda. TV and movies imply that if a police officer fails to read some moron his “rights” (under the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court Miranda v Arizona decision) the bad guy walks. The truth is that officers have to read Miranda to bad guys only when the bad guy is in custody, and the officer wants to use whatever the bad guy says against him in court. It’s called “custodial interrogation.” That was the case with Willy. If a bad guy refuses to talk or lawyers up, that’s the end of that conversation. If the magic two criteria apply and an officer doesn’t Mirandize, all that happens is that the bad guy’s confession can’t be used in court. If there is other evidence they can still be convicted. If all the evidence the police have is the bad guy’s statement, they’ll have problems anyway.

My other problem was Louise. She was so drunk that she might not be able to speak at all. She might not be capable of knowingly consenting to anything, and anything she did tell me would be suspect. Would she remember anything when she was semi-sober sometime in the next couple of days? Would she even care? Sadly, so many drunks like Louise have almost no sense of self worth. They figure that whatever happens to them is just the way of things. They deserve it; they got it; who cares? They don’t.

Louise could mumble and grunt, but she couldn’t string together a coherent sentence. I was able to get her to nod “yes” when I asked about the rape kit--who knows to what she thought she was nodding? So the ER nurses went to work while I talked to Willy.

Willy might have been major league drunk, but he had been playing the cops and bad guys game for a long, long time. He only answered a few general questions, admitted nothing, and lawyered up. Willy wasn’t really hurt from gravel diving, so we took him to Detox where he’d be forced to sober up.

A few hours later, Louise was transferred to Detox too. They’d make her take a shower (drunks hate that--I’m not sure why; sensory overload maybe?) and they’d wash and dry her clothing, even give her new clothing if the old stuff fell apart as it often does, and give her a clean, warm bed and some good, solid food instead of her usual all-liquid diet.

After the shift, I wrote the report and handed it in. I was working on a burglary report when my shift supervisor, Sgt. Edwards, came in smiling, my report in hand.

“I read your report about Louise and Willy. You’re a f****** hero!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, sure. Thanks,” I mumbled, my face buried in a mountain of paperwork.

“I’m not kiddin’,” Edwards said. “If you hadn’t been patrolling that alley, Louise would have frozen to death. You’re a f******hero! I’m gonna write you a commendation!” Edwards was happy. He had only recently been promoted and was still trying to impress the troops. That wouldn’t last long.

The next morning, a couple detectives talked with Louise. She was still drunk, but sober enough to deny that anything happened. Who knows why? Maybe she honestly didn’t remember. Maybe she thought she was in love with Willy. Maybe she was trying to get back at her old man. Or maybe it really was consensual--as consensual as any agreement between two popsicle-like nearly dead-drunks can be. No witness/victim, no rape. The evidence in the rape kit could only confirm that they had sexual contact, not that it wasn’t voluntary. They didn’t even bother to talk to Willy. Even if by some miracle he did confess, no witness/victim, no rape.

It sounds callous, but the reality of court, unlike TV or movie reality, is that some people are bad witnesses, and juries don’t like or believe bad witnesses. This is particularly true when the defendant is facing serious time for a serious crime. Most jurors are decent people and want to be sure they’re not sending someone up without good reason. Even if she had been raped, Louise would have been a lousy witness. Most likely, she would have forgotten all about the court date, gotten drunk and failed to show up. That’s common too. Then you end up having to arrest your victim for failing to appear in court. Juries just love victims--nicely decked out in neatly pressed prison orange jumpsuits--that have to be arrested to get their buns into court.

I did get the commendation, but I’m still not sure finding two should-have-been-dead drunks in an alley qualifies as f****** heroism.

Posted by MikeM at July 23, 2011 12:02 AM

Hmmm. You risked nothing and did your job as you were trained to do. Nah, not heroism.

And we have the same thing in the office world. Sometimes you get a letter of appreciation for just doing your job and making no extra effort. It just happens to catch someone's eye in the "right" way.

Posted by: MikeM_inMD at July 23, 2011 08:24 PM