Wednesday, January 24, 2007


In the jails, working with criminals, in the streets, on patrol... in any emergency services position bad things happen. You will see and feel and be involved in many things, some of them horrible, some of them tragic, some of them funny. You will also be involved in things that are horrible or tragic or funny but also fraught with legal liability.

It's bad enough that you may risk your life to save some piece of shit abusive rapist meth addict from being beaten to death by someone just as bad, but to add insult to injury you may get sued for doing it. In this world, that's just the way it is.

One of the side effects is the "three-year rule". When an officer is involved in a very ugly thing, especially if someone died, he is cautioned not to talk about it for three years. Three years, we are told, is the magic number, the time limit on filing a federal suit.

Aside: as I type this it occurs to me that this is something I was told and it has been passed on through generations of cops and I've never looked it up myself. It may not even be true. Wouldn't that be weird?

The reason for the rule is the concept of "discovery" and how our profession looks at lawyers and civil trials. We hear from inmates all the time that the civil aspect of the legal system is "Money for nothin'..." you just gotta convince twelve people that you are poor and sad and downtrodden and some person or some agency with deep pockets is a great big bully and they will vote for the agency to give you money. (Like many things, civil suits are one of the things that tends to punish good people more. Good people mortgage their houses to pay settlements off. Bad people just say ,"Fuck you" or declare bankruptcy and are rarely ever actually penalized).

Anyway, let's say that on that one bad night things go really, really bad. You're alone, or worse yet with your children and a screaming naked guy with a knife runs out of a house right at you, swinging the knife at your kid and everything is a blur but you tackle him as hard as you can and you hear crunches and something give and he's trying to bite and you shove your arm deeper in his mouth thankful you're wearing a jacket and you punch and grab and gouge and you're terrified and suddenly things get really quiet. You roll away and check on your daughter who is screaming and then you look back at the guy (for a second, you're afraid that since you took your eyes off of him he will disappear like the villain in a slasher flick and attack again) but you look at him and he's not moving at all and then you realize he's not breathing...

There's a good chance that relatives of the dead guy will come out of the woodwork. They haven't talked to him in years after kicking him out over violent outbursts, but now they will be aggrieved and loving family members saddened by their poor little sick brother's horrible and unnecessary death at the hands of you, you violent, evil.... These people who never spent a dime on the psych meds that the deceased desparately needed will go shopping for an attorney...

And here's the genesis of the three-year rule: You are going to feel terrible. No matter how justified the situation, or depraved the attacker, you've taken a human life and that means something and you will feel bad about it and you will want to talk. Talking is how people heal from this stuff.

If you are honest, you will say, "I feel terrible, just guilty. Sick." and "It seemed like I watched him not breathing for an hour before I realized I needed to do something and called 911"

The attorney hired by the EBG's suddenly loving family will do anything he can to find evidence of these statements and will ask you, in court, "Isn't it true that you said you felt guilty? That you were sick with guilt? Guilt is not something the righteous feels..." and "I will produce a witness that says that you stared at the body for an hour before you called 911. If that is not gross indifference I don't know what is."

So we are taught not to say anything.

The upshot is that in the worst emotional times, you are pretty much on your own. By the time three years have passed, you've either dealt with it or it has dealt with you.

This new job is different. The ugly things that I will learn here I can never talk about. Never. I will learn a lot and I will distill lessons and adapt. I'm doing good things. But I will (and have already) seen things that will stay with me...

(Not the old things, like blood and guts and splatter, these are more emotional, more personal)

...and I will never be able to talk about them. Never.


Kai Jones said...

Not to a therapist, who would be bound by confidentiality? Curious, not recommending a course of action.

Rory said...

In the past I've found it very, very easy to get information from people who should be "bound by confidentiality".

These are other people's secrets and I will keep them.

Thanks, Kai.