Monday, October 30, 2006

Bonding Over a Corpse

There are things that are supposed to be filled with power and mystery, big events of Life and Death that are supposed to have this huge and never-ending impact on how you see the world and how it relates to you. Some of it's true, some of it's not. Sometimes it's what you expected and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes the expectation is more real and more powerful than the event. Sometimes....

Long ago a relatively ingenious killer was paralyzed from the waist down during his arrest. Not wishing to go to prison for the rest of his life as a paraplegic, he looped an end of his sheet around the base of his hospital bed, threaded the sheet through the rails and looped the other end around his neck. He then used the bed's motorized controls to raise himself to a sitting position, strangling himself.

The body was discovered within a half hour and I was tasked to watch the body. To block the door, keep an eye on the crime scene and allow no one to enter or touch anything until the investigators got there. I stared at the corpse for hours until the detectives and the ME got their and did their thing. First professional body. Should have been a big deal. I don't remember who the ME was and just remember that the detective was really professional. My most detailed memory is of the report.

The SAR body recovery was important because it hit me right between the eyes afterwards that I no longer had much in common with regular people. But the event itself was different. One of the enforcement deputies was so freaked by the condition of the corpse that he called for a "critical incident debriefing". That's basically a group therapy session for people who have been through "interesting times". It can be useful. This one was led by two detectives. It became clear, right away, that the veteran SAR 'kids' had seen more bodies and more nasty ones, than either of the detectives. So it was: a man with brains splattered on a cloud -wept evening; a deputy so freaked he was demanding psychological help; an SAR rookie (me) toying with meaning and more disturbed by the reaction of friends than by the dead; and the SAR veterans, two young women, probably no more than twenty years old who are comparing this body to many others in terms of "ick" and "smell" and the sheer danger of recovery and wondering why they were wasting their afternoon. It wasn't the same event and didn't have the same meaning to anyone there.

I saw someone the other day. She was smoking outside the jail. A couple of years ago we stood in the driveway while detectives and the ME examined the body of a woman who had shot herself in the head. The woman was a friend of ours and a co-worker. We talked that day and hugged and reminisced. Then I went back to work, back to watching my deputies and listening to them and maybe listening a little harder for any words that might be hints about dark times. The smoking woman didn't go back to work, not for a long time. She was 'too stressed'.

So I saw her the other day. If you had asked me ten years ago what would happen if two people spent hours over the corpse of a friend, I would have said that some kind of bond would be forged. I was wrong. We shared a moment, nothing more. There is no connection, no similarity, no bond.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


The inmate first approached me early in the shift with a yellow medical form. He stated that he was paranoid and was afraid he would hurt somebody (he flexed his chest when he said that) and needed to be given a cell all his own.

"You aren't paranoid," I said.

"I am too. People make me uncomfortable. I've been dignosed."

"If you were paranoid, you wouldn't have walked up to me, you wouldn't be standing this close, you wouldn't be making eye contact... your body language and voice are all wrong... and anyway, where'd you get the idea that jail was supposed to be comfortable?"

"Well, maybe I'm a little close but it's really hard for me to do it."

"Whatever. Put in your kite (any written request in the jail is called a 'kite'). Address it to me. We'll discuss you at the team meeting day after tomorrow."

"You aren't going to move me now?"

Just a flicker in his eyes- for half a second he considered doing something stupid, then chose to avoid the pain.

In my few minutes of free time over the next hours, I ran the inmate. No psych history. Claimed to be a gangmember and thoroughly dangerous fellow. Throws chairs when he's upset. Sex offender. The last was probably key, he was afraid his charges would get out. Maybe.

Fifteen minutes to end of shift and a horn sounds, strobe lights flash and solid steel door after solid steel door slams shut with a crash. Fire alarm.

I was running for the weasel's dorm before Central announced where the alarm originated. The puke had reached over the officer's desk and pulled the fire alarm. I was there first, the only officer. The puke was standing by the officer's desk and 74 other inmates watched from their bunks...

And the puke did nothing, just turned around and put his hands behind his back. I wanted him to fight. I knew he was too much of a coward- that's why he wanted out of the dorm so bad. But I really wanted him to fight. Something about his behavior made me despise him and I wanted to hurt him. But I was a professional. I did call him a coward when we were alone in a cell later and I was describing the disciplinary process. He just flexed, trying to be hard. I though about how easily his bones would break.

Anger is rare for for me. It's been a long time since someone pushed my buttons this thoroughly. Long ago, when I was dealing with adolescent emotions, my brother told me that you never hated anyone unless they reminded you of you. He was right, at least for takes a lot of closeness to make it personal for me. (RIP, Rick, and thanks).

So, did this puke remind me of me? A little. He had an ability to carry out a plan and manipulate the situation he was in to get exactly what he wanted. That's part of what made me angry, this ability to plan only being used for his own benefit. That's it though. I didn't hate him.

So what were the buttons? Entitlement. That he felt he should get what he wanted and if he had to inconvenience over a thousand people to get it, he didn't give a shit. Inconsistancy- he wanted to be a tough guy but did everything he could to avoid any hint of danger, damage or fear. And the cowardice itself, which just makes my skin crawl.

Hmmm.... and what are the three virtues I most prize? Mystery solved.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Two incidents today, (one for sure, one probable) of inmates manipulating staff. The volunteer instructor for the writing class had contact information for an inmate's relatives and had agreed to make contact. That's an old game, an old con and it usually ends very, very badly but there is the tiniest chance that she really had gathered the information in case the anthology was published.

The other one was a professional who should have known better. We work in a crowded jail. We have large dorms set aside for inmates with mental health issues. Some of those beds get filled by inmates without mental health issues due to crowding. Most of the time, it's not much of a problem- the 'normal' inmate realizes he's in a "crazy ward" and wants to get out, which happens as soon as a bed opens up. Some times it's an immediate problem, where the 'normal' inmate throws a fit and tries to bully his way out... so he goes to the hole. The worst, though, are the fairly sophisticated criminal who realizes that the psych dorms are relatively calm, quiet and a very safe and easy pool of victims who can be threatened or scammed for drugs, food or other favors and services. These predators will fake psychiatric issues or just request to remain there.

One of the staff members suggested that we keep an inmate in the mental health dorm who wasn't classified to mental health. We do that frequently, classifying some as "stabilizers" who can model mature and sane behavior and others as "PC" protective custody, inmates who because of size, gender identity or charges might be in danger in a normal dorm.

The staff member said that the inmate had requested to stay in the dorm because he was a federal inmate who was being hounded by the Attorney General because of a personal grudge based on a bar he used to own in the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, the inmate claimed he had been living the high life as a fugitive south of the border for about a decade and was afraid it would hit the news. He thought he might need protective custody if he was on the news.

Let me get this straight- Alberto Gonzalez, the USAG has time for a personal feud with a two-bit dealer on the West Coast? Furthermore, the dealer feels that if other inmates find out he's been having fun in Mexico while evading US custody he's going to be hated? He'd be a celebrity. It's not just that the staffer fell for a story, we all fall for stories... but this was a stupid, illogical, senseless story. The staff member was gamed.

Here's something that even some experienced members of the law enforcemenet and criminal research fields miss:

Criminals do not see you as a person. They see you as a resource.

Not just the super predators, the violent robbers, the rapists, that ilk. The average low level hustler, the conman, the dealer and the prostitute sees you as a source for stuff that they want. Money. A feeling of power. A few minutes or a few days amusement.

They have no more feeling for you than you have for the can that your soup came in.

It's harsh, and so alien a view point that even right in your face, most people deny it. But it is a fact. If you are a really good, caring, compassionate person the person who rapes and murders you or robs you or cons you will not feel worse about it than if you were an asshole. If anything, he'll be happier because you made it easier. Like the soup cans with the pull tabs.

If one of two people had to die, an innocent child or a multiple murderer and you were forced to choose, you would use one of two criteria. Either you would decide who most deserved to die (whose absence would cost the world least) , in which case the murderer would be executed or you would decide who most deserved to live (whose presence would benefit the world more) in which case... the murderer would be executed.

A criminal's thought process would be totally different. One of them has to die? Which would be easiest and safest? The murderer might kill me back. Kill the child.

It's not quite that simple. Criminals live in society and most know the words to blend in. You have to read their secret journals or listen in when they think they are alone to catch them openly thinking like this- but you can see the tracks of this decision making process in every aspect of their lives.

Also, they aren't always stupid and can weigh the social repercussions of their actions- in which case they would execute the murderer so that they could blend in.

Years ago a new nurse- kind, loving and compassionate- asked my advice. She wanted to take an inmate home and wondered if she would get in trouble. Duh, yeah. Fired. She explained that the inmate was a "really sweet girl" who had never been in trouble before and had no family and no place to stay... she got all this right from the inmate who had "no reason to lie" and had no idea the nurse was thinking about offering her a place to stay. When dealing with criminals, always check facts.

I brought the nurse over to the computer and ran the "really sweet girl"'s extensive criminal history over the past ten years. Drugs, theft, prostitution, domestic violence... she'd lied about every last detail and nearly gotten a really nice person to throw away her career on a good deed just so she could have access to a home, a place to shoot, money through theft, intimidation or (once the nurse realized she could be fired) blackmail. Gamed.


At one of the Mental Health Team meetings last week, the senior counselor noted in passing that an inmate was no longer with us. He'd been sentenced to two years prison time for burglary.

"He couldn't have been much of a burglar," Ed blurted out, "The dude is stone blind."

Which reminded me of Zippy. Used to come to jail alot, a talkative young man in a wheel chair. He was usually quick witted and funny, but sometimes sullen and he could be a real ass.

He's been in a lot lately. I could have looked it up, but I decided to just ask: "Zippy, why do you keep coming to jail? You're in a wheelchair, what kind of crimes can you do?"

"I usually come in on UUMV, sarge. Stealin' cars."

"You steal cars?"

"Nah. But my friends, they know I'm bored, see, so they take me along when they go joy-ridin'. When the cops show up, they all run off, but I can't run so they leave me there. I get charged with posession of the stolen motor vehicle."

"Zippy, you need some better friends. They just leave you there?"

"That's all right, sarge. What jails gonna hold me tighter than this chair?" He'd been flip and funny and laughing until this sentence, and there was a little glimmer of anger or resentment, something dark. He could stare at his walls and watch TV in his chair at jail just as well as at home.

With my dedicated, military "no man left behind" background I'd expected him to feel anger at his friends betrayal, but he felt greatful for the hours of excitement.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Moral Victory

Here's a simple, ugly truth with a lot of important conotations. People are almost never physically beaten. They give up.

There are exceptions. Sometimes in cases of "excited delerium" the threat (who is often on drugs, withdrawing from drugs and/or has a history of severe psychiatric issues) will literally fight until his heart gives out. Occassionally you break enough bones that the person can't move or do enough damage to the central nervous system that the threat is shut down completely, but it's rare.

Even most "knockouts" are, in my opinion, a matter of heart. I've been hit just right and left dizzy and puking for three days; hit so hard that my helmet broke off and flew across the room; but only once did I lose consciousness and that was for only a second... but I lost consciousness twice more in the next two hours, sign of severe brain trauma. The "get hit, fall asleep for awhile, fine later" Hollywood knockout doesn't happen, in my opinion. It can seem like that, because I've seen it happen with strikes that really shouldn't have caused any damage, but in the incidents I can remember the person knocked out was essentially a coward who didn't want to be there. The "knockout" gave an honorable excuse to stop and leave. IMO.

So fights are won, usually, because someone gave up. I'm finishing John Keegan's "The Face of Battle" and he makes a similar statement about battles and wars. "It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties, and if it is to result in decision, the moral collapse of one of them. How protracted the act of will must be, and how complete that moral collapse..."

Fighting, from the nastiest smelliest jailhouse brawl to WWII is an act of will. A contest that unless complete destruction happens is only ended when one side gives up. When they suffer a moral collapse.

Moral, in this sense, is not about ethics but about will, esprit, morale and a feeling of righteousness and duty, patriotism and honor. It is this sense of 'moral' that Napoleon was referring to when he said, "In war, the moral is to the physical as three to one."

Losing sight of this is a common modern weakness. I know some of our soldiers. They are hard working, dedicated, well-trained and mostly well-led. Despite facing insurgents who can hide in crowds and have access to advantages of appearance and language and local customs our soldier are kicking ass... and they are also making friends, if you read their e-mails.

By every objective standard- body count, territory held- we are winning, spectacularly. Urban anti-guerrilla warfare is about the most dangerous possible infantry situation. In any other place and time in a similar situation, the American casualties would be astronomical. In one year (1968) in Vietnam we lost 1,919 men to non-hostile actions- accidents and diseases*. Using stats from an anti-war website: in Iraq, from from the Iraqi election 1/31/05 until now, nearly 21 months, there have been 1360 killed. Objectively, in a given year, we lost more troops by accident in Vietnam in a year than we lost by all sources combined in 21 months in Iraq. But that's objective.

What we lose sight of is that war isn't objective. Conflict at any level is psychological and 'moral'. The winner and loser in this war will have nothing to do with the body count or the technology or the efficiencies or the training. The side that loses will be the side that gives up. The side that says 'uncle'. That side will walk away with its tail between its legs and the other side will congratulate themselves on a moral victory.

I usually try to avoid politics- I voted for people who have access to more information than me. The majority of the people voted for person X, so he gets the information and it's his job to make the decision. But right now it's as if groups of people- political parties, the media, all the usual boogie men, are lining up to try to sap our moral fiber, to make America feel ashamed for acting when no one else would (though, if you count the number of UN resolutions everyone seemed to think that somebody should do something, like the neighbors who watched when Kitty Genovese was stabbed). Will, in any form, scares them. People with will stand up. People with will make decisions and right wrongs. People with will are not sheep who will blindly listen to their newscasts and vote for the media's sheep-friendly picks.

Is this the great battle of the 21st century? When I was a kid, it was Communism versus Capitalism. Later, more subtle and sophisticated, it was Collectivism versus the Individual. Is it now as simple as sheep and their herders against Men? Is the eventual goal of the shepherds to destroy will itself? The victory we need is a moral one.

*14,594 killed by enemy action for a total of 16,511 US soldiers killed in 1968.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Duty to Act

There have been several local "in-custody" deaths in the last little while, each of them stirring up their own cadres of pundits and Monday-morning quarterbacks and armchair experts. One of the commentators described one situation: the officers see someone behaving strangely and when the officer approached, the mentally disturbed person ran. The injuries that resulted in his death came from the tackle and force used to end the chase.

The commentator asked a very good question: Was it necessary to chase the person in the first place?

Lots of things come together in that question, important things that describe part of the rift in perception between emergency services personnel and citizens. The biggest may be the concept of "Duty to Act".

Let's say you see someone in your front yard, acting strangely, staring and shouting and singing songs about John Lennon and Satan. Instead of calling 911, you go out on your front porch and yell, "Hey! What are you doing? Get out of my yard!" The EDP (emotionally disturbed person) takes off and runs. As a citizen , you've solved the problem. He may be in somebody else's yard, but he's not in yours. You aren't responsible for him or for his actions.

The officer has a duty to act. This can be really specific or really vague depending on the policies of an individual agency and current tactical training. One way of thinking about it is that once an issue comes to the officer's attention, he's not only responsible for what he does, but for what happens if he does nothing.

Crazy guy runs and leaves a citizen's yard because the citizen yelled, fine. Crazy guy then slaughters a few people at the neighbor's house, no liability or responsibility to the citizen.

The officer has to think of consequences- crazy running guy might launch himself in front of a bus. Or hurt some one else. Or be wanted for a previous crime. Or just desperately need psychiatric meds.

There are clues, too. Most people don't run at the approach of an officer, hence it's reasonable to believe that if someone runs, there is a reason. The reason might be a mental stability issue, in which case the officer may need to get them to medical help. It may be because the runner has a warrant out for his arrest (no one wants to be the officer/agency who let Ted Bundy go because they didn't take the time to check for warrants). It may be because he has weapons or drugs on him that he is afraid they will find...

So the officer chases, and it is reasonable.

(Caveat- local readers will know the particular case I'm referring to. I don't have any insider knowledge or special insight to decide or even clarify the right or wrong of the issue. I'm not writing about that. I am writing about the differences in perception between officers and the people that they protect.)

People have been fed a half-lie that violence only breeds more violence. In order for someone to start to use violence as a tool, they must see violence and they must see that violence works. That much is true.

In that narrow sense it is true that someone who has never seen violence will not think to indulge in it, therefore violence can not come from non-violence, therefore violence can only come from violence therefore violence breeds violence. It is one of those sweet, logically valid (and hence true in a philosophical sense) ideas which is utterly and completely wacked. Because everybody sees violence, whether it is a bird pulling a worm out of the ground or a cat playing with a mouse. Since times before life, since the first complex molecule absorbed another simpler one, violence has been with us.

In general, peaceful and non-violent places are more pleasant for most people. I believe there are huge costs, but most people would rather live in a city where they felt safe than live in a city where they felt fear. Unfortunately, people without fear make great victims and attract predators (the dodo were wiped out because they weren't afraid of people and they were good eatin'). A second unfortunate fact is that most people, especially peaceful people are often reluctant to use violence even in the defense of their communities... and when they do, they tend to suck at it. They are amateurs.

The most damning aspect of the violence-breeds-violence platitude is that in most cases, violence (force) is the only thing that can stop violence. Appeasement just allows the violent to get more, rewarding their violence. Ostracision just makes them feel righteous in victimizing the ostracizers and proving that the shunned are important. Trying to "fix" the psychological make-up either 1) gives the violent more tools and excuses (self-esteem training has been shown to make criminals MORE violent) or 2) fails because the violent don't see themselves as having a problem. Since when was being stronger and more dangerous a problem?

That leaves Force as the only viable means to stop immediate violence (some other things can work, if given time, but most require more time than exists in a violent crisis).

Hmm, the problem. Need force, but society at large is both reluctant and ill-equipped (psychologically) to deliver it. The solution: create a group who are trained and prepared to use force for the good of society.

This creates an incredible gap in understanding between society and society's defenders. A citizen who hits someone with a stick is breaking the law (usually) and more important, going against their socialization. The officer may be required to hit someone with a stick. Or shoot. A citizen handcuffs you and throws you in the back of the van, it's kidnapping. An officer does it and it's an arrest.

This is especially hard in America. We've been trained from the time we are little that everyone is the same and all rules should apply to all people, but it doesn't work. Football games need refs. Lifeguards need to be able to swim into "off limits" areas to rescue people.

And the system has worked to an amazing level. Fewer people are touched by violence than ever before. That brings it's own problems, as people try to analyze and even judge an act and environment that they have no understanding of. Some try, extrapolating from schoolyard fights in the distant past or what they've seen on TV or read in "true crime" books, but it is very weak extrapolation. It allows some of the craziest myths and misinformation and really dumb ideas to be given currency.

It's a gap of understanding.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bad Date

I'm not going to try to defend or explain or justify prostitution. It's not a victimless crime- by living outside the law, prostitutes become victims, prey to the stronger and more vicious. It's also not victimless when you see the world their children are raised in. It's not like "Pretty Woman" and I have yet to meet the "whore with a heart of gold."

It's also not just a lifestyle choice that happens because of economic concerns or poverty is just a piece of a very self-destructive montage of abuse and addiction and many subtle or not so subtle attempts at various types of suicide, some physical, some emotional, some social.

It is a hard life. I have pictures of meth prostitutes (first big fact, my friend: there are meth whores and crack whores and heroin whores and even alcohol whores but you will search this great nation from coast to coast and never find a prostitute who doesn't use drugs. This has been a running challenge, an informal contest with cops from coast to coast for decades.) ... where was I yeah? Pictures. Meth prostitutes. Anyway, the same woman early in her career and five years later. She looks like her own grandmother- toothless, wrinkled, with shrunken, hollow eyes.

It's a dangerous life. Rapes, beatings, robbery. Some have nowhere to go for help or support, others turn to a pimp who must be worse than her other predators and she just has to hope he won't be worse to her.

Knowledge is power, and in certain section of Portland (including the health clinic at the jail and some of the female cell blocks) you will find slips of paper, usually in colorful pastels, headed "Portland Bad Date Line!"

It is a warning newsletter from prostitutes, by prostitutes and for prostitutes. A list of events and horror stories:

"ON BICYCLE "GENE" - Downtown, W Male 29 or 30 y.o., bright blue eyes, goatee, tatoos on face, hands, and left leg, 5'6", scars from broken back, skinny. Knocked out, bit, restrained, cut, sedated, raped/sodomized, ejaculated on. Wrkr released 32 hours later"

"BURGUNDY VAN- NE MLK & Shaver. Male, African or Cuban with thick accent, 6'3", dark complexion, clean shaven. Offered $40 for BJ, pulled out big butcher knife and cut worker. She got away."

There are warnings about known predatory sex offenders in the area, requests for information in cases of severely beaten women, a request from a police officer who is working one of the cases- a "W Male big, thick glasses, beats w/ pipe, rapes" who has attacked five times.

This is a monthly newsletter put together by women who want to save themselves, want to have some power in their lives. In such a little space are hints of stories that would horrify Hollywood, acts of savage survival (heroism?) reduced to a few words: "kicked him in the face and got away".

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Shooting Reporters

A few weeks ago, deputies at a neighboring county shot and killed a young man. Yeah, he had a knife and yeah, his family had called for the police and yeah, they'd specifically said that they were afraid he was going to kill them,but...

But the minute he was shot, he magically transformed into their darling boy who would never hurt a fly. The ranting and raving and threatening and shrugging off bean bag rounds and finally charging towards the place the family was hiding from him has become "a bout of depression."

The ignorance surrounding incidents like these truly astonishes. Both sides of the controversy- I found out about the incident when scanning through the radio and heard a talk show host say that any decision the police made is fine with him and his caller say that every time he heard about these incidents, the person died so we must be doing something wrong. (On the off chance you can't figure out why that is ignorant, you need to understand that incidents with armed drunk people happen almost nightly and almost never go to shooting. If they don't go to shooting they just don't make the news).

Since then I've heard that two trained officers should easily be able to disarm a younger athlete with a knife (unless they have complete surprise, unarmed against the knife, even two on one almost always will result in serious or fatal injuries), that they should "shoot to wound" (try threading a needle some time while you are terrified and someone with a deadly weapon who is crazy looms over you) or that a little more training in crisis intervention verbal skills would have helped (when was the last time you successfully reasoned with a screaming drunk? You have to shout just to be heard.).

So I sent a note to the PIO (Public Information Officer): Jason, why don't we invite the media to attend some classes? Say, the Use of Force policy class and the Uncontrolled Environments scenario classes.

Jason ran with it. Two days later I was shooting reporters.

The bitch of this whole situation is that I haven't seen the news report. I heard it was good. The deputies said the message got across... I just happened to be dealing with a rookie officer in crisis and missed it. Higher priorities.

One of the scenarios is a distraught person sitting in a park. Clearly upset, crying, bystanders are urging the officers to do something, when the ED (emotionally disturbed) pulls aside a jacket laying next to him and exposes a gun.

The purpose of the drill is to gauge when the officer feels threatened and what they will do about it. The ED is going to escalate the situation into a classic suicide by cop- first expose the gun, pick it up, point it at his own head, start waving it around closer and closer to the officers, then finally aiming and firing if the officers don't fire first.

There are two goals inherent in that- we will show directly after this a drill about the action-reaction gap. Two officers will point weapons at my heart, fingers on the trigger and I will have my weapon dangling from my hand. They will give me verbal commands to drop the weapon. I will shoot both of them before either can twitch to pull the trigger. He who moves first gets the first shot off. They need to know that just because I am pointing the gun at my head doesn't mean that they are safe.

The second goal is to show them the dynamic of this type of suicide.

Like most beginners, the reporters couldn't bring themselves to fire until after I did. They had their guns out, at least, which was better than some. I had to be a little slow since I wanted every one of the Sim rounds on the reporter's armor and wanted to miss his hands (just being polite and safe. Sims can hurt and I didn't want any crying). So, being slow and careful I shot him in the belly three times before he could return fire.

We then did the debrief- what was the threat's (my) Intent? Means? Opportunity? That made me a threat at what level? What level of force does that justify? What level did you use?

We talked about tactics and the difficulty of making the decision to fire. The reporter was upset about getting shot, wanted to know if he should have given the order once and fired, or three times or... Had to tell him there was no right answer. Sometimes, sometimes not...

He was really upset. Not just kicking himself, but actually showing some symptoms I associate with officers who have been in a real shooting. I took him outside to talk.

"Are you happy with what happened."
"No. I got shot."
"What could you have done differently?"
"I suppose I could have ordered him to drop the gun, given him a three count and shot him before he could shoot me."
"You could have. Now tell me, if you did, if you shot this depressed man, would you be happy with what happened?"
"No, I guess not."

That was the point this whole class was about. Sometimes there are no good answers. Sometimes it's simply a choice of who the orphans will be. Sometimes it's a choice between shooting a stupid drunk kid with a knife and going through the legal hell and psychological damage or not shooting as he runs into the house and listening outside while he stabs a little girl and her mother and father and then maybe having to shoot him anyway. Then going through the legal hell for your inaction.

If the reporters took one lesson home that day, I hope it was this.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mechanisms of Injury

This will be thinking outloud, a random and not very scientific overview of damage. I went to get some words down to reread and research and clean up later.

There are two ways that heads get hurt by blunt trauma. Make that brains. The first is the contre-coup action. The head is moved very quickly and the brain slams against the inside of the skull. Imagine people without seatbelts in the back of a truck. The brakes slam on and they are still moving and are thrown against the front where they may hit hard enough to bounce back and strike the tailgate. Hit on both sides by the inside of their "protective shell" just like the same bruises that can appear on a brain after an impact.

In essence, this is a hard, fast push. Not a strike at all in the sense I normally use the word. This is the mechanism of injury that is forced by the use of boxing gloves and why the body mechanics of a strike in a gloved sport differ from those in an ungloved sport.

The second is by deforming the bone and literally pushing it into the brain case, eg a depressed skull fracture. That's hard as hell to do with a fist. The little bone/big bone rule usually prevents it (the hand is composed of small bones, the skull of fused big bones. In general, when the little bones hit the big bone, the little bones break with almost no damage to the big bone).

There are variations and refinements of these- strikes in certain areas increse the concussion and contra-coup effects by adding a circular or spiral vector to the motion of the skull or using the leverage to put shearing force on the top of the spine. Either bouncing or intrusion can tear the membrane around the brain or the blood vessels in the brain and cause further concussive symptoms or death.

So- first thing- there are systems of striking based on these two mechanisms of injury (MOI). Most grossly "time on target" or "follow-through" concepts apply to the contra-coup ideal, and "snap back on contact" apply to the intrusion system. (Research- heel up lends itself to bounce /ground contact to break?) The power generation system of one will not work for the damage system (or strategy) of the other.

The intrusion systems work far better for body shots, especially against bone and ribs, than the contra-coup MOI. There's nothing hard for the organs to bounce against.

Extremely vascular organs, such as the liver, can be seriously damaged by direct injury/intrusin. The surface of the organ essentially bruises and begins to leak. On the other hand, Contra-coup damage must literally tear the organ or the blood vessels free of their surrounding tissues, which is hard to do in a soft, massive and relatively liquid medium.

If the body has no where to "flow" with the strike, more damage is absorbed (that's a vague statement, try again). Though they are actually attached at many points, organs are suspended in a semi-liquid medium and are themselves extremely flexible. They are pushed aside by pressure. If space to be pushed aside is limited, the organ takes more of the damage because it can't get out of the way. Same if it gets hit from two directions. Also if it is hit too fast for it to flow. (Question- can a strike develop a wave action that does damage distinct from the physical impact? I have been told it can, but it may just be an attempt to explain contra-coup action. Hmmm....)

They can also be damaged by breaking the bones over the tissue and having the splinters of bone do what is so hard for blunt objects to do, directly tear the organs and blood vessels.

Joints can be torn by using the leverage inherent in the attached long bones to either force the bone out of the socket (ball-and-socket joints and some hinge joints) or to tear the ligaments holding the bones together (all three types of lockable joints).

The lungs can act as a big shock absorber for body blows, which is why striking at the bottom of the opponents respiratory cycle is so much more devastating. With training, the spine, knees and feet can also act as shock absorbers.

Knives are not the same as sticks and it is a fundamental mistake to train them the same way. Most telling is that knives damage soft tissue by severing it. Unless very heavy and used to shatter, they do very little damage against bone. Blunt object, on the other hand damage soft tissue by bruising (breaking tiny capillaries) unless they are penetrating to try to damage organs. Blunt objects do their greatest damage to bone. A knife to the meaty part of the forearm can sever tendons and arteries. A knife to the bony part causes surface bleeding. A stick to the meaty part cause bruising because the meat cushions the bone, but a good strike to the bony part can break the bone. With a knife you cut the inside of the elbow. With a stick you break the outside.

"Everything Life Has to Offer"

I escorted an inmate from his program room to his dorm a few days ago. As we were working, he mumbled something too quietly for me to hear. It didn't have the rhythm of the insults or threats that some (very few, at least with me) inmates mutter when they want a confrontation but don't quite have the courage.

"What was that?" I asked.

"I want everything life has to offer," he repeated.

I smiled. "I can't even imagine that."

"I can," he said with a big grin, "I got a big imagination."

"So do I. But the world is a big place, with more to see and do than I could get to in a lifetime. And there are so many ways to see each thing. And every choice removes some choices."

His grin changed a little, still a smile but very thoughtful as his eyes unfocused slightly. "Thanks," he said.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Not Quite the Same

We have an officer who is terrible at this job. She is a wonderful person: intelligent, easy going and compassionate. She is a very nice officer. She just isn't a good officer.

Nice and good aren't the same thing. Sometimes it seems that they are mutually exclusive.

A good person does the right thing.

A nice person tries to be liked by everyone. It's almost impossible to do what is right and and not upset someone. But it's relatively easy to do nothing without ruffling feathers.

Maybe good is a matter of intensity and depth and nice is a matter of perception and gloss. Maybe.

Don't get me wrong, in most cases, in day to day life, it is possible to be good and nice at the same time. As your strength, confidence and abilities increase you can be nice in more situations because you have attention and energy to spare for feelings. Like most things, it's a matter of choice: if you are teaching an officer a basic skill and he screws it up, a good instructor's first instinct is to instill the skill. A nice instructor's first instinct is to leave the student feeling great about themselves. False self-esteem is a product of spending time around nice people. Self-confidence comes from spending time with good people.

Another thing- I am absolutely not saying that if you are good, you can't be nice. I repeat, as your skill increases, you can be nicer in more situations. Just because someone is an ass doesn't mean he's good at anything. In general it means that tearing others down has worked better for him than building his own skill.

Safety and righteousness are two other things that are both important but don't match well. I see this a lot in my profession and it is a constant friction between management and line supervisors, between "risk management" bureaucrats and officers. In a dangerous job or a dangerous world, the safe thing can be very attractive... but doing the right thing is rarely completely safe.

We make it as safe as we can, we value safety, we want to go home tonight and hug our kids and wives and we will use every bit of cunning, every resource and all the strength and skill we possess to do that. But when you see someone attacked, the safe thing to do is to walk away, and the right thing to do is to run in. In a dangerous job, there's no absolute safety, and the safest thing you can do is not to do the job.. and that is not righteous. You do the job.

This goes as deep as security and living. Perhaps the way to great longevity is to avoid all extremes and live a life of calm balance.. but how much calm balance can truly be called living? When have you felt the most alive with every sense tingling and absolute awareness and breathless exhileration? Was it in freefall? In battle joy? Pitting yourself against white water or a granite cliff? Cause it sure as hell wasn't eating yogurt and doing twenty minutes on a treadmill at your precise cardiac workout speed. Which would you choose- one hour in the top of a pine tree in a wind storm or four days in a safe, climate-controlled split level?

Thursday, October 05, 2006


The first memory is of friends showing me a series of pictures of the old gang from when I was out of state. One new face in the group, so naturally graceful that she and she alone looked like she was posed in each of the pictures, looked as if the sunlight treated her a little better than everyone else.

First meeting, left alone, cooking... discussing the probable nutritional value of the fat fly circling the chili.

Ice on Dixie Mountain. The jeep spun around and for a few seconds I thought I could regain control and then we were off the road, the jeep on it's side, my elbow slammed through the side window and she was hanging above me in her seat belt and shoulder harness. The first words out of her mouth were "Are you okay?"

Walking into the gym to check on my old judo team and looking down, thinking "Who is the new blonde? She's gorgeous!" And she turned around... I hadn't realized how quickly her hair bleached in the sun.

Another mistaken identity, seeing a beautiful woman on a bike smoothly and slowly coast on the other side of a parked car. When she got past the card I noticed two things: 1) that it was her and 2) that she was on foot, but moving with such grace that I had mistaken it for coasting on a bicycle.

Sparring with staffs, balanced on railroad tracks. Three times in a row she knocked me off.

Sitting in the corner at a party in Cape Cod, watching as people slowly gathered around her, just basking in her presence.

In a cave, watching her climb and coaching her on hand and footholds beyond her tiny circle of light and suddenly realizing that every single member of the caving party had his head lamp focused directly on her ass.

It took over twenty hours of hard labor to produce our son. When it was over, I fell into an exhausted sleep, even though she was the one who did all the work. I was awakened by a soft rattling as she got herself up to stumble to the bathroom. "What are you doing?" I said. "You looked so tired I didn't want to wake you," she answered.

Coming home from a National guard weekend, bringing a friend for dinner- she met me at the door and hip threw me onto the floor. I counter threw, dragging her down and kissing her. Robert stood at the door, "You two had better never break up. She's gonna kill the next guy she goes out with."

Coming home from Hostage Negotiator training and she meets me at the airport with a dozen roses. Never saw that coming.

Arriving at Rileah for NBC training: "Are you SPC Miller? We have a message for you. You're wife is hemorrhaging and has been taken to the hospital. You're relieved. We'll reschedule." The longest most terrifying drive of my life imagining a world without her.

The first time we were separated for a weekend we spent the next four days in bed, leaving only to shower and order pizza.

Testing a new electrical system at the jail, unsure whether doors would open or close, whether nothing would happen or six hundred inmates would have free access, I called her and asked her to bring my tactical bag. She dropped it off at the door, said "Call me when it's over," and left. No questions, no worries, no cries for attention- perfect trust and faith. The perfect SWAT wife.

So many memories.

So this is for you, K- to the one who has heard all the stories, funny and sad both. Who has held me when I only wanted to sit in the darkness and rock. Loved me when I was dripping with blood and also when the pepperspray wasn't quite washed off. Who keeps me in the world of humans, and tells me when I'm wrong.

"Four minutes? Piece of cake."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Nice Short Vacation

My beautiful wife wanted to go on a trip for her birthday. Of all the places we could have gone my city-girl Czech refugee wife picked... Klamath Falls.

I never did figure out why. I just felt happy and grateful.

I miss the high desert and sometimes it is a literal ache in my heart. The smell of sage and ponderosa pine. The burning sun heat and icy water. Graceful antelope, small quick lizards, scorpions and ant lions. Tracking deer and coyote and racoon and porcupine in sandy soil that is made for teaching children how tracks form and how to read them. Ice caves. Obsidian. Thunder eggs. Lightning storms and full moons red from wild fires. The song of coyotes.

She wanted to go and we went, just for a few days. She'd never seen Crater Lake and her jaw dropped at the sapphire blue, the impossible cool color under the desert-tan rock of a shattered mountain. Kami took endless pictures and marveled over all the plants that she couldn't identify.

We journeyed a little south to the Lava Beds National Monument and walked some of the battlefields of the Modoc War. We went through five caves and saw many, many petroglyphs.

The kids saw their first rattlesnake and I was very impressed with them. They gave it room, not afraid but not stupid either, treating the snake just like what it was- an animal. Not a mystery or a toy or a horror. Level headed teen agers. Kami had to remind me it was a national monument- I wanted to show the kids all the neat tricks- how to catch a rattler alive with a fishing pole and then how to skin it and preserve the hide... just flashing back to my youth.

Note to self: You are a 200 pound forty-two year old, NOT an eighty pound twelve year old.

At the big petroglyph point, I found a tumble of huge boulders that might have been from my childhood and taught my son my favorite game of all time: Rock Tag. As kids we would play tag, running along the boulders, jumping from one to another, leaping crevasses. Sometimes the falls were well over ten feet and the ultimate test of skill and showmanship was to stand on a very wide precipice with two possibilities for jumping and lure "it" into charging you then leap away at the last minute when it was too late for him to avoid running off the cliff... Good times, baby.

Anyway, at 200 pounds when you jump to a rock six feet below and land with cat-like reflexes on the narrow edge you get this big freaking bruise on the sole of your foot that leaves you limping all weekend. I'm an idiot. It's still fun, though.

The waters of Crater lake were icy cold on the bruised foot (we went through again on the way home). It was a beautiful weekend- fun and adventure and fine meals and a loving family.

Happy Birthday, Kami.