It's OK To Talk About It by Bruce Pollard
The age of 18 is in my opinion, far too young for a cop to be allowed out on the street, armed and dangerous. I know now, that I might have been considered old enough, but I am not sure that I was mature enough. Anyway, at that age I was on the street. My first station was in the CBD of Melbourne. Footpatrol and static duties guarding places like Parliament House, the Shrine of Remembrance and the Railway Stations were the duties that occupied my time the most. Ideally, footpatrol would have been a good way to meet people, shop keepers, or tenants. What was I doing? Looking for a jaywalker or a drunk. Someone that I could arrest and then return to the office and say, "look what I did." Looking back now, I see a young man playing a mature man's game. I wasn't stationed in the CBD for too long. I later transferred to the wharf area, where I came across my first dead body.(There were a lot more to come) The people I was working with knew that it was my first and they delighted in it. A person had thrown themselves into the river and eventually washed up along the docks. The body had been in the water for several days. A body in the water this long does not take long to resemble anything like a human being. Only the clothing on the body was actually holding it together. Getting the body from the water, meant reaching in and actually pulling out hand and armloads of it. This was the first time that I had ever seen a person laugh and vomit at the same time. My off-sider was. Me, I just vomitted. He told me to get used to it, son. He was so wrong. You never do get used to it. Or at least I didn't. We used to average a body every week or so, that had washed down the river. Would you believe that we used to consider any means of trying to get that body into someone elses area, so that we didn't have to do the paperwork? Hey, they jumped in the water in someone else's area. That was only fair.
I later transferred to an inner suburban station. This was supposed to be one of the elite of the stations. All applied for it, not everyone got it. The area was a mixture of high density housing, busy shopping strips, some of the highest priced properties in Melbourne. It had everything that a cop who wanted to go places went. For at least the 8 hours that you were rostered to work, you were on an adrenaline high. Thirty or forty calls to attend to, high speed, fast action. We were expected to be super cops, and who expected that of us? We did!! We even had a chart on the wall, to see who was doing the work and who wasn't. Those who were languishing at the bottom of the chart were transferred out. This was no retirement village for cops. It was not unusual to be attending to a domestic situation one minute, then a motor car accident the next. You could reasonably expect to go to at least two or three brawls on a Friday or Saturday night at any one of the number of discos in the area. Cops are told not to show emotion. It becomes easy to do what you are told, when one minute you are delivering a death message, and the next you are fighting a drug addict in the street.
The majority of things that do stick in my mind are death and pain.
DEATH is a close companion to a cop, each day you go to work, the last thing you think about is your own mortality. Your family and friends do though. You are constantly reminded of death. One of the calls you often resented getting over the radio, was to go to someone's home, and tell them that one of their loved ones was dead. It is another thing that does not get easier the more you do it either. Every person reacts differently and you can never tell what will happen. I have seen people throw themselves on the ground. I have been blamed for the death (shooting the messenger). I have seen a person go into shock, and remain mute until we left. It is not like television. It is real life, and real death. But the cop still thinks he is invincible.
SUICIDE is a common thing that cops have to deal with. I have no idea of the number of suicides that I have been to. I also had no idea that one day I would be actively suicidal. The majority of people who I have attended to, who have suicided, have been found by members of their own families. The ones that they wanted to detach themselves from, and cause them no more harm because of their illness. I have read the notes, which say, "I am doing this so that you will not get hurt." These people have been so mistaken. The hurt is multiplied. I have cut down people from rafters, out of trees. I have taken them out of cars after they killed themselves there. I got called out of home at 4.30 a.m. to go to my local police station because a person had been shot. I had no idea who was shot or how seriously. That was the only information that I was given on the telephone. When I got there, I saw the body of a man lying in the driveway. Well, he was almost an entire body; the top half of his head was missing from the rest of it. He had pulled into the car park and shot off the top of his head while he was standing at the car. After scooping up as much of his body parts as possible the area had to be hosed down. I had missed part of his brain when picking up the missing pieces. I found it stuck on the sole of my shoe.
One day I got a call to help out another officer who was at a suicide scene. When I got there, the other officer was leaning over the bonnet of his car vomitting. He told me that the body was in a bathroom up two flights of stairs and was standing up. One thing that I did know, is that bodies do not stand up. I could smell the body as I entered the stairwell and made my way to the flat. When I got there and opened the bathroom door, I saw what looked like a man, hanging from a shower rose. It looked like he had hung himself on the first day of a four day heat wave. The body was black and putrid, and it was crawling with maggots and flies. Like the tough cop that I was, I left the flat and returned to the car, and then assumed the vomitting position. A little old lady came from the units next door with two cups of tea and some sweet biscuits. She had seen us both being ill, and it was her way of helping. I never did thank her properly then, and she has probably gone to a 'better place' now, but thank you anyway. When the undertakers came, they used 4 cans of fly spray to stop the body wriggling, before they could put it into their van. Many people have asked me what the smell was like. The only thing I can suggest is to take a piece of meat, about a pound in weight, put it outside in the heat, preferably more than 100f, and leave it there for 4 days. Then take a sniff of it, and then mentally multiply that by about 180 times, and I think you would be close. I never ever saw someone happy over the loss of a person through suicide. I have seen many people blame themselves for the loss of a loved one, forever asking questions like, "Why did s/he do this?" "Was I the reason?" All questions that no one will ever really know the answer to.
FATAL ACCIDENTS keep coming into my head. Like the one, where the driver was the same age as my wife, and roughly the same size. There was only one visible wound on her. A cut on the leg and it wasn't even bleeding. That is another of the jobs a cop has to do, strip, search and identify the body. The was no apparent reason for her car to run off the road, but it did. Five hundred more metres and she would have been home. She didn't make it. Seven hundred and she would have been at my home. Too close to home? You bet it was.
SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME or Cot Death is a particularly hard thing to deal with. The unexplained, unreasonable death of a baby cannot be explained away in simplistic terms. The medical profession is yet to come up with an answer. And the last thing that a grieving family wants to see at the time of their infant child's death is a cop. Back in the good/bad old days, each child's death was the cause for a post mortem examination otherwise known as an autopsy. Even though you 'knew' that no one was to blame for the baby's death, procedure had to be followed. And procedure then, meant that in the majority of cases, having to forcibly take the body from the mother who had not long given it life, and then hand it over to the undertakers who would take it away in a suitcase. No point wasting an entire casket and van on a thing that small. I once recall having a doctor pretend to examine the baby, and then quickly pass it through to me on the other side of the door, while I raced with it to the hospital mortuary like I was carrying a football, and the father chasing me ready to tackle me for the football. It is sick, it is sad, but procedure had to be followed. Luckily now procedure has changed to a more compassionate way of dealing with S.I.D.S. and their parents. There are many more of these cases that stick with me and will for all my living days, and the main reason is because, I didn't have children. Let Bruce do this one, he hasn't got kids. No, but I do have feelings!!!
GHOULS or rubbernecks will always turn up at the scenes of any death. They seem to be able to sniff them out. Day or night, no matter what the weather conditions. You know the type, the ones that slow down to a snails pace as they drive past or will stand around to watch the 'excitement'. Happily to say I did get my own back on one of them. Or sadly to say, this is how I was actually becoming when dealing with some deaths. I had to go to a pile up on a freeway involving three bikers and their pillion passengers. Fortunately five out of the six survived. The sixth was one of the riders. He was lying face down on the roadway when my partner and I got there, and we had to roll him over to get some identification from him. This was when we saw that he had disembowelled himself as he slid along the freeway, stomach first. One of the ghouls, who every two or three minutes came up to ask if he could do anything, and each time had been told no, first in the politest terms and then gradually in more abrupt terms. When the undertakers arrived, so did our ghoul. He had asked once too often. Sure there was something he could do, when my partner and I rolled the body onto it's back from the feet and the shoulders, would he mind doing so from the waist. It would save anyone hurting their backs that way. As we started to turn him, the ghoul realised what he was trying to turn and what was coming out on to his hands. The last we saw of him was racing on foot along the freeway. I am sure that with a radar, we would have been able to charge him with a speeding offence. But this same person was never seen again at an accident site.
SELF MUTILATION was something that I thought only weirdos did in a pathetic attempt to gain attention. Those who didn't want to suicide but wanted to be noticed. Wrong again. I found out when I became a self mutilator the real reason was for release. Release from emotional pain. The scars on my arm are testimony to that. The worst case of self mutilation I had ever come across, was when I was called to a car that was travelling along a highway and the radio operator asked me to intercept it, as the driver was "cutting". That was an understatement. When I saw the car and pulled up along side it, I looked across and could see blood from the driver's neck down, covering the front of him. He had hold of the steering wheel in one hand and a fishing knife in the other. He was carving pieces out of his arm while he was driving. He was not going to stop either. I had to pull the police car in front of his and then hit my brakes and allow him to run into me. This was the only 'safe' way to stop him. I can remember getting out of the police car and the next I remember is having hold of the knife and throwing it into the median strip. I have no recollection of the events in between. (The psychiatrists called it psychogenic amnesia). I do know that he sustained no injuries from me, nor I from him, although it was hard to tell from the amount of blood on both of us. I escorted him to hospital in an ambulance were he tried to disarm me on twice. There were something like 40 stab wounds in his thighs and too many cuts to count on his arms. When I returned to my station, my immediate supervisor was waiting for me. His comments were to the effect, that I had a filthy uniform, get home, change and get back as soon as possible. Others suggested that I should have shot him there and then and got it over with. I really wonder at times who the sick ones are.
A MOVING TARGET was something I never expected to be, but I was effectively made into one by the dept. that was going to look after me all my career. I was enjoying a day off at home, cleaning fishing tackle, and getting ready to go and catch dinner (with some luck) when the phone rang and I was speaking to our District Commander. I had never received a call from him at work, let alone at home. I was told (not asked) to get into my uniform and go and report immediately to my station. I arrived there to be greeted by three others who had been called in, from their day off. We were ordered to go to a police station closer to Melbourne and report to an Assistant Commissioner there. This was all out of the ordinary. When we got there, we were given an area to patrol. Earlier in the day, 2 cops had been shot, and we were given a description of the offender. It eventually got darker, and when we returned to the station for a quick meal, the Special Operations Group were there. They were dressed in black, armed with armalite rifles, and talking to no one. Their radios were set to a different channel to ours. No one really queried this, as they were the elite, the best of the best. When we went back out to patrol our given area, we were told to make ourselves obvious, which meant, on with the flashing lights. Why? The reason was so that we could lure the shooter out, and hopefully he would take a shot at us, and then if any of us survived, we could call in the S.O.G.. In a backward world this makes sense. Now it doesn't. Now it scares me. I will never do anything like that again, even if I do still want to save the world. I will never deliberately put my life on the line in the same manner.
THE WORST DEATH OF ALL was my own emotional death. This also goes with the job. Being on a mobile patrol means that you do not know from one minute to the next, what the call is that you are going to receive. It would not be uncommon to attend a death on behalf of the coroner. One where the circumstances were not clear to an attending physician, and you then had to act on behalf of the coroner and do the investigation into the death. This would often involve talking to family members of the deceased, looking for signs of an unnatural death, and mountains of paperwork. Just as you got back into the car again, you might receive a call to a domestic disturbance. When you got there, it would not be unusual, believe it or not, for both parties involved to turn on you for interfering. This could just about ensure that your emotions would be in turmoil. Then leaving there, a little old lady, who resembled a favourite aunt or grandmother may have locked herself out of her house or car. While you were looking for a way in for her, I would be thinking, I wanted to throttle the two at the domestic, I hate dealing with grieving relatives, "I DON'T WANT TO PLAY THIS GAME ANY MORE". There is only one way that I know of to deal with this, short of becoming a Jeckyll and Hyde, and that is to deaden your emotions. Make yourself perform things robotically, until you got home. And then wanting to take a kick at the cat, to let things out. Actually the cat was the easiest one to deal with. Outsmarted me every time. There are cops who would drink to forget, others who took drugs, and others that bottled. I was a bottler. All of the above could have taken place, and when I got home, my wife would ask how things went at work to which my standard reply was "Okay, just another day." I recall, about midway through my career, I went to a lecture on stress management. During the course of the lecture we were given a short questionnaire to fill out. It was about stress levels. I completed mine and handed it back to the psychologist giving the lecture. She said to me, "I will ring you tomorrow and make an appointment to see you." I am still waiting on that phone call.
Copyright (c) 1999 Bruce Pollard PTSD disabled officer, Victoria Police Dept. (Australia)