I’d only been asleep for 40 minutes or so when the phone rang and jolted me from the comfort of my bed. A nine year old, Hispanic female had been thrown from a third floor balcony. Police and paramedics where on the scene and believed the child was sexually assaulted.
This was back in the day when Arizona’s Child Protective Services agency had gone rogue, making national headline news after it was uncovered over 6,500 reports of abuse were never investigated. Abuse only escalates. Once the worst is out in people it’s impossible to stuff it back in. This is how they “ended up” on my desk.
My job was to get the suspect to calm the fuck down and leave the room where he was barricaded, and reduce scene trauma. It requires a specific type of person to do this job. You must be skilled at detachment, not only from the trauma you’ll witness on a day to day basis but from your own morals and values. If you pass judgement it will cloud your ability to connect with the perpetrator on a human level.
I fought off my body’s plea for rest as my muscles screamed with aches. When you see the worst of what the world has to offer and the damage it does, your emotional storage bank shuts down and instead your body absorbs the stress. If you don’t combat it, it could make you feel physically sick. Once I was dressed, I left a note for my husband and kissed the cheeks of my sleeping children.
It was daylight by the time we wrapped up the scene and too late to go home and clean up or grab a bite to eat. I had an interview scheduled. This is when I met Lynn.
I wore lightweight canvas pants and a faded hoodie. A blue bandanna acted as a disguise for my unwashed hair and my feet were uncomfortably laced up in Converse sneakers. My eyes burned from exhaustion. I hadn’t eaten more than an apple in over 18 hours.
She looked picture perfect with her pressed gray skirt and pale blouse. Her polished black pumps added two inches of height to her lanky build. She bent down to shake my hand.
I learned from basic questions that she had a BA in Criminology, a brown belt in karate and no experience in the field at all. She’d never been in the same presence as a firearm before and was the proud single mother of a cat named Pom Pom. The brilliant glow of hope on her face led me to believe she was in her mid twenties. Her plans for the future were to earn a Master’s degree and work for the FBI but more importantly, she believed in the future enough to work toward it.
I cut the dialog short and dove into the meat of the interview — a ten scenario exam. My superiors questioned my interviewing methods. I believed there was only one option on how to handle all ten scenarios. They felt this was unfair, but they didn’t have to do my job. Their role was to sit in their air conditioned office building, push paper and eat their catered lunch.
Working in the field of violence and abuse prevention is not about making the right decision, it’s about feeling confident your teammates will make the best decision in the moment when the moment calls on them to do so. There isn’t a time out option. There are no do overs. The number one priority is safety for everyone involved and at times you only have a minute to process as much information as you can and decide because lives depend on it.
I was eager to get home, shove my face with a 2,000 calorie meal, shower and nap. Minutes felt like hours. My eyes rested straight ahead toward my monitor while using peripheral vision to watch her while she read the exam. She presented as calm and cool, and her energy was at peace.
“Excuse me,” she said, breaking the silence. “I don’t know what the answers are yet, but l will.”
I have never hired anyone who didn’t provide something within the realm of a correct response to at least one scenario. My reason for this being I can mentor anyone, I can’t trust everyone with the success of my team, or my life.
She didn’t make up answers or try to bullshit me, nor did she say she “can learn.” She said “I will” with confidence and was honest regardless if it costed her the position. In that instant I made my decision. I pushed my chair out from underneath the desk and faced my entire body toward her. I read the second scenario aloud.
“The police brief you on a seven month old baby who was severely burned by boiling water. They inform you it was poured on him while he was in his crib. When they arrived on the scene, each member of the family, grandma, mom and dad, and two siblings were dressed in their coats and shoes, yet all claimed they were sleeping and woken by the baby’s cry. The answer is the same for each scenario. You don’t listen to the words they tell you. You listen to their body language. One of them will tell you what your looking for loud and clear.”
She took the exam back from me and jotted down notes as we talked over the course of another hour. “Do you have any other questions for me?” I asked.
“Did I get the job?”
I was her age when a state funded clinic gave me a chance. My first gig was on an Assertive Community Treatment team. We went out into the community and worked directly with court ordered clients. The first day on the job, I dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and heels.
That same day, I found my first client in a crack house. When he saw me, and my badge, he ran. When I got home that night my kids asked what I learned the first day on the job. I told them, “to never wear shoes I can’t run in.”
I gave her my business card with the address of the office building where she’d be eating catered lunches every day for the first week. “You’ll be taking agency required online training courses and filling out employee paperwork.
“The next time you see me don’t be wearing those shoes. If you can’t run in them, I don’t want you wearing them. Show up dressed in street clothes and consider your office as nothing more than a pit stop,” I added.
“You got it, ma’am.”
“One more thing, you know you will be working directly with perpetrators of violent crimes, correct?”
“It’s why I applied,” she responded.
The agency requires 400 active-hands on training hours for new hire stabilization team members and I drug Lynn to the edge and back with me during those 12 weeks, but she didn’t crack.
Our program received a federally funded grant to assist U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security with crisis stabilization upon request for our services. It was within an hour of close of business when I received the call. Marshals’s had an arrest warrant for a murder suspect they’d been tracking since he absconded in Ohio. They were tipped off about a hide out in his cousin’s apartment in South Phoenix.
Coaxing him through the door to let me in didn’t work. As a distraction, I kept him talking with me over the shrill of a toddler’s fear, banging and crying. This gave marshals time to go around the building, peer into windows and survey the scene before they forced entry. We were dressed in street clothes and to the gang saturated neighborhood, we blended right in.
Lynn and I walked back behind our vehicle while they stormed the unit, using a ram to gain entry. A marshal poked his head out of the door and waved us over. The suspect had his cousin and her two children locked in a closet, refusing to move away from in front of the door. I followed the marshal into the house where I approached the suspect.
“It’s time to come to terms with what’s going on here. These are the choices you’ve got and both result in the same outcome, the U.S. Marshals taking you into custody. We can walk out the door together right now and make it a smooth process or you can continue to block that door and put your safety, and your relative’s safety, at risk. Given the circumstances, a desperate act is equally as punishable as an intentional one.“
He leaned around to glance at the marshals behind me, zip tie and taser ready. “They’re not talking to you,” I said, moving my head back into his line of vision. “This conversation is between me and you and it’s the last time I’m asking. Are you walking out of here with me?”
“Bitch! I’ll kill you!”
“I asked a closed question. Yes or no?” As I turned to walk back toward the door I saw Lynn standing in the background. Her face was lit up in marvel while watching the suspect follow me to the exit where marshals were waiting to search him. By the time I made it back to her, the victims were being assessed by paramedics.
“That was amazing!” She exclaimed. Her energy level was euphoric. Mine was running on fumes.
“How did you do that? It’s impressive Jedi power,” she joked.
“Never break eye contact,” I responded, “because if and when you do, he’ll no longer see your confidence and think you’re scared. If he can’t intimidate you he’s powerless.”
A year later the structure of our program changed and Lynn was solely assigned to assisting federal agencies. By her two year annual review it was clear this was her area of expertise. Once I let the reins go, she diligently worked at perfecting her own Jedi power.
My superiors where unsatisfied with her performance. They referred to her as inexperienced and complained about her illegible reports and paperwork. I never mentioned it to her because she was the best hire of my career and I never cared much about paperwork, anyway.
I’ve since left the agency and retired. I traded the field of violence and abuse prevention with fields of farmland. I intentionally moved to nowhere to decompress. Lynn left the agency to go back to school and she’s now a detective for the victims crime unit in Central Phoenix.
Some days I think back and I feel astonished by the accomplishments of our work. Other days I feel permanently scarred by the violence I saw. When I see a photo of Lynn dressed in her police uniform with that look of hope glowing on her face, I’m reminded of the pride I feel for her, and that because of her, the world is a better place.