Regular Enigma readers may remember I was a Police Officer (cop), for almost 30 years with the Chattanooga Police Department. I say almost because it was 29 years and 10 months and some people want you to be exact. Recently I was “lunching” with some retirees and the subject of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome came up. We agreed that back in the day we (police officers of our generation) were just expected to deal with stress caused by seeing incidents like child, domestic or elderly abuse, rape and other physical violence and in particular death – whether it was caused by violence or not. This discussion ‘triggered” several memories where I encountered death in more “natural” occurrences and other incidents where it was caused by violence.
While I was working for the Chattanooga Police Department (C.P.D.) I unfortunately either answered calls where there was a death or was on the scene when a violent death occurred. The first one was when I was a “rookie” in Patrol division. I was riding with my first ‘FTO (Field Training Officer) when we received a call of a deceased young male who had been found under a tree. When we arrived there were the usual onlookers and an ambulance .The young boy was in a sitting position leaned up against the tree as if was just taking a nap. I was struck by how peaceful and serene the scene looked. We secured the scene and I gathered information about the witnesses and our victim. We did not have to make the death notification. It was determined that lightning had struck the tree and traveled down where the unfortunate boy had attempted to shelter during a storm. Up to that point in my life I had seen a few people in death but at funeral homes and these were to me “old people”. I had never seen a young person dead. I still remember that call 35 years later.
The next time I dealt with death was not so traumatic. I received a call of an elderly person who had apparently succumbed to natural causes. The elderly male had been residing in an apartment senior center and someone there had found him. The police were needed to stay with the body and secure the apartment until funeral home personnel arrived. I was left alone in this silent apartment with the poor dead soul. He was slumped up against the kitchen stove with a pan of fresh baked orange sweet rolls sitting on the stove I felt remorse that this poor soul had not been able to enjoy this last treat prior to his passing on.
Another call I received while in patrol division was the discovery of a body in a wooded area. It was believed to be a suicide. I responded and walked down a slim roadway or paved path to a clearing in the woods. There I found a victim who had apparently used a shotgun to end their life. The victim had a huge head wound and it was a very bloody, messy scene. I had the dispatcher notify my supervisor, Major Crimes personnel and the Medical Examiner’s office. After the responding detective and the medical examiner got on the scene I was allowed to “get back into service”. There was no talk of my being offered counseling or allowed to “decompress” after a call like that. This was the tough old days and we were just expected to deal with it (mentally) and we did.
I answered a call one day right as our shift was going out. I raced to get to the scene of a bicyclist struck by a vehicle on Suck Creek Road. The rider, a teacher at a nearby school I was informed, died at the scene. I felt very sad at the loss of this young life. The driver of the car stated the Western sun had blinded her to the rider and she never saw him. He was riding legally with his back to traffic. This reinforced my personal rule to always ride a bicycle or walk facing traffic.
Sometimes there is indignity in death and you hope you are spared such a fate. I had to respond to one deceased person call where the unfortunate person had apparently suffered a fatal heart attack while bending over the toilet. The deceased was slumped with his head hanging over the toilet bowl rim. I felt sorry for him being viewed in this indignant position. This was a death by “apparent natural causes” call and not a crime scene. I followed the rules and did not disturb the body but wonder if perhaps I should have.
One kind of “freaky’ death call I answered was where an elderly man had not been seen by his neighbors for several days and there was no answer at his door. The address was an apartment in a seedy looking area near the old Engel baseball stadium. It looked like perhaps an old business or very large home had been cut up into apartments. The apartments were not well marked and I knocked on one door. The occupant there referred me to the apartment of the missing neighbor and related that he had not seen the elderly occupant of that apartment for about a week and that the missing neighbor never went anywhere. He advised it was very odd that he had not been at least on the porch recently. When I went next door I could see an indication things might not be well as the mailbox hanging beside the door was overflowing. I knocked on the door super hard in my best ‘the police are here’ knock and yelled “Chattanooga Police Department” in my most authoritative command voice. There was no answer. I notified a supervisor and requested a backup officer. When the backup officer arrived we pounded on the door and window to no avail. I advised our supervisor on what we had and he advised to force entry if we needed to. About that time, despite there being no outside breezes, a curtain over the front window blew to the side and I could see what looked like someone in bed in a front room. My back up officer seemed very nervous about the prospect of there being someone dead inside the room. He asked how the curtain moved and I shrugged my shoulders. I wasn’t worried about it yet. I then proceeded to push a flimsy piece of plastic that was in a pane of the door window out of the way so that I could reach the doorknob. A neighbor who had been watching the proceedings decided to tell me “You better be careful. He don’t like the police. They shot his arm off.” Well good to know. Now my backup seemed to want to call someone else but I thought, “Who are you going to call?” Plus being fairly new I didn’t want to catch any grief from any senior officers listening in to our little drama. I again shouted “Chattanooga Police Department’ but got no response. I reached in and began turning the knob when a light suddenly came on. My partner asked how that happened. It was obvious he wanted to be anywhere but here. Again I had no answer. As the door was open now I again yelled out “Chattanooga Police Department” but again there was no response. I cautiously approached the bed. My backup officer was not happy at all at this point and told me to be careful. I saw no movement from the figure in the bed. I told my backup that I thought the person was gone (meaning deceased). He asked how I knew for sure. I reached for the figure in the bed’s toe. At that point my backup “left the building”. I determined the party was deceased and had been for some time. The fire department (it was fire and ambulance at that time) responded with respirators to remove the partially decomposed body. Why we didn’t smell the decomposition I do not know. And why did the curtain move? There was no fan on and the apartment had no central heat and air. I had not moved the plastic on the window when it moved. What made the light come on? There was no motion detectors and just old lamps. A short perhaps? My backup? He got out of police work a few years later.
I have related these incidents not out of any morbid sense of entertainment but more hopefully to enlighten or educate the reader as to some of the realities or traumatic incidents police officers may experience. I tried to add some humor with the last story so as to lighten the mood of this article. Honestly I think it served as a kind of catharsis or therapy for me to relate these incidents. I thank you for your time.
– Mark Haskins