Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No Trace of Pain: Notes from Field Training

The essay below was originally submitted to the University of Baltimore School of Law Office of Admissions as the "personal statement" of the applicant for admission.  Needless to say, the application got favorable attention.  Virginia Reed, a former police officer, tells of an experience during her training that left a lasting expression.

Law School Personal Statement

By Virginia Reed

All I heard my Field Training Officer say was, “Ohhhhh. We’ll be there in a minute.” Hanging up his cell phone, he smiled and said, “The lieutenant has a little job for you—a brush fire.” He avoided looking at me, just humming and smiling as we drove to the call. New officers usually handle routine calls and work their way up to more serious ones gradually.  I was nearing the end of my field training and should have been handling calls of abuse, rape, and suicide.   Yet apparently the lieutenant thought I should respond to the “brush fire”, going so far as to call my FTO on his cell phone to have me respond. This was not a good sign.

When I arrived, I could see the lieutenant in the distance wearing a smile similar to my FTO. From far away it looked like he was watching a pile of smoking leaves.

My FTO couldn’t contain himself any longer and as he pointed towards a mound near the center of the burned area he said, “The fire department thought it was just a bunch of leaves until they hosed it and found her.” At that point the smell of lighter fluid hit me. This was my first homicide, and all that came to mind was I hope she was dead before she was on fire.

I walked over to the lieutenant and he told me to “glove up.” I did not look very hard at the body,[;] for some reason it didn’t seem appropriate. The lieutenant advised that he needed someone to put her in a bag. I noticed the crumpled white plastic bag lying next to her body, as well as the four to five other veteran officers looking at me and smirking. I wasn’t sure why they were all there; all I knew from their posture was none of them had any intention of helping me, or explaining how I ought to get this girl into the bag.

Luckily, another rookie from my academy class was summoned to the scene as well. He arrived just as I was unfolding the bag next to the body. He said nothing, but looked visibly green. I felt better. His FTO had apparently told him what we were doing. He lined himself up by her head in preparation for lifting her sideways onto the bag. I was lined up at her feet, facing the semi-circle of veteran officers who had gathered around.

The smell of lighter fluid was distracting, but I knew we had to lift her without thinking about it… about what had happened there. In the last moment before I moved her, though, I knew I had to look at her. So I looked right at her face. There was no mistaking that she was dead. It would be impossible to have thought she was sleeping; there was no trace of pain. Something in the complete void of her expression made me feel that there was no need for empathy. I didn’t have to feel bad for her in that moment as she was, and I could be as neutral as necessary.

This turned out to be a good thing, as she was too tall for the bag. And for those who have never had to move a body that is already set in rigor mortis, let it suffice to say that it takes more assiduity than initially apparent. By the time I finally got her in the bag, I was sweating. I felt like I was covered in some kind of resin that sank through my clothes, and coated my skin.

Whatever it was, it began to make me feel nauseated. At the same time, however, I saw a feeling of relief in the officers around me. Every one of them told me, “good job”, but I wasn’t really sure what they were commending me for. Someone offered me water and I almost gagged as I said, “no thanks”. Everyone laughed a little harder, as if we were all in on the same joke now.

When I got into the car to leave, my FTO told me about the background he had gathered. Apparently she had been a witness to something, and was going to testify concerning a drug violation. She had been bludgeoned to death hours before they had set her on fire.

As we drove back to my post, I wondered about the girl’s life, her family, and her “friends”. Did she know that one of her associates had the capacity to kill her? What misery did she have in her life that could have led her here? Did she know she was capable of looking completely out of pain? Because she was, I had seen it first hand. Everyone there saw it, and everyone could vouch for it. I wondered if she knew that she was capable of looking that way, and if it would have mattered.

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