Officers are human. Humans make mistakes. Officers must remember to work on themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes we learn the hard way through humiliation. The good news is through humiliation we learn humility. Something I know very well.
My story starts as a Chicago police officer working on a Gang Unit Christmas Eve 2010. Working a three man car, my mindset was elsewhere. I was relaxed, believing the cold weather would make for a slow Christmas Eve night.
My mindset was not focused on work that evening. Midnight Mass was my focus and avoiding over time was my goal.
We parked our car in a high-crime area and saw a man duck inside a restaurant, come out and seemingly hide. It was strange enough behavior to draw our attention.
He went to the alley and stood by a dumpster. On approaching we discovered he was relieving himself.
We conducted a field interview, a pat-down and a name check that revealed he was wanted on a warrant.
He was also waiting for food he’d ordered while in the restaurant. We made the arrest on a very cold, slow night.
In the Christmas spirit, I returned to the restaurant to get our arrestee his food and would allow him to eat while we processed his paperwork. Entering the station, we notified our sergeant of the arrest and we processed our arrestee.
I checked on our arrestee because he had not yet touched his food and felt a bit wary and somewhat offended because I went out of my way to get his food.
At first, I thought maybe he lost his appetite because we ruined his night.
Later, I looked into the holding cell, where he had this look that seasoned officers recognize – a warning.
A FEELING IN YOUR GUT …
Sometimes you can’t explain why someone’s behavior makes you uncomfortable, it just does.
We showed him respect, yet things didn’t seem right.
Again, I looked at the bag of food untouched. I walked into the room and decided to do a more thorough custodial search, meticulously parsing his three jackets and two hooded sweatshirts.
Grabbing the numerous layers, I surmised he had drugs in a hidden pocket or compartment.
MY WORLD CHANGED
I grabbed another jacket, felt something heavy and figured it was the Coke that went with his meal. I wish it had been. It was a loaded handgun. I thought, “Oh my God! I missed it!”
I literally started to shake. He could’ve murdered all of us! An officer watching this began telling everyone in the office.
Like wildfire, the story spread throughout the station.
I felt like a complete fool. I looked at my two partners and wondered, how did we miss it? How could we miss a gun?
Ashamed, I avoided eye contact with anyone the rest of the night. This arrest for public urination and warrant was now a felony gun arrest.
Humiliation flowed over me in waves.
WHERE WAS MY HEAD?
Reflecting, I know I was not mentally prepared when I arrived at work. Complacent, I was thinking, it was Christmas Eve, cold and going to be a slow night.
After finding the loaded weapon, I had to make the embarrassing call to my supervisor and felt like crying.
The shame I had toward myself was enormous. My only thought that night was trying to make Midnight Mass and I had blinders on.
This small error could’ve been fatal. The humiliation didn’t end that night for the three of us. The following day we came to work and found a sign posted that read, “The Three Blind Mice.”
We learned an enormous lesson that night and I became an expert at searching arrestees. It was a great learning experience on complacency.
Put distractions away when you are at work. Everyone brings stress from home and for officers it can be fatal.
Luckily for my partners and me, we lived.
Days later, a few courageous officers heard about our Christmas Eve “miss” and went out of their way to inform me, “This happened to me too!”
One told me, “Unfortunately you will have to carry this burden for a bit, but this will make you a better officer!” It did. Because of this incident I was reminded of the proper mindset at work while becoming an expert at patting offenders down for hidden contraband.
A few reminders:
En route to work, prepare yourself mentally for the day.
Do not take phone calls or text while transporting arrestees.
When transporting prisoners, always perform another pat-down of the subject. Be cautious and slow and methodical so as to not get poked by needles or crack pipes.
Be aware of the many concealed compartments on a subject wearing layers.
At the bottom line, we are here to save just ONE life.
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