Three: Benson: The Unwritten Law
Bear with me a few minutes while I tell you a few things you might not know about the Taser. But first, perhaps a little bit of background about myself is in order.
I started off my adult career barely out of high school as a claims adjuster for a fairly prominent insurance agency that shall remain nameless. I will say they have the word “Family” in their name, but that is all I can suggest. My job was similar to that of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club. I was a typical, traditional family man, with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. Adjusting claims was simple; we had stacks of manuals and computer programs to do the figures for us, and if a complainant got upset, they would deal with the Public Relations staff, never us directly. To further alienate us from the customers, the PR department was in another building entirely, so the customers not only had no contact with us, but we never heard the feedback from PR that was going to people who knew nothing about the actual problem. The PR people were often high school dropouts signed on through a temp service to work a telemarketing job and ending up being hired on with our corporation.
Telemarketing is a horrible business not only for the customers interrupted at dinner but also for the employees who field the complaint calls. When a call comes in, a screen pops up on their monitors informing them of what script to use with each customer and a variety of options. But if the question or concern is outside of the few most common issues, the receptionist would be left floundering with no choice but to rely on a manager or just making things up. The manager usually had no better knowledge than the receptionist apart from being hired on longer, as the call center in Appleton was completely unconnected to the business they were taking calls for, which is headquartered in Madison. If I had to handle the complaints delivered on a daily basis, I simply do not know what I would have done with myself.
Any office worker will tell you that you can only work for so long sitting in the same chair in that prison we call a cubicle. Once you begin to understand the humor of Dilbert, you have been in your occupation for too long. That swiveling, reclining and rolling chair I called home for eight hours each day was the company’s chair, but after ten years, you could tell from the print in the seat that only I was meant to sit there. Surprisingly, I never received any bed sores on my ass. And this career stagnancy frightened me just a little, picturing myself retiring from a dead-end job where I screwed over teenagers, males in general, people who preferred red, and those few unlucky people who had no insurance. I wanted to make a positive difference in my community and this was not the way to do that.
So, I quit that infernal place. My wife, Peggy, wasn’t too thrilled about that plan as you might imagine, especially since she didn’t find out until coming home one day and finding me with an Amstel Light on the couch watching “Curtis Court”. I had nothing else lined up as far as employment, and this was still during the Reagan years when the administration felt that defeating the specter of communism was more important than assisting with domestic job growth, so my chances of finding anything decent was essentially nil or less. My wife was the city clerk for the town of Grand Chute (basically a suburb on Appleton’s west end with a disproportionately large business district), and from attending her annual Christmas parties I had met a lot of her co-workers. Through these parties and meeting the people who get fed via our tax dollars, I developed the idea of becoming a cop. I got a personal thrill from the idea of fighting crime — I relished the thought of being somewhat of a suburban Batman, if you will. Perhaps this isn’t the most realistic outlook on being a public servant, but a man can dream.
The local technical college, Fox Valley Technical College, offered the classes I needed, and after two years I walked out with an associate’s degree in law enforcement. Most of the classes were what you would expect from police training. A few self-defense courses, some marksmanship tests, things like that. All that cool shit you see on television like “CSI” with the forensics is touched upon, but as beat cops we’re not really equipped to approach situations like that. We only cover even the most basic criminal psychology material. One of my classmates, who coincidentally never went on to graduate, said this lack of training was to keep us as mindless as possible and not to sympathize with the plights of our suspects. Is this true? I have no idea, but I can hardly see why anyone would sympathize with some of the scum we deal with on a regular basis.
The most amusing class we had was where we were trained on how to detect if someone was drunk or not and how to administer the field sobriety tests. This was accomplished by inviting people in from the community to drink, and we would test them periodically after certain amounts of alcohol was imbibed. One man in particular seemed to be there every time this class was taking place. His name was Frank and he called himself the “Cherokee Chief” while he slammed shot after shot of Bacardi. I’m not sure what was more amusing to him — getting drunk in front of a bunch of future officers, or the fact he could become inebriated for free. He was probably even getting paid at work for volunteering.
The field sobriety tests, or FSTs, and the Breathalyzer seem very straightforward. But each officer has his or her own style on how to administer them and the person getting pulled over can only know what to expect in a general sense.
If the field sobriety tests are administered without a Breathalyzer, the results are highly subjective. Each officer has different techniques: some will have the accused walk a straight line, others balance on one foot and still another might have you follow a pen with your eyes without moving your head. Some officers even ask the driver to recite his alphabet backwards, but this is relatively rare. And with good reason; most sober people would consider it an exercise in futility, let alone a drunk person. And if you pass the FSTs, this will only subjectively suggest you are not drunk: some drunk people have excellent motor control while some sober people are quite poor with balance. Particularly if they are nervous in the presence of police.
On the other hand, a Breathalyzer without any FSTs is purely objective: your breath will register a number indicating your blood-alcohol content, and if the number is higher than .08, you are legally drunk. No guesswork about it. Many officers will give both tests, which is basically redundant as the breath test is the piece of evidence the judge will want to hear.
Personally, I have tried to stick with the subjective field sobriety tests. In my opinion, a legally drunk man with excellent control of his body is less of a threat than a sober and probably tired man with little control. Perhaps this does not take into account reaction time, but whoever said the law had to be in black and white?
After all these classes, and with help from my wife and her references and connections, I landed an entry position with the Appleton Police Department that same year. But wait, I forgot I was going to tell you about the Tasers.
Okay, when you get trained at the Tech, there’s this rule — I don’t know if you would call the policy a law or not — that before you can carry pepper spray on you as an officer, you have to take the spray in the eyes. Prison guards go through this, too. You know, so you know how the pepper feels and you don’t overuse the spray as a defense. And they’re serious about this policy. If you blink and they just get your eyelids (which still hurts), you have to do the exercise again. They’ll trick you by saying the procedure is over so you open up, and then they squirt you. I wasn’t the only one in the fetal position in a corner. That stuff burns like you wouldn’t believe. One student, Glen, was dry heaving and had to be sent home. Even the next day, he informed me that he had to call in to his warehouse job because he was so embarrassed. The trainers never used the batons on us, though. I think I’m grateful for that.
Finally, the Taser. There are two kinds of Tasers we were trained on. There is a handheld model that gives off sparks between two poles. The device is shaped sort of like a football goalpost. The stun gun serves little use other than to subdue an arrestee who won’t settle down and take the cuffs like a man. Now, the other Taser is pretty sweet. This model, the M62, is a little gun that uses air compression to fire a dart out of the end for up to about thirty feet or so. The dart is connected to the pistol by a thin wire and a button on the handle will give the dart — embedded in the suspect — a strong electrical current. They dance like a drunken chimp in a Cuisinart. Our latest model can even reach a perp in body armor, so there’s really no stopping the Taser.
The word “Taser” is actually an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. You see, Tom Swift was this teenage hero in a series of children’s books created by Edward Stratemeyer who would have these futuristic devices to assist him on his adventures. Maybe you might consider him a juvenile James Bond or some such thing. Stratemeyer, by the way, also created the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins, so he essentially held the monopoly on teenage detectives until Donald J. Sobol came along with Encyclopedia Brown in the 1960s.
The real irony is naming a gun like the Taser after a children’s book, as the last thing you want to think about is a child using a Taser… or being on the receiving end of one. But really, we’re not supposed to call the device a Taser, because that would be the brand name. But just like Kleenex or Band-Aid, our culture simply refuses to accept generic names when the brand name just sounds so much sleeker. The proper term is “electroshock gun”, though I suspect this doesn’t have the same connotation for people as “Taser”.
I would suggest searching the internet for videos on Taser use. I have seen clips from news shows on numerous occasions where one officer gets willingly shot by another officer. I have never been shot by one, and even if doing so would earn me a feature spot on the local news I think I would pass. Especially knowing what I know now.
Why am I telling you all this stuff you about police training and Tasers you probably don’t care about, you ask? Because connected to all this in a very round about way, I have found that law enforcement is not all glory and honor, helping cats out of trees and stopping rapists before they can sleaze their way past your Masterlocked door and into your wife’s nightgown with a smile. Actually, the fire department seems to handle most of the cat calls.
We have this policy we don’t speak about called the unwritten law. This policy says that all officers will defend their follow officers in the face of danger. I don’t mean defend in the sense that we take a bullet for each other. I mean, if an officer breaks the law or becomes more abusive than necessary with a suspect, we have to turn our heads and lie in court. Well, at least “bend the truth” a little. As officers, we are supposed to think of ourselves as above the law. Some of us are honest men and do the right thing, but the rest fall back on this unspoken, unwritten failsafe device. The number of officers on the streets this very minute who will arrest people for crimes they themselves have committed, or continue to commit, is innumerable.
My original partner, Officer Edmund Tarski, was a wild one before he was fired during an internal affairs sting. We were on a routine drug bust — just some kids suspected of dealing small quantities of reefer. The neighbors called us when they started seeing large numbers of cars stop by the home throughout the day for short periods of time. For all they knew, the house could have been a brothel or even a personal library. But they were right, the circumstances turned out to be two brothers (known as “the Duff Brothers”) dealing weed to other kids on a fairly large scale. We had been running surveillance on them for about a week and almost every convicted addict or dealer on the books was in and out of that place with duffel bags. (Incidentally, the duffel bags were not drugs at all, but stolen items the dealers were planning on fencing. Playstations, car stereos and other electronics primarily. Certainly drug dealers dipping into other illegal activities was hardly uncommon.)
Tarski knocked three times on the front door, and the younger of the two brothers answered. He was clearly stoned, with his eyes shifty, reptilian and film-covered, and his clothes reeking of patchouli. But if nothing else, the kid was talkative. He offered to turn down the stereo if that was the problem and he swore he hadn’t been drinking. His excuses didn’t matter, though, because I peered over his shoulder and into the house and saw a brick of pot sitting plain as day on the coffee table. One of those blocks in the Syran Wrap (see? there I go with another brand name) that are supposed to be for medical use only, even though our glorious state of Wisconsin doesn’t offer that plan just yet. I slapped the cuffs on the little man and placed him in the back of the squad car. He knew the arrest was a fair cop, and didn’t put up a fight. He just lit a cigarette and reclined in the back of the Ford Crown Victoria as if nothing at all was going on.
I returned to the ill-famed house and entered the front room to inspect the reefer and get a general assessment of the magnitude of the operation. I heard a scuffle upstairs and ran up to find Officer Tarski practically hog-tying the older brother with his handcuffs. The boy’s ankles were wedged up behind his head in a very painful-looking contortionist’s maneuver. I had no idea what Tarski was thinking, and then he zapped the kid in the back of the neck just below the skull with the shock-prod Taser. The boy jerked around violently and smashed his face square on the linoleum as he continued to twinge, quiver and convulse. I could clearly see the kid was having a seizure by his shakes and frothy saliva, but Tarski didn’t seem to care one iota. He straddled the boy’s back as if he were riding a Jet Ski (another brand name) and held him down into the carpet, the two of them breathing together when the boy was zapped again. His eyes rolled back in his head and his nose began to bleed the thick crimson color you only see in Coppola’s gangster movies. His face became an unrecognizable mangle of blood and dirt with vaguely human features underneath the dense caking.
And then without pomp or fanfare, he died. Right there, he stared up at and through me with that thousand-mile stare of a fresh corpse.
Follow with me a moment here while I jump from one flashback to another. The phrase “thousand-mile stare” has an interesting origin, at least as to how the expression has entered my vocabulary. Between semesters in 2002, I thought that a valuable independent study project would be to contact a convicted killer and try to understand his mind, sort of like what Jason Moss did but without the deceit.
I picked a man named Jack Trawick, a naturalized Egyptian whose father had been a structural engineer for the Suez Canal. Jack was an alleged serial killer, though to the best of my knowledge was only ever convicted for the murder of one young woman at a construction site. A brutal, heinous crime that surely stemmed from a deranged mind.
Jack did not disappoint me in his eccentricities. The corners of his envelopes would have the phrase “The cornerstone of civilization is human sacrifice” written in pen (later he would switch to “fat-bottomed witches make the rocking warlocks go round”) and on the backs would always be “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, which I was unclear how to interpret.
Unlike other killers who had converted to Christianity or tried to deny their guilt, Jack took great pride in his work and enjoyed telling stories that may or may not have happened to get a rise out of me, referring to himself as a “sexually motivated serial killer”. “I found great pleasure in my actions,” said, and “I would continue down my dark path if but given the chance.”
Jack had many other pen pals from all walks of life. He had other police officer pen pals, and was particularly proud to relay he had a friend who was a writer for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit that would borrow some of the stories from the killer. The story I found most disturbing, however, did not involve murder at all: it was his fantasy about Anna Nicole Smith, whom he referred to as an angel. He explained that “99% of all raped women experience a sexual climax … an excited clit and nipple doesn’t know the difference between a rapist’s tug and a lover’s caress. Rub any one of those things long enough it will spit at you.” I’ll let you figure out where Anna Nicole fits in.
And all the letters were signed, “your psychotic pen pal”.
With regards to the boy with the seizure, I found out later he had suffered periodically from epilepsy and the shock pushed his body too far. His heart gave out from the overabundance of stress and not even cardiopulmonary could make any difference at that point. I stood there in awe and I think I might have even dropped my gun as my arms went limp — I have since blocked out a fair amount of that day.
At my partner’s insistence, we tried to cover the entire incident up. Tarski told Chief Myers that the boy spit at him and told him he had AIDS, and I backed the story up completely. Did the boy really spit? I have no idea, but I sincerely doubt the veracity of that suggestion. Did he have AIDS? No. No AIDS, no HIV, no hepatitis or anything else. Not even mono or pinkeye. But the unwritten law is a pact stronger than family. As they say, blood is thicker than water — but the bonds of two partners in crime (fighting) were even stronger still.
Not surprisingly, Officer Tarski repeated this routine in a similar manner a few months later on another suspect and was let go from the department. And by “let go” I mean simply that; only fired, not arrested. One more “accident” and Edmund could have been considered something of a serial killer, not unlike Trawick. But even the department heads understand the importance of letting things blow over rather than to draw too much attention to any problem. I guess that approach works. The town’s just not big enough for any serious journalist from the big corporations (ABC, CNN or Fox) to give a fuck about a few protocol violations.
So now I work solo during my rounds, mostly doing traffic stops. I suppose my removal from narcotics would have happened anyway, what with the tri-county narc agents becoming the power-hungry leviathan they are. The Metropolitian Enforcement Group, better known as the MEG Unit, is a collection of officers and undercover agents from many of the surrounding cities in the Fox Valley. While each is still an employee of their respective department, they also have some extra-departmental abilities and advantages with regards to jurisdiction. There’s no such thing as a single drug case anymore, each arrest is just one link in a chain to the kingpins in their eyes. But that’s not my problem anymore.
The good news about monitoring traffic as opposed to narcotics is that I’ve never once had to shock or shoot a drunk driver. They might have been a little belligerent from time to time, but never explicitly violent. Most of the sober people apologize profusely, I give them a warning, and they slow their speed down. The drunks fail the test, and I give them a ride home to their wife (the drunk are rarely women), who chews them out more than I ever could. I think I might have said in the beginning that I never wanted to be the public’s enemy, just the public’s servant. A “suburban Batman” was my terminology, as I recall. But regardless of how people might feel about speed traps, if I have to choose between speeders and psychotic partners, I’ll do traffic until the day I die. For all I know, I might actually be preventing an accident on some cold, icy night when that sharp turn just might be your last. God knows we’ve all had those close encounters with the median.
But, even on traffic, not all days go perfectly. Not all traffic cases are simply speeders, and not all speeders are as understanding as I wish they would be. You can hate the law, but please don’t hold this against the enforcer.
Earlier this evening, I was running radar to pick up some drunks on College Avenue near the dance clubs and Performing Arts Center, when I got the call that changed my life.
“Officer 507, come in.” This was Rachel VanDomelen in dispatch. 0507 is my badge number. Rachel was a bright young woman, and maintained a level of normalcy that left many people surprised when they found out she was from a broken home and was now as an adult in another one. I sympathize with women today who must raise children on their own in a world that stigmatizes, rather than lionizes, single mothers. Rachel’s two sisters were faring about the same, one in a troubled marriage and the other treading water as a lab assistant in Madison.
“10-8, Benson here.” For those of you who don’t understand ten code, “10-8” means “on duty”. And I think until now I had failed to mention my name, which was rather rude of me. My apologies. Officer Anthony Benson, at your service.
“507, we have a call of a man having been hit by a car in the vicinity of east Wisconsin Avenue. Copy.”
Much to the chagrin of amateur radio operators, we very rarely speak over the radios at all these days. Even the few sentences Rachel and I exchanged were a few more than the average; usually things like “what’s your 20?” or “in pursuit” that are quicker to say than to type when in a rush.
Yes, I said type. Modern technology beckons, and we all have laptop computers mounted in to our squads that connect to dispatch and can do a variety of search functions to save time. The unit is bolted to a swiveling table above where the emergency brake is in most cars, just in front of our shotgun holster, which in turn is between the front seats. We log on to a network with unique passwords, so even if a civilian were to install the program we use on their home computer — a relatively easy program to find — they would be unable to join in any discussion taking place. Some liberal lawyer could argue that these discussions should be accessible to the public, but those people simply do not understand that broadcasting over the radio has given too many criminals the advantage and we have no need to repeat that with newer technology.
“I copy, dispatch. Where is the man now?” I figured he was most likely staggering across the street and was clipped by some drag racers from Appleton North High School, a not uncommon occurrence and a situation that a quick trip to Appleton Medical Center could rectify. There was no cure, however, for the spoiled blood running through the veins of the North High School teenagers.
“He’s lodged in the front end of the car.” Rachel maintained relative calm in this announcement, but the sentence was also the last to be spoken over the radio. Any further details would likely cause her voice to crack and I completely understand her resorting to the laptop from here on out.
“Shit,” I responded from the gut. Scratch the quick trip theory, we’ve just been upgraded to a potential vehicular manslaughter.
And that’s when all the mistakes of my past became small potatoes and my real troubles began. This was to be a night that would forever live in infamy.