Things have changed.
I know many people disagree, but it’s true. Even in the last few years, I’ve seen a radical shift in attitudes and behaviors. It gives me some hope. People are getting it.
Hazing, hostile work environments and sexual harassment are still vicious cancers that persistently eat the heart out of civil service. But believe it or not, now-a-days is actually an improvement over what I went through.
Emergency service jobs were much worse 15 years ago, back when I was an itty-bitty paramedic-girl with less-than-no-idea of what was coming. And I’m not referring to the inevitable psychological toll of working in emergency medical care, although EMS is a rough ride in the best of times and anyone who says otherwise is getting high on their own supply.
No, I’m talking about the flagrant abuse I suffered at the hands of my co-workers.
I won’t bore you with the whole story, but suffice to say that when I was a paramedic student, I was sexually harassed by my field-training-teachers during the hours that I worked on the ambulance with them. When I went to paramedic school administration to ask to be moved to a different ambulance shift, I was pressed into “tattling” on my perpetrators. I knew things would go badly for me if I told. Back then, a woman’s ability to take that kind of treatment was viewed as a badge of honor. Crying “Uncle!” meant I was a traitorous wimp- unworthy of the great brotherhood that was para-medicine. It would put a target on my back, but the administrators promised I would be “taken care of” and I “shouldn’t be afraid.” My perpetrators received a minor slap on the wrist, and then they flagrantly spread rumors that I was a lousy paramedic. They claimed I made up the allegations so their unfavorable assessment of my performance would be eradicated from my record.
No one in administration believed them, but EVERYONE on the street believed them with a vengeance. And regardless of what I did right or wrong- regardless of how I behaved or how hard I tried… my name was mud. Anyone could make up any rumor about me and it would be propagated without mercy or question. If any of my coworkers got reprimanded for anything, it’s because I turned them in to the supervisors. If there was a beef with the police or the fire department, it’s because I started it. I lived in a bleak dimension of ostracism and isolation, hated on every side with no means to redeem or extricate myself. I mean, I could get along fine with a paramedic partner for a 10-hour shift. We might have fun, we might joke and laugh. But the second another person entered the equation, I was dog-shit again. No one wanted to risk the social ramifications of admitting they liked me.
It was hell.
And I know how my perpetrators justified their behavior: “Some people just don’t fit into the culture.” or “If you can’t take the heat…” or “She did it to herself…” – All of which are pathetic justifications for toxic group-think. In reality, it was a classic, Jr. High School drama: a couple of deplorable people (with better social standing than I) started a shitty rumor to deflect their guilt… and everyone believed it. I was screwed. I held on for a couple of years, convincing myself that my ability to tolerate being spit on by my co-workers was some kind of virtue. But I hit my limit and quit. I traded living patients for dead ones and went from a partner situation to a solo one. As a medical examiner I may deal with several other professional agencies throughout my day, but ultimately I’m alone… where it’s safe.
Because fuck people. We’re the worst.
My friend, Chris, had his own hazing/hostile workplace environment when he was in the Marine Corps in the early 2000s. While he certainly doesn’t shy away from talking about his experience, I know he hasn’t told me everything. I only know he suffered a great deal under the authority of his “superior officers.” They did things to him that later got them court-marshalled when they repeated these acts on other recruits years later.
But things have changed.
Hazing is viewed as a crime. Retaliation against whistleblowers is a million-dollar law-suit. It’s a kinder, gentler, professional world with, still, a long way to go. But it’s weird for people like me and Chris. We have a hard time sympathizing when someone loses their shit because a co-worker inadvertently called them by the wrong pronoun. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support the betterment of working conditions everywhere and I believe personhood of any kind should be respected and celebrated. But considering that both of us, on the regular, feared that our co-workers might try to kill us… Well… experience has skewed our perspective.
Furthermore, despite his trauma, Chris still believes “initiation rites” are valid and important. But, he’s pointed out these practices have to have a point, and they have to have an end. They can’t just be endless, sadistic abuse for the sake of cruel amusement. The person running the gauntlet needs to benefit from it in some way and understand that it won’t last forever.
There’s a very thin line between “initiation” and “hazing”. It’s such gray area that most police, fire and EMS agencies won’t allow any type of baptism-by-fire or proving ground at all anymore. I’m not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, I certainly don’t think anyone should have to endure the crucible that Chris and I withstood. But I also don’t think participation trophies should be given out in the form of badges, guns, ambulances or fire-trucks. Not everyone should do these jobs, not everyone can. And no one is more aware of that fact than the people DOING THESE JOBS.
Administration can claim that they have all kinds of hiring requirements, but anyone can behave themselves on paper. It’s not hard to pull off a moral compass and a thick skin during a 45-minute-long interview. But a lot of people want to be cops who should NEVER BE COPS.
Almost 15 years ago I was engaged to a narcissistic sociopath who I like to call Dickbag. Long story short, Dickbag and I were 3 months away from our wedding. We had a venue, a caterer, invitations, the dress… the whole goddamnned dog-and-pony-show. But one morning I found out he’d essentially been living a double life. The whole time we dated, Dickbag had another girlfriend who was under the impression that she was in a monogamous relationship with him and that they, too, were headed to the altar soon. Oh… AND she had a kid who was stoked as hell to have Dickbag as a step-dad. And he didn’t confess these matters due to an attack of conscience. I caught him. The wedding was called off, he ended things with her and we attempted counseling for a few months before I came to terms with the fact that this fucking guy was a disaster on a deeply fundamental level. In the smoky aftermath of our defunct nuptials, he lost his job and toyed with the idea of applying to be a police officer. He even went so far as to ask me to be a character reference for him.
I remember my astonished incredulity when he broached the subject. I’m not certain of my exact wording. But I recall saying something about how I wasn’t comfortable testifying that he could make solid, life-altering decisions for himself, let alone anyone else. He looked wounded, then said something about me being “so full of unforgiveness.”
The disconnect from reality was astonishing… like having a severed head ask you to scratch his foot for him.
It’s a hard but important thing to realize your own fallibility. I don’t trust anyone who can’t take criticism and can’t absorb the idea that maybe they fucked up. And I don’t trust any cop who hasn’t looked at themselves at some point in their career and considered the possibility they may not be cut out for it.
Of course, these days recruitment numbers are so low that every douche-bag who ever drunkenly watched an episode of COPS at 3am is getting their shot at the real thing. Many people who have no business wearing a badge are being inflicted on the public. And their field training officers- the truly exceptional cops who are charged with training them- are being told retention is priority one. No matter how ill-suited a newbie might be for the job, keep training them until they graduate the program. Don’t yell, don’t criticize too sharply, don’t tease, don’t threaten and DON’T FAIL ANYONE. “Probies” are to be handled with the tenderest-touch at all times. Across the board, police officers are being told DON’T PICK ON THE RECRUITS.
That’s where I come in… because I’m not a police officer. And sometimes these wiggly little cop-lings need a swift kick in the dick.
As a deputy medical examiner/medicolegal death investigator, part of my job is to acquaint other agencies with our policies and operating procedures. Often, I’m called to a death scene by a brand new police officer who has literally, NEVER SEEN a free-range dead body. It’s up to me to march that officer through a death investigation, performing my various job-tasks while at the same time describing what I’m doing and why to a wide-eyed novice who CAN’T BELIEVE I just jammed my fingers into the dead guys mouth. For the most part I’m happy to do it because I think death is super interesting and I can talk about it all day. I try to go easy on the recruits and take time to explain things like post-mortem changes and visible patterns of injury and disease. But sometimes I get a little squirrelly and go off book. Sometimes I can’t help myself and I have to have a little fun at a recruit’s expense.
Especially in the presence of…
Dildos are a sad fact of my job. I see LOTS of them because when someone passes away unexpectedly, we have to stampede through their life, trying to figure out what killed them. And it’s during these searches the dildos come out… as well as the porn, the drugs, the fuzzy hand-cuffs, the blow-up dolls. You name it, I’ve pulled it out of someone’s bed-side table. And let’s be honest, law enforcement and I try to maintain some professional decorum, but that shit is funny. And we are very much in the habit of taking pictures of such items and sending them to our co-workers. In fact, I have it on good authority there is a photo of me out there somewhere, holding up a floppy, pink rubber vagina with a quizzical look on my face. I had just pulled it out of a drawer on a scene and wasn’t sure what it was.
I was so innocent back then…
Anyway, I totally paid that shit forward.
I was on the scene of a suicide with the sheriff’s office and there was a new deputy recruit. Some dude had killed himself in his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom and as I was walking the new guy through the investigative process, I noted that the decedent had opted to shoot himself in the head while sitting on a futon in the corner. And beneath this futon was a milk-crate full of dildos. And when I say “full of dildos,” I mean there was a veritable cornucopia of sex toys.
It was too good to be true. All of the civilian witnesses had vacated the scene and I was left with an audience of two detectives, two patrol deputies, a chaplain and a dispatcher who was there on a ride-along. The recruit had been instructed to follow me and accede to my every whim. He was obediently glued to my side with eyes like dinner plates as he took in his first violent death scene. On the one hand, I felt for him. Seeing your first gun-shot wound to the head can be *ahem* a heady experience. (sorry). Not only are the visuals a bit disturbing, but also you never forget the odor of fresh blood mixed with a playfully sweet smattering of brain matter. I could have gone easy on him but, come on… dildos.
“So,” I said to him as I knelt down next to the body and motioned for the recruit to do the same. “We want make sure we don’t get too distracted by the big-old hole in this guy’s head and miss other injuries.” The recruit swallowed hard, never taking his unblinking eyes off the decedent’s gaping cranium as he knelt down next to me near the futon. “We need to check his chest and abdomen for trauma,” I said evenly, never missing a beat as I reached into multi-colored, rubber sex-carnival in the milk crate. “But we also want to examine his hands and arms for defensive wounds, and here… hold this.” I thrust a 12-inch purple monolith into his hands. He took it without even looking down. Keeping stride, I continued. “We’re also going to take a look at the palms of his hands to see if he’s holding anything or if there’s anything under his fingernails. Hold this.” I handed him a purple dolphin, followed by a floppy, green samurai sword. Maybe the third one put the whole ruse over the top. He glanced down and gave a little shriek as I quickly shoved 3 more sex toys into his arms. It was at that point the assembled company exploded into laughter and someone snapped a picture with their cell phone. To his credit, the recruit laughed along with the rest of us and in a few weeks, he completed his field-training module with flying colors. Now, years later, every time he sees me, he happily recounts the time I “handed him all those dildos.”
More recently, I was on the scene of a hotel suicide and a recruit became inexplicably flustered when I asked him for the name and phone number of the person who reported the death. I’m not sure what the detectives told him about me before I got there, nor do I know what his field training experience had been thus far. But, clearly, he expected to get skewered if he gave the wrong answer. So he engaged in the unfortunate coping mechanism of answering questions without actually KNOWING the answers.
Upon my query, he looked like he was facing down a firing squad. “Uhhhh… ummm…” he frantically scanned his notebook. “Her name was… ummm Grace.”
I cocked my head at him. “Ok…” I responded carefully. “Go on.”
He glanced back at his notebook and listed off “Grace’s” number. The detectives behind the recruit snickered as I sighed. “That’s MY number and MY name is Grace,” My voice dropped this little fact on him like a Looney Tunes piano.
“Oh.. ummm… sorry…” He fumbled around with his notebook, even more flustered than before, flipping through his scrawl and trying to get his tragic life together. I took a step forward, reeled back and THWACK! I didn’t “slap” him so much as I issued a hard re-set to the back of his bald head with my hand.
The detectives gasped and the recruit blinked, speechless. I glanced up at the detectives who, judging by their expressions, didn’t know if they should high-five me or call a supervisor. “What?” I challenged them, “Are you guys gonna arrest me?”
“I didn’t see a thing.” One of them coughed out. As for the recruit, he shook his head and turned to me. “Thanks,” he said. “I needed that.”
I’ve abused other police- both recruits AND veterans alike. I’ve made them draw vitreous from dead people’s eyeballs for me (a feat achieved by sticking a syringe into the eye and then pulling the plunger out while the eye deflates like a tired balloon). I’ve forced them to hold an umbrella over me to shield my delicate Scottish skin from the sun on out-door scenes (I’m actually Hungarian). I’ve bull-dozed them into smoking cigars with me on decomps in order to suppress the smell. But I’ve also pulled recruits aside and told them they’re doing fine and they just have to endure the training process a bit longer. I’ve praised them to their field trainers when they’ve really had their shit together. I’ve EXHAUSTIVELY marched them through the investigative process, even when I was pissy and tired and didn’t want to bother. Throughout all of these antics, I wouldn’t say I ever crossed the line of becoming downright ABUSIVE. I mean, sure, I did slap that one guy in the head, but he thanked me afterwards so it doesn’t count.
But then again, I have to admit there WAS one time I really let loose on a cop- or rather two times…
My husband has a female friend. And as he and I were dating, his female friend became MY female friend. Her name is Sara and she’s awesome. For a brief period of time, Sara was dating one of Mike’s co-workers. I’d call him Dickbag, but it’s already taken. So… how about we call him TFC for “THIS FUCKING CLOWN.”
Sara met this fucking clown on a dating app. She showed me his profile and in the description he stated that he was separated from his wife and the divorce was imminent -which was the first red flag. In some of his pictures he was in uniform with the police agency’s name clearly visible -which was the second red flag. I’m not sure how other cop-shops operate, but around here administration really isn’t cool with officers cashing in on their badges in order to score some tail. They don’t like the liability involved if the dude starts misbehaving, resulting in a big fat campaign about shitty cops doing shitty things to women online. In fact, posting a picture of himself in uniform on a dating app would have been grounds for an ethics complaint, a review and possibly a termination. And even though we didn’t LIKE that this fucking clown had hooked up with our friend in this way, she was super enthusiastic about him so we bit our tongues and sat back to see what would happen.
It didn’t take long. A couple of weeks maybe.
I don’t remember where I was, but Mike called me and said that he and Sara were at a local bar and I needed to join them, post-haste.
When I arrived, Sara was sloppy drunk and Mike was infuriated. As I approached them, she caught a glimpse of me over Mike’s shoulder and tumbled off her bar-stool. She staggered over and threw he arms around me, choking back sobs. “TFC isn’t getting divorced…” she whispered in my ear. “He NEVER was..” the statement skipped in her throat like a record. I guided her back to the bar stool and the whole story dumped out. TFC had been very hot-and-cold with Sara, always wanting to hook up, but then disappearing for days at a time. He would go on and on about how difficult his situation was… what with his two daughters caught in the middle of this divorce and all the property to split. He didn’t have an actual timeline yet, but it would be over soon. Then he and Sara would be free to pursue a future together.
And while Sara was painfully hung-up on him… she’s also no dumb bunny. TFC didn’t have social media accounts, but you better believe his wife did. And it didn’t take Sara long to find them. And that’s how Sara found out the truth. TFC and his wife were still very much together and blissfully happy according to reports. The times that TFC hadn’t been available to Sara, it was because he and his wife were taking long weekends at the beach for their anniversary, or attending their daughters’ soccer games. Sara waved her phone in my face as the tear-streaked story ran on. When she had attempted to confront him about his lies over text- including screen shots of his wife’s facebook- THIS FUCKING CLOWN abruptly vanished.
Mike’s typically jovial face was a steel mask of tension as I turned to him. “I didn’t know,” he said, answering my question before I asked it. It was clear he blamed himself, but neither Sara nor I did. The sheriffs office is a big place, as much as everyone knows each other’s business, it’s impossible to know EVERYONE’S business.
My outrage was already a growing thing- a building cloud of anger, blacking out rational thought as I groped for a suitable course of action. Slashing his tires or setting his house on fire crossed my mind. But not with any real intent. Mike and I knocked around the idea of calling in an ethics complaint to administration, but Sara showed us that TFC’s dating profile had already been scrubbed of any law enforcement references or photos (which was all administration would care about). I wanted to contact his wife, but Sara asked me not to… possibly holding out hope that this would all prove to be a misunderstanding. And since it was her broken heart, I let her govern our responses… as unsatisfying as that was.
THIS FUCKING CLOWN never contacted her again, never acknowledged his behavior. He just skittered away like a spooked cockroach. The whole mess really destroyed Sara. But in a little while, she was back on the dating merry-go-round. She’s about to get married, actually… to a pretty goddamned awesome detective in a neighboring jurisdiction. When we hung out the other day, I brought up TFC and had to remind her who he was. She had completely forgotten him.
But I never have.
I believe the saying goes something like this: “There are only two certainties in life: Death and Taxes.” For the law enforcement officers in my county, there’s only one certainty: “Sooner or later, you’re going to end up on a death scene with me.”
I could wait.
Eventually, THIS FUCKING CLOWN had to start paying down his debt to me and mine. But it had slipped my mind until I heard someone say his name on the scene of a brutal 3 car pile-up. He was taking lead on the accident report which meant that he was standing close by, watching as I pulled a mangled body out of a driver’s seat through the sunroof and laid the deceased individual on the roadway. Maybe someone, somewhere told him I was fun to work with, because TFC stepped up to me chuckling. “Wow!” He grinned. “I could never do your job!”
I straightened up to my full 5’10” height (6’1″ in boots) and leveled a flat stare at him.
“That’s because you’re a fucking pussy,” I spat with a careless shrug… making sure it was loud enough for everyone within a 10-foot radius to hear.
Now, I don’t normally say things like this… but in his case, I was willing to depart from my fiercely held aversion to gendered insults. Because when you really want to fuck with someone in front of their own demographic, you need to know their culture and speak their language.
The surrounding officers did not disappoint. A collective gasp rose from the gathered company, followed by a snicker, a chortle, then a rainfall of laughter. A couple of officers gave the obliging: “Duuuuuude!” or “Daaaaaammnnnn!” TFC shifted his weight from side to side, uncomfortable but trying to play it off. He attempted a weak smile and shuffled away to do something else. I congratulated myself on a successful first strike and went back to work. Sure, he had no idea why I had just eviscerated him in front of his co-workers, but the goal was for him to suffer, not to understand. And to be honest, I wasn’t going to give him any more explanation than he gave Sara.
The following day, TFC was on another scene with me. This time, some dude was found deceased in his home by a friend. Nothing about it was suspicious, but the scene investigation was still mandatory according to state law. And when I walked into the home, This Fucking Clown was standing in the front hall, awaiting my arrival. I sighed as though the mere sight of him made me weary and I barely acknowledged him as he rattled off his report. My indifference seemed to unnerve him even more than my abuse the day before. Every word was a stutter, every gesture was a fumble. I rolled my eyes and groaned at each disfluency. When he started dropping everything he picked up, I let loose. “Jesus Christ!” I snapped as his pen slipped from his hand for the third time. “What the hell is your problem? Get your fucking life together!”
He blinked and picked up his pen as the other officer in attendance snorted. Making some excuse, he walked back out to his car to pout and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the call.
Later on, Mike told me that he’d done a little recon on his own and discovered that This Fucking Clown had a habit of illicit bullshit. In his previous police force, he had gotten a dispatcher pregnant and had to high-tail it out of town in a desperate attempt to save his marriage… allegedly. It was just a rumor, but given his behavior with Sara this wasn’t exactly a last-chapter revelation.
It’s been two years. I haven’t run across This Fucking Clown again, but I have no intention of easing up. Maybe the next time I see him, I’ll just flat-out ask him if he knows why I hate him so much. Then I’ll tell him that one of his conquests is my friend and I have a blistering disdain for serial cheaters who abuse my people. And I mean… ALL my people.
Because it’s not just about Sara’s broken heart, TFC’s unsuspecting wife or whatever woman he descends upon next. This Fucking Clown makes everyone look bad. The last thing our county needs is some over-sexed man-baby with a badge, sticking his dick into an agency-wide scandal. Administration won’t do anything about it. The Sergeants won’t do anything about it. His fellow deputies CAN’T do anything about it, which means it’s up to me to let him know someone’s on to him. And keeping with my friend Chris’s theory about hazing, I have both a point and an end:
The point being I’m no longer tolerating shitty behavior in what I consider to be my house
And it ends when you‘re gone.