Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It’s Not All Donuts and Paperwork

I'm proud to host guest blogger Lee Lofland today. Some of you may already be familiar with his mega-popular blog, The Graveyard Shift. Lee's bio would be as long as his post, so suffice it to say, the man has credentials. Today, he's sharing some of his experiences working in law enforcement.

It’s Not All Donuts and Paperwork

I got my start in law enforcement as a corrections officer in a maximum-security prison. In our facility, all new C/Os (corrections officers) were required to start out working the graveyard shift, which I did. My sergeant on the midnight shift was a great guy, always filling in for officers who called in sick, needed to go home early, or for those who simply wanted a night off. My boss’s generosity toward his subordinates was quite unusual for a security supervisor in the prison system.

Normally, the white shirts (supervisors wore white shirts; line officers wore blue) working the late-night shifts spent their entire eight hours trying to find things officers had done wrong so they could “write them up.”

I once saw a supervisor crawling on his hands and knees, sneaking up on an officer, hoping to catch her sleeping. My sergeant was quite the opposite. If he could help anyone out of a jam, he did. I’ve even known him to assume a sleepy officer’s post so they could take a break and gather a second wind. Working graveyard in a prison, watching people during their slumber, can be a very monotonous, mind-numbing job.

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My sergeant was a fine man, liked by everyone who’d ever had the pleasure of working with him.

I worked in the prison system until the county sheriff hired me as a patrol deputy, a job I’d had in my sights since my teens.

I’d only been out of the police academy a few months when I received a particularly disturbing emergency call from the dispatcher. She told me a male teenager had barricaded himself inside his house, and was threatening suicide. My heart sank when I heard the address. It was the residence of my former sergeant at the prison. The troubled teen was his son.

I arrived at the house and found my old boss standing in his front yard. He was in uniform, ready for work, and he was extremely distraught. He fought back tears when he told me his son was inside with a loaded shotgun. Then I asked him where he’d last seen his son, and for a detailed description of the layout of the house. He said he hadn’t heard a sound since his son forced him outside. No blast from the shotgun, which was a good thing.

I used the sergeant’s key and went inside, where I found the young man seated on the living room floor. He held the barrel of the shotgun firmly against his chin. His thumb rested on the trigger. The safety was clearly off. His knuckles white from gripping the weapon. And he was crying.

I approached the boy slowly, talking about anything that came to mind—mostly gibberish. But the small talk distracted the boy, allowing me to take a seat on the hardwood floor beside him—no easy feat for a guy my size, wearing a gun belt, a Kevlar vest, and polished dress shoes. In a matter of seconds, I was sweating profusely. Every nerve in my body stood at attention. The gadgets on my belt dug into the tender flesh at my waist.

I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t dare move a muscle. I talked to the kid for twenty minutes, or so, with my eyes fixed on the trigger and the thumb that rested on it. He’d bitten the nail to the quick.

Finally, he relaxed his grip for a second and I made my move, grabbing the shotgun barrel with one hand and his trigger hand with my other. In one motion, I slid the shotgun across the floor and handcuffed the teenager.

I sat him upright and then he collapsed against me, crying uncontrollably. I held him until the tears stopped, and then we talked. I listened to his troubles, and then I explained what had to happen next—he’d be going in for a psychiatric evaluation. I also told him to call me if he ever felt the need to harm himself again. I let him know that I was there for him, as his dad had been for me, many times.

When he was ready, we stood and went outside. I don’t think the air had ever smelled any fresher, nor had there ever been a brighter moon.

Lee Lofland, a former police detective, is the author of Police Procedure and Investigation, A Guide For Writers, a 2008 Macavity nominee for best non-fiction mystery. He is a nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime-scene investigation. You can learn more about Lee at his website, or at his blog The Graveyard Shift


queenofmean said...

That story reminds me of one told by the local DARE officer. He'd been working in the school for quite a few years. The kids knew him & greeted him outside of school, but he never thought much about his impact (other than hoping to keep them away from drugs & alcohol). One night he gets a call at home. One of the students had witnessed his uncle getting shot & killed. The kid was obviously upset & crying and kept asking for the DARE officer, saying he wanted to talk to him. Of course, he went in.
It shows how actions you don't think about that much (the supervisor being a good guy, the DARE officer doing his best to relate to kids) can help bring about a better ending.

Lee Lofland said...

I'm a big fan of officers interacting with kids. It's surprising how much that little bit of contact can influence a child. DARE is a great program.

Vivian Zabel said...

Thank you for sharing with us, Lee. I follow your blog and own and use your book for reference.


Helen Hardt said...

I just checked out your blog, Lee. There's some great stuff there! I'll definitely be back. Thanks for sharing today.


Kendra said...

Stunning story, Lee. You were alone? No other officers? After reading your blog with Simon, I'm wondering if this how the predicament would be handled today?

SZ said...

What a great accomplishment. Did you keep in contact with your boss ? How did his son make out ?

Lee Lofland said...

Vivian - Thanks. I'm glad the blog is helpful. I'm also glad to hear you use the book for research and not as a doorstop. :)

Helen - Please do stop by the blog as often as you can. We try to keep you guys posted about the latest in police, forensics, and CSI. We also try to have a little fun.

Kendra - Yes, I was alone. At the time, I worked for a sheriff's office in a rural area. In fact, we sometimes worked the entire county alone. During those times, our nearest backup was a state trooper, who also worked the county alone (they worked traffic offenses and we worked criminal cases). He may have been twenty or thirty miles away, too.

Anyway, things are handled much in the same way today in those rural areas. It's definitely not like TV where fifteen officers respond to calls within a matter of seconds.

What was that old song...It's You And Me Against The World? That's what it felt like on those nights working the graveyard shift, alone.

Lee Lofland said...

SZ - I did stay in touch with my former boss. Sadly, he passed away a not long after the incident with his son.

And, unfortunately, I arrested the son a couple years later for narcotics distribution. This occurred after I'd left the sheriff's office and was working for a city police department as a narcotics detective.

Margie Lawson said...

Lee --

Great to see you here!

I agree with Jeffery Deaver, your Howdunit, POLICE PROCEDURE & INVESTIGATION: A Guide for Writers, reads like a thriller! The procedural and scientific content gives writers the nitty-gritty they need -- and the first-person experiences you shared impressed me.

When I read THE SHOOTOUT, pages 85 - 88 in Police Procedure & Investigation, my heart stopped. It's one of the best examples I've read of expanding time. Your writing held me captive.

Every action, every detail, every visceral response, stellar.

I'm using excerpts from THE SHOOTOUT in my Deep Editing course. Reading a non-fiction book on police procedure, I didn't expect to find award-winning writing craft. :-))

Just had to chime in and add my praise for Police Procedure & Investigation!

Lee Lofland said...

Margie - I can't begin to tell you how much your comments mean to me. Those few pages are a huge part of my life. In fact, the events I described on those pages changed my life forever.

When the robber died that morning, and his soul went to wherever souls of dead bank robbers go, it took a chunk of me with it that I'll never regain.

I rarely ever see a single day pass when I don't think about that day and that troubled young man and his family.

Anita Birt said...

A hair raising account of a very difficult situation. In my previous life I was on staff and also volunteered at a crisis centre in Toronto. Too long to go into details, but getting help to a caller threatening suicide tested me on an overnight shift at the centre. After a long chat, I convinced the man to allow me to send police and paramedics. I convinced him to open his apartment door so the police would not have to break it down. He complied. Because we worked anonymously, he only knew my first name. He sent a card to our office thanking me for saving his life.

Melanie Atkins said...

Awesome, Lee. What a story. How wonderful that you could talk to him long enough--and get through to him--for him to relax so you could grab the shotgun. I know his father was grateful. Hope the boy got the help he needed and is okay now.

I love your blog. I don't visit it nearly often enough, but I do get there when I can. You're an inspiration!

Lee Lofland said...

Anita - Sometimes, I think the situation is much more difficult for the folks working the phones during a crisis than it is for the people in the field. At least we have the added sense of sight to help us deal with the situation.

My hat is off to all those professionals.

Lee Lofland said...

Hi Melanie - It's always a pleasure to hear from you, you flatterer!

You know, I can't begin to describe the feeling of relief that poured through my body after that was all over. I also can't begin to describe the cramps and sore muscles I experienced afterward. Sitting there, tense, for so long really did a number on me.

Terry Odell said...

I'm just popping in to thank everyone for dropping by and leaving their comments, and to Lee for taking the time to answer them all so completely.

It's always enlightening to see the human side of police work.

Mary Ricksen said...

How does one stay awake!
And you had to arrest him later, that's awful,

Lee Lofland said...

Mary - That was one of the toughest (emotionally) arrests I've ever made. The kid (he was an adult by this time) had a rough life, and jail certainly wasn't the solution to his problems.

Magnolia said...

Great post, Lee. I'll never forget the day I found your blog. I was so thrilled to find all the information and your book is my #1 reference guide. I had a former homicide detective say my autopsy scenes were very true to life and I used your book for that.

Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge!

Lee Lofland said...

Magnolia - Thanks for the kind words. If you have questions that aren't answered in the book or on the blog please feel free to contact me.

L.C.McCabe said...


I wish we had more law enforcement officers of your caliber working in my area. Your story could have been tragic, but it had a happy ending. At least for the short term.

We have had far too many tragic endings to scenes like you described. Mainly because I do not think they had the patience you showed.

I feel honored to have you as my friend.


Donnell said...

Terry/Lee, I'm always late these days! Lee, I can just see you sitting there with that teenager and his dad. You demonstrate such compassion. I'm curious do you know how he fared? I'd love to know he had somehow turned his life around and got help thanks to you. Thanks for sharing your story.

elaine cantrell said...

Hi, Lee. I looked at your blog and thought it was great. I'll definitely be back. Sorry about your boss and the young man.

Lee Lofland said...

Linda - It's always nice to see you. Thanks for the support. You are a good friend.

Donnell - I'm sorry to say I lost touch with the man. As you know, my wife and I have moved around the country quite a bit during the years since I left police work. I, too, hope he's doing well.

Elaine - I'm glad you liked the blog. Please do come back.

Maryann Miller said...

Great story, Lee, and so glad the incident played out in a positive outcome. When you described how you felt as it was going down it reminded me of an incident when I was riding patrol with officers for a feature story. The officer I was with was in the middle of a routine traffic stop when something went screwy and suddenly he had the guy facedown over the hood of the squad car. The guy looked right at me through the windshield and his look was so evil I wanted to crawl under the dash and disappear.

Also have to comment on your picture of Scrooge. I just directed an adaptation of Scrooge at a local art center and we used that same picture for our publicity and playbill. Nice coincidence.

Lee Lofland said...

Maryann - That look is quite common. I think they all go to school somewhere to learn it.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

What a story, Lee. You had me on the edge of my seat.
Speaking of programs, my son was recently asked to participate in Every Fifteen Minutes. Apparently every fifteen minutes, a person dies in a drunk-driving related incident.
The high school stages a crash scene, then the driver is taken to jail, two are taken to the emergency room, one to the morgue. I thought the whole thing really morbid (parents must write their child's obit and have an officer come to the house to report the death and attend a funeral.) I was hoping to be called away suddenly to a different planet. This year, the program was cancelled.
Ever heard of it? Any thoughts?

Lee Lofland said...

Hi Jana. So good to "see" you again. No, I've never heard of that program, and I'm not at all fond of the idea. Personally, I think it sounds horrible.

By the way, Jana wrote a wonderful book called My Half of the Sky.

Jana McBurney-Lin said...

Thanks, Lee for mentioning My Half of the Sky. Thank you also for your thoughts on Every Fifteen Minutes. My husband laughed at me, saying, "It's not real." But still...who wants to act out their worst nightmare?