Friday, January 22, 2010

Haunted By Ill-Placed Empathy

I walk from my car to the store. Near the entrance a middle-aged man moves in my direction. His unkempt, ill-fitting clothes emanate an odor of many days’ sweat. His face may be handsome but the dark suntan under the unshaved skin conveys a neglect that is consistent with his persona. He is muttering something unintelligible as he steps off the curb into the path of oncoming traffic. I am within a couple of steps, so I lunge outward and pull him to safety by the back of his loose short coat. He lands on his bottom on the sidewalk. He ignores me.

She moves slowly on the sidewalk in an exaggerated rolling gait. She is pushing a shopping cart piled with items that most of us leave in dumpsters. Her clothes may have seen many previous owners. Layers of pants and shirts cover her to the extent that only part of her face is visible. Her hands are covered with gloves of filth. Her hair hangs below the cap on her head. The thick matted mess would resist combing with a rake. She stops every few steps and seems to count things in her mind using her fingers, then resumes her slow ambling. At the traffic signal she pauses, then turns her shopping cart around the way she came, and continues her trip. The passer-bys, the traffic, the noise of the street don’t seem to be in her realm.

These are two people not in my social acquaintance, unlikely to encounter again. They appear people who have lost contact with those who may have cared about them. Two people whom I may one day have to take into protective custody.

It was the evening of a holiday. Most of the drunken parties have taken place on the eve before, so we had little to do. No calls for our services were made, drivers behaved decently. We were getting sleepy. As I drove at traffic-speed my partner said, “We could serve some warrants.” He was always looking ahead, and as usual, had a handful of printed warrants to serve as an option.

“Come on, this is a holiday. Even a scumbag deserves a rest from time to time,” I suggested.

“Well then, let’s stop at the intersection. The intersection was where we usually bagged traffic offenders within a couple of minutes of observation. I drove there and stopped just off the road on a vacant lot, positioning the car so that we could see traffic from four directions. Just as we stopped an SUV slowed at the intersection, and made a left turn without stopping. With four-way stop signs that was cause for us to intercept. As I switched on the strobe we received a call to proceed to an address up in the foothills to see about a domestic dispute. The address was in the direction that I have taken already after the SUV. The driver of the SUV lucked out. We sped by her on the way.

Even with the emergency response it took about ten minutes, and by the time we got there, the dispute was over. We were satisfied. Nobody was seriously hurt, no charges were pressed, and we were asked to leave by both parties.

My partner said, “As long as we are here, we could see this guy.” He handed me the warrant for the arrest of a person with an address in the neigborhood. Charges: possession and sale of drugs in this state, escape from a psychiatric institution while under observation for domestic violence and lewd behavior in another state, etc. We are not judges, but we make some judgments. He seemed to be a person to arrest even on a holiday; besides, he was unlikely to be stupid enough to stay at his home address after that.

In the darkness of the night we looked for the address among trailer homes of the neighborhood. We found the place after several passes. A woman in her twenties answered the door. She was devastatingly beautiful and sexy. I tried to remain functional. The subject was asleep in the trailer, and had to be rousted to come along. My partner handled the arrest with his usual skill without incident while I watched the woman and her little boy who were standing outside within a few feet of me. The subject was a short, stocky man in his late twenties. His face emanated hatred and instability. Still wearing only shorts of some jersey material he was shirtless. We stuffed him into the back of the car with hands cuffed behind him. I asked the woman whether we could take some clothes along so that he could dress when the opportunity arose. She nodded, and then walked up the two steps into the trailer. In a minute she returned with a paper bag with some of his clothes, which I tossed, into the trunk of our car.

After we dropped off the subject at the jail I relaxed a bit while reflecting on the actors involved. Here I was, doing this mostly for fun. There was my partner, doing it for making a living. There was the subject doing it because at some point he though it was the best thing he could do. There was the woman who could have been in a better place just about anywhere, but she was doing it because she was protecting her son, an adorable five-year old.

It has been years ago that this took place, but I am still not over it. The danger that the man’s face projected was more than I would want to impose on a young woman and her child. Yet, as bad as I felt about the woman and her child, I felt worse about the man. He was obviously not fully functional in his mental capacity. He had to be contained, for he was dangerous. But he was some mother’s son. Some mother, who had lost the fight to protect him, as he grew away from her in age and involvement with bad people. The lovable five-year old that I remember from the incident may be following the same path, breaking the heart of his beautiful mom.

An ordinary job, for example, being a clerk in a store, can be challenging, but does not take much except perseverance. He can go home in the evening and detach himself from the next day’s challenges of dealing with peers, customers, promotions, and maybe looking for another job. Law enforcement, on the other hand, is not just a job. It is a twenty-four hour a day responsibility. One does not just go home in the evening and be done with it until the next day: after a while things turn around. An ordinary person has a life, and, "oh by the way", he has a job. A law enforcement officer out on the streets has his profession, and, "oh by the way", he may have a life, but don’t count on it. He tries, but it often fails.

Empathy with or intense dislike of the subjects comes up repeatedly. It becomes very difficult to continue being subjective and be able to make quick decisions between victim and perpetrator especially when they are indistinguishable. Trusting subjects can and will be the cause of lives lost. Empathy misplaced takes its toll. It is difficult not to become jaded, but empathy not given also haunts us. I remember incidents when I could have trusted …


Miss D said...

Tomorrow I will go to work and at 10.50am a young man will enter my room. He is 11 years old, although he is not more than a few inches taller than my own 5 year old. His teeth are dirty and on Friday his uniform was filthy. His literacy skills are about 1 year ahead of my own child and as a result struggles to access any of the lessons that I prepare. I have in the past managed to get clothes from colleagues with children around the same size to his father.
His father is a good man, suddenly in charge of 3 kids. He has spent his fatherhood working nights to provide for his family but his wife left with the kids before he had chance to develop what we would consider 'parenting skills'. His wife left, the kids and the county 6 months ago and put the man in a position he had never been in before. He's doing his best but it's just not good enough.
I cannot imagine leaving my children, I cannot imagine coming back and putting them through a court case. I cannot imagine neglecting them as she has done.
At 2.25pm another young man will enter my room. He is 12. His father is a drunk and football hooligan/ex-player. His son is a bully. He purposefully targets vulnerable children and 'pokes' them until they explode. I will spend most of the lesson 'containing' him.
I cannot imagine allowing my child to be like that, I cannot imagine not supporting the school when she tries to set someone on fire or beats them.
Teaching is a rewarding job, when I get to do it, but like law enforcement sometimes the choices of others stays with you forever. MOnday is my saddest day, whne the kids ask me what I don't like about my job, they assume it's going to be their bad behaviour (my goD!!!!) but it's not. It's dealing with young people who everyday suffer due to the choices of their parents.

Susan's Pet said...

Dear Miss D,

I salute you for being one of the most important persons in our lives. I dealt with teachers as my children grew, and in law enforcement. I assure you that I have always had the highest regard and admiration for them, and I supported them to my ability. You are the people with unrequited love and care where it really counts.

Your description of dealing with troubled children convinces me that I could not have done that well. We all need you to be there for us.