Cops, monsters, death and life

Half a lifetime ago, I was hired as a temporary coroner’s deputy. My county had one of the highest homicide rates in the state at the time, and the coroner’s office couldn’t manage the case load. A professor of mine, a forensic anthropologist, pulled a few strings with the coroner, and I had a term position.

During my time on the job (a year or a year and a half?), I investigated deaths that required a coroner’s ruling. Deaths by violence, deaths by accident, deaths by suicide, hospital deaths, deaths under questionable circumstances. I think I investigated some 100 or so homicides. (Somewhere I’ve still got personal notes on all of this.)

The job itself was fairly straightforward. Primarily, I did death scene investigations, interviews (cops, first responders, witnesses), collected and logged decedents’ personal valuables, and wrote reports. The coroner would then use my reports, along with autopsy findings and lab results, to establish the medico-legal cause of death — the cause or causes that go on death certificates, establish homicide charges, go into court case records, insurance records, affect wills and lawsuits, become statistics for traffic engineering studies, etc.

Another major part of my job was to notify the next of kin. In my county, that always meant telling them in person. We didn’t do notifications by phone or by mail. Always in person, face to face.

I also attended a couple of coroner’s inquests in my work. They were convened for politically charged and controversial circumstances, in which the public had very strong opinions regarding the killing of civilians by local cops. The cops didn’t want an inquest, but the coroner is an independent office in that state, like sheriffs, and he decided it was necessary. He must have had serious questions about the killings, because he rarely convened inquests.

It was all very interesting to me, as a citizen and as an anthropologist. But I wasn’t a good candidate for a permanent job in the coroner’s office, and eventually, when my term was up, the coroner told me to move on. He was right. And I thank him for telling me, even to this day.

So I’ve seen what human beings can do to one another. I’ve had my eyes, my nose, and my hands in the carnage, at the death scene and at the autopsy table.

And I’ve been the guy who knocks on your door in the middle of the night, and delivers that worst of all possible news. The news that stops the world and tears it apart, and can never be undone. I’ve delivered that news to the loved ones of homicide victims, accident victims, suicides, and people killed in incidents with cops.

I’ve delivered that news more times than I can remember. (And I don’t want to remember.) To husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. And to children. Too many children.

And I learned a few things on that job, things that left permanent marks on me.

One of the things I learned is this:

Some humans can only be described as monsters.

There are some humans I plain old don’t want walking around on my planet. I don’t want them locked up, I don’t want them breathing the air. I fear them, deeply. I want them dispatched, so they can never do monstrous things again. I don’t care about their misery or the pain they may have suffered as children — want them put out of my misery. Permanently.

And I’m damned certain that the world, and America especially, needs cops. I’m damned certain that I want cops in my community.

But here’s another lesson that job taught me:

Every death leaves a hole in the world.

Every human being ever born, victim or killer, had something good in them, at least when they started life. Time and again, I’ve seen the proof of it. I know that, for every person born, there was at least one human being in the world, at some time, some place, who saw that goodness. Even if only when they were babies. No matter their nationality, their color, their circumstances, their life choices, their criminal records. We’re all born with something good.

I know a few cops who can relate to that, but not many. But, then, I don’t know many people at all who can.

And another lesson.

I don’t know what happens after we die. I’m not a Christian, and I don’t believe the stories. But I do know this: death is about what happens to those of us left here, alive, to carry on after our losses. So every death matters.

Where does all this leave me?

It leaves me with two core beliefs, and a profound personal contradiction that I’ve long since stopped trying to resolve:

Some humans are so monstrous that I want them put down, permanently. Not put away. Put down.

And all deaths, even the deaths of the worst criminals, leave holes in the world. Even the monsters.

Monsters are real, dear reader. They do exist, and they look just like us. They’ve been with us from the beginning, and they’ll always be among us. They come in all kinds, and they come from all walks of life.

And that’s why we have cops: To protect us. Not just from run of the mill bad actors. From the monsters.

But it isn’t the job of cops to be judge and jury. Cops are just supposed to be the beginning of the criminal justice process, not the end of it.

But sometimes even cops are monsters.

And that makes it very hard to know who you can trust.

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