Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Cold Day in December


Late on the cold afternoon of December 11th, I was in the mountains above where we live, in a steep canyon, armed with an M-16 machine gun with a full clip of live ammunition. The iron clouds were lowering and the sun was declining into the steep hills, leaving most of the ground in shadow. I don’t like the M-16 as well as other automatic weapons. Even the classic Thompson submachine gun, though heavier, is easier to control and feels naturally more accurate. But it lacks the range. My target, nothing more than a human silhouette in that light, wasn’t far off. I steadied myself, aimed carefully for his chest and fired. The heavy stream of bullets crackled in the frosty air.

Wait. This is still Thomas writing (who's total previous fire arm experience was a few hours of skeet shooting.) I should start at the beginning. Back in August, Lynn and I attended a charity auction for Head Start. We made our contribution in the form of a bid on “A Day with the Sheriff,” which we won. We had no real idea of what it would be or how fortunate we were to win. Since our knowledge of law enforcement up to that time came mostly from Lord Peter Wimsey and Hilary Tamar we thought the experience might prove insightful and even useful for future fictional pursuits, even if it turned out to be nothing more that riding around in a partrol car for several hours. The teaser for our prize was a basket filled with interesting Sheriff’s department paraphernalia including lapel pins, mugs, patches, departmental lavaliers for ID cards. I especially liked a small, accurate model of the Sheriff’s patrol car. Jodi, the Sheriff’s assistant, facilitated the background checks and instructed us to wear sensible shoes.

I didn’t know what to expect. Even the word “sheriff” was part of the problem. Perhaps it was all those cowboy movies when I was a kid. You know the kind: the ones with the one room building in the center of a dusty town occupied by an heroic (or wicked) sheriff and his deputy.

We made a point of arriving promptly at 8:30 and found ourselves faced with a modern, multi-storey complex. Basic questions such as where to park and where to go in were not completely trivial. Undaunted, we recalled D. Zero’s advice about the two “Obs” (Objectivity and Observation) and were able to deduce both where to park and where to go in. I was already regretting that I hadn’t worn my deerstalker hat.

The officer at security recognized us before we introduced ourselves and I sensed that they were prepared for us and would have promptly sent out Search and Rescue to find us had we spent more than a couple of minutes lost in the parking lot. He admitted us and we followed his directions to the second floor where we met Sheriff James M. Winder and Under-Sheriff Scott Carver.

First impressions are always provocative. Sheriff Winder, whom, we soon learned, was the chief administrator of a 1,400 member agency, was casually dressed in a white polo shirt and tan cargo pants. He’s a tall, fair native Utahn of Scandinavian extraction. Undersheriff Carver, who was dark-haired, was more formally dressed in slacks, dark shirt and tie. Winder was communicative, affable and smiled easily. Carver was just as affable but much more quiet. During our discussion he took a short cell phone call. From my own experience of the administration of large organizations I deduced that Winder was the public face of the department, dedicating most of his time representing it to the public and the county council, which controls funding, while Carver was the diligent subaltern managing operations within the agency. I now believe I was quite wrong.

The first part of our morning was spent with the detectives who are responsible for solving domestic crimes, including homicide and cold cases. Like Undersheriff Carver, they were formally dressed, professional and surprisingly congenial in light of the very difficult work they do. Even a capital crime in which there is no doubt of the perpetrator requires at least 30 man days of investigation. And much of what they deal with each day is truly terrible. Possibly no one is closer to the victims of such crimes. They took us through how evidence is tagged, the two types of crime scene videos that are made and then discussed two cases in some depth. One was a grisly family homicide and the other an instance of severe child abuse. The photographic and video portions of the presentation were graphic and, as terrible as they were, it goes without saying that they are sometimes called on to deal with much worse. I had an overwhelming sense of the squalor and banality of evil, to use Hanah Arendt’s famous phrase. They were terrible crimes committed in ordinary houses. Whether you believe that they are the result of a darkness in the human soul or a consequence of psychological disease, the terrible consequence is evil, plainly and simply.

The detective responsible for cold cases showed us the room for evidence for on-going cold case investigations. At the far end was a box labeled “Ted Bundy,” referring to the infamous serial murderer of the 1970’s. It was a silent reminder of how the consequences of such crimes, including the pain, suffering and emotional damage, cross generations. As we walked along the detective’s row of cubicles Lynn noted that every one had prominent cheerful, personal photographs of family and friends. One of the hardest and most important parts of their job was retaining a sense of balance while facing such things relentlessly, every day.

We next met Lieutenant Steve Anjewierden, a lanky young officer perfectly dressed in full uniform. My first impression was that he was no more than twenty-five years old but I soon realized that though he was a little older he was one of those few men who will still look boyish at sixty. He is responsible for the Salt Lake Area Gang Project. His PowerPoint presentation took us through the hierarchy of the gang organizations, the historical and geographical basis for their development, such as the Sureños and the Norteños, their preferred symbolism and its origins. By the end of it I had gained the ability to read gang graffiti and more importantly a better, general grasp of the scale and complexity of the problem. For example, the drug cartels in northern Mexico have mobilized the gangs as the indirect distribution channel for their drugs. The gangs are transnational, although they are often locally inflected. Managing the problem requires a comprehensive strategy including enforcement, educational programs for “at risk” kids, and other cultural opportunities that give prospective gang members viable alternatives for self definition and the sense of community that comes from joining a gang. Lieutenant Anjewierden actively works to drive all aspects forward. Though he didn’t express it, it’s more than apparent that in some of those areas there’s insufficient support and understanding among the county’s citizens.

Though I hadn’t anticipated it, much of what we were discussing and learning had important political consequences and our discussions often turned that way. None of the officers advertised their political affiliations and even now I wouldn’t want to guess which were democrats and which were republicans. What I did find was that nearly all of them, Lieutenant Anjewierden and Sheriff Winder in particular, often had surprising, incisive views that defied traditional political categorization and reflected deep and careful thought on those subjects.

Jodi joined the Sheriff, the Lieutenant and us for lunch at Café Med. My gyro plate was particularly tasty, the conversation was an interesting mix of the personal, professional and political and I learned a few interesting technical terms. For example, repeat offenders are sometimes called “frequent flyers.” I was both gratified and surprised that the Sheriff, given the scope of his responsibilities, was able to give us so much time.

After lunch, we went to jail. Corrections Bureau Chief Deputy Robin Cook gave us a tour that included the command center, the section devoted to admissions, (including the drunk tank and padded cells), the section devoted to medical evaluations and a minimum security cell block. All along the way, the Sheriff greeted other members of the agency, often by name, and made a point of discussing a recent shared experience with them and introduced us. He also greeted many of the prisoners in the same collegial, optimistic way. And I now understood that our day with the Sheriff was also the Sheriff’s day to visit several of his domains informally, to use the force of his democratic good will to let each one we met know that they were part of a important shared effort, whether they were corrections officers, maintenance workers or prisoners. The goal of that effort was to guard the safety of the community and develop better citizens. Everyone's contribution was vital and meaningful. And all that was accomplished with a few words about this year’s Thanksgiving turkey.

We were more than happy to see daylight again. Now it was time to go to the mountains, but first we stopped off for a short visit with the SWAT team, the K-9 group and Search and Rescue. As we arrived the K-9 group was training one of their German Shepherds the complex behaviors required to detain and, if necessary, stop a resisting suspect with force. It was no simple thing but the dog was very good at it. We then met the blood hounds, one of which, Molly, wasn’t more than six months old and was already being trained to track suspects over concrete and other artificial surfaces. We learned that dogs specialize in working urban grounds or rural grounds. SWAT and Search and Rescue had the best toys of course.

After a short drive up one of the canyons in the Wasatch mountains we turned off onto a small road which led us to the Sheriff’s department gunnery range, which, if you remember, is where I began. After being outfitted with “eyes and ears,” (protective glasses and protective ear phones), we went out onto the range. The first demonstration was a “flash-bang,” which is to say an explosive device that’s as blinding as a grenade, as noisy as a grenade, but does almost no damage. It’s primary use is distraction and I can say it is distracting, even if you’re expecting it and are wearing eyes and ears. Next it was time to shoot the machine guns. There were three: a Heckler and Koch MP5, an M16 and a Thompson sub-machine gun. The targets were paper with simple human silhouettes. Shooting the weapons, was challenging and exhilarating. But in a deeper sense it was awe-inspiring in the dark sense of the phrase. It was obvious that each one-person weapon, even the Thompson, a weapon almost a century old, was capable of inflicting terrible damage when aimed at another human being. Our last experience was a visit to a simulator used for training officers for the split second decisions required when weapons were involved. This time we were armed with hand weapons that were perfect replicas of their real counterparts and we had to make real time decisions about if and where to fire based on full scale scenarios projected on the wall in front of us. Once again, there was a terrible message. Life and death situations arrive in seconds and you have seconds to make decisions of equal consequence.

(Thanks to Sheriff Winder for the excellent photos.)