When people ask me what I remember most about my years as a police officer, they probably expect to hear stories of action and danger. But some of my more vivid memories are of situations which were not especially dramatic, but have stuck with me nonetheless. This is one of those…
It was a Sunday evening around 8:30 PM, when I was dispatched to a residence in a middle-class neighborhood. The nature of the call was a commonplace occurrence; a “911 hang-up”. A 911 hang-up could be anything; children playing with a phone, an accidental push of the ‘911 button’ on a programmable phone or even someone who was phoning North Carolina and had mis-entered the numerals of area-code 919. But then there were those times when someone in danger would call 911 only to have the “bad guy” grab the phone from them and hang it up in hopes that the call would not be completed.
It was because of this last possibility that you could never really let your guard down when responding to a 911 hang-up. On this particular night, when the dispatch center had attempted to call the number back, the line was busy, making it impossible for the dispatcher to ascertain anything further. So I was sent to investigate.
I parked my car a ways down the block from the address in question and walked the rest of the way up the street quietly, looking and listening for any indications of trouble. When everything seemed in order, I approached the front door. Then, standing to the side of the door frame, (something cops do in case anyone were to shoot through the door), I knocked. When the door opened, the “vibe” from the house and its occupants suggested no particular problem. Inside the house I could see a typical family finishing a Sunday meal.
I explained that a 911 call had originated from their address and that protocol required a police response. The family inside the home were genuinely puzzled about the call and went to examine their telephone. Meanwhile, I asked disarming questions while scanning what I could see of the residence, as I was still establishing for myself if everything was as it seemed. Upon examining the phone, it was apparent that another extension somewhere in the house was off the hook, keeping the line open. Upon realizing that, the husband and wife both looked at each other as they said, “Grandma…”
They explained to me that a relative was living in the house, a terminally-ill parent who wasn’t expected to live long. She had a phone in her room and they reasoned that she must have knocked it off the nightstand or something. I told them that I would need to check on “Grandma” to ensure that she was not in need of any immediate assistance and then I’d be on my way. Since these were nice people who’d had their dinner interrupted by a surprise visit from the police, I just wanted to take care of my duties and let them resume their Sunday evening.
I approached the bedroom and knocked quietly on the door. Since I assumed she wasn’t expecting to see a uniformed police officer, I didn’t want to startle her. I had been told that she was bed-ridden, so I opened the door myself and walked in a few steps. I could hear that her television was on, but realized that she might be asleep or heavily medicated and less than communicative. Again, assuming that she wasn’t expecting me, I started to say, “My name is Mike and I just wanted to see how you’re doing…”
But as I came into her room, I could see that she was awake and looking right at me. And to my surprise, she didn’t seem surprised to see a police officer in her room. She simply said, “Good,” and waved me towards her. I approached the head of her bed so that we could talk over the noise of the television. But she didn’t want to talk.
She kept gesturing towards her television set. “Look,” she told me, “Look…”. I couldn’t understand what she meant, but I’d been around enough medicated people to know that in their diminished state, they can struggle with communication. So I stood next to her bed and looked up at the television which was tuned to CNN. She kept pointing towards the screen while repeating the word, “Terrible.”
As she kept saying the word “terrible”, it began to dawn on me just why I was standing at her bedside. This woman, because of her grave illness and associated medications, was not able to discern televised news stories from reality. She had just watched something so upsetting that some part of her mind desperately wanted that upsetting situation “fixed”. So what does anyone do when they need help in an emergency? They call 911. And at that moment, that part of her mind, that part of her was looking right at me. She wanted that situation, whatever it had been, fixed. And there I was, the person who had answered her 911 call. I was the one that she expected to fix it.
So there I stood. All I could think to do was sit on the corner of her bed and watch the news with her for a few minutes. In that moment I just wanted her to feel as though I was taking the problem seriously. Then I stood up and told her I was going to “Go see what I could do…” and I left her room. The rest of the family had been watching all of this through the open bedroom door. They were very gracious, thanking me for responding to the call and “being so nice to Grandma”. I told them goodnight, got back in my squad car and drove off into the night.
Over the years, one of my recurring “wishes” is that I could actually do all of the things that some people think I can do. That night was one of those times.