When There’s No Music For You

When There’s No Music For You

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

The sensations of sight, smell, and touch are the stuff of memories – sometimes traumatic memories – in the minds of first responders. Less considered is the soundtrack that goes with the job.

One thing I missed from my TV and movie cop heroes was the lack of theme music in the background. A former partner of mine pushed “play” on his cassette player for “Another One Bites The Dust” while writing a citation. The theme from Hill Street Blues is my ringtone. And who wouldn’t want Bad Boys playing when the lights and sirens come on?

But there was no dramatic orchestral swell when I sat trembling in the dark patrol car after a close encounter. No Jaws theme as I entered a warehouse looking for an escapee who might be around the next corner. No violin swells as I carried an abused child from their home. There’s no need for adrenaline-pumping music when your own adrenaline is coursing.

There was the clatter of the old-fashioned mechanical light bar or the popping of strobe lights. The siren on a long run began to be matched by the pulsing in the ears. The panicked, high-pitched voice from a fellow officer asking for backup NOW! The rattle of empty lungs when trying to breathe for a dead man. And the sound of your own heart beating hard when you need silence as you search the woods on a foot pursuit.

There is the comforting sound of sirens in the distance when you run into a burning building or you’re trying to stop the bleeding and all the good-natured jokes about medics and firefighters disappear when you’re the one they will be rescuing.

Car crashes don’t typically sound like the sound effects produced for movies. It’s more like an explosion. And it’s a good thing to know the difference between the sound of a firecracker or a backfire and the sound of gunshots. When taking my officers to the range for firearms training I would take a moment to have them remove their hearing protection and fire off some rounds so that those who were never hunters or shooters knew the sound.

The sounds of crying and even moaning at a crash scene had a certain degree of comfort. A veteran trooper informed rookie me that silence at a crash scene was ominous. The dead do not scream.

A barking dog can tell you that a thief is in the area. A whisper tells you that someone is in fear of being discovered by their abuser. I don’t know that it is a universal characteristic, but in my experience, combat veterans’ voices on the radio become more routine and monotone when others’ voices rise an octave or two. When you hear those guys sounding calm, you’d better head in their direction because something is going down. I’ll never forget the vet who calmly narrated his high-speed pursuit, advising dispatch that the passenger was shooting at him.

I always appreciated the calm voice of the dispatcher, bringing a sense of control even when things seemed out of control. At the end of a pursuit, I ordered a passenger out of the car at gunpoint. When I spoke with the suspect later and asked him what he was thinking, he just said all he knew was that some lady cop was ordering him out of the car. I was that officer. Listening to the dispatch recording later, I realized I hadn’t developed that calm voice in crisis quite yet.

One of the worst sounds an officer can hear is the mournful, haunting sounds of the bagpipe wheezing Amazing Grace, the sounds of a 21-gun salute, the last call crackling from the radio unanswered, the somber bugling of Taps, and the silence of dozens of flashing lights in the funeral procession of an officer who died in the line of duty. Those sounds I know all too well.