The Things That Haunt Heroes

The Things That Haunt Heroes

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

It was a quiet morning as I sat at the breakfast table visiting with my brother who had stopped by on his travels. The small farming town was going through its routine when I heard a muffled whoomp not far from our house. Of course, nothing was far from our house, but this seemed too close. I jumped into the patrol car in the driveway – the car and I were the sum total of the police department – and immediately saw smoke as I turned the first corner. A storage shed across from the hardware store was already in flames.

I radioed county dispatch for our volunteer fire department to respond and heard the tones go out. As much as I love volunteer firefighters, the one thing they lack compared to full-time fire stations is response time. Forget the image of firefighters jumping into their boots and sliding down the pole to hope in their trucks. Our volunteer heroes had to get out of their fields and shops and drive to the station when they heard their pagers beep, getting their bunker gear on as they headed to the call. So, I was alone with the fire and the growing circle of looky-loos for a while. Not long after the fire department got there I was informed by dispatch that our bank had been robbed.

Our little town didn’t have the wherewithal to merit a town square, but we did have a block of what comprised the Main street. The hardware store occupied one corner to the alley, then our branch of a county bank staked out the rest of the small block. On the other side of the street were a grocery store, a café, the post office, and a mostly abandoned grocery market that was kept open by the presence of a handful of old men around a pot-bellied stove.

While I was dutifully doing an amazing arson investigation at the fire scene, the president of the bank had been held up, handcuffed and marched across the street at gunpoint, kidnapped, and dropped off five miles from town. I was exactly where the robber wanted me to be – at the commotion of the explosion and fire.

I spoke to a renowned police psychologist who told me that officers most regret the things they didn’t do, rather than things they did. Failures haunt us. That 35-year-old unsolved bank robbery three blocks from my house still sometimes keeps me awake at night.

There was the first time I did CPR, breathing into the hollow lungs of a man who remained dead despite my best efforts. Nobody could blame me, I did everything I was supposed to. But it still counted against my conscience as a failure.

A snowy crash with a child in the back seat watching his severely injured mother being extricated from the car, shouting her pain as she was placed on the stretcher. I scooped him up to comfort and warm him. Only later did I find out that he had a fractured pelvis and I should have immobilized him instead of carrying him away. It didn’t contribute to his injury, but I had let my compassion interfere with my training. It counted against my conscience as a failure.

I was lucky enough to spot the car described by a witness as the vehicle involved in a drive-by shooting. I searched and searched that car and did not find a weapon. I learned later from an informant that the gun used in the shooting was pushed up under the dashboard. I’d looked there, but not thoroughly enough. Things happen, no one’s perfect. But still, a failure to get important evidence that was inches away.

There was the burglar alarm that seemed to go off every time it rained or the wind blew. I sauntered in with my partner to take a cursory look around. In my mind, I was handling a false alarm, not a burglary. It wasn’t until I almost literally stumbled across the burglar hunkered down in the sporting good section trying to unchain and load a shotgun that I realized it was no false alarm. No excuse for that one. Happy ending, but lousy work. A failure.

I can console myself with killers I’ve arrested, the burning buildings I ran into, the drunk drivers I took off of the highways, the times I ran toward the sound of gunfire, and all of the daily drama that cops endure that makes their jobs fulfilling. But none of those things keep me awake. It is the things I failed at that intrude.