Editor’s Note: John Roman is a traffic officer for an Orange County police agency who recently launched a blog, Badge 415 (badge415.wordpress.com/). His posts focus on the human side of police work and safety tips. Roman, a cop for 20 years, has handled more than 5,000 accidents as a collision investigator. behindthebadgeoc.com will share some of his columns.
My first Saturday night working with Rich went down in history as a night we will never forget. There are lots of nights you never forget, but this one was different.
We were basically strangers when we were partnered up for the first time on this particular Saturday night in July of 1996.
A few hours into this shift, we had hit it off and we were having a good time. That was when we were dispatched to a house for a “keep the peace call.”
We spoke to a woman who said her boyfriend was in his 60s and had locked her out of the house. Did I forget to mention he was blind, drunk and had a gun? He hadn’t threatened anyone, but she was worried about him because this was unusual. Is it ever normal when a blind, drunk guy with a gun locks you out of the house?
We knocked on the front door and rang the doorbell, but there was no answer. I then checked the door and found it was unlocked. Hmm…if she had checked the front door we wouldn’t even be here.
I opened the door and saw an empty living room. I called out the name of the person who was inside and announced “police,” but there was no answer. It was dusk and there were no lights on in the house. The approaching darkness and the haunted house-like silence made the scene that much more ominous. I’m surprised a bat didn’t fly out.
I called out again, but still no answer. Rich and I stepped into the house, but we had a weird feeling about this. We were still too new to the job to have a true cop sixth sense, but something didn’t seem right. We walked to the left and made sure no one was in the living room. Then we walked to the right and there was no one in the dining room or kitchen.
As we walked through the house, I turned on the lights to make it easier to see. Plus, we always find comfort in the light compared to the dark. We called out the man’s name so many times he had to have known we were there unless he also was deaf. Our voices had been so loud with each announcement, he must have known we were there. The main question was why wasn’t he answering like people normally do?
My Spidey Sense was going off now as I looked over at Rich and said, “This doesn’t feel right.” Rich said he felt the same way. We agreed to leave the house and call for another officer and a sergeant. This wasn’t a normal call anymore. Not that it had started off normal.
The sergeant arrived and seemed annoyed he was there for this. I think he wanted to leave, but we told him how this call had turned into a “check the welfare” instead of a “keep the peace” call. We all walked back inside with him holding the old brick- style cell phone. We called out the man’s name again, but there still was no answer. The quiet was now a reminder that something was wrong here. The man was either dead or waiting for us.
There was a doorway from the living room to the hallway where the bedroom was. This open hallway door was adjacent to the bedroom door where we believed the man to be.
The house phone started ringing as soon as the sergeant used his cell phone to call in. I was able to hear the phone get picked up in the bedroom and then hung up as the ringing stopped. This happened twice. Now we knew this man had heard us and for some reason he was playing games.
The sergeant stepped into the hallway and knocked on the bedroom door as he called the man’s name. He announced we were the police and to come outside to talk with us. The sergeant then stepped back into the adjacent doorway with me.
I then heard quick footsteps going toward the door and the sound of a gunshot. I stood there for a moment trying to process what had just happened.
Did the blind drunk guy just shoot at us?
The sergeant stood there for a brief moment before he yelled, “Get out!” We had only been three feet away from the bedroom door and getting out was the best idea I had heard.
I started heading toward the front door with the sergeant right behind me. Rich was coming around the corner from the kitchen. We headed toward that door like it was black Friday at Wal-Mart and we were trying to beat the crowd for a $10 sale on a PlayStation.
Just as I put my hand on the screen door, another shot went off.
Holy heck, right?
Rich and I went left out the door and jumped over a small block wall. As I looked toward the house Rich said, “He shot through the f@#$% door. He shot through the f@#$% door.” It was then that I realized that the suspect had shot through the bedroom door.
I felt the need to say something funny to break the tension, so I told Rich, “F%$@# this. I’m going back to days.”
The suspect slammed the door shut and then another shot went off. At first I thought he had killed himself. Of course, that wasn’t the case because the suspect called 911 and reported he was blind and had shot at burglars. Really?
Now he was a liar with a gun. I wish you could’ve seen the look of disgust and shock on my face when dispatch broadcasted this over the radio about the suspect’s 911 call. He might have been dumb in my eyes for what he had just done, but he wasn’t stupid. Within minutes he had come up with the defense for shooting at the cops. Again, nothing about this call was normal.
After a brief standoff, the suspect finally came to the door and was taken into custody.
I was upset because he had tried to kill us. We could’ve walked away and let that woman back in the house. Maybe nothing would’ve happened. Our only intention had been to make sure the was OK because his girlfriend had been worried about him.
We went in to help and make sure everything was fine, but instead of a thank you, we got shot at. I was feeling a little underappreciated at that moment.
Right after the man had been arrested, we were told an officer with the California Highway Patrol had been killed in a neighboring city. The actual location was only a few miles from where we were.
A weird feeling came over me while on this call. A little while ago I had been three feet from a bedroom door when someone had shot through it. Rich had been down the hall from that door. Now I heard an officer had been shot and killed a few miles away at about the same time this had happened to us. The anger of the moment then turned to something else.
How were we chosen to live and not the other officer?
I think I had a feeling of guilt even though I had never met the man or knew anything about him. It wasn’t like he was 2,000 miles away and we learned of his death on the news. He had been at a Chevron gas station parking lot only a few miles away from where I had been.
I wrote the report while sitting in the car as forensics processed the crime scene. Then guess what Rich and I did after we left the house? We went 10-8 (in service) and were dispatched to another call like nothing had happened.
If this happened today, I’d like to think the sergeant or watch commander would make sure an officer in a similar situation would take a break for a little bit before going 10-8 again.
Rich and I still have this conversation about how we never should’ve been sent back out immediately after clearing that call. It wasn’t like we couldn’t handle it or needed a hug. But maybe a few minutes away from police work would’ve been best. Times were different back then. We still laugh about how tense we were on the next call, but that’s another story.
By the way, something good came out of that night. A lifelong friendship was created on that summer night in 1996 when two strangers shared a police car together for the first time.
A few years after that night, Rich stood beside me as best man at my wedding. Then later, we baptized our children on the same day as godparents to each other’s child.
Tonight, 18 years later, I sat in a restaurant and looked at our two families having dinner together and was filled with pride.
Just remember, this job isn’t always about the tragedies and the negativity. It’s about lifelong bonds and friendships.