“It would be taboo to talk about struggling”
If you’re a cop, a lot of emotional baggage builds up behind the badge. What do you do with it?
Thu, Jul 24, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Jacob Kepler
All of these things kept coming back to him: the 3-year-old girl’s crushed eye socket, the mask-like face of a woman who had been run over by a truck, her brain laying several feet away on the curb, the dead babies, the sodomized kids, the suicides. Clarke Paris was in his backyard pool with his wife, behind the house they’d built a few years ago in a gated suburban enclave of Las Vegas, a big beautiful house with “Welcome” stenciled on the foyer wall. He started to cry. His wife freaked—What’s wrong? He said, I have to tell you something, but he couldn’t get it out, and instead he stood there in the pool and cried.
He had always wanted to be a cop. He had grown up here, graduated from Eldorado High School, joined Metro and made a solid career of it. After 16 years, he had seen a lot—he’d taken gunfire at a bar shooting, been run over on his motorcycle by a drunk driver, fought with a fugitive on the Strip while crowds watched. He’d drawn his weapon hundreds, if not thousands, of times. He had served the community well, and wasn’t finished, or didn’t want to be, but what to do with all of this baggage he’d accumulated? How was he supposed keep the pain of what he’d witnessed, what he’d experienced, tucked away and go on living a normal life?
“There is a wall that comes up, and you feel alone,” Paris says. “It happened to me. My suitcase had just filled up with stuff, and I didn’t know it until it started coming out. It happens to more cops than you know … I wanted to do something about it.”
Metro officer Troy D’Ambrosio, small-framed, neatly groomed, Peter Pan-fresh-looking in 1995, was sent alone to a house where a teenage male was apparently whacked out, probably intoxicated, violent, armed, making threats to himself and others. D’Ambrosio pulled into the cul de sac, and boom!—the suspect leaped out of the bushes and onto the hood of the squad car.
- From the archives
- In Search of the Truth (4/23/2008)
- Image is (or isn't) everything (4/09/2008)
- Beyond the Weekly
- The Pain Behind the Badge movie trailer
- Organization Providing Peer Assistance - 212-298-9111
- National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation - 866-276-4615
- Few police agencies address suicides within ranks (Associated Press, 7/22/2008)
- Shoot justified inquest determines (Las Vegas Sun, 4/12/2008)
“It was an ambush—he was pointing a gun at me through the windshield. I had my hands up, knowing, that’s all she wrote …
“I felt despair. Then anger. Then a flash of almost an arrogance, thinking, I’m a cop, how can he do this to me?”
The 17-year-old suspect tapped the barrel of the gun on the window.
“I yelled, ‘Drop the gun!’ I started firing rounds right out my window. ‘Drop the gun!’
“The whole thing was like extreme slow motion to the point of just eerie,” D’Ambrosio says today, a much more seasoned cop, a much more seasoned man, but still unable to stop the adrenalin from gushing when he recounts the incident.
“Everything was in freeze-frame, that slow. The last bullet that I fired, it was floating, it was so slow. It looked like a comet; it had a trail. When it got a foot from him, I could see his hand there, and I thought he was going to block the bullet. When it hit him, I remembered seeing a wave of blood. It hit him in the back of the neck. I could see the kinetic energy moving through him. I felt like it was forever.”
Somehow, he called for backup, although his memory of that is sketchy. He shot the suspect five times and got out and wrestled him to the ground in a melee of blood that would still be on his uniform that night when he went home to his shocked wife and parents.
“I was carrying a .40-caliber, which is loud, and I don’t even remember hearing it,” he says. “I got him in custody, and then you sit there and second-guess yourself—did I do something wrong?”
A swarm of officers arrived. Then-Sheriff Jerry Keller reassured the young officer, “That’s what he gets for pointing a gun at my cops,” and it made D’Ambrosio feel better, because what had he done?
The next day, when D’Ambrosio went through the protocol of listening to the cop-radio recording, he learned that it was 32 total seconds from beginning to end, from when he radioed his approach to the house till the shooting was over. The suspect survived, but lost mobility in his arm and leg.
“It was just devastating,” D’Ambrosio says.
Unable to sit still in his own suffering, Paris began digging around to find out what other cops had done when the carnage of their jobs took over. He learned this from the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation: Every 17 hours, a cop kills himself in America. Every 53 hours, a cop dies in the line of duty as a result of a felonious crime. Between 1997 and 2007, 4,900 cops committed suicide in America; 1,800 were killed in the line of duty.
How’d you like to have this one rattling around in your brain: You respond to a burglary in progress—a guy kicking in car doors or somesuch, and you approach him in an alley. He’s sizable. He resists arrest. So you go to the ground with him, wrestling, wrestling, wrestling, trying to get his hands in the cuffs for what seems like an impossible amount of time—how can he be this strong?—and you have him face-down, and pull that arm around, and you can hear his shoulder ripping, and finally, he’s done. Cuffed. So you sit him up on the pavement, hands locked behind his back, and when you’re up and turned around, he’s dead. Just dead.
“The cause of death was severe cocaine intoxication,” Metro Sgt. Ruben Hood says of this, which is his story, his little package of hell, which he keeps in his brain with a heaping pile of others. “But there was a family somewhere that was grieving, and you can’t help but think, if we had not crossed paths maybe he’d still be alive?”
Hood is a big, baby-faced man. He took to drinking, and to fighting with his wife and drinking more. Like all cops after such incidents, he went to see the department’s counselor, but he lied and said he was fine—because that’s what cops are supposed to do, right? Rub some dirt on it and get back in the game.
“There’s definitely a macho attitude,” says Hood, who, like many cops, has spent a lifetime honing the tough-guy image: He went from high school football to the military to being a correctional officer to Metro. “Police departments recruit Type A personalities. You definitely have to have a level of aggression. The cop culture itself is that way—it’s a badge of honor to work in a hard area.
“It would be taboo to talk in any form about struggling,” he says.
In his 16 years of law enforcement, Hood has wallpapered his subconscious with this: a 14-year-old shot himself in front of him, splattering him with brain matter and splattering the hot hood of the patrol car, which cast off a smell he cannot expunge; he cradled a man who had a buck knife stuck in his chest, and assured him he’d be okay, knowing full well the man would die; he pulled a mother away from her dead 12-year-old son, who had a heroin needle still dangling from his arm—“I will never get the sound of her screams out of my head.”
While on leave in the weeks after the death of the suspect he had wrestled to the ground, he lost it. “After every critical incident, you put another brick up. Eventually, it explodes, but it never comes out one brick at a time.”
Hood, a husband and father, planned to kill himself. For several weeks, he worked out the details in his head. He would wait till his wife was away, and shoot himself in the side yard, on the cement dog run, so that it could be easily cleaned up later.
What is immediately striking about Clarke Paris is his openness. From the first phone call, he makes himself painfully vulnerable. I ask if I might meet him, and he says sure, and gives me his home address and the gate code, and when I arrive, he walks me inside to the kitchen, talking all the way: I have seen so much, all of these guys have. It’s hard to ask for help; you don’t want to be seen as weak. So many cops have spoken to me about it privately, and so many have thought about suicide—too many have done it. People need to understand we are human. This culture needs to change.
He introduces me to his dog, an old golden retriever laying at his feet. He offers me water. We are broaching the subject of the circled-wagon machismo of cop culture, the way cops are taught to keep their emotions to themselves, react nearly robotically at the scene, tough it out, keep it quiet. We are broaching the subject of why the public fears cops and vice versa, of why, specifically in the Valley, there is increasing resentment, distrust, between the public and the police. And Clarke Paris has thrown open the door to his lovely home and brought me, a total stranger, a member of that public, a member of the media, right into his nest to talk about his assorted agonies and what’s wrong with the prevailing police attitude.
Surely he has his own agenda. It seems so off-script—don’t cops hate media? Especially after the press’ feeding on Henderson PD’s shooting of the ice-cream lady?
Plenty of us fear cops, if you want to be honest. We’re sure that cops are trigger-happy, swaggering, doughnut-eating, power-mad good old boys who very rarely have our best interests in mind. We are suspicious of the thin blue line and the racial profiling and the use of force and the way they do things by some book that makes no sense and has never been explained to us and makes us enemies, somehow.
Paris keeps talking, so much to unload, the kids saw their mother’s dead body, etc., keeps his water-blue eyes on me, and when I squirm and look at my watch, he talks faster. He says numerous things I believe to be tempests, but the mere fact that he’s saying them, spilling them, explaining, instills in me a desire to protect him, however impolitic, a desire I’m none too comfortable with, because now who’s the patsy? Now who’s complicit? I should investigate this guy, I think.
How has it gotten this way, that we should be so suspicious?
I remember when I first heard of the February 12 shooting by Henderson Police Officer Luke Morrison of ice-cream lady Deshira Selimaj. Unbelievable, I thought. The cop must’ve panicked, at the very least. And we—public, media—seized on it, because we should, because we do have a responsibility to keep things in check. And the boys in blue circled the wagons tightly, and the law gave us a wholly unsatisfying coroner’s inquest, and we were left distrusting each other, doors closed, the end. We still don’t really know the whole story of Officer Luke Morrison.
“I couldn’t imagine the stress he must feel, being thrown under the bus,” Hood says. “Armchair quarterbacks are the ultimate cowards. He’s been eviscerated …
“Cops circle the wagons, and that makes the culture more insular, telling them, ‘Screw the public, you did the right thing,’” Hood says. “But that helps build the wall.”
He goes on: “The citizens don’t expect us to be human. With police and citizens, it’s us versus them. People want us to protect and serve and get out of their lives. I’ve heard people say we aren’t allowed to act human. It kind of reinforces our own policy manual, which says if we curse [at a subject in frustration], we get disciplined. If we react as humans, our policy can be brutal.”
In his despair about the quiet social pigeonhole reserved for cops, Paris started reaching out. He wanted to find other cops who had been there, and crack everything open, and let cops talk and get help. He decided to make a documentary video that he would, he figured, share with other departments, maybe even the public, to educate both sides about the suffering cops go through. He sent an invitation to participate to 50 police departments around the nation—anyone out there who will share their stories?
Of course not. He flew, on his own dime, to New York, to California, to Ohio, meeting with department chiefs, explaining his mission: to help cops. “They’d say, ‘We support what you’re trying to do, Clarke, but it’s not going to help us recruit to be a part of that project.’”
Two percent of police departments nationwide have specific suicide-prevention programs, according to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation. For its part, Metro has PEAP—Police Employment Assistance Program, where police officers can get private referrals to counseling, and, just as importantly, can confide in another cop, PEAP Director Tom Harmon, without getting roasted. Paris, Hood and D’Ambrosio all give credit to the PEAP program for directing them toward help.
Elsewhere, Paris says, some departments lack similar offerings, so the notion of helping this guy from Vegas make a movie about breaking down the hardcore image of cops didn’t sell easily.
“It’s the chiefs’ job to protect their cops,” he says, “so I understood. It’s like, ‘You want to talk about your guys committing suicide?’ ‘Nope.’”
So Paris approached cops outside of the departments, while they were off-duty, and began working websites for the police community and raising some cash for his mission. And, of course, he plumbed Metro for anyone who had the guts to talk in the hopes that they’d help someone else.
“A lot of cops are afraid they’ll be perceived as weak,” he says. “A lot of departments didn’t want to put their neck out there.”
“The No. 1 stressor, in all my years of dealing with these guys, is the need within police officers to keep up the facade of being a cop,” says PEAP Director Harmon, in The Pain Behind the Badge, the DVD that took Clarke Paris 18 months to make and has just been completed. D’Ambrosio and Hood are two of three cops who told their personal stories; the other is NYPD Officer John Figueroa.
“When you think of what a cop faces … You combine all of that with what society and what police officers tell themselves, that ‘I have to keep up the strong image, I’m not allowed to feel bad about the stuff, because if I do, what are people going to think?’… We think we have to keep up this constant image,” says Harmon.
“I’m sure I’ve seen over 600 DOAs in my career,” D’Ambrosio says.
“That smell is something that will tattoo itself on your conscious. It’s horrendous. You get flashbacks of that smell. You gotta press on, you gotta do the job.
“I’ve seen five people actually blow their brains out. You don’t believe it. It’s surreal. You’re like, ‘Did he just shoot himself? He just shot himself.’
“You really get numb.”
At night, for months and months after he had shot the 17-year-old, D’Ambrosio had this dream: The kid is coming at him, D’Ambrosio fires at him, and then the kid says, “You’re out of bullets, aren’t you?” and D’Ambrosio nods, yes, and knows he’s going to die, and wakes up yelling and sweating.
The whole thing threatened to ruin his career and his marriage.
“When I had my moments of weakness, especially with cops, I would pack it in. I thought I was doing the right thing. And I didn’t want to burden my wife,” he says. The two finally got counseling when she contacted PEAP. And that, he says, is the point of Paris’ video: education for both cops and the public.
“The key about the video is that you are not alone,” he says. “There is help. You are not weak. The alternative is you destroy yourself.”
Still, D’Ambrosio loves being a Metro patrol cop.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love my career,” he says.
Likewise, Hood still embraces his work, which now takes place in a Metro office.
“I think [the DVD] will be a little slow to get off the ground, but they’ll eventually see it’s okay,” Hood says. “No one will say it to my face, but I don’t care if I’ve been ridiculed or criticized for participating.”
“I can’t say whether anyone will criticize them [Paris, Hood, D’Ambrosio] for doing this, but what I would say is anybody that looks at that negatively and criticizes them, it would reflect more on them [the speaker],” says Detective David Kallas, director of government affairs for Metro’s police union, Las Vegas Police Protective Association. “These guys decided it was more important to try to help their successors to understand. To help. So if what they’re doing helps one person, that’s good, that’s what we do.”
But, Kallas says, he’s not optimistic that a kinder, gentler internal cop culture is imminent. Bravado is ingrained in the profession.
“It starts Day 1 when you learn ‘command presence,’ which means that when you are in a situation, you are able to take control of it. When that’s embedded in your mind, it gets tough to take it away. It has to be a part of your makeup.
“In our field, if you become emotional, it’s considered a weakness.”
As Kallas talks, he comes up with the inherent conflict in this issue: “We don’t want to see weakness in our fellow officers. Certainly the public doesn’t want to see weakness in us. … But then, it’s human nature to have weakness.”
And that, it seems, is the ongoing struggle for cops and the public they serve—if the brick wall were to come down publicly, what then? Would our cops be too touchy-feely? Owning up to mistakes, to feelings, to imperfections? Do we want them to project openness? Or are we more comfortable with stoicism?
It’s a hot July day in Las Vegas, and Clarke Paris’ wife and kids are splashing around in the pool, which he can see through ample windows in the back of his living room and kitchen. Paris, tan himself, wearing a crisp white T-shirt and jeans, is hand-labeling envelopes with letters to different police associations and agencies telling them about his project, asking them to participate in an effort to break the silence.
After that, he will address 50 boxes containing his DVD to national media outlets: Larry King Live, Dr. Phil, The Today Show, CNN, ABC, MTV, America’s Most Wanted, Spike TV—he will send eight to Oprah at various agents’ addresses.
“Statistically speaking, I would think someone would call to talk to me,” he says.
Metro Sheriff Doug Gillespie viewed the DVD, and told Paris he supports the work—“That’s huge,” Paris says—and his name is at the end: “Special thanks to Sheriff Doug Gillespie, Undersheriff Rod Jett and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for their help, commitment and resources.”
Paris is putting together a proposal for teaching an in-service class to Metro officers on dealing with emotional stress and confronting the hard-nosed culture.
“I’m not saying everybody needs a group hug and we should sing ‘Kumbayah,’” he says.
“But people misconstrue courage. Courage is complicated.”