A bad day for police plays out like this
EDITOR’S NOTE: At 6:33 a.m. Sept. 16, Thuy Le, a 38-year-old mother of two girls, ages 5 and 3, called 911 to report that she’d stabbed her girls and tried to slit her wrists. This is an account of that morning, and its aftermath, from the point of view of two Westminster police officers who responded to the call, officer Cameron Knauerhaze and Sgt. Tom Finley.
It’s early on Starsia Street in Westminster, too early for breakfast; too early for anything, really, besides a cup of hot coffee.
But there’s no time for coffee. Westminster police officer Cameron Knauerhaze is thinking this, incongruously, as he pumps the calves of a 5-year-old girl, trying to get blood back to her heart and, from there, to her brain.
Maybe there will be a miracle, he thinks. You never know.
“Wake up, sweetheart! Wake up… ”
Knauerhaze can hear Sgt. Tom Finley saying the words, but he knows they’re more to keep the cops from falling apart than they are for the little girl. Her face is ghostly pale against dark hair.
Still, his blue wool uniform darkened with blood, Knauerhaze can’t stop pumping the girl’s tiny legs. That miracle thing.
Suddenly, the girl’s mother – her own wrists slit – jumps between officer and sergeant. They thought the woman was subdued, but she’s back, again, trying to end the life of the child she stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife. Her other child, 3, is another room; her wound less severe.
For the policemen, the moment is a form of tunnel vision. Somehow, everything else – sights, sounds, smells – is blurred out.
Knauerhaze hurls the mother against the wall. The girls are the ones who need rescuing. Their mother can be dealt with later.
Knauerhaze pushes away the horror the only way he knows how.
He clicks an imaginary movie projector in his head, flashing to a film he’s seen a thousand times.
His young nieces are practicing gymnastics. Particles of dust float through sunlight. Their small feet hit the mats with a smack. Even as he pumps the girl’s legs, Knauerhaze can smell rubber and sweat; the smell of a gym.
He keeps running the film in his head. He has no choice. It’s how he keeps the images he sees at work from swallowing everything else.
But there’s another movie kicking around in Knauerhaze’s head. And, as he works to revive the little girl, it’s not one he wants to remember.
This second movie is about another child – this one a boy, age 2. He was run over as he walked with his mother to do laundry. The driver never saw him.
That mother cradled her broken child and handed him to Knauerhaze, begging for a miracle. But that time, there was no miracle.
With the little girl, it’s not yet known.
Finley eventually sends Knauerhaze to the hospital with the girls. They need someone to be there with them. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Either way, there he sits, at UCI Medical Center, waiting to learn the fate of the 5-year-old girl stabbed in the chest by her mother.
Knauerhaze is at the hospital, hoping for a miracle, when his department calls. They’re sending a relief officer. They want him to see a psychologist.
And he goes.
Years ago, he wouldn’t have.
“You don’t want to get assigned to the rubber gun club,” he would have explained.
But his blue wool uniform has seen a lot of blood, of late, and it never really washes out.
So Knauerhaze talked to the psychologist.
Finley was called off the streets, too.
Initially, he fought it. He was working, and that helped. It sounds funny, he says, but police work actually shut out the memories of that morning – the screaming, the blood, the two little girls. When you’re the one in control, even as the world is so out of control, you see how that works.
But Finley’s boss didn’t see it that way. He “highly encouraged” Finley to see the psychologist. And Finley, defeated by rank, went; less than highly encouraged.
He wasn’t alone. Everyone who had anything to do with the call on Starsia Street – the officers, the dispatchers, the detectives, the crime scene technicians – gets sent home.
Their bosses didn’t send them home because they’re damaged or crazy, but because all of them – like all police officers – are human.
But first they went to lunch – together. They had to talk to others who would understand. And only people who were there could truly understand.
Only after that did they go home, to their lives.
At the Finley house, police work is never a topic of dinner table conversation. At work, he’s a cop. At home, he’s raising three boys with his wife. After 20 years, he likes it that way. Work is work. Home is home.
The crisis team called them both a week later, just to see if the sergeant and the policeman needed anything. They were doing just fine, thank you very much.
But thanks for calling, they said, thanks for caring.
Just call if you need anything, the crisis people tell them. They’ll be there.
Knauerhaze’s fiance gets mad sometimes because he won’t talk about the things he’s seen at work.
Sometimes he won’t talk about them for days. Sometimes never. He knows her heart is in the right place, but some things you don’t want to relive.
And some things you do. Like miracles. A few days after the stabbings on Starsia Street, doctors said the most badly wounded of the two little girls would probably live.
So Knauerhaze lies in his hammock, sips some lemonade and plays a movie in his head – the one with his nieces doing gymnastics.