In Remembrance of Anaheim Police (CA)
Officer Kathy Johnson, 1971-2006
Like many people who work in law enforcement, I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid. That is probably thanks to my upbringing and Hollywood. My parents instilled in me a servant’s heart from a young age. While all of my friends growing up were watching cartoons, I was watching television shows like Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Hunter, and Law & Order.
Many years later in 2002, I was working to find an internship in the field of criminal justice for an educational requirement in my final semester at Biola University. I found the Gang Division at the Anaheim Police Department (CA), and that is when I first met Officer Kathy Johnson. She was slender in build, but very physically fit. The stride in her step had a purpose unlike I had ever seen, but was not so intent that she passed coworkers without saying a cordial “hello.” The tone in her voice was the type that demanded respect, but not because of a lofty arrogance. She spoke with a gentle directness, yet never condescending. Kathy was the type of officer who had been around the block more than once with the stories to prove it.
She was a new Background Investigator in the Personnel Division and I was the first applicant she was assigned to handle. As a result, she spent much more time with me than was necessary to complete a background interview for a college intern. Her passion for law enforcement was quite evident from that first meeting. She was so interested in my dream to pursue a career in police work that she helped set up a timeline of small goals for me to achieve until I had fulfilled my dream.
After completing my internship, Kathy convinced me to apply as a Police Cadet. This was one of the smaller goals on my timeline. Once I was hired as a department employee, Kathy spent much of her personal time mentoring me, as well as a small group of other cadets. She went well above and beyond her duties to ensure we succeeded in our pursuit of becoming officers. We spent time studying radio codes, reviewing case law, and practicing scenarios. It was at this time Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I was promoted to Police Communications Operator in dispatch; however, in 2005 I left the City of Anaheim to work for a neighboring city as a police officer. Yet, after four months of working as an officer, I decided the job was not for me and I returned to the Anaheim Police Department to work in dispatch. Unbeknownst to me, Kathy’s cancer had quickly progressed to later stages during my brief absence. She did not look like the same person when I returned. Her overall physical condition had completely deteriorated. Her hair had fallen out from aggressive chemotherapy treatments, she lost a lot of weight, and her voice lost that commanding tone it once had. Even the way she now walked and moved made her appear so fragile. As a result of her condition, she was permanently modified to work light-duty in dispatch, taking phone calls. We often sat at dispatch consoles next to one another handling calls, all while having legal debates, discussing tactical scenarios for training, and telling stories of funny calls. It was a lot of fun working alongside my mentor, and then one night our relationship was transformed by a robbery.
“9-1-1 Emergency”, my recording sounded off as it had thousands of times before as I answered an incoming call. The male caller was out of breath and said he was chasing the suspect of a robbery that just occurred at a liquor store. I typed as fast as my fingers could to enter information into the computer so officers could be dispatched. Kathy was sitting at the console next to me when she suddenly leaned over and said she had the victim store clerk on another line. As an officer, Kathy knew exactly what questions to ask the clerk to establish a crime and give responding officers probable cause to detain the suspect my witness was chasing. Kathy updated me with a detailed physical description of the suspect and the weapon used to commit the act. I updated her with the suspect’s direction of travel. The radio dispatcher updated responding officers to set up at perimeter positions. The suspect was located and taken into custody without incident. The clerk suffered minor injuries from being pistol-whipped, but was ecstatic to learn the suspect was located and arrested. It was one of those rare incidents where communications played a critical role in the capture of a suspect and in that proud moment I had earned Kathy’s admiration. And for the first time, she treated me like a colleague at her peer level instead of as a mentor.
Four months went by then one day I received one of the worst phone calls imaginable. Scheduled to work the graveyard shift that evening, I was home sleeping when the phone rang. It was from a supervisor at work, speaking in a very somber tone, there was no small talk. She said the department received notification from a neighboring agency that Kathy killed herself at her home. She called 9-1-1 but she hung up when the dispatcher answered. She didn’t answer the phone when the dispatcher tried calling back, so officers were sent to her home to check her welfare. When the officers arrived at Kathy’s home, they found a letter on the front door from her giving them instructions for special notifications that needed to be made to her family and our department. The supervisor wanted those of us scheduled to work that night to know ahead of time why Kathy would not be there.
I found myself swimming in a wide range of emotions doing my best just to stay afloat, like dog-paddling in the open ocean. I had a closer working relationship with Kathy than most, so of course her death deeply troubled me. I had so many questions. At the time of her death, the department didn’t have a “Peer Support” program; there was nothing specifically implemented to help employees process and cope with her death. Our debriefing that night consisted of seven dispatchers sitting around a table staring at each other in complete silence before we started our shift. I participated in what I call “occupational therapy.” Meaning I kept myself so busy with work and related projects that I wouldn’t have to introspectively examine all I was thinking and feeling. No one else spoke about her death; no one else broke the silence and came forward to say they were troubled by it. So I would look dysfunctional or weak if I admitted I was so disturbed and needed help, right? And so, I did what I do best: work, work, work.
Before I knew it, seven years had passed since Kathy’s death and it became something like a distant memory. Almost as if it was a subconscious goal, I detached from it, disassociated my feelings and maybe even blotted it from my memory. Her death couldn’t bother me if I did not remember or think about it. And so I continued to self-medicate through workaholism, and I suspect many other employees at the department did too. Little did I know at the time, but my heart and mind were like a volcano, slumbering but ready to violently erupt under the “right” conditions.
Click this link for My Story of Survival (Part 2): Voices Never Forgotten.