Once, while investigating fraudulent credit card usage in a motel, I ended up getting in foot pursuit with one of the suspects. I forgot that I was carrying the damning evidence in my left hand. So when I tackled her, the suspect, seeing this and recognizing its implications for her ill-deserved freedoms, immediately seized the evidence from my hand, threw it into her mouth, and began chewing. Frustrated, I attempted to stop her from destroying the evidence by reaching inside her mouth to retrieve it.
Dumb move. (And I knew it was a dumb move. I generally refrained from doing this when suspects attempted to swallow illicit drugs, and this woman reminded me why.) She bit into my thumb so hard that her teeth nearly went down to the bone.
This was only one of several instances on the job that could have resulted in me contracting a bloodborne disease. And that’s a threat that many of us who wear a badge face every day.
In another incident, a partner officer and I stopped a motorist who exited his car of his own volition. As he walked toward me, the nature of his addiction was so readily apparent that the first thing I asked him was about the location of his hype kit. He told me that it was under the front seat of the vehicle. Assured that at least one potential threat was verbally accounted for, I had the man turnaround so I could conduct a cursory pat down search of his person for my safety. I asked him if he had any weapons or other needles on his person. He said, “No.”
At the time I was not in the habit of wearing gloves and, as I was patting him down, my hand came in contact with the right rear pocket of man's pants. I immediately felt something prick my skin. I didn't have to look to know what had happened. My finger had been punctured by one of the addict’s needles that was shoved into his back pocket.
We ended up taking the man the local hospital where we had his blood drawn—not in a manner to my liking—to make sure that he didn't have any communicable diseases. After sweating the results, I was told that I had nothing to do be worried about. This news, coupled with my own snooping into statistics and discovery that of a thousand accidental contaminated needle punctures perhaps only three percent contract the AIDS virus, gave me some degree of comfort.
I learned later that I had been worried about the wrong disease. AIDS gets all the ink, but the real cop killer among blood borne diseases is Hepatitis C.
Consider the terrible tragedy of Massachusetts State Trooper Drew C. Chandler. Chandler succumbed to Hepatitis C that he contracted 18 years earlier when he was pricked by a hypodermic syringe while searching a vehicle for narcotics.
Or consider the case of Mariano Lemus Jr. An Orange County (Fla.) deputy sheriff Lemus responded to a domestic disturbance call and was bitten by a suspect later confirmed to be infected with Hep C. Dep. Lemus contracted the disease and died a year later.
These are but two of the troopers, officers, and deputies who have contracted Hep C through conscientious performance of their duties.
To this day, there are any number of officers, both active and retired, who have biological ticking time bombs inside them thanks to their having been punctured or pierced through some professional misadventure.
While other threats are more obvious, bites and needle punctures are among the most omnipresent dangers for just about any cop, working in any capacity. And the reason is Hep C.
Hepatitis C causes cirrhosis and is the number one cause for liver cancer and liver transplants. Some 4 million Americans are infected with it. Every year, some 10,000 of these people die as a result of the disease. Compare this with the 15,000 a year who expire from AIDS and you might reasonably wonder why the disease isn’t given commensurate publicity, particularly as the number of Hepatitis C deaths is expected to triple between 2002 and 2012.
Many officers who get infected with the disease through their work nonetheless fail to get the medical coverage and treatment to which they are entitled. Sometimes, it is because the infecting episode was never identified or adequately documented. Also suspect lifestyles associated with the disease—drug usage and promiscuous sex practices—find still other cops hesitant to bring their afflictions to their department’s attentions for fear of political or social reprisal.
And some who do come forth find themselves getting the runaround. Retired NYPD detective John Croston went before a review board 39 times trying to get coverage for a Hepatitis C infection he believed he contracted through an on-duty bite. He was denied an equal number of times.
Remember, the proverbial ounce of prevention may be worth many pounds of cure. So take some precautions:
• Keep your distance from dirtbags who are determined to live down to the hygienic connotations of their name.
• If you can’t stay “hands off,” then at least be “gloves on.” Get a pair of quality gloves that is puncture and slash resistant.
• Don’t blindly feel around for articles any more than necessary. Use mirrors when checking elevated ledges; get in the habit of illuminating dark areas prior to reaching into them.
• Be cautious when handling prisoner property, not only for yourself, but your fellow officers. Double-bag if necessary and mark if you suspect possible bio-hazardous material therein.
• If you’ve any effective force option other than punching someone, use it. Splitting one’s knuckles against some sociopathic meth head’s teeth may sound rewarding at a visceral level, but can ultimately make you the loser.
• While a good scrubbing with soap and water is preferred, keep antibacterial agents on hand in case you suspect that you’ve had contact with bodily fluids. But try not to use them all the time as they can actually dry out your skin, causing the epidermis to crack and actually become more susceptible to infections.
Most of all, when you’re taking a bite out of crime, make sure it doesn’t take a bite out of you.