A scene from "Sunshine Cleaners," a 2008 movie following two sisters who start a crime-scene clean-up business.
We certainly don't do this job for the money. And another thing that often comes with the territory is the social exclusion and feeling that it's "us" against "them."
This leaves most of us with a deeper need. Perhaps you could even name it a "calling" for us to do a job where we get spit on, puked on, asked to search female prisoners and even stand in the bathroom with them while they use the toilet and then check in the toilet for drugs or anything else once they are done. No one would ever believe it if these responsibilities were listed as a job requirement.
Add to that one more thing. Sometimes when you're at work, stuff happens that brings up memories you buried a long time ago.
I recently watched "Sunshine Cleaning" (2008). It was a movie suggested by some of the guys I worked in the same office space with. This group of guys—yes, they are all guys—work harder than any single bunch of officers I know. They take their jobs very seriously and are exactly the people you would want to show up to help you on your worst day.
They were right. It is an excellent movie. Most of the time Hollywood doesn't get the facts right, but this time I think they got it right.
"Sunshine Cleaning" is about two sisters who start a cleaning company that cleans up crime scenes—decomp scenes, suicides, murders and everything messy. As a result of the jobs they take, memories are triggered of events they had buried. The particular event was their mother's suicide.
As officers, we're sent in first. We go in by choice because we want to. We are the ones to clear the scene, or "end" the scene if it's ongoing. Firefighters and paramedics won't even consider going in until everything is secured. We thrive on the challenges. We love the opportunity to go in on a scene and find out what happened that called us there in the first place.
While other people are busy calling us names, and girls we went to high school with judge us because "we are just cops," we go in on scenes. We take home more than a dirty, smelly uniform and boots we would not dare to walk into the house with. What we take home is our own personal memory of something we had forgotten a long time ago and filed away in a safe place. There is little we can do while on the job, if one of those memories gets triggered.
Most of the suicides I have been on have not really bothered me. A few of them stick with me and won't ever go away. There's one suicide that feels like yesterday, even though it was more than 20 years ago. It was my grandmother's. She used a .22. You can figure out the rest, because we have all taken those calls. Her death wasn't one of my calls. It was my life as a 19-year-old starting college.
Every cop I know has at least one tragedy in their past. I haven't met one yet who doesn't. I have seen enough of real life to know that it isn't just cops, it's everyone.
This brings me to the best part of that movie—the part where the lead actress realizes the real reason she does her messy job. It's the realization that what she does matters and makes the lives of the people left behind a little better. This isn't just a Hollywood concept; leading a life this way really does make the world better.
Even though it's painful to go to a scene where personal tragedy from our past is brought front and center, it's actually what makes being an officer, especially a female officer, so worthwhile.
None of the reality police shows would dare to show this, though they would love to. It would never be allowed by the management of the departments, and then the reality shows would never gain access to the officers again.
If an officer would be shown to be vulnerable and human, it could ruin the credibility of the officer and/or the department. How could anyone who is carrying baggage be an objective, professional officer? Easy. Isn't being a real person with real experiences our greatest strength?
Sure, we go through academies and get inoculated against numerous things through our training. That's what helps us be outstanding officers in the face of tragedies and high-conflict situations. But when the drama of the call is over and our shift is done, we're left trying to fall asleep with the heavy shadow of our day's work fresh in our minds.
The best and most real compensation we get is knowing that our presence on those calls made life a little bit better for the people left behind. We get a chance to bring sunshine into other people's dark lives.
We don't mind carrying this memory with us for the rest of our lives.