On February 2, 1983, I was part of a group of Los Angeles County Sheriff's academy cadets that toured the County morgue. The rationale given by our drill instructors was that it would help desensitize us to the inevitable trauma we'd encounter later working patrol.

And so we walked from one coroner's room to the next and from one freezer to another. We smelled death and chemicals. We saw dead bodies in various states of dress and distress. We witnessed autopsies.

Forever locking in many of the day's images was an event that actually occurred two days later: pop singer Karen Carpenter's death. With it came the realization that the body of the girl who'd so beautifully sang "Close to You" and "We've Only Just Begun" would be handled just as unceremoniously as the others I had seen. Somehow, it didn't seem right.

But there was something else that registered with me, as well: a gallery of photographs posted on a wall.

Sandwiched between images of bloated and naked bodies of overdosed celebrities such as Janis Joplin and John Belushi were photographs of victims of some of L.A.'s most infamous killers, including the Skid Row Slasher. The Sunset Strip Killers, the Hillside Strangler, and Charles Manson.

Nothing during my subsequent career with the sheriff's department gave me reason to indict the wisdom of such tours; I believe it did desensitize some deputies enough that they didn't freeze up or fixate on subordinate concerns when exposed to similar scenes in the field. But long after I'd forgotten other horrors since encountered, I can still see those morgue pictures.

Why had they been taken and posted on those walls? A peculiar desire for coroner's employees to show off what they'd borne witness to? A means of leveling the playing field between the rich and poor after death? Or was it merely a desire to appease another's odd curiosity?

As years have passed, I have more and more subscribed to the possibility of the latter. Hell, the success of my lead herein hinges on exploiting a reader's morbid intrigue. Really, I could be more to the point, no?

Well, let me get to it then.

Many people, whether or not they want to admit it, have a peculiar fascination with dead bodies-cops included.

This was particularly true of me in my youth. While it's not a particular fun or pleasant thing to acknowledge — let alone discuss — it's the truth. And I am being no less candid when I say that I wish I could eradicate some images from my memory: Caveat spectator.

If Socrates thought the unexamined life wasn't worth living, it would appear that some cops believe the unexamined death isn't worth dying for. If you've worked patrol for any period of time, you've seen them, rolling by your crime and accident scene to examine the sad aftermath of some sentient creature's preternatural demise.

But I do hope such cops think twice before whipping out their handy dandy iPhone camera and taking pictures of the sight that greets them.

More than one cop has already gotten himself in trouble for such lapses in judgment.

Pictures taken by a California Highway Patrolman of Nikki Catsouras' mangled body ended up on the internet, precipitating the loss of jobs, filing of lawsuits, and some all around bad publicity for the department.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey similarly condemned one of his subordinates for personal photos at a particularly gruesome accident scene.

"I think it's pretty sick to take pictures of crime scenes when it's not part of your job," Ramsey said. "It's ghoulish."

I wish I could in all good conscience speak with similar outrage. But I can't. Back in the eighties, I kept a Polaroid camera with me, and so this is once again the wino telling you not to drink instead of the preacher.

Even if one could somehow rationalize his way around such ghoulish behavior, it carries with it too many risks. And one day, regardless of whether or not such pictures fall into the wrong hands or cause yourself any other grief, you may well regret taking them. I know I do. Besides being grossly insensitive on my part, it was also stupid and immature, and it would be no less so now.

I try not to be too pious on things because throughout my life I've committed some of the biggest bone-headed mistakes that a person can make. I just hope that one day someone out there reading this will think twice before starting his own morbid collection.

For with age and maturity, he may reevaluate having taking such photo's and have a difficult time reconciling such acts with his humanity

And believe me, that prospect ain't a pretty picture.

Related:

Crime Scene Photos: Show Some Common Decency

Author

Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio
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