Signal 27

By Ed Ducayet ’89

He thought that “helping people” was a valid reason for his career decisions, and after nine years as a police officer, he still feels that way

“You’ll never forget your first dead body.” That’s what my field training officer said to me a couple of days into my post-police-academy patrol training. In the Dallas Police Department, we go through eight months of academy, then six months of field training, followed by six months of probation riding with a partner before we’re allowed to ride solo on patrol. Field training is the part most of us dread, because it’s where you can get fired for the slightest mistake, especially if your FTO doesn’t like you.

I cycled through four FTOs in those six months; all taught me different things. The first officer (mentioned above) was the best. He taught me how to write reports suitable for use in prosecution, how to talk to all manner of people and, most importantly, how to be safe on the street. The second taught me how to goof off and have fun on the job while still getting it done accurately and efficiently. The third taught me to step back and have a real life outside the job. The fourth taught me, by example, how not to approach the job; he has since retired. Often, you can learn more from a negative example than from a positive one.

Illustration of prone body with policeman standing above

Illustration by Arthur Giron

There’s a scene in the film Training Day in which Ethan Hawke is being mentored by Denzel Washington after Hawke expresses doubts about the unethical methods the narcotics squad is using. Washington looks at him and says he can walk away right now from the elite unit, if he wants to end up like “that guy,” indicating a uniformed officer on a freeway helping a woman change a flat tire. Hawke decides to stick with the elite unit. I remember, when I saw that film (long before I ever thought about becoming an officer), thinking, “What’s so bad about that guy on the freeway?” People go into law enforcement for a variety of reasons, just as they do when they devote themselves to academics, research, finance, medicine, the military and homemaking. I always thought that “helping people” was a valid reason for my career decisions, and after almost nine years as a police officer, I still feel that way. Yes, there are some things about which I’ve grown jaded and cynical (drugs, vice and politics, to name a few). But in other respects, I haven’t changed a bit.

Which brings us back to that first sentence. I’ve lost count of how many corpses I’ve encountered over the years. But some I recall quite vividly. The first was memorable, as my FTO had predicted, though only because it was the first “Signal 27” (dead-person) call I’d taken as an officer. It was an elderly lady, most likely a natural death in her sleep, found by her son. As my FTO walked me through the procedures (contacting the medical examiner, observing the scene to ensure there were no hints of homicide, assisting the son in arranging for a funeral home), I picked up that what he was really training me to do was to observe what this man needed and help him through a difficult time. The son needed to talk, and he needed us to listen.

The second and unfortunately more memorable Signal 27 call took place on my last day of training, with the same FTO. While it’s true that you don’t forget the first body, it’s an even more horrible truth that you never forget the first dead child you see. In this case, the man and woman had had an argument, and she’d kicked him out of the apartment, then drunk herself into a stupor while lying next to her infant son, with tragic consequences. The image of that baby will be forever burned into my brain, and trying to comfort that father was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Is there a lesson in this work? Someone once said, “Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” You cannot turn off your feelings, and it’s dangerous to overanalyze situations, but achieving a balance between the two has been one of the greatest challenges of my life. I’ll let you know if I ever achieve it. Though I’m certain some of our military veterans have stories more terrible than mine (and I’ve left out the worst), I’ve seen things no human should have to see. For now, I’ll settle for helping people as best I can in what is an often unpleasant, frequently unappreciated, but occasionally quite rewarding profession.

Ed Ducayet ’89 has worked as a naval officer, librarian and opera singer. He is now a sergeant in the Dallas Police Department.