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 undoubtedly 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, and not because of a lofty arrogance. She spoke with a gentle directness, but was never condescending. Johnson was the type of officer who had been around the block more than once and had the stories to prove it.
Johnson 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 what was necessary to complete a background interview. 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 my internship was complete, Johnson convinced me to apply as a Police Cadet, which was one of the smaller goals she had set up on my timeline. Once I was hired as a department employee, Johnson spent much of her personal time mentoring me, along with a small group of other cadets. She went far above and beyond her duties to ensure we succeeded in our pursuit to become officers. We spent time studying radio codes, reviewing case law, and practicing scenarios. She refused to do much physical training with me because of my strong athletic background; and when we did workout, she would yell at me because I was “sandbagging”, meaning holding back from pushing myself to full potential for fear of it discouraging others.
In 2004, California was hit hard with a state budget crisis. Many public-safety agencies went on hiring freezes. Johnson was one of the few people who encouraged me to put myself through a police academy at that time so I would be a qualified candidate when agencies recovered and resumed hiring. While I was in the academy, I often remember sitting in her office complaining to her about the hell I was experiencing. Her guidance, direction, and encouragement helped me get through the most miserable ten months of my life during the academy. It was at this time that Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In 2005, I left the City of Anaheim to work for the Tustin Police Department (CA) as an officer. I will never forget the look on Johnson’s face when I shared the news with her. It was as if she was the one who got hired and was starting her career all over again. 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 as a dispatcher.
Unbeknownst to me, Johnson’s cancer had quickly progressed to later stages during my brief absence. She did not look like the same person when I returned. Johnson’s overall physical condition had completely deteriorated. Her hair had fallen out from chemotherapy treatments; she lost a lot of weight; her voice lost that commanding tone it once had; even the way she walked and moved made her appear so fragile. As a result of Johnson’s condition, she had been permanently modified to work light-duty in dispatch taking phone calls. Johnson and I often sat at dispatch consoles next to one another handling phone calls. We would have legal debates, discuss tactical scenarios for training, and tell stories of funny calls. It was actually 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. Johnson 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, Johnson 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. Johnson 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 Johnson’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 and then I received one of the worst phone calls imaginable. I was scheduled to work a graveyard shift that evening, so I was home sleeping all day, and then the phone rang. I awoke to a phone call from a supervisor at work. The supervisor had a very somber tone in her voice and there was no small talk, straight to business. She went on to explain that the department received notification from a neighboring agency that Johnson had committed suicide at her home. She called 9-1-1 from her home, but she hung up when the dispatcher answered. She did not 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 Johnson’s home, they found a letter on the front door from Johnson 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 Johnson would not be there with us.
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 Johnson than most, so of course her death deeply troubled me. I had so many questions At the time of Johnson’s death, the department did not have a “Peer Support” program; there were no Community Service Programs or Trauma Intervention Programs established at the department to help personnel; there was nothing specifically implemented to help employees process and cope with her death. I participated in what I call “occupational therapy”, meaning I kept myself so busy with work and such related projects so I would not have to introspectively examine all I was thinking and feeling. No one else talked about her death; no one else broke the silence and came forward to say they were troubled by it. Certainly then, I would look dysfunctional or weak if I admitted I was so disturbed and needed help. And so, I did what I do best: work, work, work.
Before I knew it, many months had passed since Johnson’s death that it became like a distant memory. In a way, I had become detached from it, as if that was subconsciously my goal: to somehow disassociate my feelings and maybe even blot it from memory. How could it bother me if I did not remember it or think about it? And so my workaholic treatment sessions continued, as it did for many other employees at the department I suspect. Little did I know at that time that my heart and mind were like a volcano, slumbering but ready to violently erupt under the right conditions. It was not until several years later in 2013 that those conditions became perfect under very likely circumstances for a 9-1-1 dispatcher: handling suicide calls.
Stayed tuned for My Story of Survival (Part 2): Voices Never Forgotten.