College was a bore: the dorm smelled bad like pizza and stale socks and the kids were annoying. Dempkin had a car and he drove home every weekend to party with his friends. One night, Dempkin’s buddy was racing on the back roads drunk when he lost control and rolled the car. A passenger, another drunk kid was flung through the smashed back window and died in the ditch. Dempkin was driving on the gravel township road a couple hundred yards behind the vehicle that crashed, chasing him in a game of bumper tag. He saw the car’s headlights suddenly flip up to rake the sky, then, shoot sideways sending a beam searching the cornfields along the township road. Dempkin was inebriated himself and, so, he used his cell-phone to call 911 and, then, fled in the opposite direction so that he wouldn’t be arrested for drunk driving. He parked his car at a campground by the river a couple miles south of town and hoofed it home.
The crash was a warning to Dempkin. At the end of the semester, he dropped out of college and joined the Marine Corps. He successfully completed his Basic Training and, then, volunteered for two tours of duty in Iraq. After his service, Dempkin completed college and, then, was accepted for police officer training. A number of servicemen were seeking employment in law enforcement at that time and, at first, Dempkin couldn’t find a job. He worked as a jailer for half a year and, then, as a private security guard. A small town hired him as a patrol officer. The work was dull. But he did a good job and eighteen months later accepted a position with a police force in a mid-size city. This work was more exciting and Dempkins excelled. He took SWAT training and was assigned work on a team serving search warrants. Dempkins’ team specialized in "dynamic entry" – this meant that they busted down doors.
By statute, search warrrants have to be served during daylight hours and, so, Dempkins’ team favored
pre-dawn raids – the perpetrators were cuffed and hauled to the waiting squad cars just as the sun was peeping over the tops of the houses in the neighborhood. One morning, Dempkins’ captain had a search warrant for several bags of marijuana, guns, and money. The address was known to the cops – there had been calls to that home before involving domestic abuse and shots fired. With a four man team, Dempkins arrived in a white panel truck. The panel truck was armored and the men wore kevlar vests with visored helmets. A squad car with its lights turned off prowled the alley behind the target and rolled to a stop between garbage cans and garages: this was to block a possible escape route. The cops had shotguns and they stood next to their squad car waiting for the action to begin.
It was overcast and the Captain wasn’t sure as to sunrise. He checked his cell-phone and wrote down the official sunrise time on his pocket pad for his report. The darkness lifted a little and traffic on the nearby freeway made a moist sound like a river rushing over rocks and, then, it was light enough to read street addresses and some of the lawn signs posted for an upcoming election in the precinct. The panel truck was parked a block from the target and, when the Captain gave the signal, Dempkins and the other three men hustled down the sidewalk. Cars were parked along the road and lights shone in some of the windows. The curtains were drawn at the target house, but Dempkins could see a sliver of orange-yellow light shining through a rift in the fabric pulled over the window.
The team used a double handle tactical ram, a 35 pound Blackhawk, to breach the door. Dempkins and his partner counted down from three and smashed the front of the ram on the door’s sweet spot just beside the handle and latch. The door flew open and the team rushed inside. The house was cluttered but clean. There was no contraband in plain sight. Two little boys in pajamas were squatting in front of a TV set. Dempkins could hear another TV set playing in another room. A woman emerged from the kitchen in a bathrobe. The cops were all shouting and they proned everyone out, knocking the kids to the floor so that they were sprawled face-down in front of the TV. The woman screamed obscenities at them. A toilet flushed. Dempkins and his partner used the ram so knock down a second door – they didn’t check to see if the door was locked but just smashed it down. In the bedroom, a man wearing nothing but underpants was already lying face down on the floor shouting "Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!"
An ugly-looking white dog ambled toward Dempkins. He had dropped the monoshock ram on the floor and reached his service weapon. In another room, things were being flung about and Dempkins could hear glass breaking. A child began to squeal in a high-pitched monotonous tone. The dog opened its mouth and looked up at Dempkins and so he shot it. The animal fell on its side, kicking at the air. At that moment, Dempkins saw a small girl with her thumb in her mouth – she was only a few feet from the dead dog and Dempkins could see that she had a spray of blood from the animal on her shirt.
The search didn’t turn up anything. Dempkins used the tactical ram to smash the house’s thermostat and knock out the bathroom doors. The idea was to make the place uninhabitable. Some arrests were made, but, of course, there was nothing with which to charge the man and woman who were taken downtown. (The Department’s social worker took the children into custody.) The captain told Dempkins that he should surrender his service weapon and that he was on administrative leave until the discharge of the weapon could be fully investigated.
"Why did you shoot the dog?" the Captain asked him.
"It was a pit bull," Dempkins said. "He was lamping me."
"What do you mean ‘lamping’ you?"
"Looking me right in the eye," Dempkins said. "When a dog looks you right in the eye, it means he’s about to attack."
"No one else fired their weapon," the Captain said.
"The dog threatened me," Dempkins said.
"But no one else fired their weapon."
"Does that mean I was wrong?" Dempkins asked. "Or maybe it was others who weren’t aggressive enough."
One of the other cops took offense. "Are you saying I’m not aggressive enough?" the man bristled.
"I’m not saying anything," Dempkins said. "I want to talk to my union representative before I say anything more."
"That’s wise," the Captain said.
"That dog had his tail wagging," the other cop said.
"I saw dogs like that in Iraq all the time," Dempkins said. "Wagging their tail doesn’t mean they’re friendly. It just means that the critters excited."
Dempkins gave a statement to his union steward with a union lawyer present. He said that the dog had charged at him and, so, he had to discharge his service weapon to protect himself.
The dog wasn’t a pit bull. It was a pug and bulldog cross, an elderly animal almost 12 years old.
The shooting was determined to be justifiable. But there remained some lingering questions about use of force. Dempkins was suspended from the SWAT team pending his completion of additional training. He grieved the decision by the Chief of Police to require that he attend dynamic entry training. At a second-stage meeting, the grievance was settled – Dempkins would attend the training but documentation as to use of force issues would be removed from his file.
At the training, Dempkins was reprimanded for an argument with the instructor. During an exercise, Dempkins was assigned a secondary position, providing cover for a team breaching the door. In the hypothetical, someone fired a weapon from inside the house, through a kitchen window around the corner from the door.
Dempkins asked the instructor: "When do you teach us about laying down suppressive fire?"
"Suppressive fire?" the instructor asked.
"Yes, I would have deployed suppressive fire on the elevation of the house from which the shot came," Dempkins said. "That’s what we did in Iraq."
"That’s a military tactic," the instructor replied. "We’re cops. We don’t use ‘suppressive fire’?"
"Okay," Dempkins said. "It’s a terminology issue. I don’t care what you call it."
"No, no," the instructor said. "We don’t spray houses with bullets. There’s no circumstance where you’re authorized to use anything like ‘suppressive fire’."
They argued the point. Dempkins said that he thought the instructor was disrespecting him and his service in Iraq.
The Chief met with Dempkins and told him that he would be written-up for arguing with the instructor. The Chief also told Dempkins that he had to remain on administrative leave for ten more days.
The Chief said: "I want you to think about the difference between police work with civilians and combat."
Dempkins was angry. He spent several hours in the gymnasium at the LEC. He lifted weights, slamming down the equipment when he was done with it. At home, he quarreled with his wife. She told him that he should make an appointment to see his psychologist again and, perhaps, have his medications adjusted. This made him more angry, but he did call the Clinic and ask for an appointment.
On the weekend, he drove to his home town and looked up some old friends. They went to the bars and had some drinks. It wasn’t like old times – no one got drunk and crazy.
Jeremy was the man who had rolled the car years before. He worked at the Coop delivering propane and fuel oil. His wife was a schoolteacher and he had three small children. He sat across from Dempkins in a booth in the tavern. After eleven o’clock, the other men went home.
Jeremy ordered another pitcher of beer.
Dempkins said that he was in trouble over shooting a dog.
"You shot a dog? In Iraq?" Jeremy asked.
"That wasn’t the trouble, I meant," Dempkins said. "But, you know, I did once shoot a dog in Iraq."
"It was like this," Dempkins said. "We had been on patrol. Armored personnel carriers. It was a suburb of Baghdad. There was an IED, a car bomb. You know, I’ve never told anyone about this."
"Really?" Jeremy said. He filled his mug with beer.
"The bomb was huge, probably set off by a cell-phone when our foot patrol up ahead passed. But I was in the Humvee. Those big boys make a whoomph! Sound like to knock all the air right out of you, to compress your chest with that shock wave so you can’t breathe. There was this big deep whoomph – and the cars parked along the street just jumped up in the air, kicking about a foot off the ground. The humvee hopped on its chassis too and the driver said he had blood coming out of his ears from the concussion."
"Awful," Jeremy said.
"So we come out on the street ourselves to investigate and it was a god-awful mess. This was a part of town where you go to get your oil changed or to have a filter put in or, maybe, to buy transmission or brake fluid or gas additives, I don’t know. You see, in those cities, all the merchants or businesses that have the same kind of trade are located on the same street, right next to one another, side-by-side – I don’t know why they do it that way, but that’s how it’s organized... the neighborhood was just dozens of street-side garages and shacks where they were selling brake fluid and oil and transmission fluid, little cubby-holes that were always open except for iron bars or cages that they could pull down after work, barrels of fluids of different kinds everywhere and disabled cars and engine parts salvaged from old trucks and diesels, but, mostly, little dark garages, some of them with hydraulic lifts and barrels and barrels of oil and fluids. And the explosion had broken this all down and painted the concrete and mud walls black with oil and, also, red in places where transmission fluid had been blasted out of its drums and there was just a flood of the stuff on the street, huge pools of it, and running down the alleyways and, then, there were the casualties, mostly just little heaps of cloth and rag full of guts and burnt skin – I can still smell the stink of the burnt skin and the oil and fluid everywhere, this heavy, heavy stench of spilled hydrocarbons. It was really quite the sight to see..."
"I can’t imagine it," Jeremy replied.
"And there was this one casualty, this killed-in-action, a Marine, I guess, lying up at the street corner, at the outer radius of the blast. This guy was sort of recognizable, lying there in pieces, but the pieces were big enough that you could maybe have assembled them, you know, put together the jigsaw and have something like, I don’t know, half a man, half a torso and part of a face and some bits of bone with a foot or hand still attached. You know, the strange thing about a high-explosive blast is that its doesn’t dismember you, it doesn’t rip you apart like a cleaver or something, you don’t get blown apart at the joints – it’s weird, but the joints don’t come apart: instead, you’ll have a knee, let’s say, completely intact, pants burned away so can see the knee, but the leg is blown apart mid-thigh, let’s say, that’s where the explosion took the guy apart. So you might see a shoulder and the joint looks fine, but the shoulder is attached to part of the rib-cage and, so, you say – how is that possible? How did his body come apart like that? I’m telling you it makes no sense, no sense at all —"
"It’s horrible," Jeremy said.
"Then, the lieutenant comes up to me and says that I gotta stand watch over the dead Marine. The lieutenant says that he’s radioed for help and someone’s coming to gather up the parts of this guy, but that I should stand watch because you don’t leave a fallen comrade, you don’t desert a body particularly when you got these desert-rat dogs all around and they’ll drag off pieces of your buddy – I’ve seen ‘em do that."
"Jesus," Jeremy said. He poured some beer in Jeremy’s mug.
"So I’m standing there, really leaning on the wall in the shade, and a shopkeeper comes up to me and offers a little stool and they pull out an awning that’s hidden in mud-front of the shop to cast some shade and someone even brings me sweet-tea. And all around I can hear shouting in the alleys and rounds being fired. They’re dragging people out behind the shops, dragging them into the salvage yards, and shooting them down, but this isn’t my thing – I’m stationed next to the pieces of the corpse, sitting there on that stool with my M4 keeping watch."
"How long were you there?"
"I can’t tell you," Dempkins said. "It was a while. And, then, this dog comes up. This fuckin’ mangy dog, just like all the dogs you see over there, mutts with no breeds in them that I can recognize. The dog comes trotting down the street, panting, tongue out, tail wagging. And it gets a half-dozen yards away and stops and, you know what? the dog starts licking up the blood on the paving stones, the dog puts its muzzle down and is licking at the blood – so, then, you know what I do?"
"What do you do?"
"I shot that dog down right there in the street," Dempkins said. "I blew him away."
"Why did you do that?"
"The mutt was licking at my buddy’s blood and fixing to run off with a hand or ear or part of his face – I don’t know."
"But why did you have to shoot the dog?"
"The dog was going to steal parts of my buddy and eat them," Dempkins said.
"Couldn’t you have just shooed the dog away?" Jeremy asked.
"Are you taking the side of the dog?" Dempkins replied.
"No, of course not," Jeremy asked. "I’m just wondering why you had to kill the dog.""
"You heard what I said," Dempkins said.
"But couldn’t you have got up and just kicked the dog away?" Jeremy asked.
"I don’t know. Why would I kick the dog? I was carrying a fuckin’ M4."
"Well, could you have shot next to the dog or shot a round in the air?"
"Why would I do that?" Dempkin asked.
"To keep from killing the dog," Jeremy said. "You could have picked up some stones and pitched them at the mutt and the dog would have run away."
"But my buddy was lying right there on the street, blown to pieces," Dempkin said.
"Killing the dog didn’t bring him back, did it?"
Dempkins blinked at Jeremy: "Dude, I don’t understand what you’re saying."
Jeremy poured some more beer. "I just don’t see why you had to gun down the dog. The dog was just doing what a dog does. You’ve seen dogs pick up dead squirrels and other road kill and carry them in their mouth. I know you’ve seen that."
"So what, " Dempkins said.
"That’s what a dog’s wired to do. To pick up dead shit and eat it. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad dog or anything."
"And I’m wired to blow the motherfucker away."
Jeremy shook his head, "No, you’re not."
"I had to shoot that dog," Dempkins said.
"I don’t see how that helped anything. You could of just got up and kicked the goddamned dog away. You could have shot a round near his tail and the dog would have run off. I don’t know why you had to shoot to kill the dog."
"You civilians," Dempkins said. "You goddamn civilians. You just don’t understand."
"I guess not," Jeremy said.