Friday’s Heroes: Remembering the Fallen

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Corporal Stephen J. Ballard, 32

Delaware State Police

April 26, 2017 – Corporal Stephen Ballard was investigating a suspicious vehicle when one of the occupants opened fire, wounding him. Corporal Ballard attempted to find cover but the attacker chased him and continue to fire his weapon, wounding the officer several times, including after he’d fallen to the ground. The suspect fled and barricaded himself inside a home where he later died in an intense shootout with police.

Corporal Ballard is survived by his wife and daughter.

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Sergeant Meggan Lee Callahan, 29

North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Division of Prisons

April 26, 2017 – Sergeant Meggan Lee Callahan was attacked and killed by an inmate who was already serving life in prison for another murder.

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Effects of Hanging and Strangulation

Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon. The United States government used them as a means of execution, the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing about him.

Most writers who’ve penned death by rope or other “twisted” cord have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). And that, of course, makes the task a little more difficult, having to rely on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why and how something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a human life.

The neck, although looking pretty sturdy perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.

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After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. There’s not a lot of protection surrounding those vital body parts. There’s no bony encasement, such as our ribs, that circle the interior of the neck. Nope, it’s basically nothing more than a little muscle and skin separating the spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels from harm.

Did you know that hanging is actually a form of strangulation? Well, sometimes hangings may include some spinal cord or bone injury, but basically the death is by strangulation.

Hangings are either complete (the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck), or incomplete, where a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor.

A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, disconnecting the head (internally) from the body.

A separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture.

Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete, external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6-feet tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet or more before the rope tightens.

The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.

Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death is normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which causes loss of consciousness followed by a loss of muscle tone and finally arterial and airway obstruction. Naturally, other things occur during the time of strangulation, but those listed are probably of the most concern for writers.

However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts strangle/choke holds often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness. The trachea (windpipe) is not compromised during the application of these techniques.

This post-autopsy photo below (note the stitching of the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left).

The murder weapon was an extension cord, the typical cord found in many homes.

To help orient – the head is to the left, just outside the upper edge of the photo. The Y-stitching begins at the bottom left  (upper right shoulder area) and continues to the mid chest area where it’s met by a like incision that began at the upper left shoulder area (upper area of the image) and continued to the chest center. The incision continued down to the area below the navel (bypassing the bellybutton).

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The complete “Y”

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The above image is not of the mysterious Bill Bailey. No, he’s still missing. Perhaps “Frankie and Johnny” know of his whereabouts. Ah, how many of you know what the heck I’m referring to in this half-baked riddle?

*This particular autopsy was conducted in the state of Ohio, where procedure may vary from the area where your story is set.

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Recidivism: Where And How Does It End?

It’s often been said that the jails and prisons in the U.S. operate on a revolving door system, with many of the same prisoners returning to incarceration time after time after time. Sadly, that’s a mostly true statement.

With nearly 2.5 million people crammed into U.S. prison and jail facilities, or on probation or parole—3,789,800 on probation and 870,500 on parole (2015 stats), well, that equals to approximately 1 out of every 37 people in the U.S. is currently under some sort of supervised correctional status.

Yes, America can proudly boast (note the sarcasm) that we hold 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s a pretty staggering number considering the U.S. accounts for only 5% of the world’s population. Those numbers don’t mean much, you say? Well, let’s approach from another angle … our wallets. Each year the U.S. spends between 74 and 80 billion dollars on incarceration. That’s BILLION dollars.

Sure, most citizens don’t want to be bothered with felons and other law-breakers. You know, out of sight/out of mind. But it’s not quite that simple. You see, Isaac Newton had the right idea when he mused, “What goes up must come down,” because the same applies to prisons, jails, and inmates—what goes in must come out. That’s right, the majority of people sentenced to jail or prison must be released at some point, and those former prisoners are generally released back into their former communities.

What happens to former prisoners when they do finally make it back to their old neighborhoods? That’s a question most people don’t consider because the ex-con’s troubles don’t pertain to “most people.” Unfortunately, though, an inmate’s troubles affects everyone. Remember the 80 billion dollars it costs to incarcerate and supervise those millions of prisoners? Well, U.S. taxpayers are responsible for paying that whopping bill.

Doesn’t it makes sense that we should try to address the problem instead of throwing good money on top of bad? Obviously, incarceration isn’t always the correct answer to every case, because many offenders just keep coming back after they’ve “paid” their debt to society.

Let’s address recidivism and why I think it occurs so often. First of all, I have many years of experience working in both corrections and in law enforcement, which means I’ve seen the system in action, from all sides. I’ve also owned a business where I employed a few former inmates, men who’d received prison sentences resulting from my investigations. Ironic, huh? Yes, I honestly believe in second chances.

What do former prisoners face upon their release? (these may vary depending on location)

1. They must, on a regular basis, check in with a probation or parole officer.

2. They must have an established residence.

3. Drug and sex offenders must register with the local police, advising officials where they’ll be residing and working.

4. They must maintain employment (in some areas this is a discretionary requirement imposed by the court).

5. They’re required to complete a monthly report detailing their earnings, address changes, if any, employers name (probation officer will visit the job site and home), drug offenders must submit to urine testing, all must submit vehicle information, record of purchases (many probationers may not possess credit or debit cards), and they’re encouraged to further their education.

The above sounds reasonable until you consider the vast majority of employers absolutely will not hire felons, and, in most instances, drug offenders are not eligible for student loans or other such perks we all enjoy. In fact, many felons are legally banned from working in certain professions, such as:

  • airport security screener
  • armored car crew member
  • bank teller
  • child care provider
  • delivery driver
  • health care positions with direct patient contact
  • public safety officer
  • residential installers
  • apartment or condo maintenance
  • jobs that require handling money

Even when a felon finds a job he is subject to a list of restrictions, including (this is only a partial list, and it may vary from area to area):

  • Agents /officers must be allowed to visit worksite and/or speak with a supervisor to discuss client’s performance, progress, and accountability
  • Cannot work in a position that serves alcohol
  • Cannot work with minors
  • Cannot work with vulnerable adults
  • Employment must be within or close to a supervision district so that agents may visit the worksite
  • Not allowed to use or have contact with devices that host a computer modem (i.e. any device that can access the Internet)
  • Cannot travel outside area or state (affects delivery drivers)

A few professions do hire convicted felons, but the list is short. And, this is still entirely up to the company. Some do not employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes.

Professions often available to convicted felons:

  • Warehouse work
  • Maintenance and janitorial positions
  • Food service (no alcohol)
  • Production and manufacturing
  • Assembly
  • Construction
  • Landscaping

In addition, many convicted felons are banned from living in publicly assisted housing (section 8).

So, you see, without a job, or with the limited occupations to choose from, and without housing and educational opportunities, it’s darn tough for a former prisoner to make it on the outside.

To top it all off, the convicted felons never actually “pay their debts to society.” The stigma of being a “convicted felon” hangs over their heads for life. This is especially true for those who were convicted of federal offenses. Some states allow convicted felons to vote in elections (others do not). Still, felons, even one-time first offenders convicted of minor, non-violent felonies lose their right to own firearms and other weapons, their right to vote, student loans, housing, etc. And these restrictions are for life.

Wouldn’t it make sense to give the non-violent offenders a second chance, by removing the “convicted felon” status after, say, 10 years of living a productive, crime-free life. At least then they’d have the opportunity to return to school, live in better neighborhoods (away from criminal activity), find a decent job that would help support their families and take better care of their children, who, by the way, also suffer by being forced to live in poor conditions.

Having a second chance and goals to work toward could be part of the solution to the “prison problem” in this country. Now, I’m not talking about hardcore career criminals and repeat offenders. Nor am I including violent offenders. Most of those thugs need to remain behind bars for as long as we can keep them there. And I certainly don’t believe that every inmate would take advantage of the opportunity if presented to them. But there would be many who would work hard to achieve the goal and finally be able to put the mistake behind them for good.

If this helped keep just a small portion of the recidivists out of prison, the results could be huge. Families could remain together, children would grow up with two parents in the home, employers might find top-notch employees, the former inmates could become better educated and productive members of society, and taxpayers would save approximately $30,000 per year per inmate. Not to mention that instead of costing taxpayers, the non-recidivist would become a taxPAYER.

New York City is set to begin a program that offers guaranteed employment to each of their 8,500 inmates as they leave jail. These jobs are to be short-term, low skill level employment—cooks, restaurant bussers, or construction flaggers, etc.

The $10 million program will apply to inmates no matter what crime they’ve committed, even if they’re on the sex offender registry. Everyone gets a job. Everyone, including murderers, rapists, robbers, and …

I’m not sure the New York City plan is the best idea in the world, but they’re making an effort to address the issue. While not the most well-thought-out plan, it could still give former prisoners a much-needed boost of confidence, self-worth, and desire to do better. It could also go a long ways toward reducing the intense shame many feel after their release.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. What do you think? A second chance for some, or lock ’em up and forget about them? Remember, though, most of those who go in must come out at some point.

Of course, there is the issue of private prisons that have contracts with the government … contracts that promise a minimum number of inmates will be sent their way. We must also remember that the private prisons are a big, money-making industry with stockholders.

And then there’s the food industry that makes a bundle off the prisons. And the construction companies, the jobs for officers, stock brokers medical staff, administration, the vehicle contracts, the weapons contracts, dog food (canines), condiment sales (I once sat next to a woman on a plane who was on her way to a huge nationwide prison food convention. She was in charge of condiment sales to prisons and jails—packets of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, along with napkins, and sporks—a multi-million-dollar industry).

Let’s not forget the prison phone systems, where a collect call can go for fees as high as nearly $300 for just one hour of conversation. Think about it for a second. A call for a kid’s birthday, a mother’s sick, etc. $300 for an hour of family time is a tough expense for most families.

A portion of that whopping phone bill goes back to the prison in exchange for a contract with the provider. Again, it is the family who shoulders this burden since inmates don’t earn anywhere near enough money to cover the expense, yet, officials encourage strong and regular family contact.

Anyway, you get the idea.

By the way, Corrections Corporations of America stock was up at the time of this post, at $34.70 per share. The “people business” is certainly booming when others are failing miserably …

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Use Common Sense: Avoid Mindless Superheroes

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Today, when your keystrokes guide your protagonists through the perils that go hand-in-hand with saving the day, pause for just a moment and consider the lives of real-life officers. Do your characters measure up to a human officer’s abilities? Have you over-written the character? Are they mindless superheroes like the one in the photo above? Have you given them human emotions? Is the danger level realistic? Are they believable?

Think about what you’ve seen on this site for the past few years—cordite, uniforms, handcuffs, Miranda, Glocks, SIG Sauers, edged weapons, defensive tactics, etc. Where do I get my ideas? Well … mostly from the mistakes I see in those books I read (smelling cordite, thumbing off safeties when there aren’t any, etc.).

I read a lot. A whole lot. Book after book after book, including tons of books written by readers of this blog. Just this past weekend I was pouring over the pages of a wonderfully written book when suddenly a paragraph stopped me dead in my tracks. So I backed up to re-read the last few lines to make certain that what I’d read was actually on the page and not my mind playing tricks on my tired eyes.

Nope, there it was as plain as day. One of the most impossible, unbelievable ways to kill ever written (I won’t go into detail because the book is very new). Then, to make matters even worse, the scene was followed by a few more paragraphs containing incorrect information about the weapons and materials involved in the goofy slaying. Not even close to realism.

Now I have a problem. I really liked this author’s voice. It was fresh, new, and exciting. However, I doubt that I’ll have the courage to pick up another book written by this particular author. Why? Because he/she didn’t bother to check facts. The author didn’t even make an effort to use common sense. I wondered if they’d ever seen a real-life cop.

One of the best thriller writers of our time, Lee Child, writes some pretty over the top action, but he does so in a way that makes us believe every word, even though some of it probably couldn’t happen in real life.

I once asked Lee how much research he conducts before writing his books. His answer … “Better to ask if I do any research before I write the last word! I don’t do any general research. I depend on things I have already read or seen or internalized, maybe years before. I ask people about specific details … like I asked you what a rural police chief might have in his trunk.  But in terms of large themes I think it’s difficult to research too close to the time of writing … research is like an iceberg – 90% of it needs to be discarded, and it’s hard to do that without perspective.”

So how does Lee make all that wacky action work? He uses common sense. Well, that and more talent in his little finger than I have in my dreams.

So yeah … common sense.

Please don’t write mindless supercops.

Hillbilly Hero

And NO cordite!!

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Behind the Badge and Over the Hill

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Over the hill, they said. The nerve of those youngsters, with their shiny round faces and buzz-cut hairdos. Why, it was just ten or fifteen years ago when I could deftly place sixty rounds dead-center of the target, leaving nothing but an irregularly-shaped and tattered fist-size hole.

I could read a rear license place from a distance of twenty car lengths or more. And I could chase a punk for miles and then bring him down and handcuff him, like a rancher ropes a steer.  Toe-to-toe and fist-to-fist, I could hold my own against any combative man, or woman.

Push-ups … could do them all night long.

Pursuit driving … piece of cake.

Now, mere days after receiving my thirty-year service pin, well …

Each time I lift my left foot to put on a sock, there’s a strange and quite sharp pain that shoots through the hip on the same side. So I’ve resorted to slipping the sock over my foot while it’s flat on the floor. This works okay, but leaning over far enough to reach my toes tends to cause a painful twinge in my lower back.

Tomorrow we’re scheduled to re-qualify at the range. I hope I score the required 70%. Otherwise, you get a second try at it before the department sends you packing. Can’t shoot, can’t be a cop. Simple as that. The last time I was there I sort of pointed my gun at where I thought the middle of the target should be and then hoped for the best. I scored 72%. I was just happy I passed and was able to keep my job.

Either bad guys are getting faster these days, or my old legs have decided they no longer care if we catch them or not. And my breathing … wow, when did all that wheezing start? I used to be able to run ten miles without feeling as if my inside were about to explode into tiny bits of fire.

Speaking of getting faster. Today’s crooks must be driving super-fast, souped-up cars because I can’t seem to keep up during pursuits. They dodge and weave and glide through traffic like an olympic figure skater slips and slides across an ice rink. Me, my movements are herky-jerky, at best. I think the patrol cars they give us these days are designed to resist quick steering and acceleration. And they definitely prefer to move along at slower speeds than the cars we used to drive twenty years ago. Man, those cars could cut through traffic like a freshly-honed paring knife slices through butter.

Police supply companies have lost all my respect. Believe it or not, they’re cutting corners like all other businesses. The shoes they sell us are horrible. I say this with authority. Yes, I know what I’m talking bout. These two feet of mine are screaming at the end of the day. I know, without a doubt, it’s the shoes. My feet are not to blame. Sure, there’s a little arthritis in the toes. Still … It’s the shoes.

It seems like just yesterday when I put my hands on someone to cuff them and they did not could not pull free. Today, these youngster must spend every waking moment in a gym because they, every one of them, are as strong as a team of plow horses.  It’s tough to get restraints around the wrists of these super-strong people. Women are equally as strong. It has to be them, because I’m just as strong as I ever was. Really, I am.

I’ve still not quite mastered the computer thing. I’d still rather hand-write reports. Or, the old Royal in the corner is still just as fast and good as ever. Ribbon’s almost new, too.

The boss tells me there’s an opening in the evidence room. The job consists of taking stuff officers bring in, assign it a number, and then stick it on a shelf until someone comes by to pick it up. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. That’s the job. Day after day after day. She wants me to take it. I don’t want to. Can’t really make out all the fine print on those evidence labels. I guess my eyes are just tired after all those years of reading and writing detailed reports.

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Maybe, though, I should take the sergeant’s advice. After all, she says, next time I go to the range I may shoot a 68.

And, well, a 68 just isn’t good enough …

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… and I love my job.

Really, I do.

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Lucky Thomas: Probable Cause and Collard Greens, a Recipe for Arrest

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Lucky Thomas got himself nabbed by a day-shift flatfoot after his latest job, a quick little “in-and-out” B&E of Linda’s Ammo Depot.

An over eager copper spied Lucky climbing out of Linda’s office window with a bag of “goodies” in hand. The beat cop yelled, “Stop!” but the word merely shifted Lucky’s feet into high gear, setting the stage for an early morning foot pursuit.

The officer, with keys jingling and jangling and holster slapping and popping against his outer thigh, chased the career bandit down Pleasant Street, then two blocks on Happy Lane and eight blocks up Freedom Way, before Lucky ducked into the alley between Ida Sue’s Thrift Store and Rosco’s Rib Shack.

Lucky, a former track star at the local high school, probably would have lost the big cop had he not slipped on a pile of yesterday’s slick-as-eel-snot collard greens and greasy ham hocks that Rosco left out for the pair of hungry raccoons—Rocky and Roxie—that pay nightly visits to the Shack’s overflowing, maggot-laden dumpsters.

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An exhausted and nervous Lucky barely had time to catch his breath when he felt the steel cuffs clamping around his wrists. The sound of the jaws ratcheting closed was all Lucky needed to hear to know that he’d been arrested, again.

So, not-so-Lucky had no problem knowing he’d been arrested. The handcuffs circling both wrists were all the proof he needed. But is it always that clear to people? Does an arrest always end in handcuffs? Well …

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Lucky’s lawyer, I.M. Shady, a shyster of less-than-stellar reputation among his peers, who needs not open a door to enter a room (he slithers beneath them), argued that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest his client. However, Circuit Judge Hugh Didit, quickly delivered a guilty verdict and sentenced Lucky to twelve months in the county jail.

Judge Didit, citing the officer’s perfect eyesight and that those two perfect-peepers saw Lucky climbing out of the window with a bag of stolen goods was, well, all the probable cause needed. “Guilty!” said the judge, in that distinct booming voice that had been known to rattle the feet and ankles of the clerks working on the floor above the courtroom. “Take him directly to jail, and do not pass … well, you know the drill. Get him outta here. Next case! Oh, and counselor, I suggest you study the meaning of probable cause before coming back in my court.”

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Sitting in his cell at Sheriff P.U. Stink’s lockup, Lucky often wondered if things would’ve turned out differently had he ducked inside the restaurant or the thrift store. Could the officer have followed him inside without a warrant?

Well, one of the jailhouse lawyers, a long-timer who charges a pair of tennis shoes, two pieces of cake, and a month of cell cleanings to write a Writ of Habeus Corpus, explained the law to Lucky, saying that, sure, during a foot pursuit if the officer sees the bad guy run inside a building she can indeed rush in after him. However …

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During the discussion of “what’s legal and what’s not” it didn’t take long before a crowd of inmates stopped by to listen to the jailhouse lawyer explain the various laws and scenarios. So, enjoying the attention, the self-taught legal eagle further explained why pat-downs (frisking) are legal. He said …

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In fact, the faux attorney even cited the case where it all started, Terry v. Ohio.

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Lucky, after the lecture was over, climbed onto his bunk and stared at the ceiling, wondering what some guy in Ohio had to do with his getting caught two states away. He also decided that he’d never again eat collard greens.

 

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