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TOMMY COTTER: I felt guilty about working this job because of exploiting people’s pain. We had a call and this was, I guess in downtown Chattanooga or pretty close by, and then there was a report of somebody riding around with a shotgun. You gotta do your job and make sure you don’t get distracted by what’s going on and not get the story, and so we went to the vicinity. We saw the car. We attempted to pull him over. He sped away and we followed him. He pulled into his mother’s yard, stay out of the shot, watch the cameraman, and just be a shadow. He threw out a bag of drugs and money was flying everywhere.
And his mother came out. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t do anything. Leave him alone. Leave him alone. Make sure you have audio to match the pictures, which is not easy when you don’t know what to expect. And there’s danger everywhere. The cops and the crew basically were filming this and also helped apprehend this guy at the same time. It’s one thing to see something on TV because you take TV for granted as being safe.
But he had a loaded shotgun, sawed off shotgun in the car. And he was apprehended and arrested. And I think that was the first major story. It’s all real. And there’s no staging. It’s a true reality. This is Tommy Cotter in, in 2001. I was given a call to help the COPS, TV crew in Chattanooga. There was no one in Chattanooga at that time that they could find. And then , somehow they found me. I wasn’t like enamored with a show, but sometimes it would be on and I’d be drawn in like a moth to a flame.
AUDIO CLIP: You’re gonna be under arrest for breaking into your wife’s house.
TOMMY COTTER: I had experience doing commercials, maybe a little documentary work as a sound location mixer. So I was quite adept at studio work and gear and stuff. I was self-employed. I couldn’t have turned it down. I had to have it. I had a new son that was just about six years old. So I was like thrilled cuz I knew this being a network show. The pay was gonna be good.
I gave them a call. They gave me a call. I think it was two ways. I think we had a few words exchanged pretty much. We need you. Let’s do this. You’ve got enough experience, we’ll train you. Anybody that does this particular job has to be trained cuz there’s really nothing like it or there wasn’t at the time. There’s a lot of spinoff shows since they sort of give you a lecture. It’s like, okay, here’s the equipment we use.
This is what you do. This is the bulletproof vest. Here’s a waiver you sign in case you get killed. We’re not responsible. I had to wear all black. Bulletproof vest every day. You can’t wear a seatbelt, so already your life’s in danger. It’s one of the experiences that changed my life quite literally. The company is set up to go to. A particular city for two months. They have three teams of a cameraman and a sound man that ride with different cars and they always pick beats and shifts that are most likely to get into really heavy stuff. In this case, it’s East Chattanooga.
AUDIO CLIP: Of course, just like any other city, we’ve got our problems ridding, the city of some of its criminal element. And that’s what keeps me going from day to day.
TOMMY COTTER: Yes, I remember my first day on the job absolutely. We went to this house and there was suspected burglary. The first time I went in there, I was shaking so much, what’s gonna happen? Does this guy have a gun? Is he gonna kill us? It’s like I was over, over nervous about it. Turned out there was nobody there and nobody had broken in and it was a false alarm basically.
But that first night was a good lesson to relax. What you’ve gotta do is you have to concentrate on your job. You can’t think and dwell about danger. There would be nights where absolutely nothing happened, and then there would be nights with maybe two or three things would happen. It’s a crapshoot. A lot of times. There were instances that were just plain, funny, funny, funny, but we got a call to go to a house, disorderly conduct or something.
And approached this house and knocked, nobody answered. And then a woman yelled out the window from upstairs. Hang on. I gotta put my leg on. I’ll be down a minute. It y’all. I don’t know why I thought that was funny. It’s not funny that she didn’t have a leg. It’s just funny that she said it that way. I guess
AUDIO CLIP: I am an international clown. I am world renowned.
TOMMY COTTER: We did a prostitution sting under a cover cop dressed up like a clown, and we got him in in like an ice cream truck. Rent Bobo the clown for your party.
AUDIO CLIP: I can make you a dog outta balloons. That will work. That will work. You probably make the handcuffs outta balloons too, can’t you?
TOMMY COTTER: This truck pulls in into a known area where prostitutes frequent and picks up hooker after hooker after hooker. And there’s a hidden camera in the car. It’s rigged for sound and camera.
AUDIO CLIP: Coco is not a clown, he’s a police officer. Everything you said was recorded and videotaped.
TOMMY COTTER: The clown says, Hey baby, offers her Money. And she takes the money and then we bust her and film it.
AUDIO CLIP: I’m Coco the clown. I got a balloon for you. The only reason why I came down here was because of my parents and I had to bury on Friday. So you had to bury your, that does nothing to tell the clown. Well, I’m sorry,
TOMMY COTTER: But it was kind of sad too because you’re, again, you’re seeing women suffering and, and having to do things that most of them don’t want to do.
AUDIO CLIP: The words out there don’t get in the car with a clown. So we’re gonna have to come up with something different next time. It was a good job today. Oh, everybody’s a Coco, the clown fan.
TOMMY COTTER: And sometimes it was like either funny or not funny or painful or dangerous or all of the above at once. One thing that was scary and there was a reason to be scared is in Chattanooga, the worst area of Chattanooga. This pretty much was called a fox, and we spotted somebody looking suspicious, and the officer pulled over and said, let’s check this out. Four guys.
One appeared to have a gun and he ran. So the officer went after him. The cameraman went after him and said, you stay here and watch these three guys. They were jacked against a wall, facing a wall with their hands up. All I had was a boom pole and a microphone. I’m not a cop. And I’m guarding these three guys by myself. And I thought, if they don’t come back, these guys could turn around and kill me cuz they don’t know I’m not a cop cuz they, we look like cops, but we’re not.
So I had to wait there like 15 minutes by myself watching these guys. And I didn’t know if these guys had guns. They hadn’t been frisked or anything. The cameraman, the cop was gone. I’m by myself and I had to say, y’all just don’t move. Don’t move. And I just kept saying, don’t move. Any of them could have beat me up and killed me cuz they were all bigger than I was.And they were living in an area where they had to deal with that on a day-to-day basis.
Unlike me who was lucky enough to grow up in a peaceful, happy environment and they didn’t say a word, they didn’t move and I’m grateful. Guys, thank you. The crew chose a, an officer to ride with. They always looked for someone that was really good at what they did. That always seeked out trouble more or less. So that way they knew they had somebody that was brave, maybe crazy enough to make a story.
You want to develop a rapport with the officer right away, and usually the cameraman is sort of in charge of making the officer comfortable. And let him know that we’re not here to do anything, but basically show what your job’s like, show people that you’re human and that what you’re facing we’re going to basically show you in a good light.
AUDIO CLIP: It’s common misconception people have about police is that we’re not human beings. They automatically look at the uniform and automatically think that you don’t have feelings or respect for them. Some people have had, bad dealings with police.
TOMMY COTTER: There’s a security about riding with police that comes naturally to, to most of us. And you feel a little secure, well, you got a policeman in charge and you feel protected. I’ll tell you something that was always dangerous. There were situations where we had to chase people at a hundred miles an hour in dark neighborhoods with no lights, running stop signs after a suspect with no seat belts.
And I thought, I’m gonna die. We’re all gonna die. We’re just gonna wreck. Because we were trying to make a story. And then he’s trying to catch this guy and this guy is running like a fool and they’re gonna get him. And why do these people run? And that happened probably once a week, at least in these high speed chases at three o’clock in the morning. And that was so scary.
So that was always dangerous. One of the COPS crew had his knees blown out with a shotgun by accident by a cop, and one of the cops in Chattanooga, Julie Jacks, that we rode with in Chattanooga was murdered about a year after we rode with her. The one, thing that did happen is I was trying to get outta the car once and the cop changed his mind and got in the car and started the car and took off and my foot was under the back tire and it ripped my boot in half and it didn’t, I didn’t get hurt, but it ripped my shoe in half. I had to put duct tape on my shoe for the rest of the night to continue the job.
AUDIO CLIP: Two a D 10 on North.
TOMMY COTTER: You work two months. You go home two months, you go to another city, work two months. You come home two months, you go to another city, work two months, come home two months, and then you’re off for a a month and a half or so for Christmas vacation, and then it starts all over. The pay was great. They set you up with a place to live. You get per diem, plus your pay car to drive free meals every day.
It took a couple months, well, a couple of weeks to realize that I indeed was not in the most comfortable place in the world, but I would have to adapt to it the best I could and I did the best I could. But it was not something I could do forever, and I knew that pretty quickly. If someone was new, they would make it or not make it within a few weeks. I think I was on a verge cuz I was not an ex-Marine, I was not, a jogging person.
You really had to run fast and I could never run as fast as a cameraman even though he was dragging a big heavy video camera. And the cops, these guys had been doing it for years and so they, they always gave me a hard time. It’s like, you better run faster. There were a couple times I just, I couldn’t, I tried, I could not run fast enough. Well, there was just one time we went and chased the suspect that was selling, pot in a project area.
And this is probably the experience that was the most condemning for me from the team is like, they had run like a half mile chasing this guy, and I could feel that my heart was gonna give out or something. I just, I tried, but I could not keep up with them. I missed a bit of audio, so they were really pissed at me and they’re saying, if this happens again, you’re out. You should have been there.
You should have stayed with us. Why didn’t you– I just couldn’t keep up. And so I made sure it didn’t happen again. A lot of these guys started out and they had to keep working, so it changed them. Most of them ended up divorced cuz they were on the road all the time. Almost all of them became jaded by society because they saw the dark side all the time. And there’s no break from that.
You can’t be around negative things all the time without it affecting you. Well, I think there were some that started out that were fairly typical people that didn’t have biases, that developed biases and they go into a certain ethnic neighborhood and develop a bias cuz all they saw was the dark side and they didn’t see the other side of the culture. And whatever culture that was, whether it’s white trash or African American or Indian American, Native American or whatever, if you are exposed to bad people that are committing crimes so often, It’s not something you can easily protect yourself from.
It is quite possible to be politically correct and to be transformed by bad experiences. Oh, well it’s another victim. It’s another victim. So what? They just became callous is a better word for it callous.
AUDIO CLIP: When’s the last time you had drugs? I had some Sunday, cause it was my birthday. Oh yes.
TOMMY COTTER: Like all human beings, they are good and bad characteristics. There are great cops that gave me such an admiration and understanding and that I was so proud to know that they were the kind of people that wore the badge. And then there were people that were, I felt mentally unstable, violent, and really enjoyed hurting people and fighting. Enjoyed it to a point where it was kind of sick, sadistic.
AUDIO CLIP: Well, you know what? Take this as a belated Happy birthday. Happy birthday. Stringer put in the back of the car. Please take
TOMMY COTTER: One of them was so busy bragging about himself that he ran over a cat in the middle of the road, killed the cat, and just laughed about it. And that just, I just wanted to kill him. I said, you son of a bitch.In my mind, I couldn’t say a word. I wanted to strangle him, and he was just the worst of what you could have for a cop.
AUDIO CLIP: Big bad blue stripe boy, you blue stripe boy, you, you, you, no joe for nothing.
TOMMY COTTER: The main thing that bothered me is when we would be working on a suspect. And there were so many varieties, but a man in Fort Worth was pulled over and he had just come out of an area where there was a known drug house. So we were staking it out and we stopped him. He had a six year old boy in the back of his seat.He just caught some heroin and he was, but shoot up.
And so they had to arrest him and the boy was crying and I was thinking about my boy at home and I just, If it was all I could do to hold back tears, I could not stand to see people suffering. Innocent people, children that got to me and never got better that part never got better. But I hung in there and I hid that because if you expose your weakness, the crew will pick on you, be tough or you’re out.
It’s this kind of macho kind of attitude. And I think that comes with being in that environment. It taught me in a way that there was no other way to learn it unless I was in the military in a war, or I was a victim of a being a prisoner or tortured or kidnapped something intense. And this was not that, any of those things, but it was a glimpse. And it was enough to make me aware that people are going through this and I can’t shut it out.
I can’t shut it out. Being called to a motel and a wife reported that she had just been beaten up. And so we went looking for this guy and looking and looking and looking. We found him hiding in the Kudzu. And finally he put him in jail. But It just reminded me that this is intense. And then there is an example of pain. It’s like in a way I felt involved in some fashion. You may not be responsible for some of the actions, but you’re, you are actually part of what’s going on and if it’s something dangerous, and that’s part of it too.
AUDIO CLIP: Brad Street, Wilson Cross Green District. I see your car Erica.
TOMMY COTTER: They make money on it. They make lots of money on it. I don’t know if it’ll ever end because people
AUDIO CLIP: turn around
TOMMY COTTER: are so fascinated by other people suffering.
AUDIO CLIP: What am i doing? I’m just going home. Going home. Put the other hand behind your back. I wasn’t doing anything. Put your other hands on your back.
TOMMY COTTER: And that shows you, one trait humans have. They want to see how other people handle situations, especially when they are in bad ones. I would think it’s a flaw instead of being compassionate and sickened by suffering people seem to have an appetite for it. Media especially exploits that and COPS is simply doing what the media does. If it’s legal and society, doesn’t fix the problems.
Can you blame anybody? Can you blame anybody but ourselves. I don’t think so. It took me a year to figure out that I just need to go home and do something else because I’m not going to be away from my kids and family. I can’t do that. Cuz it’s not gonna help the family. It’s bad for the family. That was my main decision. The other thing was, I don’t want to get killed or jaded. And if I stay around, there’s a chance that I be become messed up from doing it too long. And our environment will slowly shape who we are, whether we like it or not.
So it’s very important that all of us protect our environment to fit what we truly believe. That’s a big lesson I learned from it. Huge lesson. I don’t care who you are, that’s gonna affect you and change you. And, the same with the crew. And, I think it affects me to this day still, and on a subconscious level, makes me suspicious of, of strangers that I don’t know, subconsciously.
Cuz I’ve always been open and gregarious and trusting person to a fault in many ways. But after this experience I still have my guard up. Until I really feel like I know or sense somebody where they’re coming from I don’t trust them the same way I used to. I think about that little boy and that, that heroin addict , I still think about that and they’re still running all of the years from the first till now.
And my brother lives in England. He saw my name on some reruns over there. It’s like, really? They’re still running the old ones too. I mean, they got plenty of ’em. I am grateful for the experience, even though I feel pain from it because I’ve, I know so much more about the truth of society than I wanted to know, and I don’t know that I would ever want to know what I know, but I do know it and I can’t turn it off.
I just want to see society do more to keep people from suffering as much, and I just, I feel a pain for society. I never felt before. I want it to be a good thing, but it’s scary. You can’t allow what’s going on in the world to take your joy away. And you have to fight for your joy as an individual. And yes, it’s a scary world for everyone in some sense, but we have to claim our right to be happy. And we still, in spite of all the crazy stuff that goes on in the end, we have to trust somebody. Or why are we here? No point in it otherwise.
AUDIO CLIP: 132 I’ve got him at gunpoint code.
ANONYMOUS: Everybody has their point where things get close to home. It’s different for everyone and there’s no way you can guess what it is, but it’s at the point where what you’re looking at becomes something that you can directly relate to. For one of my colleagues it was going to a suicide for young woman who had killed herself, who was about the same age as his wife who was pregnant, and that was really difficult for him.
For me, it was going to a traffic accident late one night. One car, young girl had been driving at top speed, drunk, being chased by the police, and she crashed into a boulder and then flipped the car three and a half times. Driving up to it, it was the same make and model as my sister’s car. And the victim was the same age, and I hadn’t seen the victim yet. So I had this moment where I’m just like, oh God, this is my sister.
This is my sister. And you know, obviously it wasn’t, but in that moment it suddenly became something that I had a direct relationship to. And while shooting it I have this moment where I’m shooting, I’m not sure what it was, some bit of debris on the ground and I back up and some of this girl’s hair, which had gotten torn off and lodged on the door, brushes my arm. Normally that would be maybe strange or a little gross or something, but for it was just really, really difficult in that moment.
Because I had something that had gotten past my defenses, past my sort of, I don’t know, wall of separation from what I was doing. Like I can still feel that sort of tingle in my arm from brushing against her hair. My name is **** *****, and I worked for just over a year as a crime scene specialist. In a town in a southwestern state. My duties consisted of photographing crime scenes.
We had a guy get killed in front of my favorite burrito place. Pulling out of the drive-through that was a bummer. Photographing evidence, strange things like I’d get a car that was shot full of holes and filled with blood, but no bodies. That happened multiple times. Fingerprinting and processing and photographing suspects. Everybody working in the adult industry had to have full fingerprints taken.
So we fingerprinted a lot of strippers and a lot of bouncers, and it would be really surreal because they’d be flirting with us the whole time and it’d be like, oh, excuse me, ma’am, could you take a breast off my arm? If you’re a police officer, you only saw the things that happened in your particular area, and so you’d only see what happened there, and that happened during your shift if you were a detective, homicide detectives only saw homicides.
Child abuse detectives only saw child abuse. Gang detectives only dealt with gang stuff. We went to everything. So we saw everything. For a lot of officers, they might go a year or more without ever having to deal with a dead body. Whereas like in a normal week for us, we might have to deal with 10. It really was surprising how quickly you became numb to things. To back it up, I started off going to college and getting my degree in photography.
I was working in a photo lab and one of our customers was a crime scene specialist with the local police department. And he brought in a flyer advertising, a job opening, and I thought, you know what the hell, I’d go ahead and apply for it. And I thought, actually using photography as a tool for producing real evidence, actual evidence would be interesting experience. So I applied for it and it was a long, kind of confusing process. Like it began with a written exam, basically entirely on photography.
So it was asking questions about film types that had been obsolete already for 10 years. Things like, it’s three o’clock on a Sunday, it’s autumn, cloudy outside, there’s blood spatter all over the room, and there’s bullet casings to the floor on your left, your meter reads 400. What speed should you shoot your shot at? I did that and I went on my way and I figured, okay, well that test was ridiculous I’m never gonna hear from these people again.
And a couple weeks later, I did hear back and they sent me like a background check form to fill out. A lot of agencies they want people with science backgrounds or like in the case of New York City, they pull their crime scene investigators from the police ranks. But where I was living, it was a civilian position, and they’re feeling on the matter was that they could teach the science. They didn’t wanna have to teach somebody photography.
After the background check packet and then the initial interview. They started calling basically everybody I knew and asking them questions about me, asking questions about my background and my personal characteristics. After that was the mock crime scene photo shoot test of the oldest 35 millimeter camera rig that they could dig up. And I had one shot and one minute to shoot each thing. So it’d be like shooting shoe impressions with this giant potato masher, fully manual flash.
But it would be things like one of their vans with like a mannequin falling out the window, or like a toy handgun kind of laid underneath a chair. So all these different scenarios that were pretty good examples of things I might have to deal with. I’d never needed to shoot a VIN number on a car before. But I had to do it in this case and figure out how to light it correctly and just hope that I guessed approximately how to do it. And they showed me the photographs and they told me they weren’t good enough.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I found out later was another test to see how I’d react. Cuz apparently some people freak out when they’re told that– I’m sorry, these photographs just aren’t up to our standards. I’m like, what do you mean? I shot them perfectly fine. What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see that? And they’re like, okay, thanks for coming in. A few weeks later I got called in for the sort of final exam, which was a trip to the morgue.
And this, I guess, is in a lot of cases, the deal breaker for people where you actually, they call you to the morgue. And the idea is that you’re gonna come in and you’re gonna photograph a body and fingerprint it. So I go to the morgue and I’m not really sure what to expect. I’ve seen dead bodies before. I don’t think I’m particularly squeamish. And I head in and meet the supervisor and they wheel out a body and it’s an elderly guy and I’m not sure what’s happened to him. I see that he’s already been autopsied.
So he is got the chest stitches and he’s got his head up on a like a little raising platform, and I could see there’s some blood behind it. So there’s an elderly guy with a mustache, and I don’t know anything about this guy. He’s just laid out on the slab and for some reason I focus on his feet. There’s just something about this guy’s like uncut toenails that just seemed like incredibly depressing to me. But I photograph him. I fingerprint him, and of course the guy’s been been dead for a few days.
So in order to fingerprint him, I’m having to reach my hand inside his hand and roll pieces of paper across his fingertips. And I think that’s the whole point, is they wanna see exactly what you’re gonna do when presented with the situation. A lot of people apparently don’t even make it through the door. Like they sit in their car and they freak out and they leave. I go home, I’m tired, so I decided to take a nap and I’m laying on my bed and I’m just staring at my foot being like struck by this like strange sort of sense of my own mortality.
Seeing my foot and thinking about like the connection between my foot, and then this old man whose name I never saw, stuck on a slab in the morgue, having some weird kid taking his fingerprints and taking pictures of him. I didn’t hear from them. I think for another, I wanna say three or weeks or so after that. And I just assumed okay, well I guess I didn’t get the job. And I found out later when they called me and asked me to come in and start training that I was the third hire, so they’d hired two people just before me.
So I canceled grad school. I figured this would be a great opportunity to kind of, see a different aspect of photography. We started training, I was issued my uniform and training basically started with me on the job. First day on the job, my shift started at six and 20 minutes into walking in the door we got a call and it was for a suicide. I kinda had this moment of panic where I was like, oh. I don’t know if I can do this. I got this like flutter in my stomach where I’m like okay.
It’s one thing to go see somebody in this kind of stationary position in the morgue, and it’s quite another thing to go take pictures of a guy who’s killed himself in his garage. I head out with the supervisor who’s training me, and I have this kind of moment where I’m leery, before we walk in, I’m like, I’m gonna be sick. And then we walk into the garage and this guy has shot himself with I think a 22. And it’s fine. It’s strange, but it’s fine. I mean, you see horror movies and zombie flicks where the people have got green skin or purple skin and you think God, the makeup artist sucks.
And then you discover like people actually turn really strange colors and there doesn’t really seem to be any rhyme or reason. This poor guy was like purple and yellow. Somehow like gave it a level of detachment that made it easier to deal with. One of the things that I think is more surprising than anything else about a dead body is just that it’s so obviously totally inert. It’s so obviously just an object and not a thing. And this poor guy who’s in his garage, his brother’s in the kitchen answering questions, and all I have to do is take pictures and go on my way.
My day started at 6:00 AM which I wasn’t accustomed to, so like my whole eating schedule was off and it seemed like every postmortem was at like eight o’clock in the morning or nine in the morning, and my blood sugar would always crash. When I was in training during the postmortems and I’d start to feel sick, but it was like all super macho. So like with the guy who was training me, I had to pretend like I wasn’t having this blood sugar crash cuz he would tease me about not having the stomach for it. And I was just like, no, no, I can handle it.
I learned to start taking granola bars and eating them before postmortems. It’s interesting because it’s not a particularly small town, it’s a medium size metropolitan area, but it became very small from having to travel back and forth across it. And even though it isn’t a small town. Even just living there in a normal sense, it becomes pretty small and like you, you find that your social group overlaps with everybody. And that being said, I had a shootout on the front yard, turned out of somebody that I’d gone to high school with and knew pretty well.
We knocked on the door just to get pictures of the bullet holes from inside and he opened the door and he is like, oh, hi. I did have a call at my neighbor’s place, and as soon as I saw the address. I didn’t take it. I asked actually one of my partners to take it, but I rode along with him just– it was my neighborhood and I wanted to see what was happening. My neighbor had committed suicide and I didn’t know him, but it was something that kind of lingered that after the fact.
So I have, my name appears nowhere on the case record for this because it didn’t do anything and it would’ve been really inappropriate had I taken some of the photographs, had I processed the evidence. I was just strictly there as an observer in the months following when I like the apartment lay empty and there were always candles on the doorsteps, I would’ve had no clue what was going on, if not for having been present for that.
And it also made me realize just how much history the places that we live have. Because I’m sure that the people that live there now have got no idea that somebody committed suicide in the backyard. It’s not the kind of thing that you need to report to other people. Just traveling around town, you know what I mean. You had to ignore the fact that you knew that this particular Circle K was like a hotbed for burglary. You just go in and pay for your gas and leave.
There were moments where things got funny too. If things were really bad, we’d put booties on and we’d spray our boots down with bleach at the end of the day. But if something gets stuck in your waffle tread and it falls out in your car and you don’t know it, and then all of a sudden you’re bringing your work home with you in a way that you’d really rather not. I tracked a little bit of human fat into my car once, and I didn’t realize it until the next day after it was 120 degrees and my car smelled like carine.
We picked up weird jargon that we would use that would just be probably impenetrable impenetrable to anybody else. My favorite and I don’t know where it comes from and I’ve tried to find out, I don’t know if it’s something specific to us or if it’s something that people use elsewhere. And it’s, chunder basically chunder refers to miscellaneous human debris. Assorted bits that weren’t necessarily identifiable were chunder.
AUDIO CLIP: All these were too much stuff under his skin let’s say he’s been dead at least twenty four hours, but probably no more
ANONYMOUS: I had a train suicide and it was when I was in training and this poor person was everywhere and the rails were hot and it was the middle of the summer and they were cooking. We kept making all these jokes about, and you have to do that. You have to make jokes like the gallows humor is just out of control because it’s just what you do. It’s not being disrespectful. Like we were always like as respectful as it was possible to be around family around other people.
But there’s a point where you start making jokes about like Denny’s menu items and replacing it with the word chunder. One of the problems with television is that it’s given people unreasonable expectations. To this day, it’s so frustrating for me to see any kind of like crime television, cuz it was just so patently wrong. If it’s a, like a crime scene kind of a show or it’s like a forensic science sort of show. They’re always the first people on the scene and they’re like kicking in doors with guns and I’m like, no dude, you’re staying behind your microscope for the entire day.
Like, why are you there? The science is almost always wrong. They’re like, oh, I’m just gonna go run the DNA right now. And then like five minutes later they come back I’ve gotta match fingerprints, DNA, blood spatter, like all these different things. And the simple reality is that most things, like if you are lucky, if you get fingerprints.
AUDIO CLIP: I don’t think I need to remind you too, that your fingerprints and your DNA are in our reference files. Oh, this is very fascinating.
ANONYMOUS: I might have some prints from my time, but I can’t do anything with them because they’re evidence, they belong to this whole other sort of language, this whole other requirement. I don’t– it’s interesting cause like I’m a photographer by trade outside of this and a lot of the people that I worked with were also photographers in other capacity. Some of them shot weddings. One of them was a really well-respected landscape photographer. But we’re all working with this photography that we can’t do anything with outside of our day job.
I had moments like, I’ll be honest, I had moments where I shot things with an aesthetic eye intentionally and those are some of the prints I have. But I was still doing my job and like I can’t do anything with it. Yeah. It’s really strange doing something like that, that I have no access to that. I have this entire body of work, so to speak, that I can’t touch. It’s impossible to do something that’s that visual and not have it transfer over into your own personal work. And a lot of the work that I was doing after I left the job when I, started grad school was I think referencing a lot of the things that I would see as as a crime scene specialist.
Paper bags came into my work a lot that was, there are these really surreal moments where, especially in gun shootings, but in most and most suspicious deaths, so the decedent would have paper bags put over their hands and then taped shut. And the idea being it would preserve any evidence that might be on their hands or underneath their fingernails. And that became this kind of like recurrent visual in a lot of the work that I was doing.
And I didn’t realize it at the time, but then I look back at what I was doing, I’m like, oh yeah, everything I’m doing here, was visually working out emotional points of contact for me in that position. The idea of like physical remnants as being a way of kind of objectively telling a story. Since we saw so much. I think that there was always this kind of perception that there might be more of a toll in our emotional state.
We would get periodic visits from the mental health specialist that was on staff. And we would always send her on her way as quickly as possible, because I think the best form of therapy for the things that we saw was just having lunch with everybody else in the section. And we’d exchange stories. As hard as it was and as glad on some levels as I am that I don’t do it anymore because I’ve seen what it can do to somebody after like 30, 40 years. It’s hard. You, take some of this home with you even if you don’t want to. And by the time you reach retirement age, I mean you’ve seen so many things that most people haven’t.
You see these things that people shouldn’t see, or at least that people don’t see in this country. I had left at the end of the year actually because I was given the opportunity to go to graduate school. Otherwise, I’d probably still be doing it. And it’s funny cuz actually having been away from the job for a number of years, there are things that affect me far more now on recollection than they ever did at the time. Two years after I had left, I remembered this one situation where kids were washing the car for their mom. They knocked the car out of park and one of the kids rolled under the tire.
I never even saw the kid I showed up in the paramedics that scooped him away. Like I never saw it. I just photographed the car nothing to see. And at the time I was just like, oh, that, that’s a bummer. Two years later I remember thinking about this and like crying in the middle of the street just being like, God, that’s just so tragic. When you’re in the process there’s definitely a layer of protection that you create for yourself, and I think the further away you get from it, the more that erodes.
I felt more job satisfaction from working in crime scene than anything else I’ve done in my life. Sexual assault, murder abuse, things like that. That’s serious. That’s something that insurance isn’t gonna take care of. That’s the kind of thing where it’s like somebody has to live with that for the rest of their life and I’m hoping with what I was doing at the time, I, at least in some way maybe can mitigate some of that suffering for somebody else or maybe help them find some kind of closure through legal means. Or in the case of somebody who has lost their life in terms of being able to tell their story or help their families.
Some of the lessons that I took away from this, I’m never gonna live in a house that’s like a new house in a subdivision because I’ve learned the bullets go through the walls like their paper. There are certain smells that trigger kind of memory associations now, and the county morgue was this weird combination of meat, like a meat smell, like you’d smell in a meat market and this one particular type of cleaner. I dunno if it was like Fabuloso or like whatever the industrial equivalent is of that, but they use it in restaurants. So I’ll go into a restaurant and smell it and it’s just like, oh God. I dunno.
I wish I had some closing thoughts to give you like some grand life lesson that I came away with from this. Both learning that the human body is far more fragile than I ever realized, and that it’s far more resilient than I knew it was capable of being. The things that would kill people versus the things that people would survive There was just no connection. And so like that I know what the inside of somebody’s head looks like definitely alters the way that you float through the world.
I didn’t have this one, but I heard about it and the pictures were actually beautiful that were taken. Where a guy had been found in the desert and he was mummified. And they couldn’t figure out who he was so they actually ended up rehydrating his skin so they could get pictures of his tattoos. And the pictures are beautiful cause they were shot with a ring flash. So it’d be this purple gloved hand holding a piece of skin with like an anchor tattoo. And there’s just this beautiful lighting. It’s making like the skin pop and like the purple from the glove pop.
And I guess it’s one of those weird moments where like it was difficult to separate looking at things aesthetically, like I’d been trained to, as far as like my schooling went. To, just looking at it from a legal standpoint or from a documentary standpoint.