This past year was one of the most poignant of my life, but not for the reasons you may think. 2012 brought me to the home of my son’s birth family and his first mother, the person who gave him life. 2012 also brought me to the man who ended my brother’s life, the police officer who shot him that horrible, horrible night.
In the beginning of 2012, I felt moved for various reasons (in large part, because Brian had had some unsettling encounters at work) to write the police officers involved in the shooting of my brother the night he was killed. It had been ten years since his death and I knew the officers had since retired or moved on to other police stations. I wrote the Chief of Police of the city where he was shot to ask him to forward the message on. I received a lovely reply back, months later, from the current chief expressing his gratitude for taking the time to write the officers and assured me he would forward the messages on. I did not expect to ever hear back at that point, but I felt comfort knowing I had reached out and I felt that, if they were meant to receive the message, they would.
In November, I had a phone conversation with a friend. We were discussing the water project in Ethiopia and how we could work together to bring more water to people. We were about to get off the call when he paused.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you something, but I don’t want to upset you.”
Oh man, I thought. “What is it?”
“I was at this men’s retreat and this man started describing this letter he received from a girl who lived in Los Angeles and her brother was killed…”
“Was it the Chief of Police?”
“No, it was the officer that shot your brother, Jamie…”
I sat in shock.
“You mean, he received the letter?”
“Yes, he did.”
“I hope it didn’t upset him.”
“No, no. In fact, I think it brought him a lot of comfort.”
Then my friend asked if I would be interested in meeting with him. I was, of course, as long as he was also okay meeting with me.
The day of our meeting came a few weeks later.
I walked in and saw a tall, strong, older man who was visibly nervous when my small frame came through the door.
I hugged him.
He smiled nervously, and said he was feeling quite awkward.
We sat down and he asked me if there was anything I wanted to know about “that night.” That is what we all, my family, refer to it as. These words confirmed to me what I already suspected, that taking the life of a human being, no matter how justified it is, stays with you. It goes against what feels natural, what is right as a human. The people who have given their lives to serving and protecting us, who are willing to make this kind of sacrifice, are worthy of much respect. It is as if they are willing to give up a piece of their humanity, their peace, so we don’t lose ours.
I think people often neglect the feelings of the officers when something so tragic happens. We question their motives and whether or not they reacted appropriately. Of course, we need to, but I often feel that we’re not only asking these very appropriate questions, but seeking specific answers, rather than the truth. It has become, in a sense, a witch hunt.
That is why my sole objective for the meeting was to verbalize, in person, that not only did we understand what had to be done, but that my brother was not killed by a shot that night. My brother was killed by drugs- by addiction. My parents always made that very clear. This officer may have been holding the instrument that stopped his heart from beating, but in no way was he responsible for my brother’s death. I also understand that the men involved have families they are praying they make it home to every night. Wise decisions on the job not only impact the people they are encountering, but their own loved ones.
When I explained that I understood all of this, that our whole family does, he opened up. It wasn’t important to me to see or know this man other than I strongly felt that I needed to tell him what I wanted him to know. I didn’t realize how good it would feel to know him and his personality. There is no more shadowy figure or question mark in my head. I didn’t think it would matter one way or another, but I soon realized it was comforting to get to know him. I learned that he and Brian worked in the same area (years apart). He has worked in various countries in Africa, and he was genuinely interested in our projects in Ethiopia and South Africa. We spoke about Brian and his career, and he offered up advice that was very helpful for the planning of our future. I guess if I had to sum him up in a word – kind.
I try to think of what my brother would think about all of this. I know for a fact that he would feel guilty that this is something any of us would ever even have to deal with. Sadly, at the time of his death, his thoughts were overpowered by substances that skewed his perception of life. I believe, in other ways, he would be happy. Knowing someone who has such a horrible intimate connection with him, his life…his death…Well, it seems to bring a little bit of the humanity back. If I were him and I knew that the person who had to take my life was compassionate enough to meet with my family and cared about them enough to reach out and say that he hated what he had to do- it would bring as much comfort as it could to the situation.
Understanding that his death was justified does not make his absence hurt less. It doesn’t help me understand why any of this happened, nor does it bring him back, but I’ve learned a long time ago not to ask why in life, because it does not change the past. All we can do is learn and help others from the experiences life gives us. I think my message for this story is that society always tries to vilify one person in a situation like this, but we need to have the perspective to truly understand both sides, because in the great majority of the time there isn’t a ‘bad guy’.
Accept and embrace the impact we have on one another and treat it with respect. I believe once we realize the importance of those, even minor, experiences we have connecting with one another, the more thoughtful we will be.