I did nothing less than what was asked of me. I did my job nothing less than to the Ranger Standard. I applied all my training as a police officer and former ranger with combat deployments to Afghanistan. I applied all my knowledge of human nature, the odds, tactics, and all the psychology from college courses. My life from my birth has been chaos, death, stress, and all that lies in these moments. At that moment, I was calm. I was where my brain thrives. It was where I am most comfortable. It was the place my brain was most familiar. It was chaos.
What I did that night was nothing less than what should be expected. What I did that night was nothing less than those around me. What I did that night was take a life while wearing the uniform of a police officer at a time when the world had turned against its defenders. What I did that night was nothing more or less than what was necessary to protect my life, my fellow officers, and the public around us.
I am not here to discuss those moments. This is not a story of what it is like to take lives, something I have long argued is a complex combination of factors. This is a story about what followed after this particular incident. This is a story that has become all too familiar. This is a story about doing what is right and being punished for it, not because of what you have done, but because of politics, public pressure, or, in my case, personal vendettas.
This story threads a very thin needle for obvious reasons, as I face criminal and civil charges. I have chosen to write under a pseudonym because every word written is a piece of me I would never share with strangers. I write words hardly spoken to those closest to me. The words I fear might one day haunt me in one way or another. That my honesty might be turned against me. Fears that are not ill-placed as a police officer, especially one in my position. I have chosen to share my words only because I do not think they are mine alone. They are the words of those with shared experiences, written under a pseudonym to help others, free of the baggage my name might bring to some. They are written under a pseudonym that they might be honest because they exist in the world without personal accountability.
For this story, all that matters is that I took a life while on duty. I took a life that in every way was justified by all those who have seen the evidence in full and those, beyond the radicals, who have seen the videos that have been released.
What has followed is not a reaction to political or social pressure but someone trying to settle personal vendettas. We have become a pawn in a game of abuse of power. What has followed is immense stress and burden upon myself, my fellow officers being charged, my fellow officers on the streets, and my family. We are luckier than most to have a department that has fully supported us. We have been paid, afforded every courtesy as if we were still officers, and a command who has supported us without question at every request.
I took a life doing what I was supposed to and here I am, almost two years later. I took that life and thought nothing of my desk duty that followed other than a very temporary assignment. When I was contacted by peer support in regard to where I was months later, I knew what was to follow intellectually, but emotionally I knew nothing of the awaiting tribulation.
I sat in that car as that officer drove us toward our headquarters. They nervously stated they did not know what was going on but given what happened to our other officer a few weeks prior, they could only assume what was to follow. They tried desperately to avoid what we all knew. We were being driven there so our command could inform us of upcoming criminal charges. I had already texted and made accommodations for our dogs. I had already established a drop-dead time which would have triggered it all. It would have triggered them to care for our dogs and inform those dearest to me that I was in jail. I texted a trusted member of my wife’s command a text which I figured might be my wife’s only access to information. I told them to tell my wife, I might be going to jail and that I loved her.
I sat before him as he told me what was going on. I just shrugged and said, “I figured.” His eyes were watering. He acknowledged my stoicism. Given our extensive history, having been there when I was a new officer and having been there for my first shooting, he knew to expect nothing less. I even asked to return to teach our annual training that night. What else was I supposed to do? My wife was deployed, the charges were there regardless of what I did, why not spend my time being productive?
I was obviously denied. In that conference room, there was nothing to be said. Everyone’s eyes were red and glassy. Command committed to giving us their full support. What was there to really say or do during these unprecedented times? All anyone could do was promise to give us their best. Then, we all went home.
I opened my front door and was greeted by our dogs. I sat and began the task of replying to the desperate texts of whom I had tasked such a great burden upon. I canceled the order. What followed was a blur of phone calls I cannot even recall to this day. I called the heads of each of my family, delegating the dissemination of limited information to the other members. I replied to my wife’s command. I tried to coordinate her calling me so I might try and inform her of what little I knew.
What did I know? I was being charged with a shooting that was justified. I was being charged to settle a personal vendetta by a man who knew he was leaving. I was to be lucky enough to avoid jail, having been allowed a simple booking walkthrough in an adjoining agency’s jail. From there, we knew nothing.
The rumors churned and ripped through our lives like a hurricane. What was left in their wake was our tattered and torn morale, self-worth, confidence, mental health, and every part of our being. Each rumor brought a wave of hope that only crashed into a wall of destruction. My wife came home early from her deployment because of the unknown. Our lives hit a wall as the unknown consumed our lives. The arguments increased as my time at home made me restless and her carefully organized life was in chaos. We had to redefine our lives as we held a candle to the consuming blackness that was our future. All we could do was wait as each passing court date or benchmark approached. All we could do was try and filter the rumors as they crashed into our lives unexpectedly.
As weeks turned into months and months turned into almost two years, our lives drastically changed. Those of us involved have grown closer. We have connected in the shared struggle. We have been there when so many others have not. Time has a way of sorting those who truly care from those who care out of convenience. The calls of support reached a drastic downturn far sooner than most would imagine. Having spoken to so many others in our same predicament, those of convenience reach a tipping point within a month. A few stalwarts cling on for a few months, but what is left is isolation. You become a forgotten exhibit in the zoo. You are cared for only by those who truly care. You are left to pace in the confines of your cage. You are left with nothing more than your own thoughts.
What is left is a world where you can only plan your life a few months in advance. You are left without the authority to be what you have loved to be. You are left to consider how and who you tell those around you why your hair and beard have grown. You have to weigh each and every peripheral relationship. Do you tell them or do you not? Do you tell those who have seen you every day at the gym? The barber who cuts your hair? The local grocers? Do you apply for a second job? What would you tell your employer? The employees? Can you pass a background check with pending felony charges?
What you are left with is a world so chaotic and detrimental, you become numb. If you do not, it will drive you mad. You have to almost forget your own ability to think. To think is only to suffer. It becomes so exhausting the only way to protect yourself is to hibernate. You begin to shut off aspects of yourself slowly, one by one. You stop considering your future. You stop having a driving focus. You start to become that which you hate the most. You become mundane and perpetual. Life becomes a predictable routine. When it all starts, each and every approaching court date brings a surge of anger, hope, and devotion. As each and every date is postponed, a ploy by a DA who knows the errors of his ways, it brings profound and sudden apathy. Each postponement takes some part of you. The apathy begins to grow as the hope begins to shrink.
As time drudged on, my slow transformation left me in stark contrast to who I was. I began to resent myself for who I had become, everything I had hated. I became a routine without thought. I was a zombie. I was a drowning man under the crushing undercurrents of an ocean. I struggled for every gasp of air, seeking some fleeting thought of self-worth. To think was to be angry and become something I never wanted to be. To be apathetic was to become numb but also to become everything I hated.
These words now are a marooned man’s attempt at redemption. It is a man watching as the wreckage is violently thrown ashore for me to salvage. A wreckage caused by another, but a wreckage that is mine to tend. So, let us dispose of the metaphors. This shit fucked my life and shook me to my core in a way my violent and neglectful childhood, my time in Regiment, the loss that has accompanied my 7 bracelets (from combat, training, suicide, and service-connected cancer), and my time as an officer never has. The truth is I cried more in the first year than I can ever recall crying. It would come crashing down upon me in moments I least expected and least wanted it to. It was around my dearest and closest friends. It was not that I carried my own pain. I have always been great at that, it was the crushing weight of those around me.
I have always consumed the pain of those around me without complaint or an utterance of assistance. The crushing burden of the other officers, their children, their spouses, their families, officers on our department scared to do their job, my wife, my family… I consumed it like a gluttonous pig at an all-you-can-eat slop buffet. I consumed it and in turn, it consumed me like cancer. I fielded phone calls, text messages, and in personal conversations whenever requested. We hosted get-togethers at our house to provide a safe haven for open and honest discussions. I drank the tears of my new friends and their families. I talked them off the ledge of the grave. It became all-consuming as I was constantly inundated with the pain. I took and I took, but I never gave.
One night, drinking with my ranger buddies, it hit me. It was different than the late-night leakages of before. The leakages that woke me up, caused me to slink out of bed and away from my wife so I could cry in silence. It hit me so hard that I could not speak. It stunned me in a way I have never been before. I sat, gasping for air, each word slipping through the violent sniffles. There it was, my breaking point. The point where the apathy truly began. That was a moment so shocking to me, and, instead of truly confronting it, I buried it. I hid it from my wife. To this day, I have no idea if she knows what happened that night as my friends shuffled me off that porch into the darkness.
The truth is I am trying so hard to become who I used to be. I am trying so hard to use this opportunity to become something better. I am focusing on the things I need and want to improve about myself. I have begun writing again, something I have not done for almost a year. I am trying to slowly crawl out of this hole. I am trying to detox from the apathy one day at a time. I am trying to find that honest and self-reflecting person buried under the burden of bull shit. During this process, I have transitioned from myself, to angry, to apathetic, and then comatose. What I want is to be myself again. As I crawl out of the hole and acclimate to the sun, I have begun to find myself again. It is not the me before the hole, but I hope it will be a better me. The sands of time shall reveal who “I” am to become, but I am not, and will not, be an apathetic actor again.
Jake Smith is a law enforcement officer and former Army Ranger with four deployments to Afghanistan.