Book Excerpt: TRUE BLUE "A Senseless Act" by Randy Sutton

Ed. Note: The following passages are from the book "True Blue: To Protect and Serve" by Lt. Randy Sutton, Copyright 2008.  Reprinted by permission of the author and St. Martin's Press.

The stories in this book fall loosely into five categories:

The Beat
Some walk a beat in the inner city, others patrol rural highways or small towns. Some wear blue uniforms, others wear khaki. Their patches are as different as their badges, but what they have in common is that every time one of them puts on his uniform, straps on his gun, and pins on his badge, he knows that he will be facing the unknown. The hours of his shift may crawl along with nothing more than checking out a broken burglar alarm to break the monotony.

Or time may sail by with lights and sirens from one emergency to the next. You just never know, and that’s why it takes a certain kind of person to do the job. There are some certainties: heartache, cruelty, and death are constant companions in the career of every law enforcement officer. So are humor, irony, and courage.

At the end of the day there are stories to tell. Stories from “the beat.”

The Fallen
The lone bugler will stand tall among the silent headstones. He will be ramrod straight, uniform crisply pressed, badge polished and gleaming. A salute will be passed and the mournful melody of taps will tear into the souls of all present. The flag of our nation will be folded by those who have chosen this solemn duty and handed off, as the ultimate symbol of sacrifice, to widow or parent, child or spouse.

Uniformed arms will rise in final salute as the piper plays “Amazing Grace” and seven rifles will fire as one, each of the three volleys causing the survivors to flinch. This sad scene will take place today in one part of our country and tomorrow in yet another. The ceremony is always the same, yet as different as the individual officer being honored. It is the one time in law enforcement when all personal differences and politics are forgotten and empathy unites those who share the profession.

It is the time we honor those who have given their lives in the line of duty; we call them “the fallen.”

War Stories
Every cop has them. You will hear them in the locker rooms of police stations in the largest cities, in the station parking lots in the smallest towns. You will hear them in neighborhood bars and hangouts where off-duty cops let off steam after the end of their watch. They’re called “war stories.” These are the tales that will work their way into private conversations with other cops, and with those lucky enough to be taken into their confidence. Some are poignant, some absurd; others might offend delicate sensibilities. Some will make you laugh out loud; some will make you shake your head in amazement. These stories are a cop’s way of sharing the moment, a snapshot from his album of memorable moments in a long and riotously varied career.

Line of Duty
Much of a police officer’s work is routine; it is simply interacting with people who have problems, or issues, or even illnesses. The truth is, the majority of the calls won’t even be remembered at the end of the week. But there is always that one call, the one that changes your life. The revelation experienced may come from inside when suddenly the cop sees something in someone or in himself that he never saw before. These stories are epiphanies—they are the stories from a cop’s life that will never be forgotten by those who have lived them. What these stories have in common is that they define the “line of duty”: the line that separates cop from civilian, the line that no cop can retreat from, where every cop makes his stand, no matter what it costs him.

Deadly Force
“Dropping the Perp,” “Smoking the Punk,” “Dropping the Hammer,” “Lighting Him Up.” When the gun smoke clears, the phrases are legion. These are all euphemisms for the ultimate action a cop is called to perform, the taking of a human life. Most cops know that they are expected to be prepared to kill, yet will be judged when they do. Judged by the public, the press, their department, the courts, even their family and, most importantly, themselves. The act takes but a moment. The moment, however, lives forever frozen in time.

Officers will question their courage, or perhaps be convinced of it. They will fear the uniqueness of their feelings or be comforted by them, or, perhaps, suppress them. The world will be different forever.

The reality of killing another human being is never what we expect, despite the hours on the firearms range and the intensity of our training. The changes may be subtle, dramatic, destructive, or inspiring, but change is inevitable. Most law enforcement officers know that the taking of a life is the most foreign yet compelling experience of their career. Despite Hollywood’s portrayal of America’s cops as trigger-happy, troubled men and women, the reality is that less than one in two hundred will ever fire a weapon in combat during an entire career. Many of the bullets fired will never find their mark, never leave a legacy of blood, but even the act of pulling the trigger will change the course of an officer’s life. The decision may mean their own life, their partner’s life, or the lives of the people they are sworn to protect. It is called many things, but a cop calls it “deadly force.”

A Senseless Act 

By Lt. Randy Sutton

The man who killed Sergeant Henry Prendes did not hate him. He couldn’t have; they had never met prior to the moment the killer dumped three 7.62mm bullets into his chest,lea ving Sergeant Prendes lying mortally wounded on the cold concrete walk leading up to a nondescript family home in suburban southwest Las Vegas.

“Why?” is always the question in the depressing aftermath. The reply we’ve come to expect answers nothing at all: “It was a senseless act.” Can we make sense out of something meaningless? Maybe for the sake of Sergeant Prendes’s memory we should try.

2:20 P.M.: A Diner on Charleston Boulevard. I had been having coffee with an old friend,anoth er cop from a neighboring department, wh en his cell phone rang. He listened for a moment and then his eyes sought mine; I caught the briefest hint of despair before his expression hardened and his jaw set. I felt the clenching in my gut as I set my coffee cup back down on the table and waited for him to finish the call.

“Sorry, brother, there’s been a shooting,” he said. “It’s one of yours.”

“How bad? Dead?”

He nodded. “Another officer wounded. He’s en route to the hospital.”

“The suspect?”

“Your guys returned fire at the scene. Put him down.” My friend’s gaze turned steely, but his knuckles were white where he gripped his coffee mug. “That takes care of that complication.”

We seemed frozen there for those few seconds, each staring down at the table, d9stracted, enveloped in the normalcy and fragrant warmth of the small diner. I looked around; everyone was enjoying their meal, their afternoon, their life. In here you could almost imagine that nothing bad ever happened. But it had.

“I’ve got to get over to t he hospital,” I said, standing up. He nodded and grabbed his coat. I threw down a twenty-dollar tip for our two cups of coffee; maybe it was guilt money for sitting snug in a diner while one of my own paid the ultimate price for doing his job.

We both stood up and walked outside; he stood at his patrol car door and I stood at mine. I knew what he was waiting for. There are almost four thousand cops in my department, and though I don’t know at least half of them, the question had to be asked.

“Did you know who it was?”

“They said it was Sergeant Henry Prendes. You know him?”

A chill swept through me, and my chest and jaw grew tight. “Yeah, I did.”

Our eyes met and held for a moment in the manner of old warriors, and then we went our separate ways.

One Hour Earlier: 8336 Feather Duster Way.
It was a domestic violence call. Several neighbors had called 911 to report that a man was beating a woman in the front yard with a stick. The woman, they said, was his girlfriend. A few minutes later the girlfriend called in.

GIRLFRIEND (screams): He just broke my car window!
911 OPERATOR: I can’t hear you. What?
GIRLFRIEND (sobbing and screaming): Oh! He just broke my car window—
911 OPERATOR: Are you injured?
GIRLFRIEND: Come quick! He’s got a gun!

Sergeant Prendes arrived at the residence, three backup units close behind. He was met in the front yard by the tearful girlfriend, her mother, and her brother. The suspect, they told him, a young man in his twenties whom newspapers later described as “an aspiring rap artist,” had retreated inside the house. The front door had been left wide open.

The officers approached cautiously, by the book. But they hadn’t even gotten halfway up the walk when the suspect, deep inside the shadows of the open doorway, opened fire with a high-powered knock-off assault rifle, striking Prendes pointblank.

He reeled backward, shouting “I’m hit!” before he collapsed. Under the barrage of automatic weapon gunfire, the other officers were forced to take cover behind an old Volvo at the curb in order to return fire, but not before the gunman had fired three rounds, execution-style, into Sergeant Prendes’s head.

The suspect, it seemed to everyone at the scene, had gone mad.

He ran upstairs and continued firing down at the officers out of the windows, firing, reloading, firing and reloading: forty-two deadly rounds. The cops returned fire, sixty-three rounds, but the gunman had an advantage with his shielded position.

Bystanders, screaming, scattered and tried to take cover. One officer threw himself over a prone bystander even as the bullets tore into the ground around him. No one there thought, or would let themselves believe, that Prendes was dead. Rescuing the wounded officer was foremost in their minds, more than subduing the gunman or getting out of this alive. They decided, to a man, to rush the house.

Two Hours Later, University Medical Center, Trauma Center.
I in street clothes ,outside of the trauma center. We milled around numbly, sometimes shaking hands, sometimes hugging each other, all united by a feeling of disbelief and unreserved sorrow. For hours cops kept arriving to stand with one another, drinking in not just the sorrow but warming themselves through the sense of unity such tragedy brings. Now and then bursts of laughter could be heard as those who had known Henry related funny anecdotes about something he had said or done, making him alive again, if only for that moment.

Sergeant Prendes was one of the few officers who were Las Vegas natives, a hometown boy who’d been the captain of his high school football team. He was a family man, married, with two teenage daughters, and very active in his church. He was an avid golfer, an outdoorsman, a Dallas Cowboy fan, a joke teller with an irrepressible sense of humor. We all knew him as a fourteen-year police veteran and a good cop. He was just thirty-seven years old.

In the growing crowd I came upon one of the officers who had been at the scene. His pants were torn at the knees where he had dropped down into a kneeling shooting stance. The acrid smell of gunsmoke wafted from his shirt.

“What finally happened?” I asked him. He told me.

Every cop at the scene of this raging gun battle knew that their ballistic vests would not protect them from the power of an assault weapon, the unrelenting fusillade such a lethal weapon let loose.

Each man knew that the next moment might very well be his last. But their comrade, their fellow officer, was lying on his back in plain sight, a pool of dark blood spreading across the walkway beneath him. They prepared to advance, to break cover. Then, like a scene out of an old Western movie, a plainclothes officer with the Gang Crimes unit arrived. He was armed with an assault rifle, an AR-15.

He started firing almost before he got out of his car, and he kept firing even after he was shot in the leg. The tide turned. The suspect was ballistically overpowered; the six cops on the scene advanced; and the suspect ran down the stairs and into the front yard, spraying the neighborhood with lethal rounds. But the wounded officer shot him, staggering him. Despite his wounds, the suspect stood and continued his assault.

Another officer armed with a 12-gauge broke cover and calmly marched toward the gunman, firing blast after blast until he was out of ammo, then reloaded on the move, continuing his march into the sights of the gunman. Other officers were firing from their positions, and suddenly the gunman fell, his body coming to rest just a few feet from the motionless body of Sergeant Henry Prendes.

The cop now standing in front of me told me he ran to his fallen friend and pulled him to safety, out of the kill zone, in case there was a second armed suspect. But there was no other gunman and Prendes was already dead.

It was over as suddenly as it began. Pungent gunsmoke filled the air. Nothing but absolute silence until one of the bystanders started whimpering and one of the cops shouted,“Is anyone else hit?”

Then, of course, a chorus of approaching sirens.

The cop stopped the story there and looked away, shrugged. I didn’t know what to say. One of the bosses came out of the trauma center to let us know that the wounded officer, the Gang Crimes Bureau officer, was going to be okay. There was scattered applause at this, some good news in a bleak day. I turned to my companion, buthe was already headed back to his patrol car, his gait unnaturally stiff.

I called after him but he didn’t turn around.

I was scheduled to work the graveyard shift that night. I arrived early at my area command to find most of the cops in my shift already there, glued to the TV in the briefing room, where news coverage of the shoot-out continued unabated. Sergeant Prendes was the first cop in our department murdered in the line of duty in nearly two decades, which was just a few years less than most of these young officers had been alive.

This was their first experience with the shooting death of a fellow officer, and the tension, an almost physical entity, enveloped me as I walked through the door. Some of the younger cops muttered oaths each time a reference was made to the killer or his “aspirations.” But it was the older cops who caught my attention. They simply stood or sat, their posture rigid, their eyes downcast whenever mention was made of Sergeant Prendes.

The young ones felt the anger; the older ones felt the sense of loss.

The undersheriff stood with our captain at the front of the briefing room. Though each had experienced this type of tragedy before, the strain was evident on their somber faces. I thought, for the first time, that the undersheriff looked older than his years. The two did their best to calm the young ones, to bring a sense of normalcy to the briefing, but when the cops filed out to their patrol cars, they were seething with an anger and a grief they couldn’t put words to.

My friend from the diner and I had once tried to dissect this feeling and had decided, on e long evening over a lot of beers, that a change happens in cops when one of their own is killed. It is a grief without a name or a border, a pervasive sadness that sinks into your soul so deep it can never be exorcised.

I could only watch, share their grief without acknowledgment, and hope that one day each would be able to come to terms in his or her own way. For I have learned as a cop that no one can really share his pain with others; at best, we can just experience the same thing silently, side by side.

I buckled my worn and creaking leather holster and headed into the parking lot. But before I stepped into my supervisor’s wagon, I stopped and looked around and, just to be sure, I yanked my .45 out of the holster, slipped the magazine out, and drew the slide back, making sure I had a round chambered before I seated the magazine and reholstered.

“Just relax,” I told myself. But it wasn’t going to be easy, not tonight. I knew that no cop could be ready when up against someone who really wanted to kill us. This is where we differ from the military. We have to switch from being Officer Friendly to Rambo in about an eighth of a second. We have to go from smiling to pulling the trigger in less than two seconds. We have to be lucky or have some weird sixth sense guiding us into the most banal-to-deadly situations imaginable. Even though I’ve lived the life of a cop for almost thirty years, I felt the adrenaline begin to pump as I began my patrol.

Somewhere around two a.m. I walked back to my car after conferring with an officer and a witness to a minor burglary and I saw the clouds part. There was one bright, even radiant, star blazing away through the gash in the cloud cover. I leaned against the open door of my black and white, gazing at its brilliance. “Here’s to you, Henry,” I saluted him. “I won’t forget you, my friend. None of us will.” And that’s a promise.

Six days after his gruesome death, Sergeant Henry Prendes was laid to rest.

Funerals, it seems to me, are the one occasion when cops truly honor each other. All petty animosities and jealousies are forgotten. The rituals that walk alongside our deaths are vital, not only to the families of our fallen but to all who wear a badge and who share its joys and burdens. The mournful wail of the bagpipes as “Amazing Grace” fills the heavy air becomes our collective tears. The glint of sunlight sparkling off the bugle as taps plays causes us to blink as one, momentarily blinded by our almost illogical faith in humanity.

The twenty-one guns fired in unison by the stone-faced honor guard breaks their reserve and their falling tears betray their rigid posture and stoic expression. Even those of us who do not pray, pray. We pray that our fallen fellow not be forgotten; we pray that our presence on this earth will not have been in vain.

More than five thousand people joined together in the memorial service for Henry Prendes, and more lined the procession route, proudly holding their hands over their hearts as the miles of police cars, from every corner of the nation, filed by with their overhead lights flashing in silent homage. It was during these brief and beautiful
moments that our community and our cops were one. One in spirit, one in all the beliefs that mattered. So when I heard one earnest young newsman call the killing of Sergeant Prendes a senseless act, I thought to myself that he was wrong. Senseless means in vain and that’s the worst way to condemn a good man to obscurity.

In the death of our brave cop we must search for sense. We must embrace the unity that his death inspired, for it is that unity that can defeat “senselessness.” Even the most insidious evil can be faced, battled, an d overcome when the righteous stand strong and together.

The killer? No one will remember his name. Obscurity is his eternal condemnation.

I refuse to believe that Sergeant Henry Prendes died in vain that blustery Las Vegas day. His sacrifice stands for all that we as law enforcement officers embrace: courage, duty, and, above all, honor.

From "True Blue: To Protect and Serve by Lt. Randy Sutton." Copyright 2008.  Reprinted by permission of the author and St. Martin's Press.

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