Fallen Officer’s Items Returned to Widow
After Decade in Police Property Room
By Maryanne Pope
Updated April 15th, 2014
When I was back in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta in May 2011, I met up with Darren, the police officer who was with my husband, John, the night he died in September 2000. Darren was the K-9 officer who went into the warehouse with John, also a police officer, to investigate a break and enter complaint.
When Darren first arrived at the warehouse, he’d found John and his partner, Lil, their Sergeant, Rick, and several other team mates waiting for him in the parking lot.
Darren got out of his vehicle, pointed straight at John and said, “You — let’s go!”
Darren chose John because he’d personally trained John in recruit class how to safely and effectively search buildings. Darren had to choose someone and John was it. So in they went.
Inside the warehouse, Darren and his dog searched the main level as John went up a wooden ladder to search the mezzanine area, where he stepped through a false ceiling, fell nine feet into the lunchroom below and hit his head on the concrete floor. Darren found John and immediately resuscitated him, which meant John was put on life support and subsequently able to donate four organs to transplant recipients. John himself succumbed to brain injuries that same day.
As for the warehouse, not only was it dark — no sensor lighting was in effect — there was no safety railing in place to warn John of the false ceiling. He had taken a single fatal step from a safe surface to an unmarked, unsafe surface. Unfortunately, a chair had been left in the middle of the lunchroom the day before, so when John fell, the back of his legs hit the chair and projected his upper body downward at such a force and angle that the impact of his head striking the ground caused a massive brain injury.
There ended up being no intruder in the building; it was a false alarm.
Those were the basic facts we, the founding members of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund (JPMF) — a charity that raises public awareness about why and how people can make their workplaces safer for everyone, including emergency responders — were given to work with.
The artifacts on the other hand, the physical evidence from the night of John’s fall, wouldn’t come my way for more than a decade. As it would turn out, the timing was perfect.
For in those eleven years, the JPMF had been very productive. Our five 30-second public service announcements (PSAs) had aired on TV more than half a million times. Our campaign, Put Yourself in Our Boots, brought all our safety messages, including a powerful 10-minute video, onto one DVD that was being shown in presentations and safety meetings across North America.
As John’s widow and Board Chair of the JPMF, I’d personally delivered dozens of public presentations on the circumstances that led to John’s death and the Fund’s safety initiatives. The purpose of these presentations — also being given by other members of the JPMF — was to raise awareness about potential workplace hazards facing emergency responders and to help prevent injuries and fatalities to the living.
Nothing I said or did will bring John back. And I certainly didn’t need to be telling rooms full of strangers about the graphic details of his death — over and over again — to keep his memory alive. If anything, the presentations re-opened memories better left in the vault.
Yet I continued to speak publicly about John’s death. Why? To provide a personal perspective on the broader societal issue of workplace safety – because according to OH&S experts, this strategy significantly increases the chance an educational message will not only be heard, it may actually lead to behaviour change…and that’s what we’re after.
But perhaps you detect a note of irritation in my attitude towards giving these heart-wrenchingly exhausting presentations? If so, you’d be right – which might be why I wasn’t given the physical reminders of John’s fall until nearly eleven years after his death. Apparently, I needed them.
From a practical perspective, police policy had required that, due to the possibility of criminal or civil action in the years following John’s death, the service held onto all evidence from the incident — from the uniform John was wearing and the flashlight he’d been holding, to the broken pieces of ceiling tile he brought down with him — for a decade.
Since the ten year anniversary of John’s death was in September 2010, the police service released the items from the property room to Darren at that time, so he could give them to me at some point, as I no longer lived in Calgary. That time came in May 2011.
Prior to Darren giving me the items, however, we had a little chat over coffee.
“I’m really struggling with continuing to give these presentations about John’s death,” I admitted. “I just don’t know how healthy it is to keep reliving the worst moments of my life and the last ones of John’s.”
Darren nodded but didn’t say anything. So I continued.
“I still get really anxious before speaking and it takes so much energy in the days leading up to it. I just don’t even know if it’s worth the effort anymore.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “So let me ask you this: since you and the JPMF have already accomplished so much, could you stop now?”
“No,” I heard myself say.
“Because we’re just getting started…thousands of people die on the job every year. It’s ridiculous.”
“But what does that have to do with you?”
“Well, I know what it’s like to lose a loved one way too early,” I said. “And I guess that comes across in my presentations.”
“And hearing about my experience just might make someone in the audience think differently about workplace safety — and then actually act on it.”
“Then there’s your answer.”
I sighed. “So I just gotta keep stepping up to the plate, huh?”
Darren nodded. “It’s the right thing to do – and you guys are doing it. It’s that simple.”
“But not easy.”
“No,” he said, smiling gently. “But I think you knew that going in.”
After coffee, we went to his car and he opened up the back hatch. I breathed in sharply. There was the chair — one leg bent at an awkward angle from the force of John’s legs hitting it. Darren pulled the chair out and handed it to me.
“In my presentations,” I said, taking the chair, “I call this the nail in John’s coffin because it ensured a nine foot fall didn’t just hurt him — it killed him.”
“I can see you using this chair in your presentations,” Darren said.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t want to emphasize the nail. I want to emphasize the main reason that led to John ending up in a coffin in the first place.”
But of course, there is no physical evidence of that because it never existed. If a safety railing had been in place, John would still be alive.
Next out of Darren’s vehicle were the broken pieces of ceiling tile, long strips of metal flashing still attached. All the other items were in cardboard boxes flagged with neon orange “Biohazard” stickers. It doesn’t take a forensics expert to know decade-old dried blood is the reason for the labels.
“You gonna be okay with all this?” Darren asked as he loaded the last box into my car.
“You know I’m gonna be okay,” I said. “I’ve been okay for a long time.”
He smiled, gave me a big hug and we went our separate ways. And since it was a warm and sunny day, I went to the cemetery where John is buried to go through his boxes.
At his grave, I sat at my usual place on the grass in front of his black granite headstone. I took a deep breath, opened up the lid of the first box and pulled out a brown paper bag. Out came the uniform shirt John had been wearing — ripped open by Darren’s knife so he could perform CPR and get John’s breathing going again.
Darren’s quick actions hadn’t just been of benefit to the recipients of John’s organs; his actions also meant I could be with John as he succumbed to his injuries. Brutally difficult as it was to say good-bye, I’m grateful I had a husband on life support to say it to, versus a corpse.
As I wrote in last month’s blog, Darren had given me his knife at the 2010 press conference launching the JPMF’s Put Yourself in Our Boots campaign, moments before I stepped up to the podium to speak to the media. Just when I’d needed it most, Darren had given me a symbolic reminder of the tools we have within us — our strengths, skills and courage — to use when the time is right.
There at John’s grave, the sun warm on my back, I held his torn shirt up to my face and breathed in deeply. It just smelled…musty. And yet, since it would seem that Darren was some sort of keeper of the keys to my — and John’s — destiny, I suspect he had just given me the next batch of tools I would need for my journey. Determining their meaning and having the wisdom to use them, however, would be up to me.
Like a really lousy Christmas stocking (no chocolate oranges here), nearly every item in the boxes was individually wrapped in a brown paper bag. Out next came John’s pants, also ripped wide open, obviously by medical personnel somewhere along the way. Then out came Darren’s K-9 blood-stained uniform shirt. At first this puzzled me, as I hadn’t expected Darren’s shirt to be in with John’s things.
And then I remembered — from the JPMF’s Put Yourself in Our Boots safety video — Darren mentioning he had bundled up his shirt and used it as a compress to try and stop the bleeding from the back of John’s head. If there was a symbolic meaning in this metaphorical tool, it was compassion.
Out next came the flashlight John had been holding while searching for the suspect. Whoops…no intruder here — false alarm! Sorry for the mix-up. I sighed and lifted my head. The time had come to let my anger go, if for no other reason than because it was no longer serving me.
I looked down again at the flashlight in my hand. Perhaps this was a symbol of the light the JPMF is shining on the issue of workplace safety for emergency responders? The suspect John thought he was searching for turned out not to exist. But a far bigger issue – an unsafe workplace – certainly did.
Next came John’s tool-belt, cut in half. Then his handcuffs. His keys. Notebook. The broken plastic ear-piece for his radio. His socks.
And then I reached into a brown paper bag and pulled out John’s work boots. Of all the items, seeing his boots again hit me the hardest. I realized the JPMF’s safety campaign, Put Yourself in Our Boots, couldn’t have been more aptly named.
The symbol of shoes can be understood as a psychological metaphor; they protect and defend what we stand on – our feet. In archetypal symbolism, feet represent mobility and freedom. In that sense to have shoes to cover the feet is to have the conviction of our beliefs and the wherewithal to act on them.
– Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves
Since the JPMF’s goal is to get the public to think about workplace safety from a different perspective: that of emergency responders who may have to attend a premise during an emergency, we challenge people to imagine themselves in the boots of an emergency responder and take a moment to look around their familiar workplace through the eyes of a firefighter navigating their way through a smoke-filled room, or a police officer searching for a suspect in the dark, or paramedics trying to get their stretcher to a patient.
Sitting at John’s grave, more than a decade after his death, holding his boots in my lap wasn’t just sad, it was surreal. I felt as if I was somewhere in between the living and the dead. Physically, of course, I was — being in a cemetery and all. But it was more than a geographic location I was experiencing. It reminded me of the day I had spent with John in the hospital as he passed between life and death — minus the horrific emotions, psychological trauma and physical effects of shock.
Now that so many years had passed and the wild feelings and manic thoughts of the early years had been transformed into constructive action, I was in a far healthier position to experience this in-between place — and see it for what it was. And when I did, I realized this wasn’t some temporary state; it’s where I live every single day.
For what are we doing through the JPMF but using the dead — John — to motivate the living to make their workplaces safer for more of the living?
John’s life and death, as well as the death of his dream, had been our inspiration in getting the JPMF started. But it is the living — the police officers, firefighters, paramedics, tow truck drivers, peace officers and so on — who motivate us to continue our efforts.
It began to make sense why his boots struck such a chord with me. They weren’t just footwear John happened to be wearing when he died. Rather, they symbolized what he stood for as a police officer – and what the JPMF is striving to protect.
So then why was I struggling so much with the public speaking? I knew I could continue to muster up the energy, courage, strength and empathy needed to give the presentations, as long as I had enough fun and happy things in my life to balance them out — which I did. Rather, the time had come to make the decision as to whether or not I wanted to continue, because the constant self-doubt was exhausting and ineffective.
Right thing to do or not, something was definitely still bothering me. What was I trying to achieve with my presentations? Was I achieving it? Was I just emotionally impacting people with my oh-so-sad story? Or was I also succeeding in getting them to act…change their behaviour by making their workplaces safer for emergency responders who may have to attend?
I’ve learned if you’re going to put questions such as these out to the universe, you will get answers. But it’s the ones that hit you like a punch in the stomach that likely hold the most useful truths.
The next day, I went for coffee with Rick, who was John’s Sergeant at the time of his death. Rick had been at the scene when John fell. Plus Rick had been the family liaison officer assigned to help me navigate through the myriad of decisions and details in the months following John’s death. Rick and I had stayed friends over the years. I told him I’d been to John’s grave to open up the boxes from the property room.
“But John wasn’t there,” I said. “I mean, I know he’s dead but I’ve usually felt his presence when I’ve gone to talk to him at the cemetery. Yesterday, I didn’t feel that.”
“Do you think his spirit has moved on?”
I shook my head. “No. He’s still around. I just think he’s busy doing his thing and I’m doing mine.”
“I’ve seen the Boots ads on TV a lot lately,” he then said. “They really hit home.”
“You guys are making a difference.”
I smiled. “I hope so.”
On the way out to the parking lot, I told him about a comment I’d heard on TV about the difference between communicating with an audience and connecting with one.
Rick stops walking and turns to me. “You connect with people, Maryanne. That’s why your presentations are so effective.”
No punch in the stomach there.
“Thanks,” I said. “But I’m not entirely convinced of that anymore.”
Several weeks after my Calgary trip, I put myself to the test by giving two presentations at a workplace safety conference in Campbell River, BC. The first was a morning keynote address; the second a smaller break-out session in the afternoon.
After my keynote, people came up to me. Some thanked me for sharing my story. Some said they were inspired by my determination to overcome tragedy. Several people mentioned that hearing about John’s death and the JPMF’s safety messages helped them understand safety at their workplace from a different perspective.
All good feedback — but I guess I was, subconsciously, at the point where I wanted to know what the people who hadn’t come up to talk to me afterwards had taken from my presentation. Just before lunch, I walked outside the recreation centre (where the conference was taking place) to enjoy a moment in the sun. I sat on a bench beside a man in his fifties, reading the newspaper.
He put his paper down and looked at me. “Waiting for the kids to finish their swim?”
I smiled. “No.”
He glanced at the nametag around my neck. “Oh…you’re a delegate at the conference.”
He tilted his head. “You’re the speaker from this morning!”
“I didn’t recognize you.”
He was a safety supervisor in the logging industry and full of praise for my presentation. We chatted awhile about life, then got on to spiritual matters and then headed inside to continue our conversation over lunch.
“I believe John’s spirit is still around,” he said, from across the table, “but I think that for whatever reason, you were chosen to experience what you have, so you can share what you’re learning with audiences.”
I nodded and took a bite of lasagne.
“I also think we can learn from John’s actions,” he continued. “Hearing his story is such an important reminder to people to pay attention to where they are stepping.”
And there it was – the punch in the stomach.
After all the detail I had gone through in my ninety minute keynote address, painstakingly explaining the circumstances that led to John’s death and doing my best to articulate that a) John probably couldn’t see where he was stepping because it was so dark; b) he was focused on searching for a suspect and; c) he obviously didn’t know to ‘watch his step’ because there was no safety railing in place to warn him of the danger — the man still hadn’t got my message.
“The point of my presentation,” I said, “was to demonstrate why workplace safety needs to be a shared responsibility. If the police are expected to protect a premise, then the owner of that premise has a responsibility to protect the police by making said premise as hazard-free as possible.”
As in: not a death-trap, dumb-ass! But, of course, that was inside my thought balloon.
Luckily, the man attended the breakout session after lunch where I showed the ten minute safety video and then had a local RCMP officer speak about the various hazards they encounter in people’s workplaces and on the roads.
And I kid you not, I couldn’t have planned this better myself but the RCMP officer actually used his flashlight during his presentation to demonstrate just how difficult it is to search for a suspect in the dark. He stood at the front of the room and waved his flashlight around.
“YOU see this building in everyday circumstances, fully lit,” he said to the audience. “We don’t! We come in to try and protect your premise and all there is for lighting is this flashlight. We can’t see a cord running across the ground, which is a potential trip hazard. We can’t see where a fall might happen, so if a hand railing or safety railing needs to be in place, there damn well better be one!”
Wow, I thought to myself. Now that gets the point across.
Back home again, I called the next best thing to John on matters such as this: Cliff, a close friend of John’s, his recruit classmate, a founding member of the JPMF and its Vice Chair.
“I finally get what you’ve been trying to tell me all these years,” I said to Cliff over the phone. “Now I understand why you’re so adamant we make it clear that John was not in any way at fault in taking that fatal step.”
Because to be honest, I don’t think I had ever fully come to terms with this myself. In the ICU on the day John died, we had many hours together and although I had spent much of it crying while trying to comfort him as he slipped away, there were moments of anger directed at him.
“Why the hell didn’t you look where you were stepping?” I’d asked him at some point in the late afternoon.
Of course, he couldn’t answer me because he was brain-dead by that point. More than a decade later, though, I did get his answer — through Cliff.
“Maryanne, you can’t effectively and safely search a building for a suspect by looking down the whole time,” Cliff explained. “And even if John was looking down at the moment he took that step, he would’ve still taken it because it didn’t look dangerous. That’s the whole point! To him, it looked like he was stepping from a safe surface to another safe surface…so why would he watch his step?”
“So how do you communicate that point in your JPMF presentations?” I asked.
“I stand at the front of the room,” he said, “and when I get to that part, I actually step forward to demonstrate the point, and I say, ‘John took a fatal step from a safe surface to an unsafe one.’ And then I step back and say to the audience, ‘Let me repeat that for you,’ and then I take the step again.”
I sighed. “I’m going to borrow that for my presentations, if you don’t mind.”
“And I’m going to start using a flashlight in mine,” he said.
So, as it turned out, the physical evidence of John’s death kept in the police property room for ten years hadn’t been needed for criminal or civil action. But it had certainly turned out to be useful in encouraging me to keep doing what we’re doing through the JPMF. Lawsuits come and go but education lasts a lifetime.
Anger may be a very valid starting point to make social change but it does not sustain. It’s the positive emotions of joy, of hope, and ultimately of gratitude that allow you and your heart to have staying power.
— Irshad Manji, author of Allah, Liberty and Love
Going through John’s personal items at his grave also made me realize that anger no longer fuels my passion for workplace safety. Although I feel flashes of fury every once and awhile at the unfairness of his life being cut short, the flare-ups burn out as quickly as they start.
What I am feeling more often now is hope. The thought that maybe because of one of our safety messages, a police officer will get to see her child grow up makes me smile. Knowing that a firefighter makes it home safely to his wife or that a paramedic gets to play another round of golf with his brother are outcomes worth striving for.
As for me personally delivering the workplace safety presentations? That came to an end soon after I spoke at the Campbell River conference. It was almost as if I had to learn the extremely valuable lesson about the importance of explaining to people why it is so imperative that they take into consideration the potential hazards that first responders face when entering an unfamiliar premise during an emergency.
For once I had I finally accepted that speaking publicly about John’s death was no longer healthy for me, I was able to pass on that integral lesson to the JPMF speakers…who not only love what they do, they are extremely effective at doing it.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. She is the Founder & CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. Maryanne lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.