Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Defense Mechanism

I was just sending my end of the day wrap to the boss, having just landed at home after a long day in the field, when the magnitude of what I was a part of today hit me like a ton of bricks.

When I got paged out to cover the massive police sweep of Hoyt Park early this afternoon, I guess I went into the story with my "happy ending" sights set pretty low. Let's face it -- Steven Weber, the guy police were searching the heavily forested, cave-ridden, 27-acre park for, had already murdered his ex-wife before going on the lam. When cops found his truck at the park this morning, the best case scenario we could hope for was that they would find him alive and he could be tried for his heinous act.

From there, the possible scenarios got grimmer. Police could find Weber dead by his own hand, which they eventually did, but at least the situation is resolved now and no one else has been hurt. But police could also have found nothing, leaving an armed and dangerous fugitive on the loose. Or, there were the nightmare scenarios, where Weber could have elected to take a hostage or shoot it out with the cops.

So yeah, I went into my work day today with some low expectations.

Nothing that happened today could undo Francie Weber's murder. Nothing could erase the years of domestic abuse that lead up to it or the impact it had on the couple's children. As a reporter on a breaking story, I have to accept the old facts and focus on getting the new ones straight so I can relay them to the public. I have to push the tragedy that has already unfolded out of my mind long enough to do my part to keep it from turning into a bigger tragedy.

Duty is a fine defense mechanism, though anyone who's seen me in a tense situation will tell you I rely just as heavily on a dark sense of humor which sometimes verges on inappropriate. I get that from my Dad, who once quipped, "This is great, I've always wanted a convertible," as paramedics cut away the roof of the car that was literally wrapped around him, mangled when another vehicle ran a stop sign at 70 miles an hour and broadsided my Dad in his driver's side door.

In a standoff or other "hurry up and wait" situations like today, there's ample time to yuck it up with cops and other reporters stuck at the same scene. There's nothing disrespectful intended in it, and I opine that there's nothing wrong with it if it's done discreetly and without crossing the line. Many in law enforcement and the press share that same strong defense mechanism, I've learned, and as they say, misery loves company.

For instance, I was part of a cadre of press and cops that spent 15 minutes or so delighting in the predicament of a pizza delivery driver this afternoon who had a delivery assigned to him within the police perimeter and couldn't get the deliveree to answer his or her cell phone. After all of our snickering and goading, the driver actually took us up on our offer, and we bought the pizza off him on the cheap and tipped generously.

Eating Glass Nickle pizza out the back of Channel 3's news van was as surreal as it was hilarious -- and necessary too, because most of us hadn't eaten in quite some time.

And as long as we're on the subject of food, I found something else to be particularly heartening today. I eventually settled on a vantage point a little further down the block, with another police officer and a few other reporters, and we spent most of the afternoon camped on that corner. Elation is the best way to describe the reaction when a neighbor brought out, first, a tray of drinks and, later, a plate of elaborately constructed ham sandwiches.

The random generosity of the kindly woman who lives next to Capital City Church on Blackhawk Avenue felt, at the time, like the stuff of legends.

But it was at that corner that I met Madison Police Officer Jxxxxxk, who had been on duty since 5:30 in the morning. After sharing that corner for only a couple hours, we were delighting not only in speculating what grim scenarios might be unfolding in the hills and houses to our west, but also in ripping on each other relentlessly.

When a series of loud pops echoed out of the bluffs around 6:35 PM, Jxxxxxk instinctively dropped to a crouch, hand on his gun butt, and I drew pen and microphone with equal ferocity. The moment passed, and we determined the sound was gas canisters discharging in the park's caves, designed to smoke a suspect out of hiding.

But that's the way the mechanism is supposed to work. It doesn't interfere with the job, it just keeps you from losing your head while you're doing it. If we had spent the day focusing on the horrors of a repeated domestic abuse case taken to the final extreme, we'd have been miserable, and not very capable of doing our jobs.

So I survived the day with nothing more harrowing than a serious sunburn, and Jxxxxxk eventually got home to his three kids. And this is where the tough part begins, because now we have to turn the defense mechanisms off.

We have to do that because to neglect to do so does a disservice to the two people who weren't dead three days ago but are now. It's disrespectful to their families, for whom the real suffering is only just beginning. And leaving those defense mechanisms on all the time is not healthy for us, could in fact choke the humanity out of us eventually, turning us into the worst incarnations of our respective professions.

Tomorrow, back in the shelter of the news room, we start the task of asking the bigger questions. Why did this slimeball Weber think it was okay to beat on his wife and kids the way he did? Why was he allowed out on a measly 500 dollars bail after he was charged with one particularly awful case of domestic violence? How many other Webers are there out there committing atrocities we don't even know about?

And how do we stop this from happening?


Tim Morrissey said...

Good stuff, Dusty. Cinematic; gripping. There should be a mechanism for you to podcast this work (NOT via the terrestrial stream of 1670) and give the content a wider audience. Well-said. All of us in the biz know about that "defense mechanism", but your illustration is superior!

Swoon Queen said...

An bittersweetly beautiful, evocative post.

Let's hope that the bigger questions are asked in the media, so that people who are currently doing what Steven Weber was doing for years get a sense that their actions are not going to be passively condoned by low bail or glossing over the real facts about domestic violence.

Emily said...

I, too, come from the school of using dark humor to deal with intense situations, so I can relate.

Well-said, as always, and I'm glad there are folks like you on these cases, tough as they are.

And I agree: Now comes the part where the community and its media must demand answers, and search for more effective ways to prevent things like this from happening in the first place.