Lyons, Colorado is a small community nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains and is known as the "Double Gateway" to the Rockies. This is because Highway 66 ends at the west of town offering Highway 7 on the left and Highway 36 on the right. Both of these highways lead up the St. Vrain Canyons into Estes Park (my stomping grounds) and eventually into the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lyons has never been a large town and in those days it was the home to mostly lower income families and a few higher income families who resided on the hills above town. Bikers frequented the old Red Hill Saloon but they rarely caused problems, at least not in town. We mostly dealt with domestics, car accidents, and drunk drivers.
In the mid 80's, at the tender age of 18 or 19, I was introduced to a career in law enforcement when I signed up for a police cadet program with the Town of Lyons. After I turned 21 I was sworn in as an officer. Today, I find that absolutely insane. At the risk of making a blanket statement, most people (at 21) don’t have the life experience or maturity needed to make split second, potentially life altering decisions.
Being a car guy, I remember the first patrol cars I rode in were an ‘82-83 Dodge Diplomat and a ‘86 Ford LTD. During traffic stops (specifically at night) it was my job to run back to the LTD and press the gas pedal before the engine died. The alternator wasn’t powerful enough to handle the electrical demand with all the lights on and oftentimes we had to turn the headlights or rotators off to keep it running. A far cry from today’s patrol cars that have more lights than the Vegas strip.
Not long after donning my cadet uniform and claiming the shotgun seat of the LTD, I had my first traumatic experience. In the early morning hours, Dispatch aired a car accident over the radio and we were off. It was one of the first times ever running code and I was pumped! Afterall, this adrenaline rush is what I signed up for!
When we arrived on scene it was immediately apparent a vehicle missed a curve, traveled off Highway 36 and subsequently hit a tree at the bottom of a 150-200 foot (approx.) embankment. We later determined the car was airborne the entire time and was traveling at a high rate of speed when it left the road.
Upon searching the car we found it unoccupied and my first thought was the driver somehow got out and must be in the area. After searching around the car we found, who we determined to be a passenger, seemingly propped up against a nearby tree. Almost as if he walked to it, sat down and died. It was very clear by his condition that he hadn't but was freakishly thrown there. There was very little blood considering what had occurred and it suggested he died on impact. We found the driver in some tall grass later that morning when the sun came up and to this day I’m not sure how he got to where he was.
The investigation revealed that upon impact both occupants were presumably thrown through the windshield. This in itself was freakish because the car was a Datsun Z series (240, 260 or 280) and the openings on either side of the tree were small. I worked for a local garage & towing company during high school and had seen many mangled cars recovered from the canyons. But none were as mangled as this one. The damage was so severe the only way I could determine the make and model was from the car’s tail lights. The engine’s camshaft (an internal engine part) was pushed through the back of the valve cover and firewall. I recall being baffled by that because it seemed so defined.
I had never seen anything that graphic or violent and I was shocked and amazed at the same time. My experience with seeing deceased persons was limited to a funeral or two. Both the driver and passenger were a few years older than me and it made me think about all the times I raced up and down that same canyon. I navigated that curve dozens of times, at a high rate of speed, going home after cruising Main Street in Longmont. In addition to everything else going on that morning, I was experiencing a lesson in mortality.
I learned from watching my FTO (Field Training Officer) and the volunteer firefighters that it was time to get to work and clean things up. We did just that. When we were finished and returned to the patrol car I remember my FTO explaining how to mentally drive through situations such as these and not to dwell on them. This was the initial stage of learning to push down emotions and not allow them to bother me. Little did I know that experience would be just the first of many violent fatalities I would be exposed to throughout my career. But using his advice, the more I was exposed to traumatic events the easier it became. Today, I know it was horrible advice but it’s how we learned to deal with the shitty part of the job.
After I went home later that morning I struggled to sleep due to racing thoughts of what I had just experienced. I thought about how that could have easily been me and about how their families were about to be devastated by the news they would soon receive. I was able to doze off for a while but when I awoke it was the first thing on my mind. I now know my brain was trying to process it but I was trying to stuff it away just like my FTO told me to. It was a conflicting battle but I won. Or so I thought.
The town later contracted with the Boulder County Sheriff's Office to police the community and the Lyons PD was disbanded. During my time there I thought the Lyons PD was the epitome of all police departments but now know it was far from it. With the exception of a very brief academy offered by the Boulder Sheriff’s Office, there was little practical training and absolutely no mental health awareness. But that's just how it was then.
If you’re an aspiring police officer, or any type of 1st responder, choose your agency wisely. The fact that no one wants to do these jobs anymore actually presents more opportunities allowing people to be more selective. Among other things, search out agencies that support mental health well being as much as any other type of mandatory training. Don’t be afraid or challenged by the stigma surrounding 1st responder mental health awareness. Also, ask questions regarding financial protection in the event you’re permanently injured (physically or mentally) as a result of your job.
Finally, don’t think if you go to work for a smaller agency you won’t be exposed to traumatic events as much and your risk of injury is less. One case, such as the Watts homicides, is enough to profoundly affect anyone due to PTS or PTSD. Add that to an accumulation of unprocessed bad cases and you’ll find yourself in trouble. Be smart and stay safe.