On March 22, 2011, two Athens-Clarke County police officers were shot in the line of duty, following a lead on a kidnapping and carjacking by a subject known to them. Senior Police Officer Tony Howard was shot in the face and shoulder, underwent surgery, and has since returned to work, though not patrol. Senior Police Officer Elmer “Buddy” Christian died on the scene, killed before he could even open the door to his patrol car, shot through his driver’s side window by the fleeing suspect. Four days later, the subject surrendered under a blanket of television cameras and microphones, reveling in his newfound publicity as a cop-killer. Thousands of people turned out for SPO Christian’s funeral, lining miles of road between the ceremony and the cemetery to pay their respects to the horse-drawn hearse draped in the American flag; and the mourning family that followed behind, including SPO Christian’s wife, Melissa, and their two young children.
We were living out of state at the time of the tragedy, and I remember following the unfolding drama as best I could on my iPhone, through the ACC scanner, the news, and text updates. I didn’t cry, which surprised me. Officer Down. I could only feel rage, resignation, and slightly relieved – because it wasn’t my husband on the news. (And afterward, guilty for feeling that way.) My husband knew SPO Christian, went to a couple of training sessions with him. The community really stepped up for the family in the aftermath of his death, donating time and money to see that SPO Christian’s dream of taking care of his family – to build a family home, to send his children to school, to make sure they want for nothing. It’s a shame that his dream was realized so quickly, without him here to see it, under the circumstances.
354 spent four years in a city that was like a Hollywood set – pretty on the main street surface, but get off the beaten path and find nothing but ramshackle construction and dark corners. Nine housing projects and four trailer parks within 10.5 square miles and a frequent stop on the pill trail up from Florida. The census data is never correct because there’s no telling who actually lives where or for how long. Usually there were no more than four officers plus a supervisor on shift because it was all the city would spend for the officers on duty – there was no more in the budget for additional officers, a common reply – and some you couldn’t trust for backup. I did my best not to worry when he left for work, but I did a lot of praying, and a lot of listening to the scanner app on my phone. He made sure to call or text me when he could, and I tried not to call him every five minutes to check up, in case I’d be interrupting him while he was on a call. There were some dicey calls that he called in the middle of, if he had a chance, to let me know what was going on and that he was okay; often I wouldn’t get a call until after things had calmed down. I never got a call from another officer, or from dispatch, to let me know that something had gone wrong and that I could meet him at the hospital; and I never got someone showing up at the house to take me somewhere to be there when he woke up. I had a dream, while he was on duty one night, that he got shot and was in a coma. I woke myself up, crying, and couldn’t bring myself to call him and make sure he was okay, because what if he wasn’t? I finally managed to send him a text, and got an almost-immediate response, but he still came home the next morning to find me wide-awake in the bed, waiting on him. He never left the house, or hung up the phone, or stopped texting me, without saying “I love you,” no matter how tired or pissed off or tense we were with each other. It was unthinkable that the one night we didn’t say it would be the night that would change everything, and neither of us wanted to live through the aftermath of that possibility knowing that we hadn’t told each other the most important thing.
It takes a special breed to be married to a law enforcement officer, a subset of the species that is the support base for public safety and military in general. You must be thick-skinned, to withstand the stresses of not exactly knowing when your spouse will be home or what’s going on while they’re on call, to shake off the rude comments and invasive questions that strangers will inevitably pose if they find out you’re married to a cop, to ignore the demands and hopeful requests from friends who hope you can somehow get their ticket reduced or thrown out, even though they might have been going twenty over in a 45, but what’s the big deal? You have to be self-sufficient, to some degree, because you are all things while your spouse is on shift – an off day can prove useful for the big projects, but the daily tasks like dishes and laundry and car maintenance and grocery shopping is largely on your shoulders. If you’re a parent, you must often be mom and dad, because Daddy’s asleep because he worked last night, let’s go to the park so you can play and we won’t wake him, okay? You must be okay with a limited social circle, because some people cannot be trusted, and a lot of people won’t understand the quirks that your husband possesses, like a requirement to sit facing the door at a restaurant and his habit of watching every single person that goes by the table, and no, we can’t eat there because there’s a strong possibility of running into some people he’s arrested. Most of all, you must be stronger than anyone imagines, because you don’t know, and you can’t afford to speculate or you’ll never get off your ass and get things done.
Because it is the first anniversary of his death, the local paper did a “look back” with SPO Christian’s widow, Melissa. They married in 1996, bought property in the next county in 2000, had two children, and planned their lives together, including their dream house to be built on the other side of the treeline. Melissa recounts her goings-on the day that Buddy was killed, including not being able to see her husband until the Friday after, and the voicemail that he left on her phone that she didn’t listen to until that afternoon. “Hey babe — checking with you to see how you’re doing. Love you.”
I can’t read those words without crying uncontrollably.
I can’t imagine what Melissa must have been going through when she got back to the vet school and was met by all those people. Scratch that: I don’t want to imagine it. Selfish, yes, but I can hear the same words that Buddy left for his wife in my husband’s voice. He left me voicemails often that were to the same tune when he was on duty, called me and I couldn’t get to the phone in time. I don’t want to think of all those calls that went right that could’ve gone wrong. I don’t want to think of someone coming to get me at home because my husband was shot and killed in the line of duty by some lowlife drug runner with no honor and no sense or care. No one wants to be the sudden widow, center of everyone’s curiosity and sympathy, trying to field the endless lines of people while she comforts her children and tries to shut down her brain’s useless lines of thought so she can attempt to function. But for all of us, it has to happen to someone.
My husband is the light of my life. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to me if that light were snuffed out. If my child were left without a father.
God bless you, Melissa, and all the other spouses who’ve lost their officers. We think of you, and them, every day. Thank you for taking the unwanted burden with outward grace so that the rest of us don’t have to. We are here for you.