Bad Dreams and Police Work

Bad Dreams go with the territory of being a cop.

Over the years, my dreaming of pursuits, foot chases, and shootouts with malfunctioning weapons and bulletproof bad guys have subsided, but it doesn’t take much to reawaken the demons. A good cop movie can do it, and so can a session of telling war stories with an old partner.

Writing my Memoir

As I wrote Nothing Left to Prove, all the deadly encounters I survived on the streets of South Los Angeles, and many of the horrific crimes I witnessed, were necessarily revisited in great detail. The result was not unexpected: restless nights peppered with incoherent ramblings and sudden outbursts of fear or rage.

My wife is neither surprised nor pleased with the renewed cycle of bad dreams.

The action-packed years of working patrol in a violent community provide much of the material for these dreams. The years spent investigating death account for others. The commonality is that all of the dreams are twisted into bizarre situations that rarely resemble reality.

A couple of nights ago I had a dream so vivid and troublesome that I recalled every detail of it when I awoke. That is unusual for me.

In my dream, I was back on the job working Homicide. I don’t mean the dream took me back to those days; rather, in the dream, I actually left the tranquility of retirement and returned to Los Angeles to investigate murders, for some inexplicable reason.

My old partner and I were walking across the front of an apartment complex, doing some type of detective work that really wasn’t clear to me in the dream. We were both dressed in suits and I wore my fedora, so clearly, we were O-T-J when we stumbled upon a child’s shoe protruding from a pipe in the ground. The top of this pipe, which was only about six inches in diameter, sat just slightly above the ground’s surface, and it appeared to be a drain of some sort.

Upon closer examination, I saw that the child’s shoe was connected to a tiny leg. There was a matching shoe next to it, and it, too, was attached to a small leg.

Bad Dream gets Worse

My partner and I each grabbed a shod foot and pulled from this pipe the remains of a little girl. She was blonde, and about four years old.

She closely resembled a child I had come to know two decades earlier through her death, an angel who will always be four and who is never far from my thoughts. A girl with warm eyes and a placid smile, an image that stays with me in a carousel of memories, these few pleasant ones from photographs and videos taken of her before the day we met. The other images contrast sharply, loathsome reflections of her broken body, soaked from the cold, briny water and resting among a formation of craggy rocks, the unyielding evening tide crashing violently around her.

This girl—the one in my real-world detective work—had been murdered by her father, thrown from the end of a cliff above the murky waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The girl in my dream was the same girl, though I knew it couldn’t be. Her mother—someone with whom I’m still in contact twenty years later—also appeared in my dream, dispassionate about the discovery of this girl in the pipe. And that, to me, was more preposterous than the sudden wardrobe change where now I saw myself dressed in black-and-white checked golf shorts beneath shirt sleeves and a tie, and of course, a fedora.

From Bad to Bizarre

In the dream, another team was called out to investigate the case of the girl in the pipe. We showed them what we had found and told them what we knew.

The lead detective—also a real person with whom I once worked—wasn’t as passionate as my partner and I were about this dead girl, and that angered me. Later, in my waking hours, I pondered the apathy of this other detective and the girl’s mother, and I reflected on a part of my memoir where I lamented about these things.

To set the scene, in my memoir I wrote about being pushed to my limits while enduring a six-week preliminary hearing where three skinheads and the mother of one of them stood accused of torturing and murdering a Native American man, ultimately burning him alive.

All of the attorneys in the case seemed completely unmoved by the gravity of why we were there. They were flippant, even jovial among themselves, and the defense attorneys were warm and friendly with the repugnant humans that were their clients. It was only the victim’s ex-wife, her mother, and my partner and I who sat solemnly while the square wheels of justice clomped along.

Part of what I wrote about it in my memoir:

To all of them, it was nothing but a game. It seemed it was only me and those like me who took these processes to heart, and it was killing me. Was it me? Was I wound too tight for the job? Or was everyone else an asshole for being lighthearted about the horrific murder of a decent man?

Back to the Bad Dream

Now here I was, in my dreams, agitated by the indifference of others. Perhaps it was an answer to the question as to whether or not I was wound too tightly for that job.

Detective Smith’s Bad Dream Mode of Transportation

In the next scene, my partner and I had returned to the office, and I realized it was time to go if I wanted to catch the train. Why I wouldn’t have driven home in my county-issued Crown Vic, I haven’t a clue.

But I lit a cigar (which I don’t smoke) and stepped onto my Razor scooter, gloriously dressed in business attire over golf shorts and Birkenstocks, and I began kicking it toward the Metro Rail like any reasonable, mature homicide detective would do.

Perhaps the oddest part of this bad dream was that I remember being thankful that I had returned to my job at Homicide Bureau, thinking I sure could use the money.

And this, my friends, is why the sheriff’s department provides us with shrinks, free of charge.

* * *

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you will share it with your family and friends.


22 thoughts on “Bad Dreams and Police Work

  1. Danny,

    Dreams sure have a macabre way sometimes, don’t they. Coming across this vlog is eery because I have been fixated on trying to prove to the masses through social media that parents, may in fact, murder/get away with murdering their children (average age of 5) more than we understand. (There’s a 2011 study on this that I’m trying to get an update for through the professor and her team who created it.) Anyway, I can’t imagine being at the forefront of it all during an investigation. I have seen some pretty bad things as a ground searcher (search and rescue org) – so I do sympathize. Looking forward to reading more and understanding your side of the fish bowl. Hope the dreams settle down for you.

  2. I don’t understand why my comment was dismissed. If you do not want to understand how dreams function, that’s fine. Just don’t try and sell the public on how much you “care”.

    1. Nobody dismissed anything, Martin. Perhaps you’re a little impatient or oversensitive. All posts have to be reviewed before they get posted due to haters. I had just read and was about to approve your previous post when this popped up. And Martin, don’t you dare ever lecture anyone who has walked in my shoes about whether or not they care.

      1. Since my father was a murder victim whose crime was hindered by police corruption (as in being owned by organized crime ) I think I will lecture any cop about caring whenever I feel inclined to. And since I spent a more than a few years doing crime victims work I think that pushes the needle out a little further with regards to who can lecture who on defining the degrees of caring (mine does not stop at a blue line, job or pension) . I do apologize for thinking my comment had been rejected. And I promise not to bother to help you with the dreams as I’m sure you have a handle on that. It’s just PTSD. Isn’t that how they all explain it?. Until one actually leads to providing a clue or two to solve a case.

      2. I appreciate your being noble and printing my follow-up. The first post has a few errors. Its first sentence should read ” murder victim whose case”. The second…”spent more than a few”. Being a victim’s son I am still hampered by emotion which affects my writing. If you would like some insight into how some dreams work, please contact me at my email address. If there is another victim that needs your help, the girl you cared about may be returning the favor. Try and think outside the box but not too far outside…it will drive you wacky.
        Take care.

  3. It somewhat surprises me still that detectives look at all information as possible clues with regards to crimes but refuse to examine dreams they have with the same intensity. Why do you assume the dream was about you? And why did you not consider that the little girl you cared about might be helping you solve another crime? Crack through the symbols and you might just find you were seeing real life.
    And that real life was the life of a murderer.

  4. Yep. Not anything of value I can add really. Just want to validate that what you are stating is real. Actually, I’ll add this: I know guys who played college , and even pro, football. They have suffered physical damage that will be with them for the rest of their lives. They can only manage it as best they can. I also know a few guys who boxed well into their young adult lives. Same thing. I never knew any proffesional bull riders, but I suspect they suffer as much, or even more, as any in this area. Cops/investigators who have dealt with consistently heavy (read “ugly”) loads–and even occasional heavy loads–pay their own price.

  5. I know and understand your concerns. After working headquarters child abuse JIB back then as a deputy and later as a Sergeant and handling these crimes at the station level while in patrol I have several of these cases that I still can recall almost ever detail, mostly the bad ones. After a recall I have to keep telling myself I did my best to bring the suspects to be held to answer. Some things just stay with us forever.

    1. Absolutely, Brenda. The thing is that we all have these things and we all need to be honest about it. I’m getting more private messages than you could imagine with people relating to this blog or my memoir, cops and nurses and other first responders who suffer and struggle at times. We try to hold it together, but it would be better if we were all more honest. That’s what I hope my memoir will do for some.

  6. Yeah, Danny, those bad dreams … Those old ghosts keep sneaking back to haunt our sleep, don’t they? I, like most cops have them too. The one I think most officers have is being in some life and death shooting situation, drawing your gun, and then trying to squeeze the trigger, which remains frozen. I related that dream years ago to a guy who was a retired CPD detective and he said, “I thought I was the only copper who had that dream.” Those crimes involving children were the worst. Keep in mind you stood for those who couldn’t stand for themselves. And you always gave it your best. Stay strong.

  7. Thank you for writing this. It sort of helps me at least realize I’m not weird. I certainly wasn’t exposed to the amount of stuff you were, but the dreams are sure real enough…especially the dead kids upon whom unspeakable horrors had been committed. THE worst is a little girl who along with both her parents and grand mother were killed by a neighbor…she asks me why didn’t I prevent it?? I know of course there was no way I could, but it’s an interesting guilt trip anyway. I have to admit I don’t read your books any longer because they are too realistic and “trigger” these things. I have your “Nothing Left to Prove” on my shelf which I hope to read someday.

  8. Revisiting old memories, and especially those that involved the loss of human life, are never easy. The justice system should be more impartial to the suffering of the victims, and your outburst of righteous anger at witnessing such nonchalant actions by lawyers is an example of how justice needs changes. Not the changes the far-left wants, because in reality their dream is of an America where law and order is replaced with anarchy and rampant crime. The changes I wish happened is a more strict focus on punishing serious criminals, and for those that hurt the innocent and especially children, I wish public beatings were legal to say the least. Your book is definitely a treasure-trove of insight into the defining moments of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Riots chapter was a tear-jerker, because your personal story captured the fear of many loved ones of First Responders who prayed for their safety and protection in a city where violence and evil roamed to no end . That Lieutenant really needed to see the Los Angeles skyline during those dark days to see the true gravity of the situation. Hoping you and your loved ones are in good health and safe from the latest Covid-19 wave. 🙏

      1. Just listened to your interview with Sticks good stuff.38 years in the job and 29 after PTSD diagnosis. Good doc helped me figure it out.Still lotta dreams though that go bump in the night time. Good times!

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