27 ANDY KILVINSKY
The New Centurions, 1972, USA, Director Richard Fleischer
1972 was a bad year for the LAPD, not as bad as ‘65 when we had the Watts riots but not good. Most years LA simmers and I have a lot more to worry about than the suicide of retired cops that walk the beat all their lives. But whatever the heat my secretary cleared the diary and I attended the funeral of Andy Kilvinsky. The guy had a decent turnout which is one of the benefits of being employed by LAPD, I suppose, lots of uniforms and plenty of people. There was a good number at the funeral of my father Lieutenant Preston Exley but when I take my final look at the ceiling I expect the Mayor will look at his diary. They will all be there even if most of them hate the guts of Ed Exley.
My secretary may make suggestions about funerals but I decide. I was at the funeral for Kilvinski because a suicide is what the men talk about. The rookie cops look up to the old timers, and we lose enough new recruits as it is. Later, when they are tied into the pension, it’s different. After Kilvinski died I needed to make a statement for all the cops that walk the beat and me being at the funeral was that statement. Suicide in the LAPD is unusual. The typical cop retires on a good nest egg. The USA has over half a million cops, and each year about 200 of them commit suicide. Just over a hundred are killed in the line of duty. LAPD has a good record for the low number of suicides amongst its cops. I don’t want any suicides but I would rather be below the average than above.
One of the first things I ever did was set up a programme to minimise the incidence of suicide. My enemies said I was just covering my back. Maybe I was but the programme did no harm. We put all our cops on a one-day course. We did surveys of our cops on how they felt privately. The surveys were anonymous so that the replies would be honest. Some of the opinions we read were hard to take but I just stuck my chin out. I believe I’m good at that. Every cop left the one-day course with a leaflet and a dashboard sticker that had two words in red, Know Suicide. LAPD scores well on the suicide front. We average about two a year. Considering LAPD has nearly 10,000 cops that is not bad. Don’t ever get a transfer to Chicago. I don’t know what goes on up in the windy city but a Chicago cop on the beat is five times more likely to chop himself than a cop not walking the streets.
Kilvinsky killed himself after he retired. That was unusual. Most suicides happen to cops who’ve been in the force for twenty years or more and are still serving officers. Suicide is an old man’s disease. Well, the experts have an explanation. They call it emotional isolation. I think in simpler terms. One day you’re a tough guy, and the next you’re an egg shell. Have I been there? I’ve known stress and I’ve felt shaky but the egg shell? I could always see it coming but then I had advantages. My father was a cop, a good cop, and that helped. I am smarter than the average member of the LAPD or smart enough to have an education. More important than being smart is wanting to be smart.
What goes wrong with the cops who commit suicide? This is my theory. I’ll tell you a tale. I was once taken to dinner by this top journalist. I should remember his name but I can’t. This journalist was doing a piece on racism in the LAPD, the usual. I asked him how he faced a typewriter each morning and how did he know when his articles were finished. I told him, when Ed Exley wrote anything, some report, anything, I would read it and read it again and keep finding faults. This journalist said you have to do your best and enjoy taking pride in what you do, it is how you earn your living. And if it goes well, you will do it as well as the others. But at the same time, this journalist said, you have to have contempt for what you do. There will always be another day, another journalist, something else to write and readers who will remember damn all of what you have written. If you take it too seriously, said this journalist, you won’t get anywhere. It made sense to me. I am Los Angeles Police Commissioner Edward Exley. I realised a long time ago I would never make the streets safe for the good citizens of LA. I doubt I ever wanted to. Do not rely on Ed Exley to extinguish evil or even hold the line, whatever that means. I hear police on the streets say that all the time. If the line will eventually snap, so be it. What I will do is my job as well as most of the other police commissioners out there.
I do not want to be unkind to cops like Andy Kilvinsky but the cop on the beat is the lowest grade within the LAPD. Think about how I do my job as police commissioner. I’m not stupid. I understand that there will always be cops doing and saying things that compromise everything I preach. I go to sleep every night knowing something is happening on the streets that denies what I have promised the citizens of Los Angeles. The point is this, if you can’t go to sleep knowing that you have a group of people in the workforce that compromise and betray you on a daily basis then you shouldn’t be a police commissioner.
Too many cops on the beat can’t think this through. They use cynicism to survive but what a cop really needs is cold hearted pragmatism. The cold heart may make you indifferent to people and human suffering but it gives you space to make a difference. And that in the long run might just help people a little. Cynicism just makes you brood on what is the point. You do not climb the ranks of an American police force without knowing that the paradox is where human beings came in. Maybe that should be the other way round. Either way you should get my point. An old cop that has pounded the beat for twenty years has survived and endured. Most of the time he has been lording it over someone, the wrecks on the street, the endless supply of rookies and the cops that resign and move on.
Not everyone that resigns is disillusioned about the work or loses sleep because they can’t see how they will win the battle against evil or hold the damned line the old timers go on about. An awful lot see the job as a stepping stone to qualifying as a lawyer. The best cops become detectives and administrators and have careers, the next best become lawyers, and the rest stay on the beat. Guess who the beat cops hate the most and look down their noses at? That’s right everyone who isn’t walking the beat. Me and people like me, the beat cops think we’re overpaid failures. Kilvinsky endured, and I don’t underestimate what that entailed, patrolling the streets every day, but the man was never going to be a first grade cop. He was limited to walking the beat and, if he is like the typical cop on the beat, he wouldn’t have done it very well. An underpaid hero perhaps but also a hopeless failure. When Kilvinsky retired the adrenaline the job gave him dried up. Kilvinsky forgot the heroism and remembered the failure. If he’d stayed married, it might have been different.
Rookies come into the force and they’re impressed with the old guys. The rookies confuse experience with competence and assume endurance amounts to heroism. Maybe the guys pounding the beat should be remembered as heroes. I wouldn’t like to have walked the streets for twenty years but we need to understand that while heroes may help you in crucial moments those same heroes have limitations. Don’t talk to them about plans and progress. I’ve stuck my neck out, and there were times when it required what felt to me like courage but I never thought it made me a hero. The problem with these guys is that they either go back to sweet wives who worry about them and want just that their heroes come home safe or, like Kilvinski, they have no one. I can’t remember Inez ever being sweet with me. Knowing you’re living with someone who doesn’t give a damn whether you come home or not helped me. How? It fortified my contempt.
I understand that the mind of Kilvinski was not working properly but I didn’t like the way the man killed himself, blowing his brains out like that and in the middle of his own living room. Another copper would have had to clear up the mess, probably one of the adoring rookies. Kilvinsky should have thought it through. For two years after Kilvinsky put the pistol inside his mouth and killed himself the LAPD recorded no suicides at all. The Know Suicide campaign helped but it helped that the other cops knew Kilvinsky went out the way he did. So maybe the guy did us and his adoring rookies a favour. I met his daughter and granddaughter at the funeral. That was the only family the poor guy had. The ex-wife didn’t make an appearance. I’m not even sure that the woman is in Los Angeles. I shook hands with the daughter and granddaughter but that was about it. They looked more Polish than Kilvinsky did. His daughter and granddaughter would have been given what Kilvinsky left behind but you don’t expect a police badge to mean that much to a young girl. She cried a lot, more than her mother. No, I don’t remember the names of the family. I imagine it was not Kilvinsky. I assumed his daughter was married, seeing as she had a child. I should have asked what their names were but I didn’t.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.