When Your Workplace Becomes a Crime Scene
John and I had the honor of celebrating my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary this past August. As we were preparing for our weekend away with them, the thought occurred to me that I have few candid photographs of them. My dad, a retired Army officer, is particularly gifted in stiff, serious facial gestures. To achieve my goal of capturing photographic images of their playfulness, I devised a plan for several silly photos. . . clinking wine glasses on the balcony, presenting a rose in the condo, walking on the beach, etc. There was a gorgeous shade tree on the property with a split trunk and I envisioned dad peeking through and perhaps stealing a kiss. On our way to their celebratory dinner, we stopped by this special tree to execute my plan. As the artistic director, I was first to jump out of the car to check out our venue. One foot in front of the other, I expected terra firma. Instead, my sensory experience was soft and squishy. . . immediate cause for alarm. I quickly realized that I had stepped on a lengthy black snake camouflaged in the grass. According to John’s observation, I then engaged in some body movements that combined Michael Jackson’s moonwalk with the backstroke. Foreign words delivered in a high pitch scream erupted from my mouth. The snake was unimpressed with my display and slowly meandered off. . . none the worse for the wear. My family succumbed to raucous laughter. My pulse continued to race for some time.
Similarly, on the afternoon of Friday, May 31, 2019, I was consumed by the busy-ness of attending to a lengthy task list in my office. Less than two weeks away from my participation in the Asphalt Odyssey with John, my stress level was at an all-time high as I endeavored to actualize optimum efficiency. At 4:08 p.m., I overheard a police sergeant speaking on the radio, the phrase “active shooter at the courthouse” jolting my brain. Immediately, I got up from my desk and asked what was going on. “Active shooter at the courthouse” was repeated as he and others rushed out of their offices, warning me not to leave the building. In my mind, I envisioned an angry citizen whose water was cut off by the City for non-payment brandishing a firearm and quickly apprehended by police. Or, a citizen experiencing mental illness acting out due to their own confused delusions and paranoia but quickly removed from the scene. Never in my wildest imagination, could I fathom twelve dead and four seriously injured at the hands of one of our own employees who was shot by police after more than twenty-five excruciating minutes of exchanged gunfire. Madness. Utter madness. My brain could not process this information. Even today, months later, there is no making sense of it.
Sadly these situations have occurred so frequently in the United States that the Department of Justice has developed a protocol for their response. Immediately they deploy consultants to provide employee training and offer grant funding for ongoing counseling services following the event. In one of those sessions, the consultant explained that initially upon experiencing the event, the organization and the community rallies, there is a sense of unity and the heroic efforts of first responders and some of the victims are lifted up and celebrated. “VB Strong” became the rallying cry. Congress renamed our post office in honor of Keith Cox, a victim credited with saving the lives of other employees. A makeshift memorial for the victims arose at my office building and the stream of visitors never stopped for several weeks. Volunteers offering therapy dogs posted themselves there to provide comfort. A resource center was established for the victims’ families. Multiple funerals and memorial services were conducted, drawing amazing outpourings of support. A memorial fund was established and quickly swelled to several million dollars for the victims’ families.
Soon after, the DOJ consultant advised, the organization and the community will move into a period of disillusionment. This period can last for a long time, sometimes a year or longer, before the path forward emerges. Clearly, we are deeply entrenched in this period of disillusionment five months after the event. Members of the victims’ families feel neglected and criticize the lack of information flow. The public demands answers. Why did this occur? Did the City create this situation? Is the City negligent in its failure to thwart such a heinous act from occurring? There are no answers. The suspect is deceased. Despite hours upon hours of scouring his cell phone and email records, there is no hint of his plan, his rage, his disgruntlement. Nothing in his work computer, nothing in his personal computer, no notes, no communication to his parents or to his x-wife, no personal journal, no manifesto. He gave his two week resignation notice that morning and spent the full day with his supervisor visiting his project sites throughout the city to initiate the passdown process to a junior engineer. When he returned to his office building, he brushed his teeth in the men’s room which was often his practice. He encountered our neighbor there and exchanged pleasantries with him. As our neighbor drove home, the suspect began his shooting rampage, specifically targeting some members of his department and excluding others. His immediate supervisor was not a victim.
Why? Only God has that answer. It is time to move in our grief from an emotional response to a rational response. We must acknowledge the existence of evil and madness beyond human understanding. We cannot live a life of fear because then evil is victorious. We must set aside our desire to cast blame, to find fault. We must change our default settings to a compassion response and forge a path forward. Sadly we cannot bring back the twelve victims, but we can honor their lives by building a better organization and a stronger community, a fitting tribute to each of them.