Thu, Sept. 19

Commentary: A job no one else will take except cops: dead guys in cars

They don’t mention this at the annual law enforcement career day.

Dead guys in cars.

It’s not fun stuff. But it comes with the territory when you are a police officer. It happens more often than you would think.

In fact, there have been two such incidents in Cottonwood since May. Both involved what at first seemed like abandoned vehicles in obscure places in shopping center parking lots.

The first was reported May 13, with a 49-year-old man found dead slumped over the steering wheel. The second was June 17, and involved a 64-year-old man in the backseat of his car in a sleeping position.

Both men had been dead for at least a few days, explained Cottonwood PD Sgt. Monica Kuhlt. Both vehicles were littered with empty bottles of alcohol. One of the men was from out of state. The other was a relatively new transplant to Cottonwood. There was no evidence of foul play in either case.

Unusual? Yes. Out of the ordinary? Definitely.

But such incidents are not without precedent.

For officers such as Kuhlt, a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, and 20-year Cottonwood PD veteran Roger Scarim, finding dead guys in cars is nothing new.

Kuhlt said she’s been called out to about a dozen such incidents during her career.

Scarim said a dead body is not the first thing that comes to mind when an officer is called to check on an abandoned vehicle.

It is, however, on the mental checklist.

“As weird and unusual as it may sound, it does happen,” said Scarim. “Not every day, of course, but this was not my first. I’ve had several.”

Scarim was the officer called to the May 13 incident. He benefited from a heads-up by the people who called police. Several days had passed with no one paying particular attention to the car parked in an isolated area of the parking lot. When someone finally did pay attention, they also alerted police there was a man slumped over the steering wheel.

For Scarim, he went into what he calls “automatic mode” and began going through a mental checklist.

“Was the man asleep? Was this a medical emergency? When it was obvious he was dead, you investigate it as if it were a crime,” Scarim explained. “Is it a homicide? A suicide? Was there foul play? You try and determine what happened.”

Once those possibilities are exhausted, Scarim explained, police call in a transport service and the body is taken to the medical examiner’s office for autopsy.

Doing it by the book should not be confused with callousness or disregard for the person whose life ended under such dire circumstances. Scarim refused comment on the specific details of what he encountered on that call. “That doesn’t need to be out there,” he said.

Needless to say, it wasn’t pleasant. In both incidents, Kuhlt said the dead men had been in their cars for at least a few days “based on the state of decomposition” of the bodies.

Dead guys in cars hardly ranks up there with the mission to “serve and protect.” There’s more notoriety in solving a crime, or arresting a criminal. Retirement parties do not include tributes about finding dead guys in cars.

This is a job no one really wants.

And one few would sign up to do.

Except cops.

“No matter what the call is,” said Scarim. “No. 1, you do your job. Every time I think I’ve seen it all, something new comes up. You deal with it.”

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