You can’t save people from themselves

When I was a cop I tried to do my job in a professional manner, treating people the way I would want an officer to treat my family. I knew I couldn’t save the world, but I could give my best effort.

Recently, I perused the television listings to find out when “Reno 911” aired. I noticed the A&E network’s “Intervention,” featured a segment on “huffing” and its addictive properties.

I hadn’t heard the term “huffing” in a long time and didn’t think kids still did it. Simply put, huffing is inhaling fumes from substances that contain toluene, such as spray paint, glue, or other solvents. Kids would buy a can of paint, spray it on a rag and inhale until intoxication took over.

While working graveyard in the late 70s, I responded to a call of a trespasser inside a funeral home on Broadway. I thought it odd to have a late night trespasser at a funeral home.

The staff directed me to a man in his early 20s stumbling around the parlor. The place was closed and he was not there to visit a loved one. He was just walking around, looking in the rooms. He smelled of paint and had the familiar silver smudges on his nose, lips and hands. There was a spray can and a folded rag in his jacket pocket.

“Why are you in here?” I asked.

With a slurred voice and vacant stare he said, “I just wanna see what it’s gonna be like, man.”

That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but things said by intoxicated people often don’t. I took statements, transported the huffer to jail, logged the paint and rag into evidence, wrote the report and forgot about it.

Two weeks later I was reading the reports on the report board. I came across an incident of suicide-by-hanging. I froze when I saw that the young man who threw a rope over a tree limb and ended it all was the same guy who wandered the halls of the funeral home. The realization hit me that this kid had been planning to take his own life for quite some time. He knew he would be in a funeral home soon. He told me the truth when he said he just wanted to “see what it’s going to be like.”

If only he had said something to me. I wasn’t a social worker, but we had resources to refer him. I was troubled by the thought that a man so young had such despair that he took his own life, yet was systematic enough to scout out the funeral home weeks in advance. I felt horrible. I couldn’t save him from himself.

The next incident left me shaken and uncomfortable. I received a call to meet my supervisor at an apartment on Fifth Avenue to see if an ambulance was needed. As we walked to the door the sergeant told me, “I think this guy cut off his penis.”

“Sure he did,” I said.

A naked man answered the door holding a towel over his groin area. “It’s on the shelf,” the man said. “It” was there all right, next to the serrated bread knife he had used. (If a guy is reading this it’s okay to squirm and grimace.)

After obtaining his identifying information I asked, “Why did you do this?”

He pointed to an open bible on the kitchen table. “That’ll explain it.” I read the passage. Having some background in Scripture, I remained puzzled. There was no connection between the verses he pointed out, and his extreme act.

I placed “it” in ice and gave it to the ambulance crew. As they wheeled him out the door he asked, “Do you think they can sew it back on?” They didn’t. After the emergency room, they took him to mental health services.

Sometimes you can’t save people from themselves.

Basinski is a 35-year police veteran, 17 of them with Chula Vista. His column appears the first and third week of the month. Basinski lives in Chula Vista. His website is