Investigator Ashley Pletcher remembers the first death she saw as an officer.
It was one that gave her nightmares.
She had just joined the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office as a road deputy and was called to the Savannah River, where a 5-year-old was drowning. She was first on the scene.
“The first thing I did was take off my gun belt and jump in the river even though I’m deathly afraid of water. It was instinctual,” she said of the day in 2004.
Pletcher was unable to save the child.
For a year, a picture of the girl reaching her arms out for help haunted Pletcher’s dreams.
“My husband said I should have gone to therapy,” she said.
Nearly eight years later, Pletcher, like others in her line of work, has learned to try to stay numb to the frequent deaths in a career that deals with homicides and traffic accidents.
“Those images never go away. You just have to learn to deal with it,” said Sgt. Danny Whitehead, of the sheriff’s Serious Traffic Accident Response Unit. “When it’s all said and done, you have a job to do.”
One of the main mistakes he sees is when someone tries to take the “macho man approach” and bottle up what he’s seen. That approach tends to end careers, he said.
In the traffic division, it’s not uncommon to respond to crashes where there are broken bones, smashed bodies or even decapitations.
Cpl. Bill Adams said he tries to put it in the back of his mind and not think of the subjects as real people. If he did, it could hinder the investigation. Later, he tries to discuss it with other officers to clear his mind.
It’s more difficult, however, when someone dies in front of an officer.
“When you first get here, you feel like it’s your job to protect everyone,” Adams said. “Then when you’re here, you realize there’s only so much you can do.”
Investigators in the Criminal Investigation Division said they sometimes cope by thinking of the dead as wax figures.
“There’s a certain degree that you have to (numb yourself) to do this job,” Sgt. Dan Carrier said. “If you let your emotions take over, it would drive you crazy.”
Most bodies don’t bother Carrier, who was the son of a firefighter and served in the Army before becoming a police officer.
The sergeant saw his first death at age 4 when he rode with his father to a house fire. When no one was looking, he peeked underneath the sheet at the body that had been burned beyond recognition.
Children, however, still bother him.
“It makes you think, ‘That could be my kid,’ ” said Carrier, a father of two.
Despite the scenes officers face on a daily basis, Lt. Pat Young, of Internal Affairs, said he doesn’t recall any officers seeking desk duty or days off after seeing a traumatic death. The only death that comes close was when Deputy James D. Paugh was gunned down Oct. 23.
“That’s the only instance I saw that really traumatized people,” Young said. “The thing is, how many people have problems and never say anything?”