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Tucson Salvage 

Suicides, tweakers, and a hero cop who escaped death

He once watched a guy blow his face and the top of his head off with a large-caliber gun. The gory suicide isn't necessarily what shocked him—it was that the guy somehow survived for a short time afterwards mangled like that, while necessary pieces of him were gone forever.

So tonight is nothing to Tucson cop David Lewis, this father and husband, college grad and ex-skateboarder. Hell, he nearly died once, on the job, more than a decade ago, dragged 150 feet beneath a car, the left side of his face shredded off, eye out of its socket. He's had to fight for normalcy after that—still does—and he nearly lost it all.

It's around midnight when we arrive on an usually dark stretch of Campbell Avenue near Ft. Lowell Road that's lit up by pulsing yellows, oranges and reds. There's a guy pinned beneath a Honda. He tried to commit suicide by car. His shirt's snarled around a rear tire, pants shredded, and his legs and boots protrude slightly from underneath the Honda. It takes a minute for this particular brutality to come into focus because this could be death, and that kind of shock is always delayed by a few seconds, or minutes, or longer.

The Honda's driver stands on the side of the road scattered and trembly because she ran over the man who's under her car, and Jesus how will she get to sleep tonight? I squat closer and see behind the car's front tire a distended belly and hairy chest and shredded skin crushed by an engine block. There's not much blood but an awful secretion foams from his mouth, and a pool of vomit has formed under his head and beard. His right arm is stretched out in the form of somebody who's desperately reaching out for something, like a cigarette, or god. The smell of booze mixes with exhaust from idling fire trucks and ambulances and cop cars, and I'm probably 10 feet away from him.

I wonder in that moment, as he groans and slightly squirms in agony, if it's possible that he could only be dreaming, or if he's aware that this world around him has suddenly stopped and all its eyes are on him? I wonder if he has a mother or daughter, a brother or wife, and if they'd ever consoled him? Maybe he thinks the paramedics saying calming things to him are angels?

These florescent-vested paramedics and cops work quickly, employing the kind of orderly precision that would take any of them far in any career of their choosing—this guy could be dying but that's just not going to happen on their damn watch.

Cops find it hard to believe he's still breathing, and say he probably wouldn't be if not for the Hispanic kid witness who quickly procured a carjack and raised the Honda enough so that the guy might survive.

As he's placed carefully on a stretcher and lifted into the ambulance, Lewis agrees that if the man were sober he'd likely be dead. One good thing about getting run over by a car when you're drunk is you bend like a ragdoll. At first I think Lewis is mocking the guy's horrific circumstance, but soon I understand that he's making light of something bigger. He's making light of the absurdity of the insanity of having to work everyday with so much torment and sadness, the very kind that finds a woman driving down Campbell Avenue suddenly part of another's insane suicide plot.

That tone helps keep Lewis detached, saves him and other cops from their work and helps keep him from becoming crippled in the misery of others. It's how he can still be a dad and a husband, and a guy who can relax enough to train dogs and play guitar in his spare time. Still, even that, he says, is really difficult. "It wreaks havoc on your family."

We climb into Lewis' tricked-out 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe patrol SUV and follow the ambulance to the University Medical Center, lights flashing. Disturbed's "Down With the Sickness" plays softly in the cab. It's strange to think cops listen to music when they work.

****

The 43-year-old, Tennessee-born Lewis swears he has a high threshold for trauma, a tolerance he got from his old man, a 41-year mechanic for John Deere who died at 65 a few years ago. Lewis basically grew up in the neighborhood behind his Miracle Mile police precinct, around Jacobs Park.

The Operations Division West police substation isn't NYPD Blue, this is all modern conveniences, a big glass and steel structure, spacious—imposing but airy with hard-angles, muscular and patriarchal. It houses around 11 uniformed squads of about 10 officers each, and receives 1,200 to 1,300 calls a day. Tucson's high crime.

Much of Lewis' job is paperwork (85 percent he says) and there's even a kind of writing lab inside the station with a number of computers. A cop's reporting needs to be accurate, accountable and detailed, to hold up in court, for one thing. Lewis edits reports of others too because he's an LPO (lead police officer), which is a sort of intermediary between a sergeant and a 10-man squad.

The substation fits Lewis' personal code, a cop's code, a militaristic way of orderliness and conduct and cleanliness—from his perfectly pressed uniform and strict tactical training to officer protocols, and there's a million to memorize. Even this night, a ride-along with him in his cop SUV, he's acutely aware that something's always required of him—from overseeing trainees to quelling bickering addicts. Even simple street observations reveal senses working in overdrive; he's many feet away interviewing a witness yet overhears word-for-word a conversation I have with another officer. Driving through neighborhoods he detects slights in the dark that I don't and points them out—the faintest whiffs of weed, a possible stolen car, a couple arguing deep in the dark. And he knows he terrifies pretty much any driver he's behind, just by his presence. "If they only knew that my mind was doing 10 other things," he laughs.

The code offers salvation too. Some of Lewis' patrol work deals in literal filth—the feces—and maggot-riddled existences of folks he comforts or confronts, and so it's easy to understand how one would depend on a code of orderliness and cleanliness.

He's aware cops scare people. I tell Lewis that I've had horrible experiences with cops over the years. Mostly mean white ones in Phoenix using way too much force for no reason. I've had my head slammed down on hoods of cop cars, found myself handcuffed and searched more than once after just riding my bike at night from Circle K with my beer in my shitty barrio neighborhood, where I happened to be one of few white people living. Been picked on by cops elsewhere too, in Detroit and Texas and Iowa ... Maybe I looked like a drug addict and that made me an easy, lazy target. None of that is anything compared to what many others have suffered.

Cops in the U.S. have killed 800 hundred people so far this year, and the clash between violence-provoking law enforcement and oil-pipeline protesters and Native Americans in North Dakota is horrific. There's been a spike in murders of cops, too.

The articulate Lewis talks about police brutality, choosing words carefully. The night before we meet, one of his own was shot; a bullet grazed his head and he's fine. But still. Lewis shakes his head. The police in Tucson are so well trained, he says, better than in many rural areas and cities. It takes a year and half of training, from the police academy through field training and a probation period, to be a cop here. He still trains, all the time, whatever comes up, "human trafficking, terrorism, narcotics, you name it. People don't realize that you just don't take a test and become a cop."

Assholes populate every profession, he points out. I say it seems like a bigger group of them come together around guns. He nods. He's been hassled by cops, too. On down time, riding his motorcycle with all his tats, pulled over. He's seen it. He knows. Look, he tells me, if there's anyone around his precinct who's not straight up, "I myself will set him straight. It's just not tolerated here. I started in 2000 and it's always been like that. Now "who's using force and how much is all tracked now," he adds. "Big brother is all around."

Is this PR spin horseshit?

"It's not PR horseshit," he says. "We get thanked everyday here for doing our jobs. That hatred toward cops just isn't happening in Tucson."

Lewis has never killed anyone. Never shot anyone with a bullet. He has used less lethal ways of apprehension and self-defense, such as pepper ball shots and blasts of beanbag rounds from a shotgun. He's knows what that feels like too; it's part of their training to be shot by such.

Many times Lewis feared his life was over. Like that time in October 2004 when he joined a miles-long car chase through Tucson. He and other squad cars and a police helicopter chased two burglary suspects in Dodge Dynasty. The Dodge blew through lights hitting 100 miles an hour at 11 p.m. on Tucson streets with their headlights flipped off. No way was Anthony Stringer stopping for cops, and he had guns in his car.

"Back then we didn't have road spikes and we weren't trained to use the pit maneuver, where you actually hit the back of the car," Lewis says. "And the pursuit lasted a total of 55 minutes, went all the way up to West Cortaro and Camino de Cerro, at a trailhead with parking lot. The helicopter was telling us it was a dead-end and to be prepared."

The Dodge turned into the dead-end, and his passenger leapt out.

"I pull in and stop, put my car in park and as I get out of the car to chase after him I see headlights."

The Dodge was heading straight at him.

"He hits me head on and I'm halfway out of my car, halfway in."

Lewis talks mechanics of the accident in startling detail, details only hinted at in court documents. The Dodge driver was trying to kill him and he hits Lewis' car head on, lifting it off the ground.

"It hooked my foot and dragged me 150 feet on pavement." At one point the Dodge slammed into a pole "and I was directly behind his car. He was trying to put it in reverse to run me over, I got up and pulled my gun and screamed at him to get out of the car. He did. I handcuffed him.

Another pursuit car arrived. The cop looked at Lewis's bloody mess of face and knew something was horribly wrong.

"My eyeball actually came out," Lewis says.

"Basically my nose was filleted, all the way through the sinus cavity and I had brain trauma." Pieces of his skull were gone. 

He was airlifted to University Medical Center and stayed bedridden for weeks. Another officer who suffered a shoulder injury ended up retiring because of it.

Photos of his face from over several years, progress of the surgeries, are frightening. "The entire left side of my head is basically prosthetic."

It's a painful nightmare that keeps on giving; and he has so far undergone 18 reconstructive surgeries, and nearly lost his left eye numerous times. Skin grafts are necessary to maintain his eyelid and areas around his eye, and because scar tissue tightens and shrinks, Lewis continues to have operations, at least once a year, and will for life.

"I can't blink and so it tears up," he says. Because he can't blink, the eye is prone to bacteria, and that causes other problems."

And there were many problems with the surgeries, skin grafts that died. "I had surgeries in Tucson that did not go well," Lewis says. "I ended going to a world-renowned doctor in Scottsdale; he saved my eye and it's because of him that I'm back at work."

He has 15 pieces of titanium in his head and he's still plagued by headaches.

Doctors lifted skin from Lewis' neck, arm, and behind and inside both ears. They removed cartilage and skin from behind his ears, and pinned his ears back. His ears are now slightly misshapen and smaller. "It absolutely affected my hearing."

His family suffered too. "The worst part came after." He was out for the entire year as a patrol officer, seeing only light duty between surgeries. Long stretches of recovery fueled frustrations and anger and depression. He got hooked on painkillers like Percocet and took to heavy drinking; self-medicating to drown out the disfigurement, the physical and emotional pain, the life. His dad was an alcoholic too and his only sibling has struggled with addiction for many years so Lewis was aware of the dangers. His marriage about ended. His job tried to push him into retirement.

Why didn't you retire? 

He laughs, "Everybody asks me that. I worked my butt off to get this job, I was two years in. I wound up fighting to keep my job."

Lewis was prestigiously awarded the TPD's Medal of Valor and the Scarlet Shield Medal, "for going through what I went through and still arresting the guy." He received an accommodation for his actual court testimony. He got letters of support from around the world.

* * * *

We drive around near Grant and Oracle, neighborhoods filled with low houses and trailer courts, bare-bulb lit porches, roaming dogs. People scatter when they see this Tahoe approach, or they wave with clinched teeth, forced smiles. Lewis talks of these streets, the mix of classes and people living here, the college students, the refugees, all the meth and heroin, and patrolling it old-school, serving the people and a greater good. If he's a jaded seen-it-all cop he's hiding it from me.

After high school Lewis became a prison guard (including death row at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence) for eight years, and he attended college. He met his wife Cimmon at UA and they've been married 18 years. She now works as a probation supervisor at Pima County Juvenile Court. "She understands my work," he says. Lewis degreed in political science instead of becoming a lawyer, and at one point he did a ride-along with Cimmon's cop cousin. "I got the bug to be a cop," Lewis says. That was that.

He tells of his teenage kids, a straight-A student daughter and a son who's looking toward a possible career in computer engineering, "if he can get his grades up." He talks about the therapy—not the physical, but the emotional—that helped him deal with the near-death experience, all the surgeries and marital problems. How it helped pull him from his emotional hell.

By his manner Lewis endorses the idea of peace and communication, the stuff he talks about. I watch him prevent an ugly fight between a couple going at it on Stone Avenue, in darkness between Speedway and Drachman. According to the Coplink software on the mounted laptop inside the Tahoe, the man's arrest record reads like a character's background in a modern tragedy, from car theft to meth sales. Lewis convinces the man to head home and gives the woman, who's been crying, a lift to a safer place.

Minutes later he's in front of a Circle K dealing with a menacing shirtless dude in baggy shin-length sweats and his pole-thin underage girlfriend who'd been attempting to skip out with beer from the cooler. The K clerk is there too. Soon they're all laughing. Whole scene feels surreal. In less than 30 minutes Lewis defused two potentially violent and ugly situations.

* * * *

Nurses, med students and doctors move quickly, attaching tubes and medical apparatus to the guy who attempted suicide, and they're talking with him, too. His name is Wayne and he's laid out on the bed inside the brightly lit University Medical Center emergency area. He's somewhat conscious and breathing but his voice sounds like a busted fan. He's scared and still smells like booze. There's a chaplain hanging around.

Lewis is here waiting to hear whether Wayne will live or die. The cops have closed off that section of Campbell, because should Wayne die there'll be a complete criminal investigation and the street will stay closed. Should he live, then Lewis will radio in the news and the street will clear. We're waiting for life or death word from Sharon the charge nurse.

A long while passes. The doctors and students and nurses are gone. Wayne had some tests done. That dark part of Campbell near Ft. Lowell is still closed off.

"I'm not thinking that Wayne is somebody's dad or son," Lewis says. "I'm processing in my head all these things that have to be done for me to do my job. But, man, I'm just like anybody else."

Sharon the charge nurse steps over and chimes in: "Yeah. You can't let it get to you. But it does." She sort of shrugs, and adds, "It's usually when I'm home drinking a beer in the shower."

Then she looks over at Wayne on that bed connected to all those tubes and things, and adds, flatly, "He'll have to try suicide another day."

Lewis phones his sergeant and Campbell Avenue clears.

Pulling out from the hospital parking lot, Pearl Jam's "Daughter," a song from the POV of a girl who's molested, plays in the cab. Lewis says, "You can't say that I've seen it all, or that any cop as seen it all, because the very next day something will top it."


More by Brian Smith

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