Agents like to recall the great days. Takedown days. The days that lead to the capture or big seizure. Less so of the long days on surveillance with nothing to show. Even less so when something goes wrong.
Today, it caught me off guard that an agent is dead. Another one shot but alive. And a task force officer shot but also alive, in some better state. But the whole scene in Tucson, an approach on a random transit search, it’s commonplace. All of it, common. Just not how this one ended up.
Most times there’s some bit of Intel, a heads up from sources that can and sometimes cannot be disclosed. That whiff and little tip, maybe it’s just a hunch, something that says that something’s rolling in.
It’s not often that stars will align, but when they do, and you find them, it’s almost always a quiet exchange. One that leads to an aside on the curb. Then handcuffs. Then the processing with fingerprints, then questions, the stuff that leads to an admission. And the flip up, the flip to the bigger fish. It’s where we always want to go. Up. Up stream. Not just with these minnows we troll for, for days. Not just the couriers or mules or wannabes in over their heads. We get them to flip up.
But sometimes they freak. They run. Or get stupider. And pull a gun. The guys and the gals out on surveillance. How often do they have body armor on? How often did I? For all those hours on end? And once you get the word, the quick word of the stars that somehow, now, have lined up. Now you’re out of your car and on foot. Your blending in with the crowd. You’ve got your gun and your cuffs. No vest and surely no plate for your chest. You’ve got to blend in and not look like the Michelin Man.
And the thing that you do, that you did and have done dozens of times on over, now this one breaks bad. The perp goes into a panic. Gets stupider. Pulls a gun and he shoots. And it could have been any one of us, any one with me among them. I catch my breath and feel lucky. Then sad. Then horribly selfish. There are agents out there. They’re out doing the time on the job that they do. In much the same exact way that I‘ve done mine. Today it broke bad. Just badly for each of the three of them.
Jason James is an award winning essayist and journalist. He previously served as a Special Agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.