By Brian Thiem:
Retired Oakland P.D. Lieutenant Rachael Van Sloten is one of the strongest women I know. When I was retired and working on my first novel, I reached out to Rachael, then working as a detective sergeant in Homicide, to help me create an authentic woman homicide detective character. She’s remained one of my most trusted beta readers, one I can trust to ensure my female characters are realistic and my stories hold together.
I first met Rachael in the mid-1990s when I was a lieutenant at Oakland PD and a watch commander on the swing shift. One evening, after having completed the field training program, she reported to my lineup briefing for her assignment as a beat cop. My first thought was wondering if this cute, little, blonde woman had what it takes to survive as a cop on the streets of Oakland.
As the watch commander, I was a worrier. The evening shift had around a hundred officers and a dozen sergeants, about half of them working any given day. And I worried about every one of them. I normally ended my briefings with the immortal admonishment of that old, crusty sergeant on Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there.”
I knew every officer at OPD was exceptionally qualified. Only 2% of those who apply are hired. Many are weeded out in the academy, and more don’t make it through the field training program. I learned Rachael was a graduate of University of California (Berkeley), a school that only accepts the best, and she held a black belt in martial arts. Despite my initial concerns, her sergeants reported she was smart and tough and did a great job.
A while later, Rachael found herself in a fight for her life. The following is in her words.
On this day 25 years ago, 11-24-97, I was working patrol in west Oakland, when an officer put out he was about to do a car stop for a minor traffic violation. I responded to assist. Within seconds, the vehicle took off and crashed into a driveway and the driver fled on foot. I took a perimeter position.
My life changed that night—from wide-eyed rookie officer to fighting for my life. Twenty-five years later and I can remember every moment of that incident. I can describe details for you but not what was going through my head nor what my body was feeling. I remember those feelings vividly, but it’s too difficult to describe.
The suspect jumped out from over a fence where I was standing. Other officers believed he was running in a different direction. I tried to put it out but couldn’t broadcast over the emergency traffic on our outdated radios.
I had him controlled—I thought—but the tables turned quickly. He was a very experienced fighter. He had fought the police on many prior occasions, I learned later.
One second I was standing, the next second he had body slammed me to the ground, ripped my radio mic off my shoulder so I couldn’t call for help, kicked me in my face, shattering my nose, and kicked me multiple times in my ribs as he stood over me. Then he went for my gun, which was now holstered and thankfully secured with the snaps. I had holstered my weapon when I saw he was unarmed, and I was switching to a less lethal tool. That was the moment when he attacked me. Was that a mistake? Probably.
I remember thinking, this is just a fight. Then I felt the tug on the grip of my gun and heard the security snaps on my holster snap open. That was when, deep inside me, I knew he was going to try to kill me. This was not just another fight—this was a fight for my life. I had seen these fights on police videos where the officer is getting beat and screaming for his life. They are horrible to watch. I was about to experience it. This man was not armed, and I was about to die. He was winning this fight, and if he won, I would be dead.
But only if he succeeded in getting my gun. I knew I could survive broken bones but not a gunshot to my head. I had been taught gun retention in the academy, and somehow in the middle of all this, my body remembered what to do. I knew I had to hold onto the holster where the snaps were, and I squeezed around the holster so the man could not rock my gun back and pull up. He was trying so hard to do that. But I held on. I held on as he lifted me off the ground by the grip of my own gun as he tried to get it from the holster. I held on as he slammed me into the cement over and over again, chipping a bone in my shoulder. I held on as he kicked me over and over again, damaging some of my ribs.
I held on while he spoke to the crowd of citizens who surrounded us. He kept saying, “Don’t hurt me, officer! Don’t hurt me,” as he beat on me and tried to get my gun. It made no sense. He was playing for the crowd, and they cheered him on. They yelled as I fought to survive, “Kill her, go on kill her.” Those words still echo in my head. Why was no one helping me—a 100 lb., 5’2” woman? It was because I wore the uniform. I was new to the job. They did not know me. I hadn’t earned their respect yet, so I guess in their minds, I was not worth saving. Even worse and sadly, in their minds, I was worth killing.
At one point, I rolled over my radio mic which was underneath me. I heard it broadcast my screams for help. And yes, I screamed for help. I remember screaming, “Get off me.” I remember screaming other officers’ names. Hoping they would hear me and come help. No one heard me. No one helped me. They didn’t know where I was. When I rolled over the mic again, I yelled “I’m north of you, he’s trying to get my gun.” This fight continued for 3.5 to 4 minutes. It felt like it would never end. I wasn’t sure I would survive, but I wouldn’t let go of the holster. He kept trying to get the gun. Later on, we would learn he had cut his hand when he jumped over the fence, and his bloody prints were on the security straps of my holster and his bloody palm print on my gun grip.
I couldn’t grab for other weapons—my baton or pepper spray—because if I let go of my holster, he would have my gun, and I would be dead. I did what I had to do. I bit him. Gross, yes, but when you think you are about to die, you do what you need to survive. I remember that I just kept biting at him. That was my only weapon I could use without letting go of my holster. Somehow that worked. He took off running.
The adrenaline was so strong, I got up and chased after him. I was an officer and that was my job. A lieutenant approached me, got me to take a breath, got me focused again. Other officers arrived. They set up a perimeter and ultimately caught him. We arrested him without incident (without injury). I went to the hospital and that is when I realized I was badly hurt. The adrenaline had helped me survive, but when it left my system, the emotions, the pain of what just happened hit hard. I was told not to cry. I did not cry—I bottled it up—shoved it deep down.
Rachel’s nose was shattered, and she had surgery that week. Most rookie officers would’ve reassessed their decision to become a police officer, but it never occurred to Rachel to quit. She returned to work a month later. She later had surgery on her shoulder, as a bone fragment had shifted, causing her shoulder to lock up. She ended up with four surgeries on her nose, and to this day still can’t breathe right. She had three surgeries on her shoulder, and many more on other parts of her body from other injuries and the wear and tear of the job.
She never told anyone back then how scared she was. She never told anyone about the nightmares. She just pretended everything was okay and continued to work. She was later promoted to sergeant, and I remember how proud of her I was when I saw the photo of her and her family at her promotion ceremony.
She went on to work Homicide, where she saw more death and misery than any person should have to in a lifetime. She handled the murder of four Oakland officers who were killed in the line of duty during one tragic incident, a mass shooting where seven people died, an artist warehouse fire that killed thirty-six, and scores of other horrendous incidents.
In 2014, Rachael was diagnosed with cumulative PTSD. Although Oakland PD had a peer support unit and a free and totally confidential professional counseling service, there remained a stigma over seeking help, but she found help on her own. She again returned to work and eventually was promoted to lieutenant. She retired last year.
Rachael and I have spoken many times about PTSD among law enforcement officers. All departments need to do more for their officers. She is not alone in still thinking about the traumatic experiences she had experienced. The things we experience affect us. They change us. And all too often, they destroy us. How police organizations treat their officers after traumatic incidents affect them. Police departments can do better.
Talking about it can help. Telling our stories to others show them they are not alone in feeling the way they do. And, as Rachael says, “Letting people know there is light on the other side of the darkness can help.”
Rachael is doing well today in retirement. She’s supported by a loving husband and parents, three wonderful children, and many friends. My first impression of her nearly three decades ago as that cute, little, blonde rookie was so very wrong. She’s one of the toughest, fiercest, strongest women I know. And she’s a survivor.