When I began doing research on police, a Sioux Indian prayer came to mind. "Great Spirit, help me never to judge another until I have walked a mile in his moccasins." If I was going to investigate law enforcement officers with an open mind, I needed inspiration. I was always one of those who turned away and tried to look innocent at the sight of a cop. For that reason, I decided that the only fair way to describe a policeman's life is from the inside of a marked car.
His name was L. Jay Alverson and his father is in the business, too. Beneath his blue cap, jay's eyes twinkled boyishly; he probably knew I was feeling uneasy about riding around in a patrol car. We drove for a while through quiet neighborhoods under the summer blue sky of Denver. Then we got a call.
A house had been burglarized and Alverson was sent to investigate. It was a typical case: there was no suspect and no clues. In Los Angeles last year, out of 72,647 burglaries, only 11,874 were cleared by arrest. We got the details of the break-in, which is about all we could do until they ran it down at headquarters.
The next call brought us to the house of a middle-aged woman who had fallen and broken her wrist. An ambulance was on the way and Alverson could do little more than sympathize. When I mentioned to one of the lady's friends that I was doing an article on the police, she told me to get out my pad and pencil. Like everybody else, she had a lot to say on the subject.
What I was expecting didn't happen. The woman had nothing but praise for the men in blue. "We wouldn't be safe without them!" she exclaimed. 'The only problem is there aren't enough of them to do the job."
Cops are trespassers. That's what they'll tell you in some parts of town. When the people in a community are hostile to law enforcement, there's not much a policeman can do but play it slow and easy. It's not like on a construction job where people passing by can think anything they want and it doesn't matter. The residents of an area are an integral part of a patrolman's job. If they don't like him, he's nowhere.
Alverson was instructed to report to a neighborhood where some people said he had no right to be. In that type of situation, it's almost impossible for a policeman to do his job. A park was at the center of the current controversy. The animosity of certain members of the community had forced city officials to settle for a temporary solution. The police would stay away from the park unless specifically called for.
Well, they had been called, and on the way I asked my uniformed friend about his job. "It's minute to minute to minute," he told me. "I can't identify with any one aspect because the role is always changing. "The only constant thing it that I have to think fast and make a lot of heavy decisions."
"Do you ever lose your perspective on why you're a policeman in the first place?"
"I consider myself a public servant. I get paid for being accessible to the public. But, really, what dc you think happens whet you get spit at? What do you think happens when a brictk comes crashing through the roof of the car? What do yot think goes through my mind when a man comet after me with a knife or gun? I have to defend myself. You don't want u lose your cool, bu sometimes you do."
On this particular call all we ran into was a grout of bright-eyed ten-year-old boys. At the sight of the police car, they ran over fron the park. Their faces were innocentIy curious, but if I looked closely I could se the beginnings of what, in a couple mor years, would be the lines of hatred.
"Are you a cop?" one of them asked me. I told him no.
"Are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure."
"Go on over to the park, they'll tell you."
"But I want to know why you don't like cops."
"I gotta sore throat."
Alverson had told me that the job of policeman required making some heavy
decisions. I saw that on one case. We pulled up behind an ambulance in a calm neighborhood. An old lady was being strapped into a stretcher; she was screaming. "There's nothing wrong with me and I do not want to go to the hospital!"
Alverson stood to one side, watching and listening. He took in the ambulance crew, the loudly protesting old woman, and two pork barrel gentlemen puffing contentedly upon cigars. The gentlemen, it turned out, had placed the call.
They were the lady's nephews and felt that her senility had taken her beyond the bounds of reason. It wasn't safe to leave her alone anymore. As the ambulance pulled away, Alverson said to me, "I have to decide whether or not this woman is sane."
Is a policeman capable of diagnosing senility? Maybe not, but that's what Alverson was going to be expected to do back at the hospital. In a little cubicle provided for that purpose, Alverson interviewed the woman in question. She knew her name, age (91), and address. She seemed to be well aware of the circumstances that she was in, but chose not to be very cooperative. When Alverson asked her who the President was, she was not only able to answer him, but went into a long political commentary.
She finally stopped, more out of exasperation than lack of knowledge. Alverson was placed in the position of determining her future. I don't think he liked his role any more than she did. He could either put an emergency mental health hold on her or give her a lecture on health and safety and send her home. But, after all, she had burned herself pretty badly and neglected to take care of the injury. Alverson decided to keep her in custody; she's now in a nursing home.
* * * *
Everybody knows that night-time is where the action is. For policemen it's no different, just a little more dangerous. Patrol cars move slowly up and down city streets waiting for the action to begin. Just for once, it would be nice if it didn't begin, but that's only a wild dream. There were 1,691 murders in New York City last year.
I was with two policemen this time. Craig, the driver, is 28, but looks younger. He's been a policeman for two and a half years and takes his job very seriously. "I
was tired of listening to myself and everybody else complaining about the world without doing anything about it. So I became a cop. I didn't set out to change the world as a policeman, but the decision has certainly eased my mind."
Joe is older, more experienced, and thickly moustached. He has the air of a professional and has been in the business for seven years. Before becoming a patrolman he was in the narcotics division, the vice squad, and the D.A.'s Committee on Organized Crime. "The law is the law is the law is the law," he said. "And as long as it is the law, it should be honored as such. Unfortunately, because we think that way, we meet people head on." For most people, "the law" is when you get caught.
It might as well have been the year 1873. About ten p.m. we got called to the scene of a shoot-out. The setup was familiar, three neighborhood bars within a block of each other. On a Friday or Saturday night there is more often a fight than not. I was warned: "Be careful, a gun is involved and it takes only a split second to pull the trigger." I told them I understood, but I didn't. It's just that it's hard to imagine somebody putting a hole in my head.
I followed Craig and Joe into the bar. They immediately checked the bathroom and the back door to see if anyone ran out on their arrival. Back in the bar room, about eight policemen had gathered.
"Where's the man who was shot?" asks Craig.
"Down the street in the other bar," comes a chorus of replies.
The police rushed to the bar down the street to find a man slouched over a table. There was a woman standing over him, her hands resting protectively on his shoulders. "I knew you'd come," her look says, "but I don't know why." She's seen it all before.
As the police crowded around, the victim leaned forward to reveal an oozing bullet hole in the back of his head. The police are quick with their questions; they have to be. Once he gets to the hospital, he'll be isolated. By tomorrow, the man with the gun could be in the next state. They have to get the facts right away. If there are any facts to get, that is.
"Who shot you?"
"I don't know."
"When were you shot?"
"I'm not sure."
"Can you give a description of the man?" Not really. It's nobody's fault, but it sure makes the job tough. Then the ambulance arrives and the attendants patch up the man's head and take him away.
Back we go to the first bar. Everyone is questioned, but no one has a clear picture of the shooting. At least, no one's talking. A man had been shot, several people were present, but neither Craig nor Joe, nor any of the other policemen can get a single clue as to what actually happened. Finally, two or three men are pointed out, all older, around fifty. Apparently they're regulars and likely to have information.
I sat next to two of the men after we had all piled into the patrol cars and headed back to the station. Shouting, the old timers cursed the police in the vernacular of their sons. "Pigs. That's what the police are. Pigs!"
* * * *
This time I'm with Hayden and Jim, and it's another hot city night. Hayden is a big, blond, moustached country boy. Jim is talkative and sensitive, a characteristic that policemen try not to nurture. People who are too sensitive are often driven from the job by what they come up against. "Leave what you see where you see it. Don't bring it home to your wife and your dreams."
I listened to them talk about the ups and downs of the job: "The courts don't back us up," Hayden told me. "I brought a young boy into court one time, facing charges on 93 burglaries. He went up before the judge and said, 'You people are the stupidest people in the world. Look how long it took you to catch me!' A few days later, I saw him on the street again, out on probation."
Jim had his own story of frustration to tell. "A few years ago .I worked in a part of the city where we were hitting down hard on the drug traffic. We picked up fifteen or sixteen-year-old kids who had lost their minds. Totally gone. They had needle marks in the corners of their eyes, under their tongues, in the soles of their feet. In every conceivable part of the body. They didn't even know their names. So we hunted out the dealers and cracked down.
"Those days I worked until three in the morning and got up at eight to be in court. Time and time again those dealers were set free because of some technicality.I'd see them back on the street in no time at all."
If the courts were to put every person behind bars who broke a law, there wouldn't be very many of us left. Maybe that's why it's so hard to be a cop. Jim talked about the effect it had on him of seeing his work turn into nothing. Instead of becoming apathetic, it seemed to make him even more determined to do his job. Since the courts don't solve the problem; Jim takes his case to the street. "I talk to kids about the danger of drugs until I'm blue in the face. Most of them are deaf to the sound of my voice." Still, "most" leaves room for hope.
Hayden and Jim took me to a place they check out every night. It's a ramshackle house across the street from a bar. Heroin addicts purchase a fix at the bar and retreat here to darkness and oblivion of mind. It's called the "shoot-up shack."
The door was open and hanging on one hinge. Jim aimed the spotlight. An alley cat jumped in the shadows, disturbed from its hunt.
When I walked in, the stench burned my nose. "If I go inside this place," Hayden whispered, "I have to take my shoes off outside when I get home." Old, beat-up furniture was overturned and scattered throughout the room. The floor was littered with balloons, used for carrying heroin. If a man is about to be caught, he can swallow the balloon, retrieving it later after it passes through his system.
We walked into a back room where there was a lone mattress in a corner. It was a slow night. Only one man was sleeping there, curled up and shoeless. He looked completely at home, lost to the world.
* * * *
"This job gets harder and harder every year," he told me. Paul Montoya is the Chief of Patrolmen, in charge of all the patrol cars in Denver. "For every three burglaries committed by an adult, we have five more committed by juveniles. Are these kids going to become more law-abiding over the next ten years? 'Take what you want and damn the consequences,' that's their philosophy. What can we do to stop it?
"To tell you the truth, fighting the 'criminal' is not the most difficult thing about this job. We're battling something in
people. We're battling that thing in people that damns the consequences. We're battling frustration. We aren't equipped to fight poverty and ignorance, that isn't the job of a cop. And yet it is our job because that's what is demanded of us."
Upstairs from Montoya's office is the office of W.E. Hallman, Chief of Delinquincy Control.
"The cause of crime? The solution? If I knew that, my job would be easy. I know that there is an incredible unwillingness or inability to accept responsibility in this sodiety. There is a lack of responsibility on the pan of a parent, for example. If a parent refuses to take responsibility for his boy, the job becomes ours. 'You handle him,' the parent says. 'You handle him,' the school says.
"And you know, the policeman is not a breed unto himself. Many policemen are young, just out of the juvenile stage themselves. What if they come from a family where a parent has failed to take the responsibility of his job? What if they come from a family just like the family of the criminal? You have a clash. But," he paused, "the cop has the power. It's the kind of situation that sticks its tongue out at you, and defies solution.
"We've been instituting a great variety of trial programs. For example, we have a program that places a carefully chosen officer in each of the high schools in the city. His job is to. establish a personal relationship with students in that school and each of the junior high schools that feed it. He's to be more of a person and less of a role. He has to be an advocate of the law but also an advocate of the student. It definitely takes a special kind of person to do that type of job."
* * * *
If you've seen one city, you've seen them all. Well, not quite. Going from Denver to New York is the difference between the beach on July second and the beach on July fourth. Eighty-eight thousand people pack into the Lower East Side's 9th Precinct. The Precinct is slightly more than three-quarters of a square mile in area. It's the ultimate test of a police force.
Thirty-seven thousand of the residents are Puerto Rican, many of whom don't speak English. A large percentage of the remaining 51,000 are black.
Because of constant racial tension, New York police have to be extremely conscious of existing social arrangements and attitudes. Each neighborhood is a potential bomb; on any one of 365 nights a year, the police could very well trip over the trigger. It's not unusual for two or three hundred people to gather around a police car in fifteen minutes. If the crowd is hostile, the police can act unintentionally as a catalyst and the situation explodes.
We drove down street after street packed with people, activity, and the possibility of violence. Cops aren't the only people who enforce laws. After a few years of relative peace, street gangs are returning to New York City, and they have their own set of laws to uphold. Tonight, police noticed gang members wearing their "colors." There would be trouble.
Each gang has specific door stoops and pool halls where members gather. The police avoid them because of their own detonation capabilities. Their attitude is, "What can we do? If we take the leaders down to the station house to avert trouble, the gang members will shower bricks on top of us from the buildings."
The car I was in carried on with business as usual until a call came. There had been shooting at one of the gang headquarters. Out of all the times I rode with the police, this was the only incident where they told me to stay in the car. I sat there for a few minutes and watched people streaming to the stoop where the shootings had taken place.
Three times a group of little kids came to the window to see what the police were up to. "Going to jail? Who are you?" one asked me. I told him I was writing about the police and he said, "Are you going to write about me?" So I said, "Yes, sure."
He asked, "Why?" so I told him, "I'm writing for the Lord," and his face lit up the New York City night.
Eventually I got out of the car. A girl who couldn't have been more than sixteen and a boy about the same age, both wearing distinctive colors, came over and I asked them about what happened. "I was standing in front of the house with Nico and Freddy," said the girl. "Nico was telling stories and fooling around, the way he does when he's high, and me and Freddy were just laughing and playing. Then all of a sudden this yellow car came up as fast as a damn streak of lightning, and out came this dude with a gun like a cannon. He looked at me and said, 'Get in the car,' and I screamed.
"Everybody began to run except me and Nico. Freddy backed away and Nico pulled out a knife and started to swear crazy as you can imagine. Something Nico said did it and the gun went off like thunder inside my head. Nico was on the ground.
"Freddy ran at the guy; the gun went off again and Freddy Was on the street next to Nico. I was screaming and by that time someone from our side had gone for a gun and shot the dude right in the heart. Sure as day and night he's dead. Then the sirens started and after that people came."
I saw a Spanish-speaking policeman talking to a gang member. They talked in violent spurts, passing back and forth from English to Spanish. The gang member would say, "What you talking about, man! What the hell you talking about! I'm going to get the guy who shot my brother! He shot him! What you want me to do?" And the cop would bring the boy dose to him and speak into his ear with an expression on his face that showed he understood what was happening. The boy would just say, "You crazy, man!"
I watched this going on, wondering just what the policeman was trying to find out from the boy. I guess he wanted names. If it weren't for what the girl had just told me, it might have been comical. There was. this big policeman with one arm around a teenage boy dressed in flash purple who had a chain wrapped around his waist.' Eventually the boy twisted out of the policeman's arms, and ran off through the crowd. The policeman stood and watched him go. He turned to me and shrugged. "If they won't tell me anything, what can I do? What the hell am I supposed to do?"
* * * *
A police car cruises slowly up and down city streets. The men in the car wait for the action to begin. They talk of motorcycles and cars, their families and their job. Then a call comes over the radio like a tug on the fisherman's line; the bait is taken. Zooming in and out of traffic, the patrol car screeches around the corner and stops at the scene of the crime. The catch is weighed. The only trouble is, sometimes it's a little hard to tell who is the fish and who is the fisherman.