Gangbangers Up Close — Ain’t It Fun?

It was after ten on Friday night in Arlington and I was riding with Officer Matt O’Brien and absolutely nothing was happening. Nobody was in the streets. The weather was cold. The criminals, who lack strength of character, were hiding indoors. O’Brien told me that nothing would happen until just before his shift ended, so that he couldn’t get off work on time.

Maybe this could be attributed to the perversity of life. Of course, a more practical explanation is that by eleven o’clock, people have had time to get drunk.

Anyway, the radio said something about a gunshot in Arno Valley, not the best part of Arlington. Something about a black Honda. Attempted drive-by, I thought I heard, no one hit. I wasn’t listening real carefully. It wasn’t our problem.

Gradually a chase began to develop on the radio. A car had apparently refused to stop. It now seemed to be a tan something-or-other, Mitsubishi I thought the pursuers said. Following a chase by radio is a curiously abstract business. If you know the streets, you can follow it in your head. The radio says things like, ‘Southbound on Fifty, taking Queen Street exit, looks like they’re headed for Key Bridge.’ By guess and good luck, other cars on the net try to cut them off.

O’Brien was by now heading toward the scene, which was changing position fast. The radio said, ‘They’re bailing, such-and-such South Barton.’ They couldn’t shake the pursuit, so they had stopped, jumped out, and run for it. Cars were converging. O’Brien by vigorous driving had gotten to the neighborhood. We crept down an empty suburban street at a couple of miles an hour, watching. Punk kids aren’t rocket scientists. They can be predicted.

A scrawny kid in sweat shirt and ghetto-bag trousers walked by on the opposite sidewalk, spitting. Guys spit when they have been running flat-out and desperate. O’Brien stopped him. He was Hispanic, said he was eighteen but looked sixteen, and panting. Oh, he was just out for a walk or something. Going to a friend’s house. Down there somewhere. Why was he panting? ‘Man, I been walking a long time.’ Yeah, right.

Police fact of life: You can’t hold a guy for panting. There was no description of the runners, nothing to connect this kid with the crime. O’Brien let him go. Ten to one, he’d been in the car.

Meanwhile over the radio the cops with the abandoned car reported a twenty-gauge shotgun shell just under the driver’s side of the car. The dispatcher, a lady with a nice British accent–it’s like being dispatched by Margaret Thatcher—warned officers to be careful.

Shortly afterward O’Brien and I stopped by the cluster of police cars where two of the runners seem to have been caught. They were short, skinny, very young-looking, and had never had anything to do with anything in their whole lives, not even a bad thought. In police work, you meet only the virtuous. One had a shirt that kept coming open to reveal gang tattoos on his stomach.

‘L.I.s,’ O’Brien said. ‘Locos Intocables.’ The Crazy Untouchables. Gangs are getting to be a problem in Arlington.

One of the kids had said something to indicate that the driver of the car might have been female. Sure enough, an officer said, the tags came back to a young Hispanic woman, no priors, good license. Bailing out of your own car is not the optimum way to avoid the attention of police.

Fascinating, but what did it add up to? Pretty much nothing, so far. No eye-witness could tie these kids to the attempted shooting. The police weren’t sure how many people had been involved. No weapons had been found. The shotgun shell had been outside of the car, meaning not provably associated with it. Judging by (possibly wrong) radio traffic, the shooter seemed to have used a small-bore weapon, not a shotgun. The car was originally reported as black, not tan.

You don’t flee the police and bail out without having something on your conscience, but lots of people have lots of things on their consciences. A defense attorney would say the shotgun shell was already lying on the street, but only a jury could believe it. The suspects were bad eggs, but maybe not the right bad eggs.

As I left, things remained confused and contradictory. This isn’t uncommon. People who call 911 are under stress. A witness doesn’t see the shooting but looks seconds later and sees a black car driving away. The bail-out happens in a dark place and the cop sees only three people instead of the five, itself a shaky figure, reported by a witness. Maybe a weapon is found in the bushes later with the suspect’s prints on it, but maybe it isn’t. You do the best you can, and maybe you get a good case.

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