Real-Life Policing

Maybe Ain’t What You Think

See? I really was a police writer. Maybe the world’s ugliest. I’m not making it up.

See? I really was a police writer. Maybe the world’s ugliest. I’m not making it up.

I sometimes wish that people knew more about cops, who they are, and the world they live in. There are pretty good cops (most) and very bad ones (few) but accounts in the press usually bear little relation to the truth. What happens on the streets is not as clear, not nearly as clear, as the immaculately coifed indignations of the flickering screen would have you think. Permit me a few examples of routine ambiguity.

First, though, a journalistically unwelcome reality: Almost everyone charged by the police is guitly, no matter what Jesse Jackson thinks. There are two reasons. First, the perps are almost all caught in the act: They are swerving all over the road and blow museum-pickled on the Alka-Sensor, or caught coming out the window with the TV set, or the car is reported stolen and they are driving it, or caught slinging rock and it’s in their possession. Second, the case load is so great in the cities that the DA won’t paper a case unless he is sure he will win. The cops know this, and know the DA will raise hell with them if they send him iffy-maybe-could-be cases, so they don’t.

Cops engage in, and have to engage in, a lot of Not Quite by the Rules policing (NQBTR). Sometimes the rules just don’t quite work. For example, the aging widow in DC who didn’t sell in time when the neighborhood went bad and drug dealers started hanging on her corner. Property values died and she can’t sell for enough to buy elsewhere, and she is afraid to leave to walk to the grocery store past a cloud of dirtballs. The cops tell the dealers, “Get your sorry butts off this corner,now, and don’t come back.”

It isn’t legal, but the druggies don’t know it. Or maybe they do, but know better than to push their luck. They move to another corner, the old woman gets her groceries, and everybody is happy. Got a better answer? I don’t.

A modus vivendi often exists between the cops and the street life. One of the federal buildings in Washington, I forget which but maybe SEC, overhangs a tiled walkway, protecting it from the rain. I’ve seen a dozen grocery carts there on a wet night, each containing some homeless bozo’s life. The owners (almost owners, anyway: the carts were liberated from Safeway) slept on mats and, if they were gone early, the cops left them alone. And why not?

That was pre-9/11. Things may be different now.

The city is full of crazies, and the police have to deal with them. One night in an almost middle-class region of the city, the cop I was with got a call about a rapist in some woman’s home. The officer said he would look into it but didn’t seem much interested. That was odd, I thought. Anything “in progress” usually gets instant attention. Was this guy cold-blooded, or what? We casually drove to the location.

She turned out to be one of the head cases released to the streets years before to save the city money, a paranoid schizophrenic obsessed with being raped. She lived in a nice house paid for by the city. We went in. The walls were covered with obscene scrawled admonitions, “Stop putting your…” etc. The officer said a friendly “Hello, Mrs. Smith, where is he? Back there? Let me check it out.”

He went into the back part of the house for a minute or so, returned, and said, “He’s gone, you’ll be all right.” She thanked him, and we left. In a few days she would call about another imaginary rapist, and he would do the same thing.

Real-life policing. Got a better idea?

Chicago, the Austin district, I think, a bad neighborhood and under-policed. I was riding with a plain-clothes guy in an unmarked car. An old jalopy swerved dangerously in front of us. We stopped it.

Two old black guys, probably in their sixties and clearly drunk. License and registration please. Well, see, officer, I left my wallet etc, and I borrowed the car from a friend, I guess the registration is at, and I didn’t know the license plates were different, etc.

Their story was likely true, or close enough. The cop knew that old black guys don’t steal cars. This is called “experience” or, in the media, “profiling.” The cop also knew that if he took them in, the magistrate would let them go on recognizance because the available cells were full, give them a court date, which they wouldn’t keep, and the next day they would be drunk again. They weren’t criminals and didn’t need to be in jail. On the other hand, the driver was drunk at the moment and dangerous. Solution?

He locked their car keys in the trunk of their car, figuring the two would be approximately sober by the time they figured out how to retrieve them. They would be driving smashed again the next day anyway but not for a few hours. We left.

Got a better idea?

DC, summer night, walking a foot-beat in empty streets. We encountered a blonde woman, forty-fiveish, crawling on the sidewalk in cruddy jeans. She was sick drunk, incoherent, barely able to stand, with the grey-vegetable look that comes of living on gin and Vienna sausages. She protectively clutched a bottle as if it were her child, obviously terrified that the cop would take it away—as he should have. Technically should have.

Technically, he should have taken her in for public drunkenness. But why? There was nowhere to put her. Cells are few and usually full of people who ought to be in them. The city can’t afford to send endless alkies to Betty Ford. The next night would be the same thing. She would die of liver failure no matter what we did.

We watched as she crawled on all threes, clutching the butte in her free hand, into an alley. We went on our way.

Got a better idea?

In a suburb in Prince George’s County, the drug-and-gang situation had gotten so bad that mothers were afraid to walk their kids in strollers. It was ugly. The question had become who was going to control the streets. Somebody up the power ladder decided that enough was enough.

A massive police presence followed. I went with the cops. Police cars parked everywhere. When a couple of bangers congregated on a corner, a cop stood two feet way, looking at them. If they walked down the sidewalk, he walked five feet behind. This is not optimal for selling crack. A civil-rights lawyer would have called it police harassment. It was. It was intended to be. It probably wasn’t legal.

Maybe two weeks later, I saw women pushing strollers along the sidewalk. No bangers. They had just moved to another region to do the same thing.


Real-life policing.

Several years ago I published in Kindle format my police-procedural novel, Killer Kink. Since then I have received thousands of emails–ok, five emials, but I’m rounding up–asking for a print version. Well, here it is: Killer Kink Buy it. We know where your children go to school

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