Stray Bullets in the Yankee Capital

It was cold Friday night in 1-D. I was riding with Sergeant Herbert Barnes, a large black guy with 28 years with the Metropolitan Police, 15 of them in Anacostia. For a while we chased the radio, which is what cops generally do, responding to minor calls. A cabby at a hotel got into a fight with a security guard, who popped him in the face. The result was a fairly gorgeous black eye and a dispute over who swung first. We checked out Potomac Gardens, a housing project I remembered from my first ridealong with the MPD. In those days you might see a guy lying on the ground, passed out, the needle still in his arm. It’s better now, which just means the druggies went somewhere else.

A call came from another project in Northwest. Something about a shooting. We went.

The place was bleak, not a lot of vegetation or attention given to aesthetics. After some looking we found the apartment from which the call had come. The complainant was a black guy, pushing thirty I’d say, with what I took to be his family. His hair was in corn rows. He had been coming home, he said, and stopped at a liquor store to buy lottery tickets. Somebody had started shooting at him, he said, so he gunned it and left.

“I didn’t see nobody. I just heard, pop-pop-pop-pop and I got out of there as fast as I could.”

Barnes asked whether he knew of anyone who would want to shoot him. The guy said no. Well, any idea what the reason was?

“I don’t know. Jealousy.”

It was pretty clear that there was something he wasn’t telling us. We went to see the car.

Sure enough, there was a bullet hole, nine millimeter I’d guess, that came through the windshield on the driver’s side at an angle. A female cop showed up to help. Barnes looked the car over, asked more questions about the shooting, but got no more information. The guy occasionally exchanged odd glances with a woman, whether his sister or girlfriend I don’t know. Apparently she had been with him at the time of the shooting. Again, we weren’t getting the whole story.

Barnes drove to the liquor store, Brown’s Liquor. We went in. It was your standard bad-section operation. The sales clerk was behind thick bullet-proof plastic, with a couple of ghetto airlocks to let him give bottles to customers and take money. These are like lazy susans set in the bullet-proof plastic. A robber can’t get an unobstructed shot at the cashier.

The clerk looked to be Korean. His story was that a couple, who sounded like the the complainant and his girlfriend, had been in the story when the sound of shooting came from outside. He told the customers to get down, he said. In corner liquor stores downtown, you get a foxhole mentality. The shooting was not aimed at the store, however.

We went back out. Barnes had figured out which in places the guy could have been parked, reasoning from the angle of the bullet hole. We looked for brass on the ground, but didn’t find any. Nobody was in sight on foot. Traffic was normal.

I was puzzled. The guy in the store wasn’t lying, having no reason. Had the customers in fact been another couple? Guys in the District can’t shoot, since that takes disciplined effort on a range, but still — how do you miss a car with all but one of a half dozen shots? Had the shots come from another car? If indeed the couple had been the pair in the store, why lie and say they were in the car?

Barnes didn’t say this, but there are enough reports of shooting in Washington that it just isn’t possible to mount a full-scale investigation of all of them. I heard a couple of other sound-of-gunfire calls on the radio while we were riding.

I told Barnes that the shooting didn’t make sense. He said that after a lot of years on the job he had learned that a lot of them don’t. Cops eventually stop excpecting things to make sense.

I don’t know where the investigation went. I don’t know why the complanant called in the first place. He certainly hadn’t shown any interest in helping. The bullet may have been part of a fight not even involving him. Who knew? It was just life in the streets. We left.

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