To begin with, when you are route to a call, you get about five minutes or less to plan, and this from terse, scratchy description from the dispatcher, with a fortune cookie message's worth of information about where you are going and why. Nowhere, in any job on earth, is there that kind of spontaneity. In no other profession do you have to adapt, react, observe, manage, control, communicate, and be mindful of your own survival under such duress, stress, and uncertainty. It’s a two-minute drill, with no timeouts, and the other team has two extra linebackers to blitz with. It’s a safari, a night dive, sometimes as lonely as a spacewalk, with Houston gone silent. Aside from military environments, police work is unparalleled as a dive-in, on the job training for people skills. Go to the top seminars in the corporate world about business and management, and they cannot in two days and two thousand dollars endow you with the experience and tools for human behavior you acquire in one shift in uniform. It can be grindingly stressful, exhilarating, frustrating, and sometimes pee-in-your-pants hilarious. So I dedicate this column to everyone still donning the uniform and going out into the fray—even though the actual crime rate is lower, today’s streets are scarier and less predictable.
I remember well a semi-homeless man who had a huge, wild shock of hair, grimy clothes, a large round beard, wild bulging eyes, and long dirty fingernails like bear claws. He would go into convenience stores and rip open bags of cookies and eat them as he walked out. When the clerk would yell at him, he would growl back. On each call we got from a store, the description was the same. Naturally, we nicknamed our sugar-addict fugitive the Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster hit about six stores before we finally caught him in the act. As part of patrol in our respective zones, we were always checking the convenience stores anyway for potential robberies, but we kept an extra eye out for Cookie Monster. Then one day, I spied him walking into a 7-11. He never saw my patrol car. When I confronted him inside, he was choosing
between Chips Ahoys and Pecan Sandies. He growled at me; I looked at his hands and saw those dirty talons he had for fingernails, and I took out my PR-24. “If you try to scratch me with those, you’re going to bleed, really bad,” I told him. There was only slight resistance when I cuffed him, mostly growling and struggling, but the Cookie Monster’s awful reign was over (at least in our district).
In North Miami, we had a guy who had a white step van completely covered with biblical verse and quotes, in blue magic marker. He went from laundromat to laundromat, and told me one day that the FBI was poisoning his clothes. One day I saw him riding a bike with a small lawnmower engine attached to it. The engine didn’t drive anything, it just made noise.
Where do these people come from?
One of the best wackos we had, however was a guy who called the suicide hotline one night, and when we arrived we could see him through the blinds on the phone, still talking to them. Then he grabbed a revolver and shot himself in the leg. We rushed in, and as Fire-Rescue was strapping him on the stretcher, we saw he had already shot himself three times before we got there. His living room was a battlefield of empty vodka bottles and mounds of cigarette butts. The next morning, as that midnight shift was ending, I got a call to the hospital of a man causing a disturbance. It was him—he was yanking out his IVs and hurriedly putting on his clothes. “I’ve got an important meeting in an hour,” he told me calmly, as if nothing had happened the night before. “I’m the vice-chair of the Civil Aeronautics Board. I can’t be in here.”
In North Miami, a 90-man department, our station was smack in the middle of the city, with the fire station next door. The desk was always manned by at least one sworn officer. On this day, it was my turn on the desk. I heard a wailing sound, and a man came through the front doors, one hand over his eyes, the other out in front, feeling his way as if in the dark.
“Aghhhhh!” he wailed, “I can’t see!!” When I tried to calm him down and asked him what happened, he said he had accidentally splashed cleaning chemicals in his face and was blinded. Didn’t he call 911? Yes, he wailed, they told him to “read the emergency instructions on the label.”
“How the hell could I do that when I can’t see??” He had a point there. So he had walked, Frankenstein-like, the two blocks from his house to here. My partner was busy dispatching a call and was clueless to my exchange with the stricken man. I told him to go back outside, and turn right, he would be at the fire station, and they will treat him. He felt his way back out, wailing the whole way. Five minutes later, he came back. “There’s no one there!!” he moaned.
Just then, I heard one of our units take an arrival with fire-rescue at a house. The call: chemical injury. That’s when the light came on for my partner. “Oh shit,” he said, “the fire units are all at his house.”
We had a nut named Lillian Childress who lived in the ghetto when I worked Opa-Locka, one of the roughest neighborhoods in south Florida. She thought she was a wealthy socialite. One day, we were on a second floor landing of an apartment building, helping Fire-Rescue with a shooting victim, and a crowd had gathered downstairs. Someone from the crowd threw a rock at us. Then a bottle crashed against the wall behind us, and then another, and then a gunshot
rang out. We hurriedly got the guy down the stairs and I looked down at the crowd, which was being dispersed by our now-arriving backups. There was Lillian, in an evening gown, holding a cocktail glass in one hand with a napkin wrapped around it. “This is awful,” she was saying as she walked slowly through the crowd, “just awful…”
Hollywood just can’t make this stuff up, though Reno 911! hits the mark. A friend thought I was crazy when I told him that was the most realistic police show on television. The different dynamics of cop-citizen relationships on the street is hard to convey. There was a group of losers who used to drink outside a convenience store in Opa-Locka. We used to always
card them, run them, shoo them away, and sometimes, if it was slow, make an arrest for the “drinking alcohol within 500 feet of the establishment” ordinance. When I changed departments, I told one of them they won’t have to see me anymore; I was going next door to North Miami.
“Aw man,” one of them whined, “Why you leavin’? You was alright.” This, from a guy I had arrested two weeks before.
Riding down Dixie Highway one evening in the early 80’s, my partner, who had been on about ten years longer than I had, spied a guy limping down the side of the road. “Hey, stop the car,” he said, “I know that guy. I shot him eight years ago in Liberty City.”
My partner got out, and stuck out his hand as the man stared at him. “Remember me?”
he asked the limping man. “I shot you!”
The guy grinned. “Oh, yeah! How you doin’??” And they had a nice chat while I sat in the cruiser and thought: one day, I should really write about this stuff.