There has been a lot of negative press over the past six months about law enforcement and the actions of some individual police officers. I must admit that some of the news reports are concerning but these few incidents pale in comparison to the unreported good work that police officers do each and every day throughout our communities.
I know, because I was one – a police officer – and I spent my career working at various levels to include county, municipal and federal. The majority of my varied career was as a police officer in one of the roughest cities in this country – Los Angeles. The City of Angels is what they call it. Frankly, I don’t remember many angels in all my years that I worked there. Most of the people I dealt with on a daily basis were far from angles. They used other words to describe themselves, such as: Crip or Blood, 18th Streeter, MS-13, 5-Duece Hoover Crip, Vato, Chewy, Pookie or Killa’. They didn’t have soft white wings on their backs either. More like tattoos with the name of their beloved gang etched into their flesh or tear drops on their cheeks signifying that they had killed someone.
Police work and being a street cop is not for everyone. It is an exceptionally difficult and demanding job, usually undertaken by people who have been called to that profession. Just the process of becoming a police officer is arduous and usually weeds out many applicants not suited for the job. The stresses of the academy and passing a yearlong probation usually weeds out the rest. After that, the mean streets will have their way with even the strongest at heart.
After graduating from the long and grueling seven month program of the LAPD Police Academy, I was assigned to the most densely populated eight square miles in the city known as Rampart Division. It was home to some of the most violent criminals and Latino gangs in the city. Rivals only to the Crips and Bloods located in South Central LA – an area of the city I would later serve in after I survived my first tour in Rampart.
In 1990, I was a “boot” – a rookie – and I was working day watch with my Training Officer. Rookies always started out on this shift because it was supposedly safer than the nights. But in the late 80’s and throughout the 1990’s with armed dope dealers on every corner, drive-by shootings, thousands of murders, and overall gang activity out of control, no shift was safer than the other.
It was just another hot day in L.A. and my partner and I heard over the radio that another unit had made a routine traffic stop on 7th street near MacArthur Park. That area of the division was dangerous in general and amplified by the fact that a notorious and violent Latino gang named “18th Street” owned most of the turf in and around the park. We decided to roll over there to provide a little extra security for the other unit. I was standing near the passenger door of my police car watching a friend of mine, another rookie, conduct the traffic stop. It was mid-afternoon and the streets were filled with people, cars, buses, and street vendors who peddled everything from chorizos and cold drinks to fake IDs, passports, and counterfeit movies. Local families, on their way to the neighborhood markets, treaded lightly as they weaved their way past gangsters, prostitutes and pimps who controlled the sidewalks.
I scanned back and forth looking for any signs of danger trying to decipher any minor movement or sign of a threat from any of the hundreds of people around me. Police work is about dealing with both the good and bad of humanity and trying to figure out which is which. It is impossible to put a bubble around you to protect yourself and others for the many unknowns you face daily.
I noticed a man casually walking down the street towards our location. He didn’t appear to be dangerous, regular looking in fact, and he wasn’t holding anything in his hands that I could see. But before any of us could react, the man retrieved a hunting knife from somewhere on his person and in one swift move leaped toward my friend, a fellow police officer, and skillfully slit his neck from ear to ear.
My friend never saw it coming. None of us did, including the veteran training officers. It was impossible to have anticipated it nor prevented it. The suspect, not appearing threatening at all, just made a decision to try to kill a cop, any cop, that day.
Cops can be very judgmental and critical of each other, particularly when we analyze the actions of fellow officers following a significant event. Our watch commander always reminded us that we should learn from an incident rather than criticize every minor action of our fellow officers. After all, we were not at the scene, we didn’t smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the tension in the air, perceive the suspects actions, feel the concern for their safety and have to react to the unknown in a matter of milliseconds.
I never did find what out motivated that man that day. He was arrested without incident and I imagine he is still in jail. However, I do know that the incident changed my friend’s life forever; he eventually left the job – too traumatized by the event. My life too changed that day as I witnessed the blood pouring out of my friend’s neck and chaos ensued around me. The mean streets of L.A. had walked right up to me, said hello and indelibly etched in my psyche the stark reality of life on the beat.
Be safe out there.
Viper One Six – Out
Originally published March 5, 2015 Gate House Media | Leavenworth Times