SDPD officer
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After a decade of thinking of cops as Mayor Daley’s favorite barnyard animal, I felt a bit odd strolling into the Central Police Station and looking ahead to a night of cruising around on the beat as a guest of the Ride Along Program, which serves a kind of Get-to-Know-Your-Local-Police function. The old police station was dolled up like an El Cajon tract house with panelling and contact-paper-wood fixtures. There was nothing ominous or foreboding about it, and my image of cops as chickennecked shaven-headed hatchet men for the more violent forces of evil was shattered.

At three o’clock in the afternoon about fifty men and four women sit around tables flanked by old-fashioned blackboards and have their squad meeting. Besides myself at the table there is an adolescent with pimples in a police uniform who is an Explorer cop and, like me, a guest with a purpose.

The sergeant, a man in his late thirties, lays out the items of the day: A recent case decision (People vs. Harris) says you need probable cause to transfer a suspect to the scene of a crime for identification by a possibly dying victim (“Yah, that’s just about the same as before, right?”). “Malicious mischief” is to be hereafter referred to as “vandalism.” When you pinch someone for possession of marijuana, talk to him first and get him to sign the misdemeanor form, and if he won’t sign it, book him (“Some of these guys’ll sign anything”). There are descriptions of suspects and their cars— a late-model blue Chevy, a real clean silver Capri, an old green Ford-and how hard to be looking for them. Some guy raped and almost killed a girl the night before last, and anybody that looks anything like his description-check him out.

The S.W.A.T. squad is over in another comer, passing around homemade chocolate cookies and milk. They have to change into their civvies for some reason (‘They want ’em to pose for Life magazine. Ha! Why don’t they tell us what’s going on?”). Vice squad is nowhere in sight, probably out somewhere busy on the job, trying to get laid.

The meeting ends, and we all head out to the police car parking lot. One guy looks to me like he lives in El Cajon-white tee shirt, jeans, cowboy boots. I ask him. Lakeside. Another guy looks like he might be a State College student living in Mission Beach. May or may not be in narcotics with that ratty tee shirt, but yes, I’m told, he could be a patrolman.

The men are between about 22 and 30-plus. I ask my own personal policeman. Officer Short, about the haircuts, which look awfully normal to me. “Well, that’s one of the problems around here. We asked for a raise, and they gave us hair instead of money.” Throughout the course of the evening I came to discover that the city and its police force are not on the best of terms, financially.

“Now, I’m not complaining that I don’t have enough to live on. I started at $1005 a month. But the City Council keeps on giving us a 5% raise every year, and they just gave themselves a flat $5000 raise. And the bus drivers get twice as much as we do; that’s because they can't hire other guys on if they strike. Now, I don’t want to be a bus driver, but I tell you the day might come when, if it is only a question of money. I’ll quit the force and drive a bus. The garbage collectors get more than we do. We collect garbage in our own way, you know. So we're hiring the Teamsters Union to negotiate for us. Now, we’re not joining the Teamsters; they’re a bunch of crooks. We’re just getting them to negotiate for us, so we can get binding arbitration.”

San Diego Policemen in Ocean Beach

San Diego Policemen in Ocean Beach

As we drive in the patrol car through the police car wash right there on the spot, then through the gas station, we get a few comments from the gas attendant about the raise the City Council just gave itself. Apparently the San Diego police force has a very high turnover (even though they’re not recruiting now), and they point their finger at the fact that San Diego is the second largest city in California, while the police pay scale is 40th in the state. Jobs are a buyer’s market now, and if you want to be a cop in San Diego, you just work cheap, that’s all. And count yourself lucky. The police are not so hard up these days that they are accepting early outs from the Navy and the Marines to work as cops. Now they look for men with college educations. “But they have relaxed their standards now that they have to hire a certain percentage of minorities. They have to.”

The cop I am placed with, John, is definitely a nice guy. No kidding. He considered himself a kind of “humanitarian” before he became a police officer. “But being a policeman teaches you differently about things. The way they handle criminals, for example. Addicts, they have to steal to support their habits. But they can stop; they, have a choice. One addict we finally caught after he committed 100 burglaries in O.B. They gave him a year in County Mental Health for rehabilitation. He should have gone and done his ten years afterward. That’s not a deterrent, that's not rehabilitation.

“And a couple of years ago-did you hear about it?-that kid who killed a little boy. He raped him and then buried him. He was still alive when he buried him, nine years old. They put the guy in the mental hospital, no security. He kept escaping. Then they caught him in Oregon, the last time he escaped. He had just molested a young boy there. After ten years in the mental hospital.

“There just shouldn't be that kind of an edge for murder. Society shouldn’t have to pay for it. The victim should deal the punishment. You know, that might sound hard-assed, but it is a whole different thing when you have been to the scene of the crime, and when you see someone all cut up, and then afterwards, if they live, how their lives are ruined. Completely freaked out. It’s different from being the judge sitting up there every day watching the cases come before him.”

Meanwhile the radio is sending out 211’s and 1097’s and getting back C-4’s and 62 Alphas. Finally I understand why the cops have codes. It's a lot easier. A 211, I think, is a purse snatch. We’re talking so much we miss something, so we’re quiet and listen. A male Negro, 5’9”, medium afro, wearing a snap-bill hat and red pants, trying to sell hash outside the Greyhound bus station. An exasperated officer trying to figure out what to do with a little old lady in the Pickwick Hotel who seems to be all right.

John catches our radio message-C-4 (everything all right)—then catches sight of some kids on a comer, drinking beer, about two blocks from the beach. “They don’t all look 21.”

A beautiful OB afternoon, just beautiful. These kids are all recent refugees from Boston, New Jersey, New York. They’ve been playing baseball. Check the I.D.’s. No problems. Actually, everybody seems to like talking to a cop. Sort of like the old cop-on-the-beat scene. When you’re in a patrol car, once they know nothing is going to happen to them, they relax. “Yeah, dis is de longest I ever spent on a cornah.” “That’s a real nice dog there. Yah, he’s real friendly.” “I don’t mean ta be a punk, man, but what’s dis?” Some new police gadget.

Okay, we’re off. The liquor store, I see, seems to have reopened when we pulled away as mysteriously as it seemed to have closed when we pulled up.

A sunny day, and Ocean Beach has never looked quite like this before. It’s not just OB out there, but citizens, suspects, and vehicles. Wham! We pull off the street at the light at the comer of Sunset Cliffs and West Point Loma Blvd. The cop is pissed. I’m not sure whether something is up. It is.

“Now this is something I don’t like to do. We have to take all those posters off the telephone poles. Sometimes people just put up blank pieces of paper because they know we have to pull them down. Police harassment. They don’t understand they are cluttering up their neighborhood. Personally, I think the garbage men should do this.”

A man from the Bedroom comes out and tries to sell the officer a bed. A 17-year-old who seems to know the cop comes up and raps for a while. ‘That kid? He’s a burglar.” I am thinking “What do you mean, a burglar?” I have the idea that every once in a while somebody is hard up and needs to rip someone off. Apparently that is not the way it is. A burglar is a burglar, the cop tells me. A criminal is a criminal, and jail is for criminals. You see this kid walking around late at night, and if it is the time to do it, “you bust him for curfew, and that stops him.”

Apparently, a purse snatcher is a purse snatcher is a purse snatcher. Or a burglar, or a robber, or a sex offender. And they tend to get picked up around the same places. The question often seems to be not whether you are going to catch them in the act of that particular crime (especially in the cases of Drunk in Public and Under the Influence of Heroin), but rather whether the time has come to bear down on them because they are getting out of hand.

And then there are marijuana busts. Everyone knows that there is always dealing going on down at the foot of Newport Pier. We are driving around there later in the evening, and John points his spotlight. “See that guy with the long hair. See those servicemen. What do you think they’re there for? It’s a deal.” We drive away. The average cop is not hard on grass. A couple of them have been fired when grass was found in their lockers. (Usual disciplinary measures for police officers are “getting days”—off without pay)

Grass is no longer any sort of a “political” question (“Right wing, left wing-I have trouble differentiating between the two”). One cop who’s been working OB longer than anyone else said, “It’s a game, man. They see us coming, they should stop dealing their dope. If they don’t stop, they’re not playing by the rules of the game. They get pinched.” Stupidity is one thing it is easy to get busted for.

But there are different types of stupidity. Stupid kids, for example. The Marble Gang was loose in OB that night. A bunch of kids in a van, it seems, was just driving around throwing marbles through people’s windows. Just for the hell of it, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage. A violent rapist on the loose, possible burglaries, and illegally posted signs, and the cops have to chase these stupid kids around.

So we follow cars that might be them, and keep our eyes open for a bum tail-light, or a rolling stop at a stop sign-good excuses to halt a car “when you want to talk to them and check them out.” Apparently more criminals have been caught and more cops killed for nonfunctioning taillights than any other crime on the book. Some cops pulled a car over once for a taillight violation that just happened to be the getaway car for a robbery occurring thirty second earlier.

We had dinner after our first big incident. Six cops got a landlord to settle with 10 or 12 tenants, a month overdue with their rent on the one-room cabin where they were all staying, after all the legal procedures had been followed to force them to leave after notice. The landlord paid them $50 to vacate.

“Fifty dollars isn’t much to keep from going to jail, is it?” said the loudest instigator of unpleasant protest. “If I didn't know what the inside of a jail was like, I’d like to see him get it. Coming in here with a gun!” It turns out the landlord is a cop when he is not a landlord, and the gun that cops carry all the time, on or off duty, was showing from under his Murph the Surf tee shirt. Two law students who witnessed the entire thing testified that the elements of assault were missing. “Nope, not assault. It was mutual combat. He never touched his gun.”

We went to dinner at Consuelo’s. We were halfway through the quesadilla, the maitre d’ had just gone out to his car to get the warning he wanted my companion cop to sign, and we were just getting into discussing “Why did you become a cop?” (“Well, I was studying microbiology, but somebody told me that without a PhD. . . Well, I went to visit a friend who got his degree in biology and was working in a lab. He was way back in a stuffy little room—urinalysis. I just couldn’t take that. This way. I’m outside, I meet people, I don't have to take orders from women.”) I was just asking him how his wife felt about the whole experience when we got a call on the walkie-talkie. John, who is very polite, said, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to come back to finish our dinner.”

Whammo zammo, out the door (the people coming in pointed towards the beach indicating, they went thataway)— and we’re off.

In this car I make a point of fastening my seatbelt. I learned that earlier, after we left the party at the flood control channel. We had followed a fire engine down the beach to a suspicious-looking gathering of people who were standing around their cars and vans drinking beer and playing loud country music. They were all cops. One of them, a western-shirted strawberry blond with an El Cajon accent, had been out on the Mission Beach beat that day and just couldn’t stand it.

“Man, I saw all them guys layin’ back drinkin’ beer in the sun, havin' a good time and I thought, hell, let’s go!” All of a sudden a wild raving station wagon started spinning donuts on the sand and we were in the car and off on a hot pursuit.

Now, that is one fun game. And here we’re at it again, right in the middle of dinner. By the time we reach the beach, there are cop cars and flashing lights. We’re too late. They had been chasing this weird little dune buggy that looked like a fly skeleton and had been “all over the road. Man, he was movin’. He was all over the place. Jesus! It was fun. It just didn’t last long enough.”

“C-4. Okay, guys, see you later Back to Code 7 (dinner!).” They had kept our dinner warm.

The rest of the night was pretty quiet. We drove down alley's with our lights off looking for people carrying television sets, and saw only cats. The ongoing drama on the radio: two murder suspects had just deposited their victim at Doctor’s Hospital (“Murder is a weird thing—all kinds of things happen. Lots of people feel bad after they've done it”) We helped a lady with car trouble and did a check on a possible Marble Gang group. We followed an old green Ford. Talked a little about the people you meet on the beat, how you get to know them, and even learn to like a lot of people you didn’t understand before. We rode around a car parked in a dark place where it is not usually parked. Nothing. It’s getting late. Doesn’t seem anything is going to happen. Night before last two ambulance cases: one burglary nab with a couple thousand dollars’ worth of stolen coins from a doctor’s house on the hill; and a riot at the Sports Arena. Tonight it’s pretty dull. We are heading in for the station and we get a call. Tense: “End of Chatsworth, illegal parking.” We write five parking citations and head back for the station.

Halfway downtown we see a cop by the side of the road. We stop to be a routine cover. Immediately I see why the cop has stopped this guy. The car matches the descriptions of the rape suspect we had been alerted to and looking out for all night. The guy, too: typical college student, same color hair, same type of clothes. He wasn’t too happy about getting frisked for a defective taillight. Why all the questioning for an equipment violation?

The cops were polite, but thorough. I watched the guy while the cops talked to each other. “This guy really looks the part. The hair’s a little lighter maybe, not exactly the right height. But I dunno, could be. But we ain't got to take him in now. If that last girl doesn’t regain consciousness within 48 hours we’d have to I let him go before she could identify him. We’ll keep an eye on him. I got his address.”

He gets off with a traffic warning, and I’m on my way home thinking. Jesus, these are not the days to let strangers ask questions inside the front door.

And also on the way home. I’m watching for defective taillights—dead giveaways.

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