Jim Stevens: Piru takes its name from a street in L.A. Piru gang members refer to each other as “Blood.” Crips started out as guys that went to school together in L.A. Supposedly, to get into the gang, you had to cripple somebody. Crips call each other ’Cuz.’”
"Look at the way she carries her purse. She knows, she lets that purse dangle, it’s history.” The white haired woman, crossing University at Fairmount, clutches her handbag under her arm. “Black guy did a purse snatch over there couple of months ago,” Officer Jim Stevens nods toward Lucky’s parking lot.
Stevens with ESD homeboys. “OBS will come along and see that and cross out ESD and write ‘Fuck ESD.’"
“He got chased by the clerk. He was rolling up the alley, and the clerk solicited help from some East San Diego Hispanic gang members, yelled, ‘That guy stole some old lady’s purse.’ The gang members are really into taking care of their ’hood, watchin’ out for their own. So they took off after the guy and caught him. Clerk got there, guy was down. Clerk thanked the gang members. They said, ‘We’d like to stick around and talk to the police but we can’t.’ Clerk looked, saw the alleged purse snatcher had a stab wound in his back.
“Purse snatches on a real regular basis at this check cashing place.” Stevens indicates a storefront at University and Fairmount’s corner.
Weekday. Warm afternoon, half moon hangs, laundry white in sky drained blue, faded flag blue. School’s out. Children shouldering book bags hurry past men going nowhere who sprawl on bus benches at intersections and Jim Stevens suck from pint wine bottles.
We drive another half block east on University. Stevens lets the big Ford Crown Victoria cruiser find its rhythm inside the current of cars. He takes in the street with on glance, is absolutely alert, vigilant. He nods at a heavyset man walking toward us. “See that guy, he’s a checker at 7 Eleven down at 3105 Fairmount, where I do my paperwork. Other night, some guy walked in behind the counter and slapped him around, beat him up.
“Yep,” says Stevens, “this part of town — dangerous at night, dangerous during the day. Dangerous, period.”
SDPD’s tans fit not quite smoothly over Stevens’s 6’3”, 190 pound frame: the bulletproof vest’s bulk shows under his shirt, his biceps pull the sleeves tight. Square chin, hard flat cheeks, straight nose, wide open green eyes, and tanned, what saves Stevens from all American oatmeal wholesome good looks is an Elvis sulkiness, a bad boy pout, to his mouth.
Thirty one year old Stevens is a ten year SDPD veteran. His father, Ed Stevens, retired in 1979 after almost 30 years with the department. He encouraged Jim Stevens to become a policeman. Stevens graduated from the academy in October 1980, worked in Clairemont for two years, in Southeast San Diego for three. Worked narcotics for a year, then went back to Clairemont. Been assigned to Eastern Division for 18 months. Stevens likes Eastern. “More excitement. More going on. People are easier to deal with, more down to earth. You treat ’em good, they treat you good back.”
For all this time, Stevens has worked patrol and not attempted to pursue a desk job. Cops are about the only professionals left who around the clock make house calls, and Stevens (never married) puts in four tens a week, plus end of shift and court appearance overtime. “Most cops don’t want to work patrol. The hours, hard on family life, but me, that’s what I want to do, that’s my thing.”
Several months earlier, on a third watch (9 p.m. to 7 a.m.) ride along, Stevens told me about a call he’d taken to a house on Wight man. Woman in her 90s, liv ing alone, woke to burglars ransacking her house. She screamed, burglars fled. When Stevens arrived to take the report, the woman sobbed. The only posses sions that meant anything to her had been stolen — an antique clock her late husband had brought with him when he emigrated to America and an AM radio that kept her company when she couldn’t sleep. Report complete, Stevens returned to patrol. He hoped, he’d told me, he’d get lucky and catch the perpetrators, or “perps.” He happened, then, to drive into the parking lot of the Euclid and Wightman 7-Eleven and through the plate glass window saw a man who matched the description given by the woman of one of the burglars. He was stand ing at the counter, showing clerks an antique clock and a radio. Stevens walked in, blocked his exit, took him down at gunpoint. The burglar had been trying to sell the items to 7 Eleven clerks.
What happened on that case? “They are all doing major time.” He grins, then asks, “You know that kid we chased in the stolen Mazda?” I nod, yes. We’d chased and caught a baby faced 15 year old who insisted — believably — he’d never been busted. Stevens’s initial check showed the boy clean.
During transport to juvenile hall, the boy slept. I could hear his snores. Over my shoulder, I looked at his sleeping face through the cage wire that separated us, thought, “Just a child and all tuckered out.”
“He got busted for the same thing about a week after we caught him. Had a bunch of priors. They weren’t tying him in on all of his auto theft cases because he was using a different name. Streetwise kid.”
And the parolee we’d apprehended driving a stolen Cadillac, Cripdown? “Parole violated. Back in prison.”
This is the second watch (3 p.m. to 1 a.m.), and we stop at 49th and University to acquire what for Stevens (who got out of bed at ten this morning) is lunch. “Hola,” he says to the cook and asks, in fluent Spanish, how the man’s family is, if his wife got her driver’s license yet.
“Lot of people driving out here don’t have licenses,” Stevens says, as we return to the car.
“You be taco holder.” He hands me a root beer can and wobbly paper plate, then slips out of the visor a black and white photograph, holds it up for me to see. “This is the guy we’re going to keep our eyes open for this evening.” Stevens speaks in his usual cowboy laconic easy way, says, “Armed and dangerous, always got a gun. If we spot him, I am going to want you to stay down low, because there’s a good chance there’s gonna be a shootout.
“Grew up and went to school here, is wanted for attempted murder.” The face in the photo — young black male, eyes downcast, unsmiling — looks no different than men I see every day on streets and in stores. I swallow, hard, ask why this guy doesn’t leave the neighbor hood. Go where no one knows him.
“Used to the area, got friends who live here, feels comfortable here. If he had any sense, he’d head out. He’d probably eventually get caught; but if he stays here, he’ll get caught a lot sooner. He’s confident, very elusive,a good driver,an expert car thief. He steals only fast cars — Firebirds, Trans Ams, Irocs.”
We take off, then, before light fails, to cruise the neighborhood. “Checkin’ things out, bein’ visible, lettin’ people see we’re here, lookin’ for anything unusual. Hit some of my hot spots.”
Where we will look for this suspect, the neighbor hood with which the suspect’s familiar, lies within Eastern Division’s 82 square miles, an area that encompasses everything east of 805, south of Miramar Road, and north of 94 to the city limits. Of the city’s seven divisions, Eastern’s radio frequency is the busiest (a significant portion of Eastern’s calls are occasioned by gang activity). Some 180 police officers work out of the division’s Kearny Mesa head quarters: 150 in patrol, 30 as detectives.
Stevens most often patrols beats 316 and 317 and knows the blocks, the residents, in the intimate, instinctual way fly fishermen know familiar streams and bird hunters know familiar fields. Beat 316 is bordered by 805 to the west, Fairmount Avenue to the east, University to the north, and to the south by Home Avenue; Beat 317 is bordered to the north by University Avenue, to the east by 54th Street, by Home and Chollas Avenues to the south, and to the west by Fairmount.
“University Avenue is worse than El Cajon Boulevard. Forty-fourth is all around pretty bad all the way up. Van Dyke is bad; 44th and Van Dyke both are big for gangs, for dope, rock cocaine especially. Highland is bad, Menlo. Marlborough, Wightman, and Chamoune, a lot of stuff goes on there. Winona, they come out of the woodwork at night to deal up and down Winona. University and Winona, lot of rock cocaine gets sold out there.”
The world of the late ’40s and early ’50s, shabby and solid, unrolls before us — narrow porches hid den behind blue hydrangeas and poinsettias, behind stunted evergreens onto which tall palms cast meager shadows. An unexpected note strikes a visitor. Chain-link fence surrounds these houses; iron bars criss cross windows and doors; no windows stand open; security lights flood side yards. And there are the courtyard walls, fences, sidewalks alight with skeins of hallucinatory graffiti.
And, I think, perhaps in a stuffy room in one of these houses waits the man, “armed and extremely dangerous,” who bears that face in the photo. I imagine him idle, restless, irritable, sit ting before a television set, weapon in one hand, remote control in the other, punch ing his way through channels; imagine that no basketball tournament, no situation comedy, not even a hot dancing bare legs and breasts three minute video can seize, hold momentarily in place, his fear. I imagine he walks to the window, pushes aside a flowered drape, gazes into the street, fingers the gun held loosely in his hand.
“People who live down here, they know what kind of area this is. They’ve had cars broken into. Been burglarized. And if you look closely, you’ll see bullet holes all over the place. So people fortify their houses. Lot of ’em have dogs, big guard dogs — Dobermans, pit bulls, German shepherds. Pit bulls are definitely the dog of choice. Don’t cost much, you can pick up one for 50 bucks.”
Although many Eastern Division neighborhoods are fairly evenly racially mixed, others form enclaves of black, Hispanic, Oriental, or white. “As soon as we cross 40th Street, it goes from being pretty racially mixed to being primarily Hispanic. Fortieth all the way down to 805, it will be predominantly Hispanic.”
In Southeast San Diego, which Stevens patrolled for several years, gangs have turf boundaries somewhat rigidly drawn. The Neighborhood Crips claim basically every thing from I-15 east to Euclid Avenue, north to 94, and south to Imperial Avenue. Neighborhood Crips are bordered by three rival gangs, one of which is a Crip faction, which, in event of gang warfare, would team up with Neighborhood Crips. The gang that borders Neighborhood Crips to the west, the friendly faction, is West Coast Crips. To the east is Little Africa Piru, and to the south is Syodo Mob.
Stevens explains, parenthetically, that black gangs, nationwide, for the most part, divide into two factions, Piru (or Bloods) and Crips. Legend has it Piru takes its name from a street in L.A. Piru gang members refer to each other as “Blood.” “Crips,” says Stevens, “started out as a group of guys that went to school together in L.A. and formed a gang. Supposedly, to get into the gang, you had to cripple some body. Crips call each other ’Cuz.’”
But Stevens’s beat in East San Diego, unlike South east San Diego, “is not divided turf wise. So here in East San Diego, you can have a Crip set — say, Raymond Avenue Crips out of L.A. or the local West Coast Crips — on one block, and one block over you can have a Blood set, maybe some Piru gang members out of L.A. or the local Eastside Piru. That’s why this area gets so hot.
“As far as street gangs go, the Mexicans don’t like blacks, blacks don’t like Mexicans, neither of ’em like Orientals. Usually they tolerate each other, but every now and then something will happen, and two rival gangs fight.”
We turn onto the 2700 block of Highland Avenue. “This street here is sure a problem.” Stevens drives into an apartment complex’s parking area, above which two floors of balconies, rem iniscent of tiered cell blocks, rise.
“Just got back on the street. Buffed out.” Stevens nods toward a shirtless black male, hugely muscled, who stands on the second story balcony. Greeting Stevens with an upraised palm, the man calls down, “What it be like?”
Stevens waves, says to me as we nose out of the complex’s parking lot, “Guy’s OG, original gangster, Piru. If I were another black kid and a Crip, and he would’ve said that to me, ‘What it be like?’ that would have been a challenge. I would have said, ‘What it C like?’ and it would have been on. “Piru gang members would say to another Piru, ‘What up, Blood? What it be like? What be up? What be down?’ Crips would say, ‘What it C like?’ And if a Piru gang member said to a Crip gang member, ‘What up, Blood?’ a Crip’s immediate response would be ‘Ain’t no Blood here, Cuz.’ The police band radio, mounted under the dash board (“under dash mount” is how Stevens describes this radio’s placement), is never turned off. It delivers, through static, the female dispatcher’s terse enunciations, unedited, primary documents that spell out encoded mayhem and grief.
“Black male with short dark hair, camo shirt, dark pants, carrying a handgun, in a parking lot, 4470 Euclid.”
“Four fifteen involving husband, husband throw ing things around apart ment, they have two kids, ages three and five. She and her husband are fighting. She said he took a rifle out and threatened her and her kids with it.” “Cover a 415. Sister’s boyfriend, banging at door, refusing to leave.” Does he go to many domestic disturbances? Stevens sighs. “Yeah, a lot.” Children playing along sidewalks wave, and Stevens honks, waves back. I ask if his greetings are made in the spirit of good commu nity relations. He frowns. “No. I wave to ’em because I know ’em.”
We’d gone out into beats 316 and 317 on an after noon of Stevens’s day off. He wore jeans, billed cap, Ray Bans, drove his Ford pickup. His Rhodesian ridge back, Syndo (named after the Syndo Mob) rode in the cab (at home Stevens keeps a parrot he calls Piru). Two teenage black males called out to us to buy dope. We kept rolling down the alley. If we’d wanted to buy, I’d asked Stevens, what would he have aid to the sellers?
“Ask, ‘You got any rock?’ Might say, ‘Give me a dime rock.’ Ten dollars’ worth of rock cocaine. If they didn’t have it on ’em, they’d go somewhere nearby to get it — car, house, bushes.”
Turning at 41st and Dwight, Stevens pulls into a driveway. “See that wall that got caved in right there?” He lets out a long whistle. A plump boy, maybe 12, stops, smiles, runs toward the car. “Say, don’t you get nervous when you walk by right there?”
The boy squares his shoulders. “No way.”
“How’s your cousin doin’? How you doin’?”
After exchanges about what’s happening in the neighborhood, Stevens tells the boy goodbye and explains. “About six months ago, another officer and myself were chasing a stolen car, a T Bird, comin’ west bound on this street about 60 miles an hour — see that dip right there? — T Bird hit the dip, came shootin’ over here to this garage door. That little boy, he and his girl cousin were walkin’ on the sidewalk. He jumped out of the way, hit his head on the sidewalk. The car picked her up and slammed her into that cement retain ing wall right there. Had her pinned, both legs, right in there. By the time we got here, the guy jumped out of the car and took off running. But the girl was pinned between cement and the car, both her legs fractured and broken. So we had to physically lift the car up off her legs. We later caught the driver.
“Good kid, he is. The ones who aren’t in jail come from strict households. Many homes down here are headed by single women. A lot of these women have a strong hold on these kids. The kids are afraid of their mothers, at least until they get older.”
Farther on, edging the cruiser past cars parked along curbs, Stevens indicates two apartment buildings several blocks off University. “Couple months ago, about three in the morning, we had a guy jumpin’ from rooftop to rooftop over there, completely nude. He had over dosed, smoking cocaine. Freakin’ out. Big buffed out dude. Very muscular. Five of us it took to fight him into custody.
“See that house? The one with ‘Beware of Dog’?” The frame rambler sits back from the street on a patch of seared, spotty lawn. Shades cover windows. “Guy’s deal ing dope real heavy out of there. He’s got pit bulls in the front yard, back yard, in the house. House is semifortified.”
Farther down the block, we slow again. “Couple of weeks ago, we had two separate warrants on this house here, the one with boarded up windows. Canceled a whole shitload of burglaries. Two parolees were liv ing in there.”
Walking toward us, tall woman in red shorts, black halter top, shoots out one bony hip, narrows eyes, stares hard at Stevens. “That’s one of the guy’s sisters. She’s a dealer.”
Another block. Grinning male, striding down the sidewalk, loses grin, sneers when he spots Stevens. “Ramond. Me and Raymond don’t like each other at all, because I’ve put him in jail three times, twice for being drunk, once for dealin’ dope.”
Do many people give Stevens these angry glances? “Yeah, and you get quite a bit of that diarrhea ‘oh shit’ look — they look nervous, make it a point to look away from you.
“Most people down here though are glad to see us. But they are the silent majority. Mostly it’s because they’re scared of retaliation at the hand of the dope dealers. Don’t blame ’em either.”
Entering an alley off of Wightman, Stevens taps the brakes to avoid hitting a small boy who appears, seemingly, from nowhere. Guacamole slides off the plate onto my skirt.
Stevens hands me his napkin. “I’m makin’ quite a mess, huh?”
We’re out of the car. “You find lots of graffiti in these alleyways. Less likely anybody’ll be watching, gives ’em more of a chance to write.” Garage doors, fences, sides of sheds, concrete retain ing walls: graffiti delirium blooms. OBS, RCLS, BSD, East San Diego #1 — gang names and gang bangers’ gang names — Cubby, Sparky, Slow, Shyboy, Pookie, Smurf, Pony, Dreamer, Ricky, Jueto, Trigger, Mosco. Per fervid oranges and reds spell out in a rainbow arc high on a toolshed wall: Mi Loca Vida.
“Pretty generic nick names,” says Stevens. “There’s usually a Chuco, a Flaco — which means skinny. What they’ll do, they nickname their buddies — like if he’s short, looks like sort of a mouse, they will call him Mouse; if he looks like a rat they will call him Rat or Ratón.”
Black gang bangers, Stevens tells me, tend toward names that refer to guns. “Breakdown, for breakdown shotgun; Trey Eight, for .38; Sawed Off, for sawed off shotgun.” Black gangsters also often use “L’il” as part of a gang name. “So there’s a L’il Deuce,” says Stevens. “ ‘ Deuce’ because the gang member’s known to carry a .22.”
Sinking sun pinkens lurid spiked letters emblazoned across walls. Mi Loca Vida —
My Crazy Life — crowns the violent phantasmagoria; I think of jailhouse tattoos, skin inscribed in ballpoint pen, with snakes and naked breasted women and daggers and dragons, think that many of those who have thrown up their names on these walls will progress from youth detention facilities to county jail and ultimately, state prison.
“ESD crossed out OBS right here.” ESD slashes across an OBS written in broad felt tip pen on a frame out building. “OBS will come along and see that and cross out ESD and write ‘Fuck ESD’ or something like that.”
ESD, Stevens explains, is a Hispanic gang. OBS — Oriental Boys — takes its members primarily from the Cambodian population. OBS is about a year old. Most OBS members were born in the States. They tend to speak a black English and use the slang black gang bangers use.
“OBS is claiming Crip, so they carry the blue rag like Crips do, and they usually call each other Cuz.
“Usually, Hispanic gangs feud with Hispanics, and they usually get along with blacks, and vice versa. Oriental Boys and Hispanics, for some reason, they got off on the wrong foot. OBS is trying to claim territory and get established; they’re feuding real heavily with His panic gangs. Been goin’ at it six months. In that time, there have been many drive-bys committed on each other.”
Where do they get guns? “Black market, burglaries.”
Back in the car, we cruise northbound on Menlo, toward University. “3700 and 3800 Menlo, OBS territory.” Dozen teenage Oriental males and one blond male mill in front of a con crete retaining wall. One long whistle — high, piercing — arcs across the neighborhood. “Lotta times you drive by, you hear ’em whistling. Whistlin’ to let everybody know we’re here. One whistle, that’s one cop car. Two whistles, that’s two cop cars. Sometimes, instead of whistling, they’ll yell, ‘One time,’ for one cop car or ‘Two time,’ for two cop cars.
“Hardcore little gang members, OBS,” says Stevens as pleasantly as if pointing out the yellow and orange canna that brighten a nearby housefront. “If they don’t have guns on ’em right now, they have access to guns close by. They are real careful to see who drives by, there could be a drive by killing any moment. Had we come around the corner real fast, there would have been immediate movement on their part.
“Between 30 and 50 actively claim OBS, but a lot more than that associate with ’em. What actively claiming means is that if, as a police officer, you ask ’em, ‘Do you claim OBS?’ and they say, ‘Yeah. I claim OBS,’ then we can document them as a gang member in our files. But if you stop five or six of ’em, and they’re all dressed like gang members and they talk like gang members and they’re hanging out with documented gang members, unless they actively claim, we don’t list them in our gang file.”
I ask about habits of Oriental gangs.
“Drink beer, smoke marijuana, aren’t much into hard drugs. Steal cars, are heavily into Toyotas, mainly Celicas.”
We cruise streets bordered by overgrown side walks and dusty alleys off which gardens sprout, past pastel frame houses, stucco apartment buildings, past eruptions of weeds and wild flowers, more cannas, cactus. We pass abandoned storefronts, churches, schools, and schoolyards, tenements and projects with window panes missing and gunshot holes along walls. We pass houses hidden behind chain link and rock wall. Within one courtyard, from a bed of rusty ferns, rises the pale statue of a female saint, arm raised in blessing.
Stevens grabs a taco. The female dispatcher offers from the radio one after another call.
“Someone 24-ing an open heart patient.”
“The 4300 block of Adams, reporting party says possible 459 occurring now. RP saw male enter window there, go into house.”
“In alley, white male, wearing pajamas, yelling at people for over an hour, RP thinks he’s 51-50.”
Stevens talks about local gangs. For Hispanics, he says, “Being in a gang is more of a tradition. Their brothers were in the gang, their uncles and dads. They watch out for each other.
“Hispanics stay in gangs forever, unless they get jumped out — fight their way out, three or four guys beat the shit out of you. You got to beat your way in as part of your initiation, and you got to beat your way out.”
Hispanic drug of choice? “They drink beer, smoke marijuana, smoke some PCP from time to time, although PCP is pretty much played out. Steal cars, do the occasional burglary.
“Black gang members get in gangs, it’s peer pressure, they want to be cool, get respect.
“Dope dealing activity is about equal between Crips and Piru. Hispanic gang members dabble in dealing dope, but they’re not into it as heavy as black gangs. Not into crack, a little bit of speed but not that much.” Meth? “Mainly a white drug.” Which of the gangs is most violent? “They’re all pretty violent. All gun oriented — .22s, .38s, every kind of gun. The Orientals tend to be more into semiautomatic weapons.
“Frequently you have a drive by where they use bird shot, which is a warning — don’t talk shit, don’t do dope here, whatever. Anyway, they use bird shot, they mean to hurt somebody, they don’t mean to kill ’em. When they do a drive by, they use a .45 or a 9mm or something like that, they’re out to hurt or kill somebody.”
Air begins to cool on my elbow, set outside the window Stevens wants kept rolled down so he can hear neighborhood sounds. Palms and evergreens and droop ing willows take on the deeper green of late afternoon. I hand Stevens the next to last of his tacos, which he man ages to neatly tuck into his mouth while turning the corner.
Off Menlo, Stevens stops behind a house and attached garage painted pale blue. We get out. Morning glory vines trail up the garage. Birds — making their last feeding foray before sunset — warble and trill. Narrow side walk runs between garage and fence. Burnt matches, glassine envelopes, cigarette butts, excrement coils aglitter with flies litter cement. Several nights earlier, Stevens arrested three crack smokers here. The glassine envelopes held crack cocaine.
Stevens aims his boot toward swarming flies. “They squat right over there and take dumps. Rude, huh?”
Back in the car, radio offers “459 possibly going on at auto battery shop. Fair mount and University,” and after a bleat of static, “White male, 81 years, got on wrong side of road, could be confused.”
Fairmount and Myrtle. “Lot of dope used to get sold here, cocaine and heroin. People would come from all over to buy. The place was well known. Due to citizen involvement and intensive police enforcement, it’s currently a dead spot. Places stay down for a few months, and then we have to start the process all over again.”
We pull into the 3105 Fairmount 7 Eleven parking lot, the 7 Eleven Stevens uses as bathroom, telephone, and report writing stop. He gathers paper plate, napkins, root beer can. “As messy as you might have thought I was, if I were a rookie, I would’ve gotten that food all over the place.”
The first night I’d gone out with Stevens, we’d arrested three subjects for auto theft (all three arrests were pre ceded by pursuits) and been one of the first cars at a murder scene.
That night we had not been in the cruiser 30 minutes before a pursuit took place. We were driving, I was asking Stevens (whom I had heard extolled as one of SDPD’s most accomplished nabbers of stolen vehicles) how he determined whether or not a car might be stolen.
“You look to see who is driving, do they seem nervous. Is it a profile vehicle? One of the vehicles commonly stolen, a Mazda, Toyota, Nissan. These foreign vehicles are popular to steal because their ignitions are easy to defeat. “You look for vehicle damage — punched out door locks, broken windows. You look in cars to see if they have a screwdriver stuck in the ignition. You look for plates that don’t appear to be the proper plate for the vehicles — older, six digit numbers on a license for a vehicle that would have been assigned the newer seven-digit plate. Or maybe you will see a Nissan and it’s got a Chevrolet license plate frame, that is often an indicator the plate has been switched.
“You watch the car. Are they going in a great big cir cle, are they obviously try ing to make turns to keep from being followed, are they constantly looking back to see if they are being followed, looking at you in the rear view mirror?
“Once something raises your suspicion, then you develop your probable cause — your PC — to make a stop.”
Among PCs Stevens suggested were speeding, failing to signal a lane change, expired registration, or any number of equipment violations — nonfunctioning lights, bald tires, broken windshield or windshield obscurement.
We were driving that night westbound on Myrtle. A white Mazda approached on Fairmount. Indicating the Mazda, Stevens said, “Here we have a profile vehicle. A commonly stolen vehicle, youthful occupants.” Stevens then said, “Now let’s develop our probable cause...” and the Mazda turned right into 43rd Street, going the wrong way into heavy traffic.
We lit him up, took off. Stevens radioed in the Mazda’s plate. While the dispatcher’s voice answered that the Mazda had been reported stolen, our cruiser zoomed past cars whose blazing headlights rushed toward us.
The Mazda’s driver continued along 43rd, then suddenly stopped in traffic. We stopped. The driver leaped out, staggered momentarily, then darted westbound into a pitch black alley. Stevens, telling me to call for backup, jumped out, shouted, “Freeze.” The driver ran faster. Stevens raced after him. The driver ran, jumped over a wooden fence, climbed six feet of chain link, leaped down, ran.
Two men bounded from the Mazda’s passenger door. As in a cliché nightmare, action seemed slowed in motion and at a movie viewer’s distance from me. The men stopped, stood, eyeballed me. I almost smiled, as if we were old friends engaging in a long weekend beach house game of charades. Abruptly, as if slapped, I recognized that these men, this police car, radio mike I held in my hand (and my own voice, tremorous, calling for backup), shotgun I reached for, Stevens’s back (then at a half block’s distance), were real. My blood, not play acting ketchup, could spill slow and hot across Ford’s seats. I grabbed the shotgun. The men fled. In seconds three police cars arrived. That August night, so hot that by 2:00 a.m., air remained stifling, I shivered.
The Mazda’s driver escaped. An hour later, a call came for a murder on that same block, not ten feet from the place we’d stopped. The victim had been shot in his car. What was left of his head flopped to one side, what remained of his mouth contorted in agony, and one brown eye bulged out of its socket, staring at us. The chickens my grandmother beheaded in the back yard for Sunday dinner continued to twitch even while she was wiping with her apron hem their blood from the axe head. Likewise, the victim’s arms and legs continued to jitter.
Yellow police do not cross tape was strung, sealing off a two block area. The detective in charge had staked off the area for a grid search when there was more day light. Stevens and a dozen other patrolmen began a house to house neighbor hood canvass.
Past dawn, we came up on a Caddy, against which leaned Cripdown — a small-boned black male parolee in his mid 20s, with whom we’d chatted earlier at Stevens’s 7 Eleven “office” parking lot, in which we were sitting now. I’d noted to Stevens at the time that Cripdown smelled terrible — stale sweat, metabolizing booze, urine.
“Probably a hot model,” said Stevens about the Cadillac, and continued driving. He called in the plate, car came back stolen, several weeks before. Cripdown was only leaning against the Caddy, nothing wrong with that, said Stevens. To prove he’d stolen the car, we needed to catch him at the wheel. So we would turn into a side street that would afford a view of Cripdown driving out, and we’d wait.
While we sat, Stevens used the tactical frequency on the car radio to alert other units to encircle the area to keep Cripdown from escaping and to be ready to make a strategic response when and if he rolled. Fifteen minutes later, Cripdown steered the Cadillac southbound on 44th, made a right, and made another right on Myrtle, started to drive up Myrtle, then saw the police car. Stevens lit him up, Cripdown sped up, we sped up behind him, Cripdown crashed into a liquor store. “Vodka, $4.69,” a sign mounted above the now battered nose of the Caddy offered. “Malt Beer, 99 cents.”
Before Stevens vaulted out, three more police cruisers slipped in alongside us, and from the cars leaped six police officers, weapons drawn. Stevens, using methods taught in police academy for a felony hot stop, took cover behind the driver’s door, held his weapon in a two hand grip, and began directing Cripdown out of the Caddy.
“This is the police department, we have rea son to believe you are an armed felon, do exactly as you are told.”
Cripdown opened the Cadillac’s door, peered behind him, seemed to ponder for a moment the seven gun bores directed at him. He smiled meekly. Tentatively, he put one foot out onto pavement.
Stevens barked, “Put your hands up in the air.” Cripdown brought up his arms. “Step away from the vehicle.” Cripdown took two sideways steps away from the Cadillac.
“Slowly turn in a circle and then face away from me.” Cripdown did this. “Now, walk backwards toward us.”
Cripdown walked back wards, stumbling. An officer strode toward him, grabbed him, put him face down on the hood of Stevens’s cruiser. His brown cheek pressed into the well of the white hood, his eyes closed. As the officer snapped cuffs on him, Cripdown appeared utterly relaxed, at rest. He inhaled, exhaled rhythmically, easily, like someone about to sleep.
Before placing Crip down in the back seat cage, a straight faced Stevens said to me, “You know that per fume you’re wearing?” I nodded, yes. “Do you have it in your purse?” I nodded, yes, again. “Why don’t you spray some of it around in here before we put in our passenger?” I grubbed through my bag, found the Chanel Cristalle, sprayed.
Cripdown grew restive during the reading of his rights. He wanted, he said, to explain. The Caddy was not stolen but had been rented by him from a friend for “$20 and two dime rock.” The “lessor,” Cripdown assured Stevens, was expect ing him to return the car Monday morning. Stevens, amused and disgusted, shook his head.
I had thought criminals wily and clever, as on television and in black and white gangster movies that as a child I’d loved. I was surprised to hear Cripdown insist upon confessing, even after Stevens seemed almost to beg him not to talk. Given gangster films’ cops versus robbers antipathy, I was surprised, too, at how friendly Stevens and Cripdown were toward one another; they were more like peers engaged in an enterprise whose success they mutually desired rather than enemies pitted one against the other.
Now, four hours into his second watch shift, Stevens steps into the car, hands me a package of peanuts, turns the key in the ignition. “Ready to roll?”
At 36th and Van Dyke, Stevens points out a fairly new white over red Cadillac, two men in front. “The guy we’re keeping an eye out for supposedly several days ago was seen riding around in a Cadillac like that one.” Stevens’s eyes narrow. “They saw us back there at 7 Eleven, and ever since they pulled away from 7 Eleven, they’ve been trying to get away from us.
“Thinkin’ I might come after him, his quickest escape route would have been if he turned right.
“What they should’ve done, had they had their shit together, he wouldn’t’ve stayed on that straightaway, he woulda started turning right, right away. See, that’s what they always do, when you chase ’em. They start turning right. Because in order to turn left, you have to fight with cross traffic. And you got to slow down. So, rule of thumb is always turn right.”
The Cadillac turns into an alley. “They’re trying to evade us, that’s why he hit the alley.”
At 4000 44th, the Cadillac stops. “He knows I’m back here.”
I think of the face in the photograph, the eyes down cast and almost sleepy, the lopsided grin. I imagine him lying across the Cadillac’s back seat, an Uzi on the floor of the car, his hand companionably stroking the black barrel. I imagine his talking from the darkened back seat with the car’s driver, imagine tense jokes, challenges exchanged.
“What are we going to do?” I ask.
“Develop our PC to make the stop.”
I think of the murder victim’s obliterated head, the chickens my grand mother killed.
“Feel ’em out. Ask the basics. Take a look. See if there’s anything dirty in the car. See if they look dirty. See if I recognize any of the guys.
“This is a bad area, there’s all kind of hard cores live around there, and there’s two of ’em, and if I stopped ’em and it turned to shit?”
The Cadillac pulls against a curb before a one-story house. Cadillac stops, its lights go off.
Telling me not to look over, Stevens drives slowly past the Cadillac. His eyes gaze peripherally. His breathing quickens slightly.
He smiles. “Guy who’s driving? Name’s Baby Green. In the passenger seat, J Dog. Those are their Piru names. North of ’em Lincoln Park Piru, hard core Piru gang members. From the Syndo Mob. Baby Green’s a parolee, spent prison time for armed robbery. J Dog, me and J Dog go back many years. I arrested him for being under the influence of PCP when he was about 16 or 17. He’s also done prison time for armed robbery. You know what? He’s an all around superior athlete — track, football — but he’s still out here fuckin’ off.
“Parolees are subject to search and seizure. Part of the conditions of their parole. So if I wanted to, I could get them out of the car, search them, their car, with no probable cause.
“We drove right by ’em, didn’t stop, so they probably are thinkin’ now, ‘We’re just bein’ paranoid.’
“If I was workin’ a two man car? I would’ve pulled in right behind him, and we would’ve taken care of business right there. But now we are going to go to the end of the street, out of their sight, and wait about five minutes and see if he rolls. If he rolls, we’ll pull in behind him . But we’ll pick the place to stop.”
Dark. The dashboard glows. From the visor, the face in the photograph looks down on us. We sit, watch the Cadillac. I hear the rise and fall of Stevens’s breathing, even and slow. He often works alone, and I ask if he would rather work a one man car or have a partner. “Every car in San Diego,” he answers, “should be two, man.”
Stevens thrums his fingers along the steering wheel, studies the Cadillac. “Some of these guys, like Baby Green, are real streetwise, they learn a lot of tricks in prison. Like, if you’re dirty, you have the element of surprise. “You got a guy who’s done time for armed robbery and he’s dirty, he’s got something dirty in that car, you pull him over like that, he panics, he sees you’re by yourself, he thinks things are rollin’ his way and he’s got the upper hand, there’s no tellin’ what he’ll do.”
The Cadillac’s lights have been turned back on. “He’s rollin’.” Stevens pulls away from the curb.
At 3700 43rd, Stevens announces, “I like it right here. Well lit.” He lights up the Cadillac. Baby Green stops. Stevens gets out, approaches the driver’s win dow, “So what are you guys up to?” Baby Green smiles. “We jus’ be goin’ to my girl’s house.”
“Just cruisin’ around? You tried to bust a move down that alley.”
Baby Green smiles again. “I know you seed me is why.”
“I’m gonna get somethin’ to show you guys real quick.” Stevens returns to the car, brings back the photograph. “Seen him around?” “Newspaper,” J Dog says, stonefaced.
"You recognize him pretty quick.”
“Newspaper is where I recognize him from. Don’ know his name.”
"Seen him around?”
“Only in the paper, like I tol’ you.”
Stevens waves. “Be cool.”
As we walk back to the car, Stevens says, “Damn straight, they’ve seen him around. They’ve seen him around lately too. I know so. I could tell by J Dog’s response. He said right away he recognized him. Said, ‘Saw his picture in the paper.’ I’ve been reading the paper every day; the pictures they have of this guy are no good. Also I don’t believe J Dog’s a real avid newspaper reader.”
Half moon bright white, stars. Cooler. We drive University, through sparse traffic past now darkened Oriental markets and video rental outlets that stock Oriental language films, past grocery stores selling Middle Eastern staples, martial arts schools, narrow bars with “lounge” after their name. I look over into the lane next to us, peer down into a Mazda driven by a teenage male, try to see if a screwdriver is sticking out of the ignition. I confess to Stevens that ever since our first ride along, I’ve found myself checking profile cars for telltale signs of theft.
“You’ll see ’em,” he says, adding, “Me and my partner about three months ago were at a stoplight, and I saw a screwdriver sticking right out of the ignition, looked like a 13 or 14 year old kid driving. Kid pulled in front of us, and we developed probable cause to stop him. We lit him up. He took off, just like that, out of control, going down Streamview, tried to take a corner doing about 60.
“I backed off, didn’t want him to feel so pressured he had to drive like that. He lost control, hit a parked car, a telephone pole, slammed a truck with a camper shell, three more cars, went up like the Dukes of Hazzard, did a flip in midair. Fortunately, the car he’d stolen, it was one of those ones that automatically belts, so he was seat belted in. His face smacked the windshield. If he hadn’t been in that type of vehicle, he undoubtedly would be dead.
“Anywhere you have a lot of stolen vehicles, as we do in San Diego, you are going to have pursuits. Peo ple around here are pretty hip to gettin’ out of our way.”
Along Fairmount, Stevens spots three teen age black males walking toward us. Two of the trio he knows, one — Axe, a Crip from West Coast 30 — he’d recently arrested. “Last time I ran into Axe, he and another couple of guys had just got ten through bein’ in a gang fight. Ever’body had a little bit of blood on ’em that night.”
Photo of suspect in hand, Stevens bounds out his door. Five long, rapid steps bring him abreast of the three. “Seen him around?” The photographic paper glows under streetlamp light. I tense, as if expecting the face and the bulked out body that my imagination has shaped would suddenly spring from nearby bushes.
Naw, the three say, they’ve not seen him. Axe nods at the photo, says, “That nigger was kickin’.” Stevens asks Axe what he’s been up to. Axe, laughing, recalls the night Stevens arrested him, the gang fight, insists, “I not hangin’ no more.”
“You probably shouldn’t be wearin’ that jacket.” Stevens indicates Axe’s blue jacket.
“I gotta have it.”
Stevens turns to me, explains, “He’s violating probation by wearing blue. And he’s sayin’ he don’t bang no more because he’s probably on probation right now. It’s a violation of his probation if he claims.” Stevens turns back to Axe, asks, “Is your brother locked up?”
“What happened on that case?”
“He’s gotta go to court on the first.”
Talk turns to OBS, the Oriental Boys. Stevens says, “They’re tryin’ to say they’re sidin’ with you guys, they’re claimin’ Crip. You guys kickin’ with ’em?”
Axe says, “They got lot of guns.”
“No,” Stevens smiles, “we been up on ’em and we got their guns.”
“Cripdown,” Axe asks, “he still around?”
“We arrested him driving around in a hot model. He was lookin’ pretty good for a while. Then he started suckin’ on the pipe.”
After more talk about who is where, who’s locked up, who’s claiming what gang, Stevens says, “We’re going to bust out of here; see you fellows.”
I ask how old Axe is. “Sixteen. He’s all right. He’s a YCOG. Young Cousin of Original Gangster. He’s been in some pretty stiff shit. He’s very streetwise. Most of these kids are extremely streetwise.
“In order to be able to stop and talk with gang members and to build any rapport with them, you have to know their slang. Your body language has to change, your grammar. You can’t pronounce things perfectly; you gotta use street slang, gang slang, they won’t talk to somebody that sounds educated at Yale. You have to know their homeboys. I know the OGs, the original gangsters, the older guys, and once you start talking about the OGs, you start getting their attention right away, because they look up to those OGs.”
Does Stevens notice any difference among gang members when arresting them? “Hispanics are generally a little more tight lipped. Blacks and whites are easier to wheel and deal with. ‘Tell you what, give me a little bit of info, we’ll see if we can shift charges around a little bit, maybe let you slide on this and that.’ Blacks and whites are more likely to talk with you a little bit. Hispanics are more likely to say, ‘I’m not snitchin’. You got me for this and that, you do what you got to do.’”
We pull up next to a police car stopped at Central and University. “They work a prostitute detail,” Stevens says and then yells out his window to a patrolman, “What up?” The officer explains that they were chasing a prostitute who had run from them. Stevens pulls away from the curb, waves, smiles, calls out, “Quit harassin’ people.”
Fewer prostitutes now walk El Cajon Boulevard, Stevens says, adding, “As soon as people start getting fed up with something and start coming out and saying, as they did about prostitution, that they’re tired of whores up and down the boulevard, then we can do more proactive enforcement, because we know then that people are behind us.”
We turn onto El Cajon’s neon. “Prostitutes usually come out about ten, ten thirty, and they’ll stay out all night. They see you comin’ from a long ways off. You have to be sneaky to find ’em. They can spot a cop car, they know what the cars sound like, they know what the headlights look like, park ing lights. Usually they pick up the pace a little bit when they see us, to look like they have somewhere to go.
“Some of ’em are car dates, some have a hotel room, some take dates to vacant houses. But most are car dates and most dates consist of oral sex. About half use condoms. And some of these girls out here are contaminated with the virus, and they’re passing it along.
“Some of ’em tell you they make 30 or 40 or 50 bucks a trick, several hundred dollars a night. Depends what we call strawberries or cherries, crack whores.”
“You get farther west, it’s mainly Hispanic transvestites and transsexuals. You would be real surprised. Some of them are very appealing looking. They wear their makeup just right, they are little and dainty."
Stevens slows, says that if he’s not mistaken, the three figures standing in shadow next to a real estate agency are TVs, either transvestites or males who have had breast implants and who are bewigged and garbed as women. Stevens suggests we stop and talk with them. Hispanic, one in an ornate platinum blonde wig and two in brunette wigs, the three diminutive men are raised to a height of perhaps 5 ́5 ̋ by their three inch heels.
The blonde tells us they came from Tijuana, where they had danced topless in bars, most recently in the Bambi Club. “Prostitution,” the blonde says, “is legal in Tijuana but not for men dressed up like women.”
How much do they earn? “On a good night when business is good, three or four hundred dollars. They do not take dates alone, but at least two go together, one to do business, the other as protection. They offer, primarily, oral sex. The blonde opens a purse, shows condoms. A knife blade glitters. The blonde laughs, nervously, says, “ Cuchillo .”
What happens when customers discover they are men, not women? The blonde answers, “They don’t discover.”
Back in the car, Stevens comments, “Pretty hard to tell they weren’t women.”
Several minutes later, on University, Stevens indicates a storefront. “Lots of the prostitutes work close to these places.” Stevens points out Adult World.
“About two or three months ago that place — Adult World — got robbed. We got the call and went down to take the report. They keep a video camera in the store and had captured the robbery on tape. The tape shows this tall black guy, while the clerk is distracted doing something else, going back behind the counter, reaching into a cash register, and pulling out the cash register drawer, then starting to take off. The clerk runs up and grabs him to get the money from him, the guy pulls out a knife, starts stabbin’ the clerk. Shows it all, right on the tape. Pretty wild.
“We caught the guy eventually. Well, we didn’t, but our detectives did.”
Stevens suggests we pay a visit on the clerk who was stabbed. When Stevens enters, customers, all male, look up — startled — from their study of dildos and lubricating unguents and various latex devices. The clerk, handsome dark haired mid 30ish, in white shirt, smilingly greets Stevens.
“What happened on your injuries? How did they turn out?”
“Well, he punctured my lung, fractured my hand. I grabbed him and I grabbed the tray. He was really going at me. Actually, I guess I’ve watched too many movies or somethin’. I’d go through that stabbing again in a minute before I’d go through my experience again with that trauma unit, that was the worst. They don’t leave no stone unturned over there. He punctured my lung, but they cut my stomach open to explore.”
“It’s better to get shot than to get stabbed like that. When the bullet goes into your system, it’s so hot it cauterizes and seals every thing it goes into. You get stabbed with a knife, wher ever it hits, it’s a license to operate. It’s better to get shot, actually. So, have you been to court on him yet? We tried to get him charged with attempted murder.”
“The morning I went to the prelim, they tried to get him to plead guilty to a lesser charge, he wouldn’t go for it. I don’t know whether he’s stupid or what.”
“He’s a parolee. He’s goin’ to be goin’ back for a long time. This isn’t the only one they’ve got him on.”
The clerk moves closer, addresses Stevens. “Did you hear what he did to that furniture store owner? An older man, like in his 70s. He went to the guy’s garage, took the screwdriver from his car, knocked him down on the floor, got down in a fetal position, stabbed him, kicked the crap out of him, pummeled his face. To do some thing like that to an older guy, he’s got to be pretty sick.”
“I imagine,” offers Stevens, as we head for the door, “he’ll do five or six years.”
We make a left and hit a couple of side streets. Every thing begins now to look dangerous. I think, again, of the face in the photo graph, wonder in which of these houses the suspect might be hidden, and when I hear what sounds like gun fire, I start. “Some kind of a backfire,” says Stevens. “Possibly could have been a gun with weak ammo. Around here could be anything.
“We’ll wait and see if any cars come rolling out of the area.” Wind has come up, rattles branches and fronds. Dog barks. My heart speeds. “It’s not uncommon at all to be driving around here and hear gunshots. Lot of times when you hear guns being fired in this neighbor hood, guys are going out side and shooting off a few rounds.”
Over the radio, a call comes for a car to go to the site of an armed robbery on El Cajon Boulevard. Dis patcher notes: “Beige Mazda 323 used as the getaway car.”
“Those are real popular to steal,” Stevens says. “We chased at least one, that first night, a 323 or 626.”
Stevens likes, I observe, apprehending stolen cars. He laughs, “Thrill of the chase,” then adds, serious now, “Eighty percent of the time — no, 99 percent of the time — that person in that stolen car, that’s likely not the first law he’s broken or the first car he’s stolen. Car thieves are usually pretty hardcore individuals who are into a lot of crime, not only stealing cars.
“Guys steal cars to import drugs, run aliens, to make drug transactions, do drive-bys; they steal cars so they can go out and do a burglary. They steal them for joyrides, a trip to beach, take a girl out on a date.
“That Mazda you heard, you think that was their car? No. Those guys likely stole that car, then went out and did their armed robbery and probably already dumped the car.
“It’s a game in a way,” Stevens confesses. “You develop probable cause to stop them, then you make the stop. About half the time they pull over, about half the time they rabbit on you — try to get away.
A lot of times, when I stop a car, I will say, ‘Turn it off ’ before I even walk up towards them, because a smart car thief, he’ll wait for you to get out of your car, and you start walking towards him, and then he hauls ass on you.
“It’s an art, chasing cars. You don’t want to chase them in an unsafe area or manner. But you can’t back down, you can’t have the word get out that cops aren’t chasing cars, because crooks then would literally live out of their cars. If you live out of your car, you want to go to get something to eat, you drive through at Jack in the Box, whatever; you stay in your car most of the time, you’re safe, because the cops aren’t going to go after you. Crime would run rampant if police pursuits were across the board denied.”
I ask Stevens to tell me about a particularly memorable pursuit. He considers for a moment, then offers, “Different gangs have different initiations — go out and steal a car, go out and beat up a rival gang member, or get involved on purpose in a high speed police pursuit and drive up and down predesignated streets.
“Seven, eight years ago, there used to be in Southeast a gang who called them selves the 41st Street Mad Drivers. Now they call them selves the Neighborhood Crips. They don’t bait us into pursuits like they used to, but they’re still into the same type crime — car theft.
“The Mad Drivers were known for their ability to steal cars and to solicit, sucker, and lead cops on high speed pursuits. To become a member of the Mad Drivers, you had to get into a pursuit with the cops, and your home boys would have to witness it. So what the gang would do is to predesignate a pursuit route and then line up along that route and wait to see the chase.
“First one I got in, 1983, ’84, was at 3600 Market Street. I’m driving eastbound on Market, one man car, workin’ by myself, graveyard. Brown Z car pulls up in the lane next to me, directly to my left. I look over at them. They look at me.
“Two black kids, 16 or 17, blue Crip rags pulled up right above their nose, so all I can see are eyes. Driver nods his head. I know they want me to chase ’em. I nod, motion with my hand, ‘Go ahead, pull up.’ They change lanes, get right in front of me.
“I lit ’em up and the chase was on. “I chased them up and down side streets off Market. As I was going up side streets, people were yelling and screaming, rooting on their homies.
“I chased them for three, four miles. Those old Fairmonts we had back then were super slow. Eventually we got on the freeway. They turned out their headlights, stuck out their arms, and they waved goodbye. Their car was a lot faster than mine. They blew my doors off, blew me away. I last saw them going northbound on I-15.
“I radioed ahead to the cops working East San Diego. One cop spotted them as they got off on El Cajon Boulevard. Before it was over, they ended up getting into three separate pursuits with three different police units — being chased, evading their pursuers, being picked up, evading their pur suers again. The next day the Z car was recovered, unoccupied, over by Wight man. Of course, it was a stolen car.”
"Three sixteen Victor.” Dis patcher asks Stevens to respond to an 11 44 in a nearby apartment complex off El Cajon.
“Could be anything,” he says, “drug overdose, stab bing, shooting, heart attack. Might have to call the coroner, the coroner will come out.”
The fire truck’s emergency overhead lights beam. An ambulance stands ready behind the truck. Stevens strides through a brick court yard into the open door of a ground floor apartment. Returns, moments later. “An elderly woman, unconscious; they’re doing CPR right now.” Through the open door can be seen men in yellow jackets, City of San Diego imprinted in black on the jackets’ backs.
“Either going to be an 11 44 natural or she’ll be transported to the hospital,” says Stevens. “What we do now is wait, stay out of the way.”
I ask how his work has changed in the decade he’s been a policeman. “People are much more blatant about everything they do now, like they don’t care. They don’t sweat doing time like they used to. Doing time any more ain’t that big of a thing.
“Things are a hell of a lot more dangerous than they used to be. Lot of guns floating around.”
From the radio on Stevens’s belt, the female dis patcher asks, “Do we have a Vietnamese interpreter?” then, “Transporting one juvenile,” then, “Stand by for detox, 375 pound woman threatening to fight, will not hesitate to fight. Chronic.”
Stevens paces the small courtyard. “Ten years ago, I would have possibly been in a physical confrontation with someone several times a month. Now? I talk to people. Take some guy who’s hell bent on fighting every one he sees? You go up there and talk to him right, you can get him to go and sit in the back seat of your car easily, and he’ll likely apologize to you for being such an ass hole. That’s a skill you develop. It takes a long time. It was hard for me to learn.
“Couple years ago, a woman under the influence of PCP ran up to the car, ran up in front of me, jumped on the hood of the car, jumped up on the roof, started to pull on the light bar. Dentin’ it all up. She weighed 260 pounds. She was goin’ crazy. I called for backup. He got there. I started talking to her, and she started crying, and she was apologizing for messing up my car, and she got in the back seat and put her hands behind her back for me to handcuff her. However, as soon as I got her handcuffed, she started going off again. Kicking the windows, butting the windows with her head. She was going nuts.”
From the radio, “Two black males, bleeding from the back. Over on Van Dyke, on the 245 shooting, for evidence collection on the back side of Tierrasanta. Occurred at 15:45 hours, two gang units here now and one at Mercy Hospital.”
What’s it like to see death all the time? The only 11 44s that depress him, he says, “are the civilian naturals. Crimes involving a real legit imate victim, they bother me, but not gang or dope related deaths."
I ask if there’s a cop show on television that he likes. “No, most cop shows are pretty phony.”
I say that he seems to have a fairly pleasant disposition. He agrees. “I do. If you’ve got a patient disposition, you’ve already got a lot going for you on this job. I don’t get in over my head if I can help it. You pick up on that. Somebody out of prison, for instance, he thinks you don’t know how to carry yourself, say you’re new or something, he picks up on that through body language.”
Has he ever had to use his gun? “I take it out a lot, but I’ve never had to shoot anybody.”
Stevens had recently returned from training with the pain compliance devices called nunchakus. To make space on his belt for the nunchakus, he had removed one of the two sets of handcuffs he had been carrying. “I used to carry a buck knife too, had to take it off also — I used that knife for every thing, cutting tapes, jimmy ing locks. We’re carrying semiautomatic pistols now, so I’m carrying two clips. Each clip carries usually about 15 bullets. I’ve got flashlight, handgun — a Ruger P85, radio, Pierre 24 polycarbonate nightstick. Altogether, I’ve got about 25 pounds on my belt, which makes a big difference when you’re chasing somebody. Also, the vest, bulletproof, adds another three or four pounds.”
Forty five minutes we’ve been leaning against the brick courtyard wall, talk ing and listening to calls come over the radio, when the paramedics pass us, push ing a gurney to which is strapped an open mouthed woman, wisps of white hair damp on her forehead. The paramedic tells Stevens, “We’re going to transport her.”
Back in the car, we turn onto Myrtle and Fairmount, Stevens suggests I look to my right at a garage apartment. “Up there, where the window’s open, that’s where our buddy, the guy we’re keeping an eye out for, has been known to hang out some of the time.
“This corner has had several shootings, dope related assaults. Gangsters congregate in this parking lot, deal in dope, stolen cars, lit tle bit of everything. In fact, this is where we spotted Cripdown’s Cadillac that morning.”
Van passes us. Stevens waves. “Couple of under cover narcs. Getting ready to go over and raid a house.”
Radio offers a burglary. Stevens grabs the mike, “316 Victor, I’ll take that.” He turns to me, says, “These burglaries can often take two hours. Most burglaries,” he adds, “happen in day time, most are committed by kids or dope fiends. You figure burglars are doing 50 to 100 burglaries to every 1 burglary they get caught for.”
The burglary victim opens his front door before we step out of the car. Husky, white, 30ish, dressed in jeans and plaid shirt, he wrings his hands, says, as we walk up the pavement toward him, “This is the first time someone has invaded my personal space.”
He returned home from work after five, went into his den and found his cam eras gone and one window wide open. Nothing else — not the television, VCR, computer, not his new luggage, not his piggy bank — was missing.
Leading Stevens through the house (which smells of the two cats asleep on the living room sectional couches) to the den, the man says he’s already asked neighbors if they saw anyone suspicious. They did.
“The cameras I kept here.” He motions toward a dusty oak dining table, on which dustless squares attest poignantly to the theft. Then, again wringing his hands, swallowing hard, he confesses that the bedroom windows had been left unlocked. Stevens checks windows, then asks the man to show us to the back yard.
Untrimmed laurels shade two windows. Stevens, playing his flashlight (Stevens’s $150 flashlight has adjustable beam light and dimmer), spots in grass beneath one window a white cotton sock. “Probably put this sock over his hand when he reached up in here to open the window. Means more than likely he’s been arrested before, didn’t want to leave fingerprints.”
Thirty minutes later, we are across the street, standing in the living room of an elderly couple, who, from matching recliners, have been watching television on a console outfitted with a massive screen.
“Your neighbor,” says Stevens, voice raised to be heard above blasting laugh track, “got home about five, found he’d been burglarized. Says you saw a suspicious looking stranger around today. What did he look like?”
On television a dog is running in circles around a midget dressed in top hat and tails.
“Kinda gray hair,” the woman answers. “I’d say middle aged. Neatly dressed. Kinda nice looking. Big fellow.”
“Six foot, six foot two?”
“No, not that tall.”
“I’d say so. Very neat looking fellow. Clean hands.”
“About 180, 190 pounds? Medium build?”
Yes. Middle aged. About 190.”
“When you say ‘middle aged,’” asks Stevens, “how old do you mean?”
She laughs. “Younger than me.”
Outside, Stevens says, “They look like that paint ing of the two old people, what’s it called?”
“American Gothic?” I say, walking behind him quickly to keep up with his long stride.
“Yeah, Grant Woods painted that. Let’s go back to 3105 Fairmount, bust this report out.”
Moon high in sky, across the street from 7 Eleven, three black males, one grip ping an ironing board in his arms as if the board were a dance partner, stand at the pay phone, barking out a rhythmic rap chant. Yellow light from the plate glass windows gilds the cruiser’s trunk. Driver’s seat door open, one foot on pavement, Stevens writes his burglary report. At 7 Eleven’s counter, a tweaker quartet — two male, two female — twitches, flinches, frets hands along scrawny bare tattooed arms. A tremorous hand holds out a quivering bill to pay for Screaming Yellow Zonkers, four boxes. Behind the foursome, two overweight teenage girls grasp ice cream cartons to their bosoms; and behind the girls, a black male (red and black sateen jog ging suit, unlaced Reebok hightops, clear plastic shower cap protecting his do, sun glasses aglow with 7 Eleven’s lights) waits with a package of Pampers.
Black male, young, carrying a six pack of Coke cans, has approached the car. Stevens and the young man chat pleasantly. Stevens asks, “What’s your last name?”
“You related to Donald?”
“He’s my father.”
“Is that right? Well, tell him Officer Jim Stevens said hello. Haven’t seen him in years, like about six or seven years. He still got that shaved head?”
“Your dad was all right.”
After the young man has headed out into the street, Stevens says, “His dad kinda had a wild streak in him. A hard ass. Nice guy though. Great big buffed out guy. Burnt rubber ever’where he went.”
From the radio, the female dispatcher offers: “RP standing by in front of the Big Bear. Volunteer from CMH en route” and “11 10 with the RP standing by, vehicle is an ’87 Nissan pickup. Waiting in front of the Mervyn’s store.”
7 Eleven’s night man ager strides through the lot toward Stevens’s car. “We ought to sell out,” he says to Stevens, “and go to Puerto Vallarta.”
Stevens holds up the photograph. “Look at this, will you, tell me if you’ve seen this guy in here. Buddy of his lives right next door, in the apartments.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen this guy.” “Remember when was the last time you saw him?”
The face I have been imagining, to which I’ve appended a restless body, for whose bulk I’ve conjured hiding places, surprises me by looking no different than when I first saw it nine hours earlier. It is still only a very unremarkable, everyday face.
“He’s wanted for murder. Hangs out with a kid who comes around here quite a bit, tall, thin black kid, used to wear beads in his hair, a Crip.”
“Want me to take him if he comes in? I’d be more than happy to.”
“Don’t even try to. This guy’s always armed.”
“Then we gonna be even. Come right down to it, most of ’em are chickenshit.”
Back on the streets again after midnight, sparse traffic, ahead of us a Kawasaki. A girl, whose tight pants swathe attractive buttocks, clutches the cycle’s driver. Stevens smiles. “A little culita!” He says about the bike: “A Ninja. I’ve got one like that, except mine’s red, white, and blue.” Stevens grins. “Patriotic colors. I stopped that bike before, guy didn’t have the Class 4 license.”
Call comes over the radio, gang fight in a school yard. “Might be,” Stevens suggests, “some of those OBS boys.”
We turn onto Myrtle. The half moon’s luster whitens rooftops, air has turned crisp. No cars pass us. The neighborhood is so quiet that insects’ whir and chirp can be heard, and even the radio has ceased its crackle, the voice of the female dispatcher is silent. Stevens nods toward a liquor store. “This is where we pulled over Cripdown.” Signs on the wall into which Crip down crashed still offer “Vodka, $4.69” and “Malt Beer, 99 cents.”
So what did he think Cripdown would do in prison? “Lift weights, hone his skills.” Would anyone from the neighborhood visit him? “A few people will, every now and then.” Did Stevens ever visit anyone he’d sent to prison? He smiles. “Nope, I’ll see ’em when they get out.”
Did he think they’d catch the guy for whom he’d been looking? “Eventually, sure.