I Am A Cop

He measures out his life in fear and boredom. He's got a worried wife, he rides alone, and he always wears his gun.

January 1974By Comments

THE POLICE DEPARTMENT DIVIDES SAN Antonio into nine sections which are themselves divided into 98 districts. Each district is permanently assigned to one patrolman, the district officer.

The same officers man these districts every day, except on relief days when the districts mayor may not be filled by each section’s two or three relief officers. At any given time at least 85 districts will be filled. The others are left open; the neighboring district men take up the slack.

Fewer men are assigned to the daylight shift, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., when there are fewer drunks and fewer family disturbances. The workhorse shift is the afternoon tour, the 3 to 11. They do it all, and more of it: from accidents to robberies and murder to lost children and stolen bicycles. The peak load spills over into the dog watch (11 at night to 7 in the morning), stretching until sometime between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., depending on what part of town and the day of the week. The shifts rotate every two months.

Whatever the shift, the scene at roll call is much the same. The police station is in downtown San Antonio. In the basement is the large assembly room with the neat rows of classroom desks bolted to the floor. Gallon tin cans with the lids missing sit by each desk in unpainted imitation of the Army’s omnipresent butt cans. They are frequently kicked and overturned by careless or restless feet. The room is full of bitching and laughter. There is a sense of kinship that binds even the cynics. Brotherhood is an unspoken rule and only violated with extreme caution.

After roll call, the men leave the gas pump area, where they relieve the shift just coming off duty, and head out to their respective districts. Due to an overworked garage, there is frequently a car shortage and occasionally the men are forced to double up, two district men to one car. The brass dislike this; they say it is an inefficient use of manpower.

At night an off-duty officer rides with the district man in about 20 districts pin-pointed as “high-incident patrol areas” by the city’s computers. Police wives forced the City Council into ordering two men to a car after the third officer in less than two years had been killed on duty. The overtime program is merely a stopgap measure. As of this writing, the department’s leadership has been slow to carry out the politically popular directive, although rumors persist that they will soon do so.

For the most part, then, the men are alone in the car. They listen to the radio, and answer it when called. Cadets currently ride for a month with another officer after graduating from the police academy. Then they are put alone in the car, like everyone else.

Incident on Commerce Street

HIS VOICE IS LIKE HEAVY gravel banging down a tin chute, and is predictably deep. He is 61 years old, and a hulk of a man over six feet tall. It is his belly you notice first—a swollen river of fat, it pushes and pulls at his belt as he walks, overflowing here and there in rolling, five-pound wrinkles. He is a policeman’s policeman, he is fond of saying. He belongs to the past.

He cleared his throat, breaking into a spasm of coughing, and pounded the speaker’s stand in front of him once with a white fist. Common knowledge has it only the job is keeping him alive. He boasts that the day he retires will be the day they bury him, but many of his men doubt this, saying the sonofabitch is too mean to die.

“Men, I got a call today. I won’t say from who. But I been given to understand that Keith Anthony Brown will be driving round downtown and the East Side today in a 65 Olds four door. It’s supposed to be a real dirty white.”

The murky assembly room was full of a blue-gray haze, and the isolated non-smokers waved irritably at the drifting clouds of smoke. It was roll call for the 3-11 shift, the old man’s shift. He was the senior uniform captain.

The interested men were intently writing down the description of the car. A low murmur of conversation mingled discreetly with the smoke, as some ignored the old man, but they were careful to speak without moving their lips. The old man loved grudges almost as much as he hated blacks. And Keith Anthony Brown was black and the captain’s latest project. The robbery detectives thought Brown might be the young suspect who had recently held up a number of supermarkets.

“Now, men, if you happen to see that car today, I want you to stop it and hold all occupants for me personal. Use a little caution with this punk and his friends, cause he’s supposed to think he’s pretty bad. He shot a couple of times at the manager of the last store he hit.”

After roll call, the patrol car left the station and drove through the downtown area, heading for the near East Side where the two men were assigned. One man was a veteran and the other was a rookie. It was the third day they had been together and they were still feeling each other out. It was a delicate period for the new man. He was very eager.

They would ride together for 30 days, then he would be on his own. He welcomed the opportunity of working the East Side with its high crime rate and violence, but the black culture was alien and threatening. He had always hated the thought of being weak and was unwilling to ever admit being afraid. He was only a week out of the academy. His name was Tom Ewell, and he was driving.

The other policeman was sitting relaxed on the other side of the front seat, watching the pedestrians and shoppers on the sidewalks. It was a windy day and he was waiting for a particularly good mini-skirt. His name was Randy Tyler and, like Ewell, he was also an Anglo officer.

The white patrol car had just turned onto Commerce Street, going east, when Tyler grunted and pointed at the same time. His voice sounded pleasantly surprised, almost syrupy.

“Make a u-turn here, Tom, and head on back west on Commerce. Oh, my goodness, what do we have here? You see it? Up there, three, no, four, cars ahead of us in the center lane? I do believe it’s a 65 Olds with three soul brothers inside. And it sure nuff is dirty, almost not even white.”

Ewell had never even seen the car go past them. His hands turned white on the steering wheel and he opened his mouth to agree with Tyler, but changed his mind and only nodded instead. His palms were moist as he moved the car in and out of the traffic, gaining on the Olds ahead.

“Pull ’em over now, Tom. Punch your siren just once to let ’em know we’re here, in all our glory. Unit 5-3, we’ll be stopping a 65 Olds 73 Tx HHH454 with three black males in the 900 block of East Commerce.”

The dispatcher quickly acknowledged Tyler. “Ten-four, 5-3, do you have anybody with you?”

Ewell could feel the glance in his direction as Tyler paused, and then answered, “Well, I’ve got a cadet.”

Ewell’s face flushed an irritated red. He wanted to remind the other man that he wasn’t a cadet any longer, that he had graduated and was a patrolman now, even if a probationary one. But he kept his mouth shut and watched the car ahead. He knew he was still an unknown in Tyler’s mind.

The radio was full of voices informing the dispatcher—and 5-3—that they were on the way over to his location. The Oldsmobile had pulled over to the curb on the north side of the street and the two policemen warily but undramatically approached the car.

The sidewalk had been full of afternoon shoppers, but at the first wail of the siren most had disappeared into the neighboring stores, leaving only two or three curious, gawking by-standers. Tyler had turned on the outside speaker of the radio before he left the car and its metallic voice accompanied them as they walked towards the car.

Ewell took a deep breath and asked the driver for his license, standing so the man had to turn slightly and look back at him. Ewell was watching the driver’s hands and the position of his body. He knew Tyler was watching the other two, and he felt like grinning. The details of the scene were a vivid sharpness, a crisp clarity in his mind. He could sense the adrenalin flowing through the floodgate of his confidence. He was totally alive and he loved it.

The driver said that he had left his license at home and started complaining. “Hey, man, what’d you stop us foh? Man, we’s just drivin down the street lookin at de foxes. Caint a man look at women no moh? What we done wrong anyway?”

Tyler told him to shut up and to get out of the car, slowly. After the driver stepped from the car, the other two were told to get out the same way, slow and easy. Tyler smiled at them and told them to walk back to the side of the patrol car, taking special care to keep their hands in clear view. He patted down all three for weapons and asked for identification.

While Tyler was giving their names to the dispatcher, Ewell stood a cautious eight feet away from the trio. He had his hand on his gun with the strap un-snapped. He felt both ready and a little silly. He wondered what they were thinking, and if they could tell he was new. He decided to lean on them a little bit.

“Now don’t nobody make any kind of sudden, funny moves. Please. I’ve got a weak heart. Just maintain, and as soon as we’re through checking on you, you can go on about your business. If you’re clean.”

The three black men looked at each other with blank faces and were careful to move in a slow, measured style. They knew what was coming and were trying to decide what to do. They studied Ewell.

He, in turn, was watching them when a tall, florid man in a loud, multi-colored shirt approached him. A tourist, he stood between Ewell and the three suspects and asked for directions to find the Laredo highway. Irritated, Ewell stepped to the side to have a clear view of the trio again and brusquely told the man how to get to his road. During this, one of the three men meekly asked Ewell for a cigarette, and he told him that he didn’t smoke. The tourist was still confused and asked Ewell to repeat the directions again. At the same time, the suspect also casually asked the policeman for permission to go to his car for his cigarettes. Ewell, in the middle of dealing with the slow-thinking tourist, said all right.

The cop watched as the man opened the car door and reached down to the floor. With a thundering insight, Ewell realized that he had made a grave error and he took several steps toward the man at the car, pushing the tourist out of the way. Then he remembered the other two suspects and, panic-stricken, he hesitated, unsure as to what to do. He wanted to yell, but he couldn’t think of any words powerful enough to freeze the man into suspended animation, to stop him in his tracks.

Ewell’s eyes bulged with the pressure of the man’s hand coming out of the car and he decided to kill him. It was that simple. The man turned slowly towards Ewell in an obscene dance of death. Time focused and Ewell saw the man’s hand held a cigarette. A grimace of disbelief masked the faces of both men and the cop told him to get back with the other two. He walked back stiff and hard, his heels jarring the flesh covering his jaws. Their eyes met briefly, but neither man wanted to see the other.

Later, after the other officers had arrived, Ewell and Tyler arrested and booked all three subjects for a number of robbery warrants. Ewell found two pistols under the front seat of the car on the passenger’s side and the tourist called the station to complain about a rude policeman.

Child’s Play

A TEXAS JULY DAY. THE community pool had been open all summer with free admission and the horde of wet, young bodies echoed their delight daily through the waving heat.

It was three in the afternoon. On the street, a steady river of cars flowed past the pool. The people inside always glanced towards the sound of splashing water. Most of the cars had every window rolled down. The air is sullen and heavy, like an animal’s breath. Tempers flare easily and casually. But both the heat and the tempers are a way of life on the West Side.

The cop that first appeared at the pool in answer to the call, “Boys disturbing, boys fighting—see the park ranger at the pool,” was an Anglo. But he was tanned and had dark, black hair and was often taken as a Mexican.

As a rule of thumb, he spoke of chicanos with the younger people and of Mexican-Americans when dealing with the middle-aged and older. It was a matter of their preference and one of many small ways he always tried to give himself an edge with them, to make contact. He knew he was an Anglo, the outsider, and he had to touch first.

The cop got out of his car with his nightstick in his hand, but slid it into its holder with an unconscious authority. He hated to fight, but he continually held himself ready. He trusted few peopIe, especially non-policemen.

He had been to the pool before and only a small flicker of curiosity occupied his thoughts as he turned and watched the other police car approach on the asphalt parking lot. They were still operating one man to a car, despite the current debate on the merits of one versus two men to a car. He had mixed feelings about both, but he was cynical enough to think that his opinion didn’t really matter.

The second cop stepped out of his car and paused, adjusting the thick Sam Brown belt around his waist which held his pistol, handcuffs and extra ammunition. Like the first cop, he had a dark mustache, but he was heavier and had more of a brooding look. His name was Julio Guerra and he had been working in this area for over six years. He often said that he was tired of these people, that they were like children. He was 27 years old.

The attendant told them that the park ranger had the two boys in the shower room. They turned the corner of the gray concrete block wall and saw several young boys, all pre-teen or early teens, getting dressed and watching the park ranger and the two boys in the corner of the room. Everyone turned and studied the cops as they entered the damp-smelling room.

The park ranger looked a tired 50 years old and his stomach strained and pushed at his forest green uniform. As he gestured, sweat ran down his neck towards his wrinkled collar and he told the bare outline of what had happened. The little Mexican boy, who looked about 11, had pulled a paring knife on the black youth and had said he was going to cut him, cut him bad.

It was Guerra’s call. The other officer had merely volunteered to come by as the cover officer. Whatever thoughts he would have about the call or how it was being handled he would keep to himself, unless asked by Guerra. He looked around and found a fairly clean portion of the wall and leaned his shoulder up against it and listened.

Guerra asked several questions of both youths, the black first. He wrote their answers down in a pocket spiral notebook. The cover was a canary yellow and its brightness was a flash of color in the shower.

“Yessuh, Leroy Tinely. I’m 13, suh. Well, I was sittin next to the fence around the pool on the outside, talkin to Angel. We was talkin about a girl inside and I told Angel I didn’t think she was his type and the next thing I know he pulled out that there knife and said I was going to be sorry.”

Guerra turned and studied the other boy for several seconds. The youth’s nostrils flared and he lifted his head.

“Yeah, my name’s Angel Fuqua. I’m 14. I don’t have no address. I just got out of Gatesville reformatory. Huh? Two years, I was there two years for theft. Him? Ah, shit, he’s just a nigger. He just thinks he’s been in trouble; I’ll take care of him later.”

The boy was shouting at the black, and the park ranger told all of the watching kids in the room to get out. His words broke the spell. Guerra told the black youth that he could go, too. He then turned to Fuqua and searched him, talking to him as he did so.

“What’s the matter with you, boy? You sick or something? What you want to go around and try to cut people for? Don’t you know what that’s going to lead to one day? You’ll be lying in a pool of blood one day, holding onto a handful of guts, and some policeman like me is going to have to go through all your pockets trying to find a name we can call you by. And you won’t be able to tell us anything because your tongue’ll be too busy flappin in your mouth, saying good-by to the air. What’s the matter with you?”

The sobbing and crying boy was glaring at Guerra, and his voice was breaking and difficult to understand.

“All you cops are the same. All you know how to do is talk big. Well, one day I’ll take care you, too. Just like I will that nigger. If we’re goin to go, let’s go, pig.”

Guerra looked at him and then carefully spat on the floor. He glanced over at the other policeman, who was still leaning against the wall.

“These people, they’re all like children. Except the children. You know what I mean?”

A Family Affair

THE COP WAS ARGUING WITH himself, and losing. It was that kind of day. After an early soaking when he first came on duty, he had managed to dry out inside his police car until his uniform was only a mass of damp wrinkles. But water had also flooded his shoes and now he was unable to ignore the slimy feel of wet, slick leather on his feet. He could already feel the blisters. Then the dispatcher gave him another call. He looked at his watch again and sighed. No way out. And it was raining harder than ever. In fact, it was raining like there’d be no tomorrow. And, given his mood, that wouldn’t surprise the cop either.

“Why the goddam hell me? Get wet, get dry—and then start all over again. People ought to have better sense than to fight on a night like this, and if they got to do it, why in the hell don’t they do it in private without calling the goddam police? And me gettin ready to get off in 35 minutes. Too much to hope that I could skate through still nice and dry.”

A family disturbance call. He could hear the words and the puddles both striking the bottom of the car as he drove down the block looking for the house with problems. He hated the unpredictability of this type of call, its potential for the unknown.

Vengeance and superiority were the emotions involved. People always wanted him to punish the other one, to make them toe the line. They asked for help, but he could only tell them to love it or leave it. He grinned to himself, thinking of the short Alabama governor handling a messy family disturbance.

He parked the car in front of the house and stepped out of his car into three-inch deep running river that nowed between the two curbs of the street. He thought of his feet again and mumbled to himself as he walked towards the house.

He heard voices in the carport and as he neared the house, someone turned on the porch light. He peered through the rain towards the voices and could make out the shapes of three men standing out of the rain. They were staring at him and he briefly wondered what he was getting into.

Two of the men were clearly in their fifties, but one man was young, about 23, the cop guessed. He had a beer in his hand and was waving it wildly in the air, spilling some on his shirt. He spoke before the cop could greet them.

“Yeah, I know, I know. You come cause she called you. Well, I’ll say it again, we don’t need no police here. It’s all her anyway; if she’d just get her head straight. I don’t know what things come to no more. Goddam woman don’t have no pride. She’s in the house. And you tell her I said there ain’t no need for all this.”

The cop’s eyes had narrowed and he had shifted his feet apart comfortably while the drunk talked. He didn’t want to commit himself one way or another until he’d heard both sides, but he wasn’t going to take any shit off any drunks either. That was a dead end road.

He knocked on the front door and a tall, big-boned woman with dark hair opened the door and asked him in. She was wearing average-looking clothes and smiled at him with white, even teeth. She looked capable and self-confident.

“Yes, officer, I called. Won’t you sit down? Well, the reason I called, I don’t, well, I’ve never called the police before but I’ve had enough of him. Lonnie James, that good-for-nothin out there all drunk. Well, I’m through with him.

“Let me start over. I live across the street. This is my neighbor’s house. I had to come over here to wait for you or God knows what he might have done to me. I told my husband tonight that I want a separation and probably a divorce and that I want him to leave me alone. I was going to try to spend the night in my own house, but he’s all drunk now and he’s been threatening me.

“Anyway, he went out and got in his truck—he’s got two shotguns and a rifle in there—and he’s been driving around the neighborhood like a madman, drunk as a lord. About 30 minutes ago he come wheeling into our driveway and shouted a bunch of things I won’t repeat to you. Then he backed out and run over my neighbor’s mailbox.

“Then he drove off to God-alone-knows-where and I called the police. I’m at my wits end. I just want him to leave me alone, me and the child. Can you help me?”

The cop had been taking out a pocket notebook while the woman was talking and now he asked her several report form questions, while he thought about the best way to answer her last question. Name. Address. Telephone.

She interrupted him, saying, “To show you how ridiculous it’s been, he even thinks I’ve been running ardund on him. He’s accused nearly every man in the neighborhood of having an affair with me.”

The cop put his notebook away and glanced at the woman with new interest. There was suddenly a sexual undercurrent in the room, an electricity that hadn’t been there a moment before. The cop grinned at her. Her face was flushed.

“OK, do you want me to put him in jail for the night? The soonest that he could be out would be three to four hours, maybe even more. But there’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t come right back out here then. Do you have any relatives here in town that you might want to spend the night with?

“Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not telling you to tell me to put him in jail or not. And I’m not telling you to spend the night somewhere other than your house. I just want you to understand the full picture. I can put him in jail or I can tell him to settle down and sleep it off. But I’ll decide what to do with him. I just don’t want you climbing all over me with a quick change of heart if he won’t cooperate and I’m forced to jail him. I mean, it happens, you know. But in my opinion, what you need is a lawyer and some time to think things over.”

The woman watched his face as he spoke and her hands shredded a pink tissue. She only hesitated a moment before she said that she would take the child and spend the night at her mother’s house. He told her to get some clothes together while he explained her decision to Lonnie James.

Outside, it was still raining hard and the wind had picked up. As he walked towards the carport, he saw his cover officer driving slowly down the shiny street looking for the address. The cop shined his flashlight at the other car and it pulled over and stopped.

The cop turned back to face the occupants of the carport. He nodded to the older men, and then carefully studied the woman’s husband. The man had sandy blond hair and a thin, angular face. His eyes were red and puffy, but he was neatly shaven.

“Yessir, how you doing tonight? Your wife tells me that y’all been having some family arguments. Now, wait a minute, she tells me one thing and you tell me another. The point is, she seems to be afraid of you tonight and she’s decided to go spend the night someplace else and let things cool down. Now, what happens to you is going to be your decision. You can either start acting like a grown man with responsibilities or you can go to jail. It’s as simple as that. You’re drunk and you got no business out on a night like this. All you’re doing is upsetting people and upsetting yourself. Well, sir, what’s it going to be?”

There was an awkward silence in the carport. The husband seemed to lose weight before their very eyes as the cop was speaking, and now he was listening to his own thoughts. The others listened to the rain fall on the roof, and one of the older men blew his nose loudly.

The husband hunched his shoulders together and bent his head. He traced a design in the dust of carport floor with the toe of one of his boots. He tucked his hands in his hip pockets, but one of them briefly escaped and gestured emptily.

“Daddie, what more can a man do? She wanted a separation before and I give in to her then. She says she just wants that job so she can have more money, but that ain’t so. I told her I’d let her work, if she’d just stay with me, but she says that’s only part of it.

“When we come back together, I promised not to touch her, I promised. But one night she said she was tired of me watching her get undressed like a dog looking at a sack full of bones. She said she wanted me, but only if I’d bark for her, right there in our bedroom. So I did, and afterwards, oh, it was good, Daddie, it was good. She said she loved it.

“But now this. I just don’t understand. What more can a man do? I told her I’d do anything, I’d change. I’d change. What more can a man do? Daddie, she says I ain’t enough for her.”

He was crying loudly, painfully, at the end. One of the men patted him lightly on the shoulder, but didn’t say anything.

The cop had no expression on his face. He stood off to one side of the sobbing man and watched the rain wash the grass of the front yard. Across the street the woman left the house carrying a baby and an umbrella and got into a waiting car. The cop couldn’t tell if she looked in their direction.

On Being a Cop

PEOPLE ARE INTRINSICALLY LEERY OF the police, and resent both that feeling and the men who cause it. We are the enforcers, the men of order. We are raw, overt power. Our appearance, carefully para-military, and our demeanor, often impolite and even arrogant, do little to conceal or disguise that power.

Threats and violence are the darker grease for the machine of justice. To live with this lubricant of power is to be touched and stained, some more slowly than others, by the endless compromising inherent in the maintenance of a feasible law and order. Policemen are abused by their power. We put into motion the entire cycle of retribution—detection, arrest, prosecution, punishment. It’s our job, we deal in problems with faces and names.

If we have to lean on someone to solve a problem, we usually don’t hesitate. Being a policeman is, perhaps, the most masculine of the machismo jobs. Wearing a badge and a gun, set apart by distinctive uniform, and dealing with violent, traumatic crises, we are the Americans most vulnerable to the fascist label. The belief in force itself as a solution weaves a bright, disturbing thread through the entire fabric of American police attitudes.

And, yet, would you allow us to be different, to have the normal American distrust of power and elitism? Is a policeman allowed to suffer from emotional problems, to be a poor manager of money, to be a coward or an alcoholic? No, he is not, and can be suspended for any such lapse. What do you expect of a policeman—honesty, trustworthiness, bravery, perhaps? Or maybe fairness and politeness. Do you demand these qualities of your neighbors, your friends, or even of your family?

Or even more bluntly, do you require everyone you know to wear a gun everywhere they go, on pain of suspension without pay if they are caught weaponless? The gun is part of the mystique, part of our alienation. The sound of the word itself, harsh and gutteral, presages the kind of rigid philosophy that I live my life by every waking moment. I will, with remorse and grief, kill another human being in order to save a life, be it mine or the life of an innocent victim.

Yet a mirror reflects no monster to my questioning eyes, no throwback to another age of eager hubris and violence. How have we changed? Tell me, do the roles so reflect? And what do you give me, other than this terrible power? Do you respect me as another man, an equal unto all? How much training do you grant me? What would you have me tell my wife when she begs me to quit and find another job, another life of peace and normality?

My doubts creep toward bitterness and cynicism, but there is no solace there. I have seen three policemen die from my shift. I care about the job. My friends care about the job. But you are killing us. And we can’t understand it.

We are you.

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