In 1986, I was a rookie and not-so street smart. I lived in Marin County, California so I was not exposed to the kind of stuff I would later be exposed to as a cop. While I grew up in a lower middle class area, our version of trouble was speeding, maybe stealing a car or two, breaking into a building to party and maybe participating in some unlawful botany. Not me, of course, my pals.
I learned to fight in junior high school and I was terrible at it, but even that was kid stuff, and those girls were really kind of mean. Fighting as a cop is nothing like it. Adults who fight are usually moron’s, but fighting a cop, with a gun, who has lots of friends who dress like him…well, that is kind of insane.
In the police academy they teach you how to fight fair. Its funny how much of our job has to do with perception of what should be acceptable. So fighting fair looks better on TV or to the public, but often is more painful than street fighting. I used to love the TV shows COPS or CSI Miami, now, they are the bane any cop’s existence. It used to be that when you testified to a jury, you were the expert. Now they are. They watch these TV shows and feel like they know how to do the job. I remember having to tell a jury once, for 20 minutes, that the science on CSI was not necessarily practical and how we really did things.
I am waiting to sit in judgment on a jury for a brain surgery gone wrong. I have watched enough episodes of “House” that I think, given an Exacto-knife and maybe a drill, I could pull it off. (Said with unbelievable sarcasm)
I have had similar heart-wrenching conversations with parents of murder victims. One wonderful woman once stated in desperation that she did not understand why we could not solve her child’s case like they do on reality cop shows. I felt like a jerk, but reminded her that for every one case you see on “The First 48” there are a number that never make it on TV because they are unsolved.
TV has had a huge impact on our job and depending on the video point of view and its context, seeing is not necessarily believing. But let’s face it, cop shows sell. They are interesting – which is why there are lots of shows about the job and not so many about librarians or accountants. I’d like Di Nero or Pacino to play me. Maybe Dennis Farina.
OK – Funny story time. Many years ago I worked a pretty significant case. The case was profiled on one of those reenacted detective shows. I knew the date and time it was going to be on, so, of course, I told everyone that they had this guy who was going to play me on TV. What I did not know, was that he was a nice bald man, about-oh, lets be charitable and say 300lbs. You know the kind of guy that has sweat spots under his chest and food stains on the top of his belly. Ya. I was a hero the next day
This police thing we do is violent at times. If you are smart, ending the fight as soon as possible, even doing stuff that seems shocking, like punching a guy in the chops, while not pretty, works. Trust me, the “5 from the sky” (a real police move) doesn’t work for me. I tried it once. I lost. The fist sandwich to the jaw sometimes works. But only if you don’t have access or time to get to some pepper spray or a Taser.
Oh and TV writers and cop book fiction writers - punching a guy in the chops hurts. So the multiple tenderizing of a crooks jaw on TV is kind of dishonest. One good one delivered briskly and with some profundity might break your hand.
Pepper spray works if you are a good Christian and go to church every Sunday but not if you are too close or in a room deploying it. You always know when the satanic fluid directly from the infernal region got everyone in the room too – just look for the 4 or 5 cops leaning against the house or building with that slime stuff from an alien movie falling out of their nose as they ball their brains out and wretch. It works, but it is a hazmat experience. Yuck.
The Taser or Electronic Control Device as we call it – works. Usually. I’d like to meet the guys that dream up these things just to see what makes them tick. I would have liked to be in the lab when they came up with this idea. “Hey lets make this gun that shoots darts into people, and THEN, let’s send a current through their body!” Cool! Well, I have to tell you, an ECD being deployed is kind of a religious experience for these tough ex-con’s who would otherwise need 700 pounds of cops to keep them on the ground.
The problem- if you want to call it that -with the job is that it is easy to have a complaint filed against you for just about anything and especially for using all this stuff they give us to end the fight.
Let me serve up an example of how not to do it… in the late 80’s I was crossing the street, in uniform to help out a guy who was sick. Halfway across the street an old Ford pickup with three men inside the cab became acquainted with me, er - actually the hood of their truck became acquainted with me. I flew over the hood and landed in the beautifully landscaped city planter box.
Of course I landed first onto the concrete portion of the box on my back and then rolled into the soft dirt inside. I was not happy. I was hurt. When I got up, I walked up to the driver and opened his door, this time for a proper introduction. An open can of beer fell out from the floorboards. And for those of you who care…it was domestic beer, a Marin County felony.
The group of men was drunk. Unhappy Ralph lost his cool, picked up the can of beer and threw it into the cab of the truck. I didn’t hit anyone and all I did was get my new friends foamy with the suds in the can, it still felt good to do my part to pick up the littered can. I told ya, I was mad. Well that little delivery of aluminum, hops and barley justice landed me a citizen’s complaint. No one complained about me getting run over, but I can understand that I did waste a beer, so, I get it. Guilty.
The merchants in my town were very cool after the accident. After my little circus act, one business brought me out a towel to clean my uniform and another brought me a cup of coffee, exactly how I like it. It made me smile and took the sting out of my back for a few moments.
In the academy you get all of this tactical purposeful movement stuff. How to walk, talk and use the restroom with authority. They teach you enough to be able to swim to the center of the pool, but not necessarily how to get back. As a cop, you do carry in the back of your mind a little fear that your actions might cause a complaint. I used to think it was just me and Catholic guilt.
In the old days, it used to be a citizen who thought your behavior was not acceptable called in your name and you got yelled at. Now it’s YouTube or video and it can look very bad. It kind of explains the high-blood pressure and heart attack thing with cops. But isn’t it true that integrity is doing the right thing when you think no one is looking? So many more times than not, our people do the right thing.
Think about it, maybe guys on the most wanted list have an equally stressful job wondering who is looking over their shoulder, and when the next car stop will put you back in prison. Well our guys and gals know that and try to prepare for the next stop to be the last stop. Apply that scenario every time you drive, or get out of the car to handle a call. Multiply that over 35 years, add a pinch of fast-food and an alcoholic beverage, maybe a cigarette and viola! Heart attack. Now, in my 40’s I understand the mechanism.
I fought fair once. I lost. Getting your behind kicked is an education. As a cop you quickly learn you are: 1. Not that invincible, 2. There is always someone bigger than you. 3. You should do your best to stay in shape and 4. Turning left away from trouble is Eve offering you a bite from a tasty apple, and an intoxicating trance but one you have to fight off because it is part of our job jumping into the deep end.
If you had to get your behind handed to you, I guess its better to graduate from this little painful experience at age 21 than 41. It is easier to bounce back, and if you are seriously injured, at least you have some time to heal and find another type of work, rather than be an unemployed and a lame candidate for a job at 41 years old.
I have told others, and I really believe that doing 20 years at this job is like being in the NFL for a couple of years. All of the bouncing around, getting in and out of your car with all the stuff on, going from seated to jumping out of your car and running full speed for maybe 20 yards then tackling a bad guy or getting your head whacked adds up.
Police work is not like the stuff on TV. Each night you don’t meet the woman or man of your dreams, have a shootout or a cathartic experience. But each night, if you are a good cop, you visualize the shootout before you arrive at a call that is sketchy. Cops know, the 911 hang-up call with people screaming in the background, or the robbery alarm-call at the bank, where no one answers the phone. It is a pressure valve check on the old human body, but one that is so transforming, that you would not have it any other way. (For the record -I also visualize the girl sometimes. She is usually crazy about me and a member of the Swedish Bikini Team. She is also sight impaired and has a pizza in her hands.)
The wear and tear of this work does mess with you but, like any good drug, after you sleep it off you are ready for another dose of adrenaline-induced insanity. Next thing you know you are 20 years into it and some damage is done. After all of my years of being spit in the face, that little truck thing, falling down stairways, burned by crack pipes and most thoroughly getting my butt kicked, it has been a great career, one I would recommend to the right person and an honorable way to participate with your community.
But it hurts sometimes and thankfully there is this little thing called “worker’s comp” that pays the doctor’s bills.
I think more of my pals have ended up on the receiving end of the scalpel and with fused necks and backs, than guys I have grown up with on the job who have gone out on time. The quality of life after getting a wired neck is not so great. Someone should consider a barcode tattoo on your behind for all the times you end up in the hospital answering the same questions.
An example of how fighting fair doesn’t work is the time I was knocked out by an ex-convict. You don’t forget about these things. It’s like your law enforcement first kiss. It was around 3AM and it was right in the middle of our city on a busy night. I had just given this guy a break and asked him to pour out his beer. (Ya I know, me and beer.) When I walked away from him, he walked up behind me and hit me so hard in the back of the head that I’d swear it knocked the fillings out of my teeth.
The momentum of that smack turned the earth back a rotation. The cartoon stars over my head and the coo-coo clock sound were there! I remember it. Ralphy took a dive in the first! Those are the days I wondered – did I really check the police box? I should have checked the firefighter box on my application.
I got up and took him on- fighting fair. I was not happy. This guy messed up my hair, my uniform – 100% wool and my $100.00 shirt was dirty. When I looked down I noticed I had a hole in the knee of my pants. That was it! An Italian felony. Game on pal! Its one thing to knock me out, but my pants? Are you kidding?
I got up to take him into custody after calling out my location. Worst thing I could have done. I should have taken a nap on the sidewalk. He proceeded to beat me like a rug. I was busy doing all the cool move stuff my instructors in the academy taught me and none of it worked. I remember rolling around in the center of the street with this guy, as my back-up was coming from miles away. I fought this guy for 9 minutes. I remember seeing sky and street, over and over as we rolled around. Then came my chance. I thought this guy was going to eventually kill me. I resorted to caveman stuff and simply strangled him in the gutter of the street. This was all I had left.
My stick was gone, my mace was gone, my uniform was in tatters, my hair, was a mess the only thing I had left was my gun and for some reason, I felt like I could not kill this guy for a fist-fight. Although, after glancing at my pants, the thought did cross my mind. Barbarian!
Some weird thing overcame me. As I was watching this guy get sleepy – actually the life leave this guy, I let up. I relaxed my grip on his throat because in my head I thought he was done fighting. It was almost like he gave up. Well, he did but only because of the motivating, if not liberal application of my hands, to his neck.
My plan was to roll him over and handcuff him. Those, of course, were not his plans. Instead, he sharply applied his knee to my intimate parts rendering me a lump on the side of road – retching. At this point I was thinking that nothing was working and now, in front of God and maybe another future Mrs. Pata I was going to barf my brains out from the pain. I remember wondering where was the love? Why were none of these big, strong, bar patrons not giving a brother a hand. It’s like I was the dinner show or something. Not one of them stepped in or even tossed a lit cigarette or maybe a bottle at this guy. I needed an AFL CIO guy or Teamster to pull this guy off of me.
I look back and I guess I understand that if this guy was doing me in, perhaps it would not have been advisable to jump in. I would have killed for a stake and a bottle of holy water. This guy was all over me. Right now I’d kill for a steak! Writing makes me hungry.
I later learned that my sparring partner was insane. He was released from the Marines for being too crazy and, was placed in a state run mental institution. His probation report read that he was “imminently dangerous to society.” Well, if that’s the case, I can understand releasing him! It’s like leaving the henhouse door open for Christ sake!
I’d like to take whoever decided it would be a good idea to let the Tasmanian Devil out of his quiet and medicated world for a ride.
After the brisk application of the felon’s patella to my privates, I fell over and he got on top of me. Right as that happened I heard sirens and the next thing I remember was someone trying to take my gun from me. I was scared to death and did everything in my power to not let this happen.
I remember rolling over on my gun so whoever was trying to take it would have to roll me over and work a little to get it. I had nothing else. I was exhausted, scared and hurt. For some reason, probably the idea that I was going to witness my execution, I could not open my eyes to see that it was one of my partners trying to take my stuff, so I could be treated by paramedics. I ended up getting a second wind and started to fight off my partner. They actually had to subdue me a little to get me on the gurney for treatment. As it turned out, I was just scared and beat up. No lasting damage, except, of course for my freaking uniform and my pride.
I do remember fighting this guy again in my dreams for a while. I used to wake up exhausted. I’m sure I was a fun date. The nightly boxing match eventually went away. He was sent to prison for 3 years. When he returned, it was business as usual. I actually had coffee with him a couple of times at the downtown 7-11. We never talked about it. I learned to get over this, that it was not personal. It was just business. Of course I never turned my back on him again. He would go on to stab a person – at the same 7-11, a year later, and go back to the joint a couple of times before he too was summoned to the infernal region. I can’t remember how he beamed up, but I had an alibi.
Stay safe and don’t turn your back on psychopaths. K? Oh – and don’t come near me with a beer. Ralph.