In the mid-seventies, I probably looked like the last person one would imagine riding in the front seat of a black and white Los Angeles Police Department squad car. Looking more like a musician than anything else, I saw a lot of double-takes from people wondering why I was in the front seat and not handcuffed in the back seat on my way to jail. On these occasions, I got a cop's perspective on the city in which I was born and grew up. The view through the windshield of a black & white was very different than that through the windshield of a Ferrari to which I was accustomed, needless to say.
I rode with a sergeant in downtown Los Angeles out of Parker Center--the Glass House, as it was called. Later, I rode in Van Nuys and, later still, in Venice. Leaving Parker Center for the first time, the sergeant gave me his call sign telling me that if he were to be shot I was to use the radio to tell the dispatcher that there was an officer down and give his call sign. It put the job description into sharp focus.
We had just left the Parker Center garage on that first ride when the dispatcher called a 211 in progress. Someone was robbing a bank only a few blocks away. We went to Code 3 which meant lights and siren. In those days--maybe today as well--only one unit responding to a call was allowed to use lights and siren. Everyone else went lights-only. The reason for this was that when two or more units used sirens, too many accidents occurred because one could not hear the other as their own siren blocked out the sound of the other.
We pulled to the curb and left the black & white parked in a traffic lane. I followed the sergeant along the sidewalk until we got close to the bank at which point he flattened himself against the wall--gun drawn--and continued toward the bank. I followed suit. As we got close to the entrance, someone called Code 4. The bank robber had surrendered or been subdued. The event was over.
On another occasion, we responded to a disturbance at a transient hotel. Two fellows who had scraped together enough money to pay for a cheap room for the night were having a dispute. We arrived after the first unit had responded. The two vagrants were venting their anger to the officers already on the scene about what one had done to the other. As the sergeant and I approached, the senior of the two officers interrupted them and pointed to me. "Tell it to the lieutenant." Suddenly, I was a lieutenant on the LAPD! Without losing a beat, both men aired their grievances to me. I listened to them both and kept my silence for a moment or two after they had finished. Then I told them, "Either you both behave, go back to your rooms and stay there or the officers will take you down to the Glass House where you will spend the rest of the night until a judge can see you in the morning." They barely said thank you before disappearing back into the hotel happy to remain free for the night to enjoy the relative comfort of their rooms.
That same evening, we responded to a call about a man trapped beneath a car in a parking lot. He had been hiding and when the lady backed out of the parking space, she ran over him. Hearing him scream, she jumped out of her car and ran away leaving him pinned by one of the wheels. He was suspicious and wouldn't say why he was hiding but there was no reason to arrest him and away he went lucky not to have been crushed. Much later that night, we responded to a call at an emergency room in a downtown hospital. They had a dead body. It was the same man. It just wasn't his night.
Van Nuys was a different environment. Robberies and drugs seemed to define the action. It was as if some people got off on the violence regardless of the minimal return. Venice was unlike either downtown or Van Nuys. Gang activity was the primary concern and a black & white unit was not the safest ride in that area. It felt like a battleground in an undeclared war. Driving the same streets in my own cars never gave me the same feeling though I may have had a false sense of security.
I think, more than anything else, those experiences gave me an understanding of just how thin is the social veneer.
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