April 19, 2024

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For years I worked as police reporter for The Washington Times, spending long hours in squad cars in various cities getting to know cops well. Now I listen to nice white people in the suburbs, and self-assured voices from NPR, talking about the police. They know nothing of the world where the police work. They do not know the bad sections at 3 a.m., the yawning dark alleys and lightless facades of buildings, the boredom, and the radio, the soul of a squad car, the laconic chat of the net. Slow night.

Not all are slow. I rode one night with the Arlington force, the Virginia county just outside of Washington. The call came: “Man down, gunshots reported.” Dark residential street, tree-lined, too late for the suburban houses to have lights. The guy, maybe Hispanic or Asian, was on his back, breathing but not moving. The bullet had cut a furrow in the top of his head, brains swelling out like pink vaginal lips. We listened to the stertorous breathing. There was nothing to do. The ambulance came and the parameds worked on the guy. There was no point in it, but it is what they are paid to do.

You see things you don’t want to see. On a foot beat, in the Shaw district of D.C., late, streets empty, we found a blonde woman, maybe 30, crawling on the sidewalk, drunk, bottle of whiskey clutched in one hand. Late-stage alcoholism. Seeing a cop, she crawled toward an alley, hugging her bottle. She had wet her pants.

“Nobody thought the dead guy was funny. But you can’t let it get to you.”

We walked on. The cop wasn’t heartless, but it was Saturday night, the jails and shelters would be full, and there is nowhere that wants a terminal alky. What was her story? Bad marriage? Lost her job? Everybody has a story.

From the Virginia side of Key Bridge across the Potomac, a bike path runs through grass past the Pentagon to the Washington Sailing Marina. Someone had reported a foul smell. I and three cops went to investigate. Following the smell, we found a dead guy in a clump of bushes. Judging by the pistol next to him, he had offed himself. A dead guy after several days in the August sun is not attractive, skull white where not covered by gunch remnants sliding off.

Cops see this stuff. You can’t let it get to you so you do the macho thing. So do female cops. This time someone said, “Maybe mouth-to-mouth would save him.” There was grossed-out laughter. It wasn’t contempt. Nobody thought the dead guy was funny. But you can’t let it get to you. It turned out later that he had a hard breakup with his girlfriend.

You probably don’t know what “immersion cuffs” are. If you hold a little girl’s hands in boiling water, the submerged part puffs up pink, like cuffs. That there is a name for this suggests that it is not isolated. Cops know about these things. They see them. It is why they grind their teeth at night and have a high divorce rate. One cop told me that he had turned down a job on the child-abuse unit because he would kill somebody. Abuse by police can have its appeal.

A Maryland cop once invited me to his home and was showing me photos of things he had seen on the job. One was of a human face that had been completely skinned with an X-Acto knife. See? It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.

In the sprawling crazy nights in the big cities, a camaraderie unites the three street trades, police, fire, and ambulance. If the crews do not know each other personally, which they often do, there is a unity that comes of sharing a world that nobody else knows. You likely have never tried to intubate a man copiously spewing blood from his mouth after going through a windshield, crushing his chest. You might think something wrong with people who can stand around such a scene talking about are you going to Jack’s barbecue Saturday? You can’t let it get to you.

Things can be amusing in a screwy way. Ages ago, when Reagan emptied the asylums onto the streets, one of these mandated escapees was a woman who entered office buildings and turned off lights, announcing herself as being with Trash Police, who don’t exist. Finally, the police told me, she decided to help the telephone company by putting on a pair of pole-climbers in one of their trucks and began trying to climb a pole. This allowed the cops to invoke “danger to herself or others” and take her off the street.

The racial element is always there with police because almost all the crime is perpetrated by blacks. At NPR, saying this would elicit cries of racism. NPR does not live in the real world. Cops do. For them, the racial makeup of crime is a matter of daily observation. Blacks dislike cops and cops come not to like blacks. The black world deep in the big cities is another country, another civilization, and immiscible with the outlying white culture. Black cops know this as well as white cops know it.

Sometimes you can just about lose all belief in human decency. The small black girl found in a Dumpster, wrapped in garbage bags, something like 30 pounds underweight for her age. She had rope burns on her wrists, some fresh and open wounds, others just scars. It turned out that she had been kept always in a closet and barely fed. She died, it was concluded, because to muffle her cries her parents had put her in a hooded jacket backwards and she had suffocated.

Think what you will of cops. They are not perfect. But they are out there, day and night, amid the blood and snot and cum, the screaming freshly raped girls and the desperate old women dying amid their vodka bottles and the insane and miserable. Try it, and then judge.


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