One of the arguments I hear frequently regarding the demand to “defund the police,” is that we’ll all be sorry when there are no police around to protect us. Ignoring, for the moment, the reality that nobody is seriously calling for the complete elimination of police, I’d like to share a story I think illustrates how incomplete this narrative is.
This story took place a little over 40.5 years ago and I remember some of it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. It was, in fact, on my half birthday – December 4, 1979. At the time I was living with my girlfriend, later to be my wife, in a small two-bedroom apartment above a garage at the East end of Carroll Canal in Venice, California. The place was probably no more than 600 sq. ft. It was behind a house that faced Ocean Avenue and there were stairs leading up to our front door from both Eastern Court, which was essentially an alley, and from behind the house in front of us.
At the time I was working with my father and my brother in our small, family-owned wholesale food delivery business. My girlfriend was a waitress at Gulliver’s. On that night, I was working on some bills for our business and she was at work.
For some time, kids in the neighborhood would run up the stairs from one side and down on the other. It was a bit annoying as they were pretty noisy about it. While I was working I heard a noise and thought the kids were getting ready to make a ruckus. I grabbed my six battery Kel-light (a very heavy flashlight, suitable for cracking heads) and jumped out onto the porch.
I had no intention of hurting anyone. I just wanted to scare these kids in the forlorn hope they would find someone else to torment. I was surprised to find a young man, perhaps a bit older than me, who I had frightened and who appeared to be lost. In fact, he asked me for directions to a place I can’t remember. What happened next, though, I remember clear as a bell.
He looked around for a moment. I was really feeling bad that I had scared him and was totally taken by surprise when he produced a handgun and held it to my head.
“Let’s go inside,” he said to me. I was in no position to argue. Now, this isn’t really the important part of the story; not for my purposes today, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, I was held at gunpoint and asked questions about money and women in the area. Knowing my girlfriend would be coming home soon lent a certain air of urgency to the situation, but he was the guy with the gun.
In fact, since he asked me to tell him where all my weapons were, he had replaced his handgun with my Ruger Blackhawk, a .357 Magnum piece which, at one point, he pointed at my head while I was lying spread-eagle on the floor and said, “I’m going to blow your fucking brains out.” I asked him “why,” and he said, “because you’re a honky.” “Is that all?” I asked. He had no answer.
Then he told me to put my hands behind my back and went out to the living room (there was no hallway, just a door that was open so he could see me.) While he had been talking to and threatening me, I had managed to get my foot behind that door and, as soon as he looked away for a second, I managed to do a prone spin kick and slammed the door.
Adrenaline was pumping and I practically levitated myself off the floor with one arm, and quickly reached into the closet where I had hidden my Ithaca Riot Pump Shotgun. I quickly chambered a round (it was double ought buck) and yelled at the door, “Get the fuck out of my house or I’ll kill you.” I don’t think he heard a word I said, as he hightailed it out of there. Before continuing, here’s a link to an appellate court decision regarding one of this guy’s three murder convictions, which describes the evens in more detail.
Now, here’s the part of the story I believe is relevant to the issue of how valuable the police are in deterring and dealing with crime. After I had gone through the second bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen to ensure he was gone, I called the LAPD. I had seen them patrolling and knew this was their jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the dispatcher told me I should call the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (we were a little over a block or two from Marina del Rey, which was county property.)
Although still certain it was LAPD jurisdiction, I called the Sheriff’s office only to be told “Nope. That’s LAPD. Call them.” I called LAPD again and was told it must be the Santa Monica PD who have jurisdiction there. I called SMPD and was told, “Nope. LAPD has jurisdiction.” I called LAPD once more and, finally, they somehow realized they did, indeed, have jurisdiction of my neighborhood. They said they would send a car.
When the officer arrived, he was by himself, he had his cover (his hat) off, and his sidearm was holstered with the hammer guard fastened. When I told him what had happened—which I had also told the dispatcher—he was both shocked and surprised. He said he would never have approached to door like that if he knew it was an armed robbery he was responding to.
After he took my information, I asked him if they were going to dust for fingerprints or anything. He told me I didn’t want them to do that, as it was messy and I’d be left to clean it up. I reluctantly accepted that. He left. By now my girlfriend had come home and I had to recount the episode to her. A couple hours later, we were asleep when the phone rang. It was the police. A man had been murdered near my place and they found a set of keys that I had reported as stolen. They wanted to talk to me now.
I ended up going to the station and working with an artist on a description. I have a really good memory and, over forty years ago, it was even sharper. When the guy was finally apprehended (because he went on a rampage, killing one more man and raping a couple of women) I was pleased to see the drawing we had worked on looked very much like the man I remembered. I can almost still see his face today.
So . . . my point here is that the police are seldom available to intervene and stop crimes in progress. They’re not magicians or fortune tellers. They can’t foresee when crimes will happen. We depend on their investigative powers and the depth of their ability to mine data and information (clues) to find perpetrators and flesh out a case for prosecutors to use in court.
I know not everyone could have done what I did. My years of training in Hapkido and my familiarity with weapons, as well as my preparation in creating a hiding spot he could not find, gave me the ability to get away from him. Unfortunately, though, the reality is we’re essentially on our own in day-to-day living. It’s unrealistic to expect the police to be there for us at all times and in all places.
This, to me, is the crux of the issue when it comes to transforming policing. We expect far too much from our police forces. We need to rethink how we deploy every kind of social resource to ensure the safety and health of everyone in our communities. Done right, there is generally no need for someone with a weapon to respond to a domestic disturbance. The same should probably be true of traffic violations. Why on earth do we have to face a person who is armed (regardless of how infrequently that sidearm is used) after making an illegal u-turn or going five miles an hour over the speed limit.
I don’t have all the answers. Not by a longshot . . . and certainly not in this post. However, I have a good idea what many of the questions are that need to be answered, and one of the most important is: How can we transform policing to better protect both the public and the men and women who choose to serve us in that capacity?