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Up Against the Wall Erratic Glamour in a Cops and Robbers World

By James Lardner

I WAS a senior in college and a lazily erratic student of American history when the impulse hit me. Four years of Cambrigde, Mass., can drive a person to extreme remedies. If I had really understood all that being a rookie policeman involves, I probably never would have applied in the first place, and wouldn't be in a position to solicit for more recruits like myself. But even if the job turned out to involve a little more than broad smiles and dime-store social work, it has, incidental to everything else, been a top-notch cure for what ailed me.

Unlike most jobs that I've considered or that have considered me, this one involves a direct application of energy and intelligence to an immediate problem. The secondary consequences of your actions are secondary. The primary consequences are primary.

Take, for instance, the most typical of all police assignments-the family fight, It is a fair generalization to say that consumption of some alcoholic beverages precedes most of these hassles. Alcohol running through one person's veins tends to make him (or her) somewhat less considerate of the next person's. This is worth keeping in mind. The police officer's top-priority concern will generally be the integrity of his own circulatory system, but after that, if no one has been injured to date, he will want to make sure that no one is -at least not on the crest of this particular altercation. It is not a bright spot on the policeman's record if one party to a family argument he listed as "Settled" gets knifed or shot a few hours later. But it happens.

If the family fight or, more generally, the "disorderly" can lay claim to being about the most frequent of all radio assignments that's not because it lacks competition. The police radio is one of the least predictable elements in a highly unpredictable system. It can go unaccountably silent in the midst of a hot summer night or break one of those silences with a flurry of shootings cuttings and robberies. Sometimes the assignments are so sparse that three and four cars converge on the scene of anything remotely interesting; sometimes so thick that no units are available for even the most critical of runs. To the rookie out his first night the radio sounds like several New England auctioneers going at once; before long you learn the various code numbers then to sift out the cars from the dispatchers, and finally to understand what's going on, Sometimes entire little dramas are acted out over the radio, complete with climax and curtain. Occasionally you can be the part of one.

My first night on the street last May, after two impatient months of training school, I was assigned with a partner named Masino, known to his fellow officers, I soon discovered, as "the Big M." The Big M was a hell of a mean driver, and in no time flat he had the chance to show his stuff. We were on the tail of a procession of police cars chasing six joy-riders at top speed during rush hour. After doing several wide-radius circles through Union Station, and just when I was thinking our car had no business way at the back of this posse, the stolen car zipped around a corner and the police column came to a halt behind some innocent traffic. But the Big M was not to be deterred; he simply swung over into the opposing land, weaved his way around cars coming in the opposite direction, passed the whole column of police vehicles, and jammed the car with the six juveniles over to the side of the road. The six juveniles jumped out and a foot race began, but the manpower advantage was against them, and for fifteen minutes various officers were returning from neighboring alleys with one or another of the joy-riders in tow.

Later that night, while the Big M was doing a heap of paperwork, I was placed in a Sergeant's cruiser and we responded to a shooting. A woman had been shot point blank in the face by her husband. She didn't look too good (the husband didn't look too cool either; he was standing around waiting to be arrested, and he was). Since I was dispensable, the Sergeant volunteered me to accompany the woman to the hospital; so I climbed into the back of the ambulance with the technician and we did our best to comfort a woman we probably both figured to be fatally wounded.

Far from being a let-down, my first night set up its own unrealistically high level of expectations. The rest of my first two weeks of "OJT" (or on-the-job-training) were pretty slow by comparison. But only by comparison: an eight-hour tour of duty on the four-to-twelve shift, just about anywhere in Washington, goes by mighty fast.

Another time I rode with a shooting victim who had been shot in the leg by a policeman from my own section. The victim's entire family was there at the hospital and not, understandably, gazing any too fondly on the police profession. Their gaze focused on me.

ROBBERY runs are the bread and butter of good police work. Your first challenge is to elicit the facts and a description of the culprits as rapidly as possible, then to flash the information over the radio, and finally to launch a search. Since the closure rate is fairly high when lookouts are flashed within two or three minutes of a crime, and increasingly low there after, speed is of the essence. Just as important, you have to apply some intelligence to the question of where a robber would be likely to flee. Even with speed and intelligence, the overwhelming majority of these searches will be in vain, and so there may be a tendency after a while to regard your role as that of a report-taker and nothing more.

After a hundred or more vain searches in my first year as a policeman (I made my share of arrests, but none on flash lookouts), I ran into two Marines last month who had just been robbed, and began to question them. They eventually came up with a mediocre description of two of the subjects who had robbed them, and a first-rate description of the third. So I went off with another officer who, like myself, was riding a motor scooter, and cruised the area. And about fifteen minutes later, after searching up and down several likely streets, we were passing by the local Chili parlor when out walked a man who fit our description from head to toe. The complainants were summoned to the scene, made a positive identification, and the man was locked up. The satisfaction of closing a case that would almost surely have gone unsolved otherwise is enough to recharge your batteries for another hundred or more vain searches.

Sometimes of course, the satisfaction is muted by the post-arrest process. And not just when the defendant is released the next morning, comes to trial five months later and beats the rap. I mean when the system works as planned and the man ends up in jail. The police function only makes sense when jutted against an intelligent court system and a corrections apparatus that gives a leg up to those criminals who can still get their minds together to make what society calls an honest living. All three components of law enforcement are defective. But my strong impression is that, in Washington at least, the police come closer than either of the others to serving their proper function. Even so, the goal of an efficient and humane police force would be twice as compelling if the next two stages of the assembly line were more productive.

In Washington we start with a few advantages. The makeup of the force is considerably more heterogeneous than most - by race, by age, and by education. So many of the old-timers have retired or gone to pasture at some desk job that the patrol force is lopsidedly young and inexperienced. Inexperience may not be a virtue (or it may be, for that matter), but it puts you on an even keel with your fellow officers only a few months after you arrive in the precinct. Today you can get a good sampling of the job in a year or two, where a decade ago it took years just to be lifted from exclusive foot patrol and placed in a car. The patrolman has a tremendous range of discretion once he is permitted to work without a senior partner, and that opportunity probably comes sooner on this department than any other - sometimes too soon. Before you even know how the one-way streets run, you're being put in a car all by yourself.

POLICE discretion extends to fairly basic decisions - whether or not to make an arrest, for example. A family argument where a man ups and throws a brick at his girlfriend and cuts her forehead can be handled in countless different ways. The man can be arrested, either for Simple Assault or for the felony of Assault With a Dangerous Weapon. You know perfectly well the case won't be papered as a felony; chances are it won't be papered at all. But the felony charge looks good on the monthly tabulation (just as it looks bad on the man's record), and takes care of the problem of preserving your complainant's life-until morning. Or, though the legal provision for doing so seems to have been misplaced, you can bodily remove the man from the apartment and make him think twice about returning. This style of policing is known, affectionately, as "curbstone justice."

MOST uniformed policemen are engaged in a never-ceasing scramble to transfer to some more glamorous assignment, be it vice, casual clothes, a cozy desk job, or one of the headquarters detective squads - robbery, homicide, sex and narcotics. Only a few officers aim their sights as such mundane goals as learning their beats and cutting crime. But uniformed patrol is in many ways the best job the department has to offer, with considerably more variety and independence, generally speaking, than you get after promotion.

It is not uncommon for a rookie to ignore a senior partner when he disagrees with him, although you quickly learn to identify those situations where unanimity comes in handy. The college-educated rookie has to makecertain compromises (more of form, I think, than substance) to get along; but so do all rookies. The Washington force is sufficiently mixed up that even the insurgent policeman is one among many insurgents. (A black officer in my section was recently chewed out for wearing an earring at roll-call.) Occasionally the dissident officer gets axed by the system; just as often he appeals to the top echelons and wins his case.

When I was lounging around training school, impatient but apprehensive, I agonized over my ability to behave like a policeman, in the sense and to the degree that all policemen must behave like policemen. But the first time I was put out on the street by myself-for sixteen hours of traffic direction the day of the Kent State-Cambodia demonstration last spring. I found that the uniform did half my work or me. People look at you, think you're a policeman, and you are. On the day of that relatively benign assembly. I was one of scores of rookie policemen who rapped and took our lunch breaks with groups of passing demonstrators. The consensus was that the New Mobe's marshals carried the bigger stick and we spoke more softly.

It is not always thus, but often enough to make the effort seem worthwhile.

( lames Lardner '69 will answer questions about being a policeman assist potential applicants and ward off hecklers at 7:30 Monday night. March 29, in the Adams House Junior Common Room. )

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