What Police Work is Really Like, Episode 1: The Pursuit
So there I was, minding my own business, driving down a dark street in the ‘hood. Ahead of me, a traffic light turned red. I slowed to a stop as an old Buick coming the other way punched it. The Buick blew the light, passed me and kept going.
I wasn’t real concerned. There was no traffic on the road, and plenty of otherwise good drivers have barely missed a yellow light. I considered letting it go, then decided, What the hell, I’m bored. I guess I should at least run the plate and make sure it’s clear.
I turned around and started after the Buick. The driver sped up. My interest rose. Was this something good, or just someone trying to avoid a ticket? I punched it to catch up. The Buick’s lights turned off. That was it, the chase was on.
I called out the pursuit and stomped on the gas. The driver accelerated to nearly a hundred. I hit the buttons to turn on the lights and siren. Then the Buick’s driver slammed a hard left turn onto a side street.
Oh crap, I though. Things were about to get interesting. I knew this street; it was a dead end. The driver was going to either run to a house, where he would have family, friends and a psychological this is my house and you have no right to be here advantage, or he was going to hit the dead end and run on foot.
Fortunately for me, he hit the dead end. The driver and passenger bailed out into a cloud of black, burned-rubber smoke. My braking tires left dark streaks on the street as I for once managed the complex symphony of end-of-pursuit actions: throw the gear shift into park, hit the button to turn the siren off (but leave the lights on so backup could find me), turn the ignition off, yank the keys out, kick the door open, hit the lock button so the suspect couldn’t circle back and steal my patrol car, slam the door, stuff the car keys into my back pocket, then charge after the driver as I keyed the radio mike to give the suspect’s description and direction of travel.
This was back in the days when every officer carried a big Mag-Lite or Streamlight flashlight. Whenever we ran from our patrol cars we had to remember to grab the flashlight, or we’d wind up chasing someone in the dark with no light. I, however, was a smart guy. I took a small flashlight, put an elastic sleeve with an extra loop over it, and attached it to my handcuff case flap. That way I could bail out without worrying about forgetting my flashlight. So when I went after the driver, I left my big light behind. Because I’m a genius. I proved it to myself a few minutes later.
I didn’t bother with the passenger. The driver ran across a shallow ditch about twenty feet ahead of me. At this point in my career I was in my late twenties, weighed 125 pounds and ran like a deer. But that was without fifteen pounds of body armor, duty belt, pistol, ammo, radio, pepper spray, baton and handcuffs. With gear I ran more like a giraffe, still pretty fast but not nearly as coordinated. I crossed the ditch and started closing the distance.
The driver turned south. I turned behind him as he crossed under a street light. I got my first good look at him in the yellow halogen glow.
He was shorter than me, stocky and powerfully built. He looked to be about twenty-five. Muscles rippled under his jeans and t-shirt as he sprinted full speed across the street. What was I going to do with this guy once I caught him? If he decided to fight, things could get real ugly, real quick.
Right around this time, I decided to complicate things for myself. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t a conscious decision. I have zero sense of direction, and at this moment my tendency to get lost kicked in. The suspect had run from his car, crossed the ditch and headed south; I keyed my radio and confidently broadcast to dispatch and backup officers, “The suspect is running north!”
The driver turned onto another street. I got the direction right this time, but my previous mistake had thrown the nearest backup unit off. And I didn’t know what street I was on now.
I closed to within arm’s reach of the driver. Tackling and getting into a fistfight with a guy who outweighed me by about eighty pounds and was probably ten times stronger than me seemed like a stupid idea, so I went for plan B. I pulled my pepper spray off my belt, cut a slight angle to get next to the guy, and sprayed him.
He staggered to a stop and tried to rub the spray from his eyes. I shoved him into the ditch. Now he was nearly blind, and I had a position advantage over him. If he’d comply with my commands, I’d have him cuffed by the time backup arrived. If he tried to fight, I could probably keep him down in the ditch until backup arrived. I had this guy. He was done.
Unfortunately, the suspect didn’t see it that way. He climbed back out of the ditch swinging. I sprayed him again. No effect. I dropped the pepper spray, yanked my expandable baton from my belt, extended it and swung.
My first hit did nothing. The suspect swung again and barely missed. I swung and hit again. Twice, three, maybe four times. The suspect didn’t notice. At the academy, we were told that if we hit a suspect with a baton, he would drop to his knees, cry, suck his thumb, and pledge his life to Jesus. This guy acted like I was swinging at him with a wet strand of spaghetti. He kept coming, fists flying.
Finally – don’t ask me how, because I don’t remember – I managed to hit his foot. That had an effect. He dropped backward. I ordered him to get on his face and put his hands behind his back. He complied. I stuck my baton back onto my belt, popped my handcuff case, pulled out my only set of cuffs, and knelt on the driver’s back to cuff him.
He flipped over and swung. I jumped backward. He popped to his knees and came at me. I dropped the cuffs and went for my baton again. The suspect put his hand down to push himself up. . . and it just happened to land right on my pepper spray.
He picked up the pepper spray and looked at it in astonishment. I thought, Oh, crap, backed off and drew my pistol. I’ve been sprayed in the eyes with pepper spray before. It’s like being stabbed in the brain with an ice pick. If this guy sprayed me, he’d be able to beat and disarm me easy. So I prepared myself to shoot.
The suspect ran. I ran behind him, shouting breathlessly into the radio, “We’re running west again! I don’t know what street we’re on! He’s got my pepper spray!”
The suspect reached over his shoulder and tried to spray me. He couldn’t figure out how to work the trigger. I stayed a few feet behind him, running with my pistol in my hand, yelling “If you spray me, I’m going to shoot you!”
He gave up trying to spray me. I holstered my pistol. We ran past a group of older people sitting on the front porch of a house. I shouted to them, “What street are we on?” They didn’t answer.
Crap. We were about two blocks into the chase, and I had no idea where we were. That wasn’t good.
I decided to try something different. I charged up behind the suspect and shoved him off balance. He fell, shot right back up and kept running. Son of a. . . I tried it again. He was back on his feet running in about a second.
We passed an intersection. The street signs were missing, probably taken down by guys who don’t want cops to know where we are in situations like this one. I charged up and knocked the suspect down again. He popped back up like a weeble-wobble and kept going.
We made it about another block. I was starting to wear out. Officers called me over the radio, asked where I was. I had no idea. I heard sirens in the distance, but they weren’t coming toward us. I reached for the flashlight on my cuff case so I could signal responding units. It wasn’t there. I searched my belt frantically. The light was gone. My super genius idea had backfired on me. The light had fallen off my cuff case flap during the foot pursuit.
The suspect cut left, dove and started crawling through a hole in a frontyard fence. I reached down and grabbed his waistband. We had a tug of war over his pants. Now I was feeling really tired. He clawed at the ground and kicked his way through the hole. I couldn’t hang on. He broke free and ran toward a house.
I struggled to my feet and ran toward the gate. The suspect turned the corner to the back of the house. I ran through the gate and stumbled to the backyard.
The suspect was standing to the side of the back door, pepper spray in one hand, other hand pounding on the door, shrieking “Momma!” over and over.
I stopped a ways off. Now things were bad. I radioed that I was behind a house. The sirens were louder, but still not close enough. The exertion of the four-block foot chase/fight had caught up to me. I was smoked. And now, if this really was the suspect’s house, I might be screwed.
For some families, if the cops are chasing their kid, the cops are wrong. Even if they just saw their kid set fire to a nun, it’s still the cops’ fault. So I had to get this guy in custody before his family came flying out the door.
I took stock of the situation. I still had no idea where we were. I was worn out. My cuffs were back at the ditch, I had no way to cuff the suspect. My flashlight was gone so I couldn’t signal backup. The baton hadn’t worked. The suspect had my pepper spray.
I leaned over and tried to get my breath. The suspect kept beating on the door and screaming for his mother. I made a decision.
I backed up, took a running started and slammed the suspect into the wall. His head bounced off the wood. He seemed stunned for a moment, then started pounding on the door faster and screaming “Momma!” even louder. I staggered backward, cursing in frustration, and charged him again. His head bounced off the wall again. Another stunned moment, and he went right back to screaming and hitting the door. With almost my last bit of energy, I charged him again. He bounced off the wall, kept screaming and knocking.
I felt lightheaded. I really had no idea what to do. Nothing was working. I started to accept the possibility that this guy was going to get into the house, or the family was going to come out and try to beat me to death. Either way, the result would be bad.
Right then, the most beautiful man I have ever seen ran around the corner. Another officer, a former Army paratrooper, had followed my bad directions from the dead end, ran the wrong way until he figured it out, backtracked and found the right street, then followed the screams.
Together we cuffed the suspect. Right after I got my pepper spray back, the door opened. A middle-aged woman in a robe stood in the doorway staring at the suspect. The suspect yelled, “This is my house! That’s my momma!”
I froze. This could still have turned into a riot with us two officers against the family. The woman looked back at the suspect with scorn and answered coldly, “You don’t live here.” The relief I felt was almost palpable.
Later we found out the suspect was driving a stolen car, and was high on PCP. I had somehow broken his foot when I hit him with the baton. He ran another three blocks on the broken foot. Later, at the hospital, we had a pleasant conversation about the whole incident. He even apologized to me, and we shook hands.
I learned some lessons that night. First, be prepared for everything to fail. Second, stay humble; if this guy had connected with one good punch, I would probably have been knocked out, maybe disarmed and killed. As I’ve said before, I ain’t no tough guy.
But the most important lesson I learned was: don’t give up. Hang in there, and your brothers and sisters will come to your rescue. My belief in my fellow officers and soldiers has helped me through some rough situations, and they’ve never let me down.
Stand by for the next episode, “The Clap”!
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Tags: pcp, police, pursuit