What Police Work Is Really Like, Episode IV: The Christmas Gift
So there I was, minding my own business, patrolling a small town on night shift. I had been a cop about nine months. Christmas was a couple of days away, and the town had pretty much shut down. Then I got a call over the radio: “man harassing customers at the truck stop”.
I headed that way. The truck stop was on a major highway, and a lot of destitute travelers stopped there. It wasn’t uncommon for people to beg customers for gas money. The truck stop manager probably wanted me to run someone off, no big deal.
I made the turn into the truck stop parking lot. A tall, thin, homeless-looking guy stood by the front door, yelling at someone. Then he saw me, and sprinted along the front window toward my car. He pointed angrily at me and screamed “You! You!”
I had no idea who the guy was, or why he was so pissed at me. I stopped the car, he stopped running. As I stepped out he stood on the raised sidewalk, eyes wide, huffing in anger.
“Hey man,” I said in a calm voice. “What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed back “You tell me!”
“I’m just asking a question. Is everything alright?”
“No it’s not alright! Why are you f**king with me?”
Well, crap, I thought. As I’ve said before, I’m a little guy. At that time, I weighed all of about 115 pounds. I wasn’t then and am not now physically intimidating. Another officer who was even smaller than me had given me good advice one night: “I’d rather spend thirty minutes talking someone down than thirty seconds getting my ass kicked.” Unfortunately, some people you just can’t talk to. This guy didn’t seem real receptive to conversation.
I tried again. “Hey dude, everything’s cool. I’m just talking to you, alright? What’s going on?”
This time the man didn’t answer. He pulled his fists up and took a bladed stance, ready to fight. I sighed, took my glasses off and dropped them on the hood, and thought, Here we go. I’m going to have to fight this guy.
I had been in a few fights as a cop. Most people who fight are trying to get away, not trying to beat you senseless. This guy didn’t look like he wanted to get away. He was wiry, way taller than me, with arms that looked about a foot longer than mine. He was furious, and I still didn’t know why. His head was tilted down, eyes glaring at me over his knuckles. He wanted a fight.
I tried one more time, even though I knew it wouldn’t work. “You don’t want to do that. Just talk to me.”
He didn’t answer. I tried to think of something else to say. Just then, another officer drove up and got out of his car.
Apparently, they were acquainted. The man instantly relaxed. He dropped his fists, smiled and exclaimed, “Hey, my buddy’s here!”
The other officer, “Rick”, walked toward the man with his hand out. “Hey man, how you doing?”
The man instantly switched back to a fighting stance and screamed, “Don’t you touch me!”
Rick was surprised. He told me later that he had dealt with the man once before, and the guy had been friendly. Rick walked toward the guy’s left side. I went toward his right. The man kicked Rick in the leg and backed against the window, fists up. This was before Tasers, and I didn’t have pepper spray. Rick did. I told Rick, “Spray him.”
Rick sprayed. The guy ducked, twisted, blocked with his fists, and eventually got a shot in the face. He tried to rub the spray from his eyes. Rick and I took that as a signal to grab the guy.
The man threw a blindingly fast, powerful punch. As chance would have it, the man was left handed, and I was on his right. The punch hit Rick square on the temple.
Rick staggered away with his hands on his head, wailing something that sounded like, “Uuunnngh!” The man spun to face me. I yanked my baton off my belt and extended it. Rick stopped wailing and looked at me with wide, seemingly angry eyes.
I took Rick’s expression to mean, “Let’s get this guy”. What it actually meant was, “I’m in outer space at the moment”. I cocked back the baton, just as the man launched himself off the raised sidewalk at me.
I swung hard and connected with the man’s ankle. He stumbled and kept coming. Of all the baton strikes I landed in the next couple of minutes, that was the only one that had any visible effect.
I backpedaled as fast as I could. The man threw haymakers that barely missed my face. I cut the air with my baton, swinging back and forth with all my might. I could have sworn Rick was on the other side of the guy, trying to tackle him. But Rick was in a daze, stumbling through the parking lot.
Still running backward, I turned right to avoid a punch and kept hitting with the baton. Then I turned left. Then I cut left again. Then I ran into a car parked at the gas pumps.
The man punched me on the right temple, hitting mostly bone. I remember looking at the man as he swung, then my view suddenly changed as his fist knocked my head sideways. I tasted blood.
I turned back to him. He looked surprised, and reared back to punch me again. I spun off the car and cocked the baton for another hit. The owner of the car I had just run into was standing by his door. With a voice full of concern, he yelled at me, “Hey, don’t scratch my car!” Then he got in and sped away.
For just a moment, I was more pissed at that guy and his stupid car than I was at the homeless man trying to take my head off. That anger disappeared as the homeless man charged me again. We swung at each other. My baton hit, his punch missed. Then Rick woke up and tackled the man.
The man went down onto his face. I dropped my baton, yanked one of the man’s arms behind his back and dropped as much weight as I could onto it. Rick did the same thing. I was light, but Rick weighed about 200 pounds. Rick huffed, “Just hold him like this until backup gets here!”
With almost no effort, the man yanked both his hands free. I was shocked. I tried to grab an arm, and he reached out and snatched the baton I had dropped.
Rick yelled “Oh shit!” and jumped off the man. I rose to my knees. The man sat up, held the baton by the wrong end and cocked back to hit me. Behind me, I heard leather break as Rick drew his weapon.
I had to make a decision, quick. If I tried to wrestle the baton away, I would likely take a hell of a hit to the head. It probably wouldn’t kill me, but it could knock me out and give the guy an opportunity to take my weapon. So I could risk getting beaten and disarmed, or jump out of the way and let Rick shoot. I had less than a second to decide. The man was about to swing.
I dove in low, under the baton, and knocked the man back down onto his face. Rick holstered and threw himself onto the man’s back. I tore the baton from the man’s grasp. He pushed himself off the pavement and I hit him again. He went down, but kept flailing and trying to get up. We pinned his arms just as I heard the screech of an approaching siren. The man yelled, “Okay, I give up! I give up!”
We handcuffed him. He didn’t resist. A patrol sergeant tore into the parking lot. For a reason I didn’t understand at the time, a woman drove out of the parking lot yelling, “I didn’t see anything!”
We lifted the man to his feet and searched him. He went into the back seat of the sergeant’s car without a murmur of protest. I checked myself. Ripped and dirtied uniform, a big red mark on my head from the punch. Nothing serious. We asked the truck stop manager why he had called us. He said the guy just walked in the door and started screaming at people. Nobody knew what his problem was.
We took the man to jail. He happily went into a cell. At the time I didn’t get it, but now I know the man had been high when I showed up but had come down off the drugs by the time we got him to jail. That was one of many lessons I learned that night.
When Rick and I talked about it later, I was frustrated at how much I had missed during the fight. At one point, the man had grabbed Rick’s big, heavy metal flashlight. I never saw that. He also grabbed Rick’s pepper spray. I didn’t see that either. When someone asked me why I didn’t call for backup, I realized it had never even occurred to me. Rick had screamed for help on the radio, but I never heard it.
Then the dispatcher dropped another bomb on me. While we were fighting the guy, after he almost knocked Rick out, around the time the guy tried to hit me with my own baton, someone had called 911 from the truck stop. Not on the suspect attacking us. He called the police, on us. The person had told dispatch, “I can’t believe how those officers are treating that poor man!”
So during the worst fight of my new career, not only had a citizen been more concerned about his car than he was about me, not only had a witness fled rather than talk to us, but someone actually called the police on us for defending ourselves. That was a shock. During the relatively short time I worked in that town, I had the police called on me two more times.
I went to my family’s Christmas celebration that year with a black eye and three red lines, impressions of the spaces between the man’s fingers, temporarily imprinted on the side of my head. I received a few good-natured jabs about it. Worse than that, I had left my damn glasses on the hood when I drove out of the parking lot. I found them later, but they were so scratched up I just decided not to wear glasses anymore.
Later on I got some bad news. This incident happened shortly after the Texas Legislature had made a little oopsy and removed the “aggravated assault on a peace officer” statute from the books. The man was charged with two misdemeanors instead of two felonies. He had a long criminal history, and was known in his hometown as a raging crack addict. I don’t think he was on crack that night though. That seemed more like PCP. That drug wasn’t common in that area, but based on later experiences I’m pretty sure he had just taken some. I was told he pled out for probation, and I never saw him again.
A couple of years later, an officer asked me if I remembered the man I had fought that night. I responded, “Of course I do, I’ll never forget that guy. What about him?”
“He just got sentenced to eight years for rape.”
I was quiet for a few moments. During that fight I made a conscious decision to avoid deadly force, and had walked away with nothing worse than a black eye. For the homeless man, the result of that decision was no jail time, another slap on the wrist, and the freedom to rape someone later.
Some decisions you make as a cop have immediate and obvious consequences. Some decisions are plainly right, some are plainly wrong. Some, like the one I made that night, look right at the time and wrong in hindsight.
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Tags: deadly force, drugs, police