It had never occurred to me that I could be seriously hurt or even killed during that time I spent working a beat car. I was young enough to reassure myself that I would live forever and, after all, I was the law, not the bad guy.
I had my share of bruises and cuts and, for a stretch of about six years, I was in a fight – or whatever you want to call the attempt to wrestle some 215-pound drunk redneck into a set of handcuffs and on to jail about once a weekend, at the minimum.
It was why I worked the midnight watch. It was fun. As far as job satisfaction, you couldn’t beat it. Well, maybe the money could have been a bit better. But I think of all the time I spent on the midnights, I maybe called in sick once or twice and, surprisingly, that’s when I was really sick.
I went to the hospital a few times, not many, mostly to get patched up or cleaned up. During that time, we knew all the ER doctors, nurses and half the regular ER patients on the weekends. The same guys kept getting beat up, stabbed and scraped up. Back then, I bounced when I hit the ground and could come up looking for more.
My deep look into mortality came around the time “Angel Dust” or phencyclidine, or more commonly known as PCP, was a fairly popular street drug in Sandy Springs around the early ‘80s. It was a dirty drug in comparison to cocaine – even the cut version that for some reason always seemed to fall out of some poor slob’s pocket after I pulled him over for no headlights at 3 a.m.
The coke would keep you up long enough to get really stupid on the liquor, and, of course, that was followed by a car ride with no headlights.
But PCP was an angry version of any other drug that I saw during my “cowboy” days on the streets. I knew of it, but the only prior contact I had with someone whacked out on it was a few years earlier when another officer and I tried to arrest a guy wearing four jackets, two sweaters and four shirts – all on a nice July night.
He fought us both until we were all lying on the ground, out of breath, and waiting for that second wind so we, the good guys, could get the (%$&$^) cuffs on him. We were not having much success. You know the arrest isn’t going well when you have to take breaks before resuming the fight. Although frustrating, that fight was more of a sloppy wrestling match.
Things can go very bad — very quickly
My second contact with a PCP-head would come about four years later.
Morning watch (midnight) officers get into a lot of situations, arrests, fights – also known as attempts to arrests – and generally other stuff more than other officers on the day and/or evening watches. Our watch consisted of mostly younger guys with a few crusty veterans sprinkled in.
The vets were priceless because they could offer good solid advice and not show you up. In other words, after you got your butt whipped, they would clean up your mess, cuff and off they go. And then they’d explain how perhaps they would have handled it so you wouldn’t necessarily need the 12 stitches in your head. We learned quickly and, overall, we became a very close group.
We had dealt with druggies, drunks, hookers, strippers, pedophiles, closet this-and-that and those who made these folks look normal. That was the reason we worked the morning watch. It was like going to the zoo every night. It was fun.
Well, sooner or later something happens to bring you to the inevitable come-to-Jesus moment where you realize there are people who will and would kill you.
You would think having buried a couple of fellow officers would give you a good perspective on life and crime and those on either side, which it did. But, still, when you were on the shift and in the car and handling the crazy-people calls, it was surreal, maybe to the point that you didn’t consider it something that could result in bad stuff for you.
I got my come-to-Jesus moment one night when I was headed to the ‘crack,’ which was slang for the place you went to take a short breather – just about 4:30 a.m. when the calls slowed down and even the drunks were in for the night. I was headed up the road to hook up with a couple of beat cars to sit, talk and maybe catch a quick 20 winks before the early morning traffic started running into one another on GA 400.
Straight down Roswell Road. past Northridge in the north part of Sandy Springs. was still not developed out. As I headed north on Roswell, I saw a car in front of me, traveling in the same direction. He was speeding, but since there were no other cars on the road and I didn’t really want to get into something in this late hour, I didn’t give it too much though.
The car then continued through a red light.
Now this may come as a shock, but even that didn’t earn a response. He had my attention, but he was driving straight and almost into Roswell where, if all went right, he could be their problem, not mine.
The gods of good-things-for-me were not smiling on me that night. The car seemed to speed up and then ran a second light.
That’s it. Enough is enough. I fell in behind and hit the blue lights.
It wasn’t a normal traffic stop — and it just kept getting worse
The car pulled over in a shopping center just south of the river. He almost made it, and this in itself didn’t sit right with me. How dare he make me work this late!
He pulled to a stop and out of the car came a young man about 20 years old. He stood about my height. He stood by his car and had a very polite look on his face as I walked up. We were about 20 feet off the road so I was very visible to the other cars and had pulled out on the radio so they knew where I was – if they were awake, which I optimistically assumed the were.
As I walked up to the car, I could see the man because of the parking lot lights. I shined the flashlight on the man and instantly knew he was on something because he looked right through me. Most of the time, the driver is trying to be cool all the while thinking “Oh &$(%&*!!!!” to himself. This guy had a very mellow look on his face. That bothered me because I interpreted that as him knowing something I didn’t.
In my modest opinion, I figured I would start out friendly to see what his reaction would be, along with his balance and so on.
I spoke to him and told him why I stopped him. (I never asked the person “Do you know why I stopped you?” I figured I’d either get a truthful or really stupid answer so I always preferred not to waste the time.)
I told the driver that he ran a couple of red lights and was speeding, but that it was almost a ghost town that late at night and I wasn’t particularly upset with him.
He just looked at me with that really slight smile. I knew then that this was not going to be a good situation.
I had a habit of trying to talk people into things rather than bully them, at least when I had the option. I knew this guy was flying on something and I knew I wasn’t going to put him back in the car. But I didn’t know where the backup was so I told him I would run his driver’s license on the computer and if it came back okay, he’d be on his way.
“While I do this, I’d like you to have a seat in the back of my car if you would.”
(What????) “Look, its policy to require the driver to sit in the back of the car. I’ll let you right back out when we’re done. No big deal.”
“I don’t want to freak you out, officer, but I’m not getting in that police car.”
“Look mister; don’t make this into a bad situation for yourself. Just do as I ask and we’ll be done in a minute or two.” (”Unit two-twenty-eight-start another car over here.”)
Now I’m thinking: “How long can I stall this guy before help arrives?” The answer arrived very quickly as he turned and got into his car. I reached in, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back out. This is where we will say “The Fight Was On!”
All I remember is this guy was so quick that he hit me at least twice in the face while I was still pulling on his arm and he was still halfway in the car. We went back and against my car where it felt like he was stinging me like a bee I couldn’t swat back. I finally caught my balance and we struggled down on the ground where we rolled one way, then the other. I was yelling a few choice words, trying to order this guy in submission, but he would have none of it.
The weirdest part was that his facial expressions didn’t change. He was calm as he beat my butt all across the parking lot. We slugged it out, and then I hit him with a slapjack over the head, which did absolutely nothing to him. On the second swing, I lost the slapjack so I reached for my radio and, as he grabbed me, we fell back and I started hitting him with the radio.
I could hear the 9-1-1 operator asking for my status as I was unable to respond “I’m getting my %@#*& butt beat!!” I was hoping the non-response would generate the cavalry to my rescue.
When deadly force becomes a real option
I was now exhausted and this guy was showing no sign of tiring, so all I could focus on was the fact he was going to get my gun and that would be it for me.
In some cases, the decision to use deadly force is a difficult one. This was not one of those cases. I reached for my weapon, which was a .357 revolver. As I worked myself back on my feet, I planned to shoot him in the side, which was the only shot I had and would end the threat.
I reached for the gun and, as I did, he grabbed my arm. I guess he was figuring out that I wanted to end this business. As he grabbed my arm, we again, fall back. As we headed to the pavement, I was on the bottom with my hands on his collar. I pulled him in as close as I could and, when we hit, I pulled even harder. I don’t know if it was his head or mine that made the loudest “knock” on the pavement, but I know he quit moving.
I couldn’t believe it. I could not have gone on much longer. I was so exhausted I barely breathe.
I scrambled out from under him and literally crawled around looking for my handcuffs, which had long since been thrown off during the fight. I found them under the car and crawled back - after realizing I couldn’t stand – and handcuffed him as the first car arrived.
I was a mess. I was cut, scrapped, had a couple of knots on my head and sporting a torn uniform with almost no equipment on it. I was bleeding and looked pretty bad, according to the face of the arriving officer, but had no more than cuts and bumps and so on.
The driver of the car was out cold. The ambulance crew looked him over and took him to the hospital and then to jail. He had PCP in his shirt pocket, his pant’s pocket and in a bag in his ashtray.
When he came to court for the preliminary hearing the following Monday, he told the magistrate he had no knowledge of being pulled over or fighting with the officer. The magistrate pointed to me, with a face that looked like a prune, and said: “There’s your evidence.”
I felt like the poster child for beat-up cops.
Looking back, that was the end of the cowboy days for me. I still liked the midnights, but I surrounded the fun part of it with a lot of common sense. I learned what “never assume” meant and preached it to anyone who came to the shift; especially the new guys.
PCP faded out and, of course, it was replaced by dirt drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Meth, especially, is a drug that makes animals out of people just craving for the next hit.
The cops on the midnights are different. They are perhaps not as polite, but I think they are more conditioned to react to situations that go bad really quick.
Fortunately for me, I had a quick education on how bad things can go in a hurry. For instance, in situations like that, I never again initiated anything until the second backup car arrived. And I was never too egotistical to ask for help.