The above quote was originally attributed to a British politician named Gladstone circa 1868, but to a student of American socio-political history such as myself, it came most singingly prominent when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote it down while imprisoned in the Birmingham, Alabama city jail in 1963. … It of course has definite applications to being a big city cop in 1985.
A successful career as a cop always has been, and always will be, about people. The Brass Hats up at Headquarters and in corner offices at district stations can natter endlessly about “Community Connections” or “Ethical Transparency,” but the troops in the trenches know that how the people on the street are treated and respond back is what really matters.
Every time there is a war, an election, or a crop failure south of the Texas state border, the mix of Spanglish dialects here changes ever so slightly. It got so even with my gringo-tuned ears I could pick up different nuances if the speaker was from Cuba, Nicaragua, or even Panama.
Alabama Street and 22nd belonged to the sons and daughters of Mexico.
Marc and I got along well partially because, as my street sergeant used to pleasantly complain, “You guys got too much education for this job.”
Marc’s very well-to-do family had been grooming him for the family corporate suite by sending him to up-town schools and by getting him a lifetime subscription to the San Francisco Opera. Then he discovered his true calling by joining the force.
I had been sorta successfully dodging the Vietnam draft by being in college for over seven years myself until Naval Flight School beckoned. Then I placed high on a post-service aptitude test, and made the same career decision.
Our newly assigned 4-car sector was east of the districts namesake Mission Street, and happily did not include the multistory hellhole of the Army Street Community Housing Projects.
On a plot map of our turf, we noted no less than three Catholic Churches, and four gender-segregated religious schools.
Marc could still stumble through a Latin-based liturgy, while I was a “heathen based recalcitrant” in that my Grandmother was Lutheran. So, it was off to Mass we went.
In our dress uniforms we naturally stood out in this economically depressed Spanish speaking neighborhood. I was painfully aware that we had to do something to fit in. Marc made a low-voiced comment about “It was time to call in Rome,” and then he phoned our favorite police chaplain, Monsignor John Heany.
Next time Mass was convened at St Agnes Parish, we found ourselves wearing long white vestment cloaks over our work-a-day uniforms standing on the raised dais, with Msr. John singing our praises in a perfect Mexican dialect.
We found ourselves invited to Quinceaneras, block parties, and baptisms. I knew for a fact when it was found out that Marc was not married, that he received other “invitations.”
We also never forgot our other duties. Alcoholism and low-level drug dealing was rampant, and necessitated that we have multiple back up units, police transport vans, and ambulances at the ready every moment. Both of us carried two sets of handcuffs on our belts, with six more hanging from hooks in the car. The leg irons were in the trunk.
Cheap booze, strong home-grown herbs, and low economic stability opened the door for casual violence everywhere, with domestic violence and gang fights being our main callouts.
Jose loved Luisa. He loved her so much that he expressed this passion by using her 5’1” 110-pound body as a drop kicking, slap in the face, punching bag every time he got drunk and cracked out, which seemed like every third day.
Jose was a fairly big guy, and potbellied even for his 26 years. He’d tune up his wife in front of their four kids all the time but knew the other rules.
When the policia showed up, he’d lie down on the floor with his hands outstretched and wait for chrome-plated jewelry. Of course, these fights, and our loud arrival drew a crowd.
Jose once mumbled to me with a smirk on his face as I frog-marched him to the car, “I know your rules, you can’t touch me, too many eyes here pendejo.”
Then the medics would then take Luisa to the ER, the CPS lady would take the kids, and the same report would get generated to no avail. Jose knew Luisa would never press charges, (she never did), that the kids would be back after (finally) getting enough food in their stomachs, and that his government check would arrive on the 5th day of the month.
Justice delayed is justice denied, but sometimes it’s only taking its time.
Dispatch Channel 8: “Three David 4, Three David 4. Repeat call to 465 Alabama. Domestic violence reported by neighbors. Crowd forming. Advise on medical and backup.”
Me: “Copy C 8, roll ambulance, but no 10-25 by other units. We’ve been there before.”
In that the handout checks had been sent only a few days prior, it was our considered opinion that Jose had probably tranked himself into a drooling stupor and was treating his diminutive wife like a piñata again.
There must have been 30 people around the front steps of the elderly Victorian building when we arrived.
Marc and I knew to listen before getting in too deep into these explosive situations. Ominously, there was no sound coming from the ground floor apartment.
Only mildly winded by the climb, we saw an open front door, and a virtually destroyed living room. True to form, Jose was proned out on the floor, and Luisa was cowering behind a table lamp with a thin stream of blood coming from a puffy right eyebrow.
Marc cuffed a smiling Jose, while I made sure that dispatch made the appropriate secondary calls.
At the top of the stairs now, Marc came up behind where I held Jose’s manacled hands, half supporting Luisa. I didn’t like the grim set to his face, but when he motioned me with his free hand to help him hold up the injured wife, I moved to support her.
I saw rather than heard the wife say something to Marc. She looked at him, then at me, and with face forward, with no more than two steps taken, suddenly shoved her tormentor towards the steep rigid unforgiving stone steps.
I grabbed the handcuff chain that held his hands apart. He almost dragged me over the edge.
Luisa began crying deep racking sobs.
It was a true moral dilemma: Let him go to be punished by gravity and maybe the enraged crowd, or save him to (hopefully) be held accountable by an uneven and uncaring so-called justice system.
It wasn’t the first time I had to wrestle with my sense of right and wrong, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I pulled him back, so while Marc held the battered wife, I walked Luis to the safety of the cage in my car.
It wasn’t a popular decision with the crowd, but the good karma Marc and I had built held fast.
San Francisco was the historic home of the Vigilantes, but not today.
After a quiet conversation with Marc, Luisa went to the hospital.
I asked my partner what the two conversations were about.
He told me that at the top of the stairs Luisa asked Marc to look the other way.
At the bottom Marc told her that she could only be free if she put Luis in jail.
She finally did exactly that…