Sometimes it was the way a person looked at you that told you he was up to no good; other times, it was the way he didn’t. We used to call it getting small, or trying to be invisible, the way some criminals would strain to avoid looking your way. It was as if you couldn’t see them if they didn’t see you.
That “I’m invisible” look is how a particularly memorable arrest came one night on a P.M. shift in Firestone.
East Coast vs. West Coast
But first, let me tell you about my partner that night. His name is Steve. Unless you’re from the east coast, then it is Kenny. Don’t ask me, I’m a west coast guy, and I never understood it. But Joey and Petey and other Firestone guys who hailed from the likes of Boston and Brooklyn, they seemed to get it, and they each called him Kenny.
Steve/Kenny Evers had a couple of years on me at the station and I was still fairly green, having just finished patrol training a few months before. We were partnered up for a couple of nights, and on this night, I drove, and Steve/Kenny had the books. Bookman. The passenger deputy who would maintain the log and who was responsible for writing any reports we might generate. The driver drives. When an arrest is made, he books the suspect and the evidence.
On the Lookout
As we traveled slowly south on Compton Avenue, I scanned the interiors of vehicles headed in the opposite direction. This was an efficient way to catch bad guys, similar to the way a fisherman drags his net against the current.
My attention was drawn to a 1979 Buick Regal. These cars were among the most popular with South Los Angeles gangsters at the time. Buick Regals, Oldsmobile Cutlasses, and Pontiac whatevers.
This one had personalized license plates: RGL BGLE.
Vanity plates in the ghetto were uncommon. The chances of seeing a car with “Regal Beagle” in this area were limited to coming upon it after it had been set afire in the projects, or catching the car thief/arsonist on his way there.
No self-respecting gangster was going to have plates that read “Regal Beagle.”
The driver had wild, intense eyes that were glued straight ahead as he leaned into the wheel with purpose. I flipped a U and he was already getting after it. It was as if he knew I was coming for him before I even knew it. He turned west onto Firestone Boulevard at a high rate of speed.
It was a Friday night and the streets were congested. The suspect drove on the wrong side of the road to go around traffic. I followed. My partner handled the radio and alerted me of approaching traffic from his side as we blew through intersections. Soon, we had left the county and were in the City of Los Angeles.
At a major intersection, the suspect tried to go around stopped cars, but oncoming traffic was heavy and he couldn’t go through it. So he drove up over the curb and onto the sidewalk of Manchester Boulevard. I followed.
Steve/Kenny seemed nervous about the sidewalk part of this. The truth of it was, I too had some reservations about racing along a narrow walkway, Code 3. Fortunately, there were no pedestrians out at the time, though I did worry that a shopkeeper might step from his business right into the middle of ours.
Soon we sailed off of the sidewalk. Our tires skipped and chirped as they grabbed at the asphalt. We picked up speed and continued through the congested Friday night traffic.
And Then it Happened
The suspect went through a solid red light and struck a vehicle crossing through the intersection perpendicular to our direction of travel. Before his car came to a rest, the suspect had bailed and was running. I ran after him as my partner broadcast the information over the airwaves—Frequency 22—and then checked on the occupants of the vehicle that had been struck.
I chased the suspect through an alley and onto the next street. This was before the days of handheld radios, and I had split from my partner in unfamiliar turf. That was a situation we tried to avoid. I gave up the chase and jogged back to my radio car where I was pleased to see that assisting units had already begun to arrive. My partner had set up a containment by directing the arriving help to encircle a two-block radius.
Typically, the bad guys stopped running when you quit chasing them. We would likely find the suspect if there were no friendlies to harbor him. Given the speed at which he was traveling when he hit the other car, it didn’t seem likely he had planned to stop anytime soon. This was not his neighborhood; of that, we were confident.
The helicopter circled above, its light bathing the streets as we searched for the suspect. A canine unit led the way, and within two or three houses from where I had last seen the suspect, the dog found him hiding beneath a house. After the suspect refused to come out, the dog was sent in for him.
The arrestee required medical attention for dog bites and injuries sustained during the crash and would need to be transported to the Los Angeles County Jail medical ward. We stopped at a little burger joint to grab a soda for the drive downtown. I parked out front and asked Steve/Kenny what he wanted. I’d grab the drinks while he kept an eye on our prisoner and continued working on the paperwork in the soft glow of a yellow map light. Before stepping away, Steve halted me, and he asked the bloody man in the back seat if he was thirsty. “Yeah, man,” the arrestee growled. Steve asked what he wanted, telling him we’d get him something to drink. “Sprite.”
I returned with three large sodas and we propped one of them in the back seat where the handcuffed suspect could sip it while remaining handcuffed on the ride downtown.
Justice for the Beagle Thief
When I testified in the case, the defendant’s attorney walked into a trap I hadn’t set but saw coming. Armed with photographs of his client who had survived a violent car crash and was bitten by a police dog, the attorney began questioning me about the timeline of when his client was in our custody.
I concealed my enthusiasm about his direction until he finally asked: “Did you stop anywhere along the way?” He must have believed that his client was beaten on his way to the jail, or that some other terrible thing had occurred before we arrived at the hospital. He obviously hadn’t been told the story about the sodas.
I look the jurors in their eyes, one by one, and told how we had stopped to buy the injured man a soda for the ride downtown. I glanced to see the defendant smiling at the memory, and I noted that many of the jurors had watched his response as well.
There are few things so pleasing as to leave an attorney speechless, if only for a moment.
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