March 29, 2007
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
The Wood = Inglewood
Bump ‘Em Up = Scare someone a little
Break Leather = Pull your gun from your holster
Roll a Code 3 = Turn on the sirens & respond to a call
Lay a Dime = Make a call
Lapdogs = LAPD
IA = Internal Affairs
“Have fun on your date, Sarge!” These are the last words I hear before I climb into the passenger seat of Sergeant Matthew Hart’s squad car. It’s a balmy Friday night in Inglewood and I am about to spend the next eight hours riding shotgun in a police car, witnessing arrests, chasing a drunk driver down Crenshaw in an eight-squad car pursuit, and getting a pretty fierce handle on police officer slang.
I’m a twenty-seven year old grad student getting my masters degree in clinical psychology and working towards my license as a marriage and family therapist. For a class assignment on diversifying our personal experience I decide to go on a ride-along with the Inglewood PD. My friend Lydia goes with me.
Friday Night, April 28, 2006
Lydia and I arrive at the police station promptly at six. When I tell the officer behind the window that we’re here to see the Lieutenant, he looks Lydia and I up down. We’re both wearing jeans and sneakers, our hair is brushed and our lips are shiny with gloss. Lydia and I have constant arguments about which one of us is hotter. Actually, that’s not true. But we can sense that the young officer is struggling with this very question. Hang on just a second, he says with a smirk.
After a few minutes Lt. Serrano appears behind the glass. As he’s handing me some waivers to sign, a whole group of male officers spill in behind him. As soon as they see us they try to look busy, muffling their laughter behind a row of filing cabinets.
We hide our blushing cheeks behind paperwork and before long, Lt. Serrano calls us back through a door and tells us that he’s taking us to the briefing. In the conference room all the officers are sitting with their backs to us, facing a podium where two Sergeants are speaking. They are going over a list of things to be aware of for this particular evening. Last night there was a gang shooting and so they fully expect a retaliation tonight. Everyone should be on alert, the Sergeant says. My heart starts pounding. Are we really doing this? What if we get into the middle of some kind of gang war? I wonder briefly if they’ll give us bullet proof vests to wear.
The atmosphere in the room is lively and jovial. It’s Friday night in Inglewood and these cops are ready to go. Several officers make jokes and call out sarcastic comments which are met with mirth from the Sergeants. Lt. Serrano points out three very quiet officers in the front row who haven’t said a word or turned around. He explains to me that they are cadets. One of them keeps getting up to answer a ringing phone but every time he reaches for it, it stops ringing. I find out later that one of the female officers was calling it from her cell phone. There are a lot of practical jokes within the force.
After the briefing Lt. Serrano tells Lydia and me that we will be splitting up. One of us will ride with the Sergeant and the other will ride with a team of officers. I panic. All along I’ve imagined Lydia and I together in the back of the police car, giggling, feeling embarrassed together, being scared together. We look at each other. Oh well, we shrug. Neither of us is about to argue with Lieutenant Serrano.
Lydia leaves with the officers – a young white woman and a young Latino man. I try to look cool, while I wait for the Sergeant. I kind of mill around the room and pretend to look at the photos on the wall. Finally the Sergeant comes out. Hi, I’m Matt, he says. We shake hands. Sergeant Matthew Hart is in his early fifties, tall and trim. He’s got a mustache and looks a little like Tom Selleck. I follow him down the hall and out into the parking lot.
As we climb into his cruiser, an off-duty officer walks by and yells out, “Have a good date, Sarge!” He chuckles and I try to pretend like I didn’t hear. My eyes stray to the thick gold wedding ring on Matt’s hand. I sit right up front next to him. There is a computer and a keyboard mounted to the dashboard and it provides a comfortable barrier between the two of us. There is no barrier to the backseat so I assume we won’t be transporting any arrests. Sarge (as I’ll refer to him from here on) explains to me that it’s his job to oversee all the officers on duty tonight. He tells me that we’re going to see a lot of Inglewood.
We begin by cruising down La Brea Avenue. Although I work in Inglewood and drive down this street every day, everything looks different through the windshield of the cruiser. I ask Sarge some basic background questions and I focus on trying to orient myself to this environment. The computer blips continuously with data – 911 calls that have come in and need to be responded to, and the radio chatters away with similar info. As Sarge talks I realize that he has the amazing ability speak, listen to the radio, monitor the computer, and observe the streets around us, all at the same time.
Sergeant Matthew Hart has been on the force for 18 years. He joined later than most – at age 33. Prior to becoming a cop he worked a series of odd jobs, repair work and the like, and he spent a lot of time surfing. Sarge grew up in Inglewood and now lives in El Segundo with his wife and two teenaged children. His daughter is really into volleyball and doesn’t have a boyfriend yet. She has a 4.0 GPA. His son only has a 3.2 but Sarge assures me that he’s a great kid and tells me that he’s got a crush on a 22-year-old woman he works with at a local market. Sarge and his wife think it’s pretty funny. Sarge’s wife works as an office manager and they’ve been married for 27 years. They are practically high school sweethearts. It all sounds like a nice life. A good old American kind of life.
Sarge talks easily. I really only need to ask him one question to get him to offer up a wealth of information and anecdotes. It’s obvious that he’s a California boy. He’s got that languid, relaxed way of leaning back in his seat, one hand lazily spinning the wheel into a left turn, while simultaneously recounting a fierce gun battle story. He looks good for his age. It’s easy to picture what he must have looked like at 25, tall and blond with a quick smile. Now his hair is speckled with grey but it’s still thick enough to be proud of. He makes a lot of eye contact but doesn’t ask me any questions.
Sarge started out as a radio operator for the Inglewood police station. That’s what got him interested in the force. He went to the Academy and had a bit harder of a time than some of the other students because of his age. While most of the cadets were in their early twenties, Sarge was a good ten years older and his wife was expecting their first baby. After graduation he worked as a beat cop for a few years and then moved on to Narcotics which was his absolute favorite. After that he was a homicide detective for several years and reports that he experienced some of the most fulfilling moments of his career during those years. He took the sergeant position because he’s nearing retirement and this position will increase his pension by $3200 a month. In a few months he’ll start a cushier desk job and will work that until he retires.
We continue to cruise around Inglewood, down La Brea, onto Manchester, past La Tijera. Sarge points out gang neighborhoods: the Rollin’ 60’s, the Crips. I feel so removed from these names. I’ve never met anyone who’s been in a gang. I’ve never really spent any time in a gang neighborhood. I ask Sarge if the gangs ever mix races, if there are ever African-American and Latino members in one gang. No, never, he replies. I wonder if we’ll see any gang activity tonight and ask Sarge about the retaliation warning. He doesn’t think it will happen until after midnight, by which point I’ll be relieved from ride-along duty.
Our first stop of the night is a parking lot skirmish. An elderly Asian security guard has called 911 because a Caucasian couple has refused to remove their car from his closed parking lot. There are two other squad cars already at the scene and officers are discussing the situation with the involved parties. I see Lydia walk by with her two officers. She waves at me and I call her over to introduce her to Sarge. She takes a picture of me in the cruiser. I’m grinning like an idiot.
We go to Starbucks. Sarge orders a mocha latte and I just ask for some water. I offer Sarge a couple of dollars but he waves my money away, pulling a fifty out of his wallet. At the window the young Latina cashier waves his money away too. You’re all set, officer. I remember that when I worked at Ben and Jerry’s in high school we were required to give free ice cream to police officers. They came in all the time. Sarge’s cell phone rings. He’s got one of those fancy razor-thin phones. The ringer plays the Top Gun theme song. It’s his wife. Hi honey, he says.
I wonder if he’ll mention that he’s got a young woman riding along tonight. He doesn’t. I wonder what his wife would think if he did. I keep quiet. They talk about his daughter. She pulled a muscle at a volleyball competition but she’s okay. As we cruise by a Burger King we see a squad car parked outside, the roof lights on. Sarge hangs up with his wife and parks. We both go inside.
There is an elderly black woman on the floor by one of the tables. She’s conscious but doesn’t look too hot. A pool of coca-cola near her face reflects the florescent lights overhead and there’s a half-eaten whopper a few inches from her extended arm. When I look away I see Lydia again standing next to her two cops. I walk over and stand with them. We all just stand around as the paramedics help the old woman onto a stretcher. One of the paramedics pulls about 6 prescription bottles from the woman’s purse. Vicodin and Xanex are a couple of the names I recognize.
As we’re standing there, a new call comes in over the walkie-talkies. There’s a street fight going on somewhere and people are hitting each other with shovels. Let’s go, Sarge says. We all head out and jump into the squad cars. Lydia’s car turns on the lights and sirens and peels out onto La Brea. We follow suit. They make a left at the first intersection but we continue on straight. Sarge says he likes to take a different route in these situations because often people don’t see the second squad car coming.
Sarge is driving really fast. I check to make sure my seat belt is tight and I grip the side of the door. We’re flying down La Brea, which is insane because it’s after 8 on a Friday night and there’s traffic. The siren is blasting all around us and cars are stopping in the middle of the road and pulling to the sides. My heart is pounding. This is fucking thrilling! Sarge is yelling at the cars who don’t respond fast enough and he manipulates the spotlight to alert them to our presence. We make a sudden left and the road opens up. Sarge guns it and my eyes go to the tiny “airbag” sign in front of me.
To be continued…read part two here.