|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2003|
Didnt Klaatu say something like, The measure of any system is the police force which enforces it? All right then.
talking it through in 3 parts
On May 5, 1970, I watched 12 policemen beat up a man with no arms and no legs. More than anything else, at that moment, I wished for a rifle with a good scope.
On March 1, 1997, a few days before Mardi Gras, a cop on crowd control duty at the Bacchus parade went berserk and knocked down a slew of innocent parade goers, including me. I got onto TV and insisted that our whole corrupt and incompetent department clean up its act.
In July, 2002, half an hour or less after I passed him, a reserve patrolman directing traffic off of the interstate was struck and killed by an errant truck driver. I didnt know him - but I wept.
These are true stories.
Its happening again - the pendulum is swinging. A year ago, in late aught-1, police everywhere basked in the gratitude earned by cops and firemen at the World Trade Center. Cops were aggrandized in those nightmarish videos of the collapsing towers and gypsum-dusted people. Now other videos come to the fore, sharp in the public eye: a wild-eyed cop from Inglewood smashes a limp, handcuffed teenager half his size onto the hood of his police car and follows it up with a punch to the kids face. (The boy who made the amateur video is later arrested, an old warrant, were told. The world doesnt buy it.) Across the country, in Florida, two policemen swat at an unarmed black guy as he writhes on the ground, claiming him resistant to arrest. His only gestures are hands raised in supplication. Police apologists find their excuses drying in their mouths. From glory to disgrace, that fast.
But we only need wait for the pendulum to come back. It will.
Its a mark of my boomer generation that our experience with police has been both negative and fundamentally disappointing. We grew up celebrating cops as heroes. In fact., I remember one of my earliest heroes, Hopalong Cassidy, ending one of his TV shows with a stern talkin to. He told us never to use that word, never to call a police officer a cop. It was considered disrespectful. (I loved Hoppy. My folks bought me a Hopalong Cassidy wristwatch which I wore all through grade school.)
I remember the original Dragnet, before Jack Webb became a mannequin on wheels. I remember Quinn Martins The New Breed, before Leslie Nielsen put on a rubber nose and became a clown. (The episode where Nielsens department cuts down Victor Jory, as the hired killer The Deacon, is a classic.) M-Squad. The Untouchables, and a thousand westerns where the sheriff was always the good guy. This was, of course, social indoctrination, and boomers werent the first to undergo it. Our parents had Gangbusters on the radio and if America had a hero in their childhoods, it was J. Edgar Hoover. Wasnt it a constant in the literature of everyones youth, the comic book - indeed, wasnt it ordained by the Comics Code - that police were to be portrayed as people seemed to think they were - honest, brave protectors and benefactors of all?
The 60s came - and they hurt.
The civil rights revolution showed that it didnt matter if you were a cop if you were a brutal and racist one. Who could praise the honor and courage of the thug who beat up Fanny Lou Hamer? Civil rights protest evolved into opposition to the war in Vietnam and the youth counter-culture - which itself led to the rise of the right-wing paranoia that still afflicts America. The impatient and exuberant idealism of our young years ran headlong into a bewildered establishment which employed, and controlled, the police ... the police who met our idealism with tear gas and billy clubs, to the general approval of the previous generation. To us, it was a betrayal, on the part of those wed been taught to trust and those wed loved. Oh yeah, the 60s hurt.
Since Ive grown older Ive occasionally wondered if wed asked for it, even enjoyed it. Certainly there was arrogance and silliness, mere fashion and more than a little crazy nihilism mixed in with beauty, idealism and righteousness in the hallucinatory mess that was the counterculture. The music was wonderful, but the drug life it celebrated was a disastrous mistake - innocent experimentation, individual quests for relief from despair, became dependency and sickness and psychosis - a cure worse than the disease. Most of the nasty street confrontations of those days resulted from youthful high - or low - spirits. The good things our society did - look no further than Apollo - were tarred with the same fouled brush as the useless waste in Vietnam by the alienated and the angry. And of course, there was Manson.
But no, we didnt deserve it. By and large, the power structure in place at that time met the challenges of our youth with bemused contempt - supplied by themselves - and wanton brutality - supplied by the police. No free people deserves such treatment.
No free people deserves what happened in Berkeley in May, 1969, during the two week Holocaust known as Peoples Park. I was there, and I saw it ... wearing my Hopalong Cassidy watch, by the way.
refer you to
It was still early morning on May 15, 1969, but the California Highway Patrol had already forced us out of the formerly-blighted block between Haste and Dwight Way. Soon bulldozers would whack aside the giant wooden KNOW sculpture and the infamous Fence would arise --and soon after that, the sadistic Blue Meanies, the Alameda County deputies, would take their notorious noontime stroll. But here and now, on that cool corner, a line of riot-clad CHP formed a line across the intersection - a line only one person dared try to cross.
This was a young woman in her early 20s, leading two very small children by the hand. Clearly they had been coming here every morning to play on the swings and teeter-totters people had put there. This morning they found their way blocked by the police line. The young mother would have none of that - she started across anyway.
Three cops got in her way. The burgeoning group at the intersection roared in outrage. My favorite cry went, Thats fair! Its three against three! - but Ive always been partial to my own lines.
Even then, I noticed that the three cops who stopped that little woman were three different men. One pleaded with her to turn around and go home. Another just pulled out his club and stood there, ready to defend with violence Republican property rights against infants who wanted to play on the swings. The third looked ashamed.
It would be a long, bloody day. And there was tear gas. The air stank of acid - your eyes ran, your skin burned, your throat felt rancid. Berkeley smelled more like Jupiter than Earth that day. But worse, far worse, the Blue Meanies hauled out shotguns and buckshot and blasted away, shooting at least 35 people - including a man named Alan Blanchard whom they blinded and a man named James Rector whom they killed. Their crime was nothing special. Being there.
That night, having survived, I wrote a poem in my diary. Compassion for my readership spares you from that 19-year-olds idea of heavy verse. But, three decades and more later, I find it interesting that on May 15, 1969, I chose to write about the cop who was ashamed. In his downcast gaze I found a small measure of hope, that at least some connection, human being to human being, could exist with men who had declared themselves my enemy.
Perhaps I was whistling in the dark. It seemed that way, certainly, fifty weeks later, when Nixon invaded Cambodia, the Ohio National Guard slaughtered Miller, Schroeder, Scheurer and Krause, and the Berkeley Police Department went apeshit.
Perhaps what happened can be ascribed to the excitement of the day, or the simple tenor of the times. Itd be impossible, I think, to convey the depth and the bitterness of the division Vietnam brought to this country. Hunter Thompsons fear and loathing line might have been meant as ironic commentary on his personal paranoia, but the phrase is an accurate description of the feelings between the generations and between the cultures.
The police had a specially-designed patrol unit which belched CS - the nastier form of tear gas - from its tailpipe. This war wagon wound about the streets of Berkeley gassing not just those who opposed Nixons filthy war, but everyone who lived. Eventually a group of guys climbed atop a building and scoped out their route - then lay in wait. Suffice it to say that those cops ended up hauling tush down the street and the car ended up on its hood.
(I watched this madness. Across the street - unless I have the date wrong - a terrified teenager also watched: Catherine Asaro.)
Another long, hideous day. People got hurt - and some of those from our side were taken to a place called the Free Clinic. Basically, it was a first aid station that usually provided free VD tests for street people, but today it was treating busted heads and scoured eyeballs... until the cops came in.
They came en masse, chasing us down to the end of the block. (One even chased me, shouting Hup! Hup!) We turned there, and watched. We watched as the cops charged up the Free Clinic steps. Soon people - some bandaged - began flying out the front door and down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs we spotted a guy everyone called Shorty.
Shorty was a ragamuffin street kid, probably a little crazy, and certainly loud. He used to hang on the sidewalk in front of Codys Books, one of the many great bookstores on nearby Telegraph Avenue, loafing amongst the people selling handmade jewelry, bongs, roach clips, incense, other paraphernalia of the age from blankets spread on the cement. Nothing remarkable about the guy, except that Shorty was a phocemelus. A thalidomide baby. Undeveloped arms and legs. A flipper kid, a seal. Read Dr. Bloodmoney or Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick - a great Berkeleyan I never met, alas - each features a phocemelus at its heart. So did this day in May, 1970.
It must have been difficult for Shorty to walk, but walk he did, barefoot and tiptoe, and at this moment he appeared amongst the cop swarming at the base of the Free Clinic steps. If he said anything, provoked them in some way, we couldnt hear it. Id like to hear words morally sufficient to justify what happened next.
They knocked him onto his back. He writhed there, waving his armless hands, his thighless, calfless legs. He looked like a turtle. They swatted at him with their clubs. San Francisco cops had clubs with a little bend at the tip, to give extra torque when they swung, but I dont think Berkeley cops had those. Anyway, these werent full-armed clobbers, to be sure, just playful little swipes at his body. Couldnt swat him on the legs, could they? He didnt have legs!
were 12 of them - I counted - and we couldnt see their
faces; they were half a long block away. Could be they wore gas
masks or face shields; I dont recall. But I bet they were
smiling, because that was just the kind of guys they were.
Every cop Ive known since has had to get past that memory.
The next day the university community began to draw together. It was an amazing moment in Berkeley history. For me it was summed up by the quiet speech given by the chairman of the English department at its public meeting. He was a quiet fuddy-duddy genius who spoke meekly about the value of classical academic studies to civilization¼ and with quiet, intense conviction on the necessity of standing up for civilization by working for peace and justice. I cant recall his name nor a single direct quote, but I do know Ive never heard a better speech in my life. At the magnificent Greek Ampitheatre in the Berkeley hills, the whole school gathered - declared itself on strike, and ready to do political battle against Nixon and his war. The clear import of the day was that street battles were Out, letter-writing and doorbell-ringing were In.
As we walked out of there, down to our dorms and co-ops and homes, we passed a squad of Berkeley cops, waiting in their riot gear. I remember one young black cop, obviously jazzed to the gills by the anticipation of action, staring at the peaceful passing throng in utter frustrated amazement. Take a picture, pal, I wanted to tell him; itll last longer.
Aside from having my eyes burned with gas, and the thrill of being chased by Cossack cops on horseback (that happened in San Francisco), I had only two personal encounters with police while at Berkeley, and both - youll be surprised - went well. On time a drip stole my camera from amongst a clutch of my alleged friends and the police I called were friendly, if utterly helpless. Students got jacked by street people all the time in that town. On another occasion some other so-called pals stranded me on the mountain road oerlooking the Cal campus. A fence appeared in my downward path, and being unwilling to walk the extra mile around it, I clambered over, despite my knowledge of the interesting squat cylinder of a building Id walk past a few minutes later - the Cyclotron. I would have gotten away with it without incident had I not tried to brazen my way past the guarded gate.
Although some put down University cops as dweebs whod flunked the CHP exam, they seemed all right to me -used to students and rather laid back. They were certainly nice enough to me; they just wanted to make sure I hadnt wandered into radiation, and even drove me home. Embarrassing, to be sure, but a rather pleasant memory.
Rather pleasant memories - or at least neutral ones - are all I have of police encounters between Berkeley graduation and my return to New Orleans in 1983. The war in Vietnam ended - not soon enough, but it ended - and Nixon fell, hard, thud. Both moments were vindications to my sort which calmed down a lot of our youthful aggression. I did my year in Manhattan, getting the Apple out of my system (sort of; I still love it), and liked the blunt, ethnic New York cops. I had next to no business with the constabulary in Greensboro, North Carolina when I lived there. True, I picked up the occasional ticket, but most of the cops were professional, some friendly, some not, none remarkable. But while I was meandering lawfully down lifes highway, the world was changing its view of police.
It couldnt help it. The media still presented a positive view of law enforcement, but it was a bit more adult and complex - Hill Street Blues, Law & Order - and the news media had other images to show. The spread of video technology to the common man meant reality would catch up to fiction, and after Rodney King was beaten like a bass drum by brutal cops while cowardly cops stood by and watched, we all saw it on the tube.
The cult of police infallibility couldnt stand up to police excess. Sadistic cops in Eureka, California smeared caustic CS paste into the eyes of demonstrators, earning the United States of America condemnation from Amnesty International - a stigma usually reserved for South American death squads and Saddam Hussein. Apologists struggled to rationalize this thuggishness - Americans will rationalize anything - but truth, once out, is a tough substance to recapture and hide. Adam-12 would never be the same.
That was surely true in New Orleans, and God help me, I was part of it.
To be continued
The relationship between the people of New Orleans and their police force was already sour when I met Leon. In 1979, the police union called a strike just before Mardi Gras in an attempt to force the city to accept the Teamsters Union as their arbitrator. Teamsters! No wonder the citys first black mayor, Ernest Dutch Morial, told the cops to pound sand.
The union got it into their heads that the people would blame Morial if anything screwed up Mardi Gras - but they seriously misjudged the public mood. Rather than have their parades used for political blackmail, most of the major krewes simply canceled. The word went forth, person to person - lets show them. Show them they - we - did. The Carnival street party went on as normal, without cops, with no particular rise in deviltry. Officers who dumped the union and went back to the beat were greeted with handshakes, thanks, and cheers. The strike fizzled and broke.
Eventually, though, the union got what it wanted, but the strike had shoved a wedge between the police and the people. It split the whole city apart a few Mardis Gras later. It was 1987, at the Bacchus parade, when I became part of it.
At the outset I was just part of the crowd at the corner of Chestnut and Napoleon Avenue, a Garden District intersection near the start of the parade route. Gloriously pretty night, March 1: warm under a clear, lustrous sky, the silver moon a smile climbing into the purpling heavens. Great crowd, too, mostly families, happy people at a happy time. Preteen cheerleaders of infinite energy practiced pom-pom dance kicks. An older lady shepherded her excited 5-ish granddaughter. Magic string spun from countless spray cans to enmesh victims in harmless, peel-away webs. Above us, tree limbs hung low - the trees at Berkeley had grown heavy with tear gas slime; these hung ready for beads. A couple of young SF fans I knew walked by. They invited me to join their klatsch down the block, but I demurred. My date with destiny was here.
It was as sweet a scene as Carnival holds. Bacchus was a great gaudy lallapalooza of a parade, its riders generous with beads and doubloons and other jazzy junk, its king - William Shatner, do you believe it - bouncy and spunky. The crowd was happy and very cooperative. Thats always important at a parade; the swinging trombones and whirling drumsticks of marching bands would lop off noses if people didnt fade back on request These people did so. In truth, Id never seen a better-behaved crowd.
Nor worse police.
Wait - I must keep this singular and specific. There were lots of police on that street. Most were utterly indifferent. Only one went berserk.
He was a short black guy, who seemed excited, but smiled easily enough and exchanged finger-flutters with a little girl on her daddys shoulders. Later, I found out his name - Leon - and that his usual patrol was nights on New Orleans rough Industrial Canal. My first explanation for what happened was that cruising the docks at night was hardly proper training for handling parade crowds - especially on the 12-hour shifts cops were forced to work during Carnival. But other explanations came to make more sense. Like psychosis. Like crack cocaine. Like vicious street punk. He charged into the crowd after a teenager. He drilled into the kid with his hands at his throat, crushing him down onto a baby stroller as the screaming parents yanked their child away. He grabbed the throat of a teenage girl and pushed her back, oblivious to the toddler clutching her knees. The man with the little girl on his shoulders tried to get between them. He swatted him in the stomach with his nightstick. The older woman and her grandchild were next; he pushed her viciously back into her family and all went sprawling. I was next.
He planted his hand on my chin and his PR-24 - the short baton with the side handle - against my chest and the next thing I knew I was flat on the ground. He kept shouting Git behin de line! Of course, everyone was behind the line, but he didnt care. He was in the Zone. Git behin de line!
You know, I wasnt scared. Its remarkable, a guy who shies from violence and has to drink himself into a stupor to board an airplane - but I wasnt frightened. I was outraged, furious, and on my back, that animals hand on my jaw, his nightstick on my chest. I struggled free and came up shouting Badge number! Badge number! His reply was unchanged. Git behin de line! His partner stood and watched in sullen, stupid silence.
A sergeant came up. Turned out he was a neighbor of the first people the cop had attacked. I demanded that he get me the creeps name and badge number. Reluctantly, the rank went and spoke to him, and though he shook his head at first, he gave it. I got busy collecting names from everyone there who would give them. Many were frightened, reluctant; I told them, forget Adam-12 and Hill Street Blues. Learn the lesson I learned at Peoples Park and had found solidly true in law school: just because somebody gave this punk a gun and a club and a piece of tin doesnt mean that he deserves them; just because being a cop is a scary job with rotten pay doesnt mean they have any right to do this to us. I got a lot of names. One nurse witness said the cop looked like someone wild on crack.
Ill see you again, Leon snickered when he thought no one could hear him.
Law school had had its effect on me. I began thinking like a lawyer. What should a citizen do when attacked? Sue. What are the first steps in a lawsuit? File a complaint and establish injury.
I escorted a group of Leons
victims down to the local police station to file the complaint.
They were welcomed with open arms - or was it, openly armed?
We got the address and phone number of the departments
Internal Affairs Division and agreed to meet there the next day.
Then I hied myself to the hospital for a onceover.
What it was about may have had something to do with what I saw as I was leaving the ER. A woman stood at the admit desk talking with a nurse. The kicking legs of a chubby infant were visible behind her. A sucker for babies, I went over to take a peek. The woman smiled in exhausted, almost apologetic pride, lifting her baby towards me. It had a cranium the size of a cantaloupe: twice normal, hydrocephalic.
I wanted to tell the babys mother that I had two friends who were hydrocephalic, the bright son of a brilliant father and a sweet SF fan then expecting her own child. But I didnt. I just touched the tiny blue-veined fingers and smiled into the miniature face. A cosmic equation of evil and innocence was being set forth for me that beautiful night in March. I couldnt articulate it, and still cant, but one sentence law school had taught me came through clear as trumpets: You are not doing this for yourself.
I did a lot of talking over the next few days, and a lot of it was for myself. First, I shepherded five of the teenagers who had been attacked by Leon to the Internal Affairs Office of the New Orleans Police Department. With me was my father, in New Orleans on business. Frankly, I wanted his moral support. Dad was 100% middle American and for years had seemed to write off my Berkeley anti-police feelings as so much hysteria. But he told my mother, later, that hed been impressed: Id kept the kids on message and had seemed professional and calm. The respect of my father, in the last year of his life: that was worth winning.
The IAD was less impressed. They made the right soothing noises but I could tell their act was simple public relations. The professors I asked for help blew me off - although one had plenty to say about bad black cops - and the media ignored me. Until Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras.
I had a great Fat Tuesday; the French Quarter was fat with naked tourist girls and there was no trouble. I left the Vieux Carre early and at 11:30, as usual, I switched on the ritual Meeting of the Courts of Rex and Comus, grooving on the silly prancing bluebloods. At midnight, the curtains met in front of them at the Municipal Auditorium, and Carnival 1987 ended. At that moment, the Krewe of Cops began its parade down Bourbon Street.
The newscasters were all jocularity the next day, when they showed it on the tube - cops moving in a line down our sinful-est avenue, pushing drunks off the asphalt and down the sidewalks. They also showed military cops from a nearby naval base doing the same, to civilians. A prominent editorialist praised the police as magnificent... until the next day rolled around. Because then, the complaints began to come in, roaring.
People hadnt just been urged down Bourbon Street. Many had been clubbed, without cause. It was evident on the tapes. Furthermore, its against the Constitution for soldiers to enforce civilian law, except when martial law has been declared. The cops had been dumb enough, and secure enough in their stupidity, to push around some media people as well as drunks, and politicians had noticed. My calls to the TV station of a few days before drew results.
They came to my house and interviewed me on the front steps. I told them the story, leaving out Leons name (who needed him suing me?), and being clear about what was wrong and why.
I said that New Orleans cops were ill-trained and poorly paid, that they hated Mardi Gras because of its 12-hour shifts without overtime. I made allowance for Leon in particular by saying it was stupid unto legally liable to expect a waterfront cop to handle a crowd of decent people - not mentioning that spot judgment by the nurse witness. But I also said that fools like him shouldnt be allowed to wear badges and carry guns in the name of the City of New Orleans. Mardi Gras was vital to this hungry city; our port was antiquated, our dependency on oil had backfired; we had nothing else - and if our cops kept screwing up, wed lose the only moneymaker New Orleans had: tourism. As well as an ineffable part of our soul.
They played all that. They didnt broadcast my comments on what I thought of the media - that they kept a special can of whitewash handy for police stories out of fear of the Teamsters, and how I particularly resented that editorial doofus who sat on his fat ass and called such cops magnificent. That they kept off.
thought I looked like a hard-boiled egg sprinkled with pepper,
but the response wasnt bad. People came up to me at my
Unemployment Interviewer job and told me their own horror stories.
In a race-happy town like New Orleans, they were multitudes.
The cops sharing law school classes with me fell into two distinct
groups - the ones who knew Id run into an asshole and were
embarrassed, and the ones who believed Id busted the brotherhood,
and were all but violent.
Leon didnt show for that trial, but he had to appear for others. A few months after Mardi Gras, he made the news when he was convicted of domestic violence - strange item for a newscast, I thought, but maybe, I thought, it was for my benefit. (As if!) Later, his name appeared in more grisly circumstances.
A New Orleans police officer named Len Davis was revealed as the head of a profitable side enterprise with his fellow officers. This informal police group earned extra salaries providing protection for an entrepreneur skilled in the packaging and distribution of imported white powders. Leon was one of these. That nurse wasnt far off in her diagnosis.
Davis had a woman murdered who had complained about his brutality... and got caught. He became the only policeman in America on Death Row. I thanked heaven that Id made myself too famous to be silenced. The next police commissioner vowed to wash out the NOPD - and Leon was one of the stains scraped up and flushed away. As far as Angola. 25 years.
I was an attorney by then, and it would have been a breeze to attend his sentencing - let him fulfill his pledge. But ... nah.
One terrible night in the mid-90s, a New Orleans police officer named Antoinette Frank called in sick from her regular detail - an extra, after-hours assignment. She and her partner worked this job at a Vietnamese restaurant. Instead of staying home, though, she waited until after hours, then walked in with her cousin and in the course of robbing it, murdered everyone in the place.
Or so she thought. Two kids hid in the cooler and got a good look at her. You may have seen the story of Antoinettes capture depicted on Homicide: Life in the Streets. Youll read the story of her sentencing now.
I was in Judge Frank Marullos court in New Orleans, handling some minor matter, when I noticed that the courtroom gallery behind me was filling with spectators. TV sketch artists set up shop in the front row of the pews. Note pads sprang from the hands of TV reporters. Someone told me later that Dan Rather was in the room. It was very quiet. Onto the bench stepped Judge Marullo, a tiny man, looking like an owl. Two lawyers I knew stood before him. The bailiffs brought in a tall, good-looking black girl to take her place between them: former N.O. cop Antoinette Frank.
The tale was she knew karate, and was popular with other girls behind bars because she shared cookies from her gift parcels. She wore sweats and sneakers without laces. Her hair was piled atop her head. Despite the deplorable tendency of Orleans Parish juries to free black defendants no matter how strong the evidence against them, Antoinettes jury hadnt freed her. Theyd convicted her of first degree murder, and came back with the sentence Marullo was preparing to impose.
She crossed her arms, and looked about the room, everywhere but at the bench. Do you have anything to say? Marullo asked. She shook her head. God knows what she was thinking as the judge spoke, his eyes on his notes. They had been composed and written out by his law clerk. It went something like
I sentence you to the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, and that you be taken by them on a date to be appointed to a room completely cut off from public view, and there, in the manner established by law, that chemicals be passed through your body of sufficient toxicity so as to cause your death, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Marullo looked up. I think the sentence is justified in this case. Take her away.
And they took her away.
Behind me, a man whispered, Damn! It was a while before anyone could breathe.
Another day, when, driving east on Interstate 10, I passed a long group of blue figures marching informally along a parallel road. They followed a black limousine which itself followed a black hearse Autos on I-10 flashed their lights. It was the funeral for Franks partner.
Antoinette is confined in St. Gabriel, Louisianas chief prison for women, on Death Row, as I write.
One time I left a clients house in a black area of town after picking up a fee. Within a block I was surrounded by patrol cars. Hard-muscled green-clad tactical cops swarmed me, their faces solid masks behind eyes blanked by shades. Jeez, I thought, I must have run a helluva stop sign.
Came the dawn: my client was the matriarch of an infamous family of drug dealers. The heat had the house under surveillance - they thought I was a customer.
By the time I realized this there were four black-&-whites flashing lights around me and at least half a dozen cops milling around. I recognized one from a recent trial. I showed them my Bar card, proving who I was and underscoring my story. One or two exchanged sheepish grins, and the lot, after taking a long hard look through my windows (its called plain view) took off, with nary a sorry-about-that or a see-you-in-court. One of them tossed my Bar card onto the street.
Well, no harm, no foul, but if that shit-for-brains ever finds his ass on fire, he can stay up nights praying for the sweat off my balls to put it out.
Being a law student gave me an advantage in dealing with Leon, and being a lawyer got me both into and out of trouble with the street narcs. But more than that, being a lawyer, even a criminal defense lawyer, has given me insights into the police life. In a way its analogous to the effect that excellent reality show Cops has had on the general public. My friend and fellow barrister put it succinctly: You know them now.
Indeed I do. A fine young man Ive known since he was a teenager, Carl Proctor, is a detective now on the Birmingham force. Bailiffs and deputies are my co-workers in court, and Ive gotten to know retired cops as D.A. investigators, and theyve been pretty much all right. Guys out of the pressure cooker of street work can let their natural friendliness shine.
Still, Ive seen too many policemen shade evidence to convict a doper to fully let down my guard. Ive heard officers aver with straight faces that theyve smelled marijuana from closed cars going the other way at a combined speed of sixty, or that they saw a running suspect drop a rock half the size of a tooth from fifty feet away on a dark night - and that they kept an eye on the evidence while wrestling the defendant to the ground. My job requires that I jump on every inconsistency, exploit every mistake, test every observation, challenge every judgment. Thats my half of the constitutional equation, and dont knock it; some day it may save your freedom.
On the other hand, the cops half of that equation may save your neck. I once eavesdropped on a courageous JP negotiator as he talked a distraught man into giving up a pistol. Once in Jefferson Parish Drug Court I had to tell a client that the D.A. wanted him to plead to 30 years. The guy went ballistic - who wouldnt? - called me a sell-out, and began to rampage around the room. He was tall and rangy - and a former boxing champion at Angola Had he landed a punch, it would have been Lights Out. As it was, he spit at me - but missed. It took five deputies to get him to the carpet. I rather appreciated their being there.
Cops can also come in handy after they take off their badges. By far the most repulsive experience Ive ever endured in a courtroom occurred just after Bucconeer: the month-long obscenity known locally as the Harvey Tunnel trial. Loathsome and dishonest prosecutors, a feeble-minded judge, half a dozen arrogant and contentious defense lawyers, and most troubling of all, defendants who very possibly were not guilty in a capital case. There is no worse nightmare for a defense lawyer.
Add to this sickening stew a jury I can only describe as vile. No - I must be fair. 11/12ths vile.
One juror was everything the others were not - observant, critical, intelligent, and unafraid. No suspense: he was a former cop.
Normally ex-policemen are driven away from jury duty with whips. The idea is that police are so sympathetic to prosecutors and automatic votes for conviction. Mustache - thats what we called him, because he had one - only made the panel because the defense team - bickering, resentful, and so sick with ego that it practically collapsed - had run out of challenges. Which turned out to be lucky. Mustache had carried something away from his police career, all right, but it wasnt prejudice. It was professionalism.
The Harvey Tunnel case was based on the testimony of the survivor of a gangland shooting. Pierre, the witness, was no prize - a gang member with convictions for drug dealing and violence whose street attitude could not be bleached out by hours of prosecution coaching. Also, a particularly astute member of the defense squad - Im blushing, I swear - had gone to the hospital where hed been taken after the shooting, and uncovered a fascinating fact: at the time of the shooting, Pierre had been higher than Krypton on PCP. Phencyclidine. Angel dust.
Everyone on the jury bought Pierres story and his identification of our clients - except Mustache. Mustache had dealt with scumbags like Pierre and had seen angel dust at work. Mustache had been on the streets, and knew that the combination of a rats ass like Pierre and psychotropic substances did not add up to reliable testimony. A cop would not have believed Pierre on the street; true on the street, true in the courtroom. A good cop knows bullshit when he hears it - and a good juror doesnt convict based on it. Mustache was both. He was the only Not Guilty vote on the jury, and he stood by his guns until the rest of them gave up. The next jury acquitted my client.
Ive enjoyed the bailiffs and the escort cops in St. John Parish, where I presently work. One of them is a youngster Ill call Cade, 23 years old, baby-faced, a college grad, friendly, enthused by life. His wife, in the summer of 2002, was expecting their first child. Hardly a Harley Hard-ass, but hes taught me more about the true cop experience than anyone else.
A few weeks before It happened, Cade was called for jury duty on one of my dope trials. Grinning widely at my amused discomfiture, he said all the right things during voir dire: of course, hed be impartial; hed never let testimony of senior officers intimidate him; sure, he believed suspects were innocent until proven guilty, and so on. I had to turn flips to save a challenge and get him out of there, and we had a good laugh about it. Then he got assigned to a street patrol and the next time I saw his kisser, it was on the front page of the newspaper.
A local black guy named Kenneth, in his late 30s, walked into a bank in LaPlace. He was no criminal, but was well-known to be schizophrenic and crazy. On this day, as schizophrenics often do, hed skipped his medication. He had no account at that bank, so when he stood in the lobby and began howling for his money, the tellers called the police. Cade showed up.
Cade caught up with Kenneth in the parking lot outside of the local Wal-Mart. No one heard the words that passed between them. Knowing Cade, though, I seriously doubt that they justified what Kenneth did next - pull out a pair of scissors and stab Cade in the face.
He struck Cade just above the right eyebrow in a downward slash that cut him along the bridge of his nose, his cheek and his chin. Again he struck, a puncture wound on the back of his neck, right into an artery.
Cade drew his weapon and fired twice, quick, bangbang. Then he was on his face watching his blood spread across the asphalt. The scene began to shrink, he said, as if he were being pulled away.
Kenneth died. Cade did not.
He spent ten days getting sewn up and having Transylvanian tea pumped back into his body. After a few weeks he came back to court, for the Grand Jury.
The D.A. asked me to sit in as Cades attorney if he were called to testify. I assented gladly. While waiting, I listened to Cade jaw with other cops. He seemed nervous, distracted, but joked and laughed when I told him the scar was an improvement. That was a lie, though; it made his round, once-happy face jagged, and old. The look in his eyes made him look older. Infinitely.
Hed killed a man. Kenneth had attacked him and come damned close to snuffing him. A cop has the duty to protect the public and the right to protect himself. Still, however justified the shoot, it wasnt as if Kenneth had been a bad-ass. He had simply been out of his mind.
It was just plain tragic - and whenever, in the future, Cade thought of the birth of his child, hed remember the nightmare that preceded it. Hard thing to deal with. I hoped like Hell that Cade was seeing a shrink. Hed need one.
vHe wouldnt need a lawyer. The D.A. didnt seek charges and the Grand Jury refused to indict. Legally, Cade was free. Personally? Emotionally? Free? Ever?
Times have changed - and I have too. A 53-year-old lawyer, even one as immature as me, is not the same person as a 20-year-old college kid. I still have my Hopalong Cassidy watch, but it no longer runs. The Vietnam War has been over for 27 years. The evil men who promoted it at the expense of Americas youth are dead and gone. Black America is quarantined to stew in its own juices, which is the way White America seems to want it. Though people like me hate that situation, no one in politics seems interested in seeking a solution. Activism is passé. It is a different world.
For every cop whos tried to bullshit me from the witness stand there have been others who have been straight. It never pays to judge the mission by the man or the man by the mission.
Its a tough job that requires respect - given, and expected. No police officer should be harassed, endangered or litigated for doing his job correctly. Correctly. All cops should held to the strictest standard of professionalism. That means cool, patience, forbearance, courtesy, honesty, and honor, not only with other members of the profession, but with the public. Cops must expect and accept outside overview of their behavior, be prepared to answer for their actions and accusations they make against others. No excuses, no rationalizations, no invocation of the divine right of cops.
They screw up, they get disciplined. They break the law, they get prosecuted. They forget that their charge is the safety of all, they simply must go. They have guns on their hips and the authority to use them. There is no place for undisciplined, dishonest, misdirected men with such power in a civilization worthy of the name.
We, the people, must hold police to these standards and keep a simple truth in mind. They must remember it, we must remember it. The question is not cop, its good cop or bad cop. Beyond that, the question is even more basic. Good man or bad man. Thats true for every one.
Some time after the Cade incident, there was an enormous chain-reaction wreck on westbound I-10. The police blocked the Interstate at exit 206 - the LaPlace exit I usually take. When I toodled up to the exit that morning I saw a St. Johns police car blocking the road, a deputy waving traffic off beside it. I peered over to see if I knew him. Older, stocky guy, gray-headed - nope. I went on to the office.
At lunchtime my boss flicked on the TV and we watched the story about the wreck - and the second tragedy, which followed. Minutes - minutes - after Id used that exit, eying the cop on duty to see if I knew him, a speeding trucker had ignored the blinking lights and wiped the deputy off the face of the Earth.
Hed been a reservist, helping out for the day. The day before, I found, hed gotten his oil changed at the same Goodyear I go to. His name was Skip. Every morning nowadays, I pass the cross put up for him by the side of the road.
Didnt know him from Adam. I hadnt forgotten Leon, or Berkeley, or Antoinette Franks, or Rodney King. But - I found myself racked. After all, true story, cop may be cop, but cop is also human being, so never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
Pierre, Cade and Kenneth are pseudonyms. All other names are real.