There are only two people in your life you should lie to… the police and your girlfriend. Jack Nicholson
I mentioned in an earlier post that I worked for the LAPD for seven years (1970-1977). Although I eventually decided that police work was not for me, I had some amazing experiences during this period of my life. Many things I witnessed seemed insignificant at the time, while others were immediately profound. But all of them changed me in some way and helped prepare me for the business world where I would spend most of my working life.
In the years I that worked “Patrol” I was assigned to the Harbor Division of the LAPD. This included the districts of San Pedro, Wilmington and the Port of Los Angeles. My partner during this period was a police officer named George. He was so skilled at handling family disputes that before we left the scene of a domestic disturbance, the couple having the fight would be ready to renew their wedding vows. George was with me during many of my adventures and I’ll have more to say about him in later posts. In the meantime, here are a few of my recollections.
In 1971, downtown San Pedro had a lot of bars on its main thoroughfare (Pacific Avenue) and many of our calls originated from there. One call that was fairly common had to do with young, pretty Gypsy girls selling flowers to inebriated men inside the bars, defrauding (short-changing) them in the process. When we responded to these calls we could easily spot the Gypsies walking down the street, dressed in colorful, bohemian-style dresses while laughing and flirting with men walking by. After a brief conversation we usually let them move on. They were doing no serious harm, just stealing a dollar or two from old men who had too much to drink. During these encounters we were careful though to keep one hand on our own wallets, which could be snatched in the blink of an eye if we looked the other way.
On a (slightly) more serious note, if young Gypsies were in town it meant that their fathers and uncles were too. We often received calls from homeowners who told us they paid some men to waterproof their roof. However, the first time it rained the roof leaked. It turned out the repair people were Gypsies who sprayed a mixture of sugar and water on the roofs. The treated roofs would sparkle in the sun, which gave the homeowners the feeling that they got their money’s worth. Until it rained that is.
The Harbor Division of the LAPD included the Port of Los Angeles, better known as Terminal Island. Not a whole lot happened there but if we weren’t too busy we would occasionally drive along the waterfront. On more than one occasion while near the docks we heard someone shout, “Taxi!!” Foreign seaman, usually from eastern Europe, often mistook our 1970-era police cars for taxis. We would let them pile into the backseat and drove them to downtown San Pedro. When we told them there was no charge they would shout, “We love America!!”
Jumper there now!
To get from San Pedro to Terminal Island you had to drive across the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge. With a deck 187′ above the water the bridge at times attracted desperate people who wanted to end it all by taking a fatal plunge to the water below. One night we got the call of a “Jumper there now.” We raced to the top of the bridge and found a car parked against the side rail, with a door opened and a suicide note on the seat. We looked down and thought we could see something bobbing around in the water. After contacting authorities who could respond with a boat we drove down to the base of the bridge. A short time later a boat approached us with a shivering man inside. Our suicide victim was cold, wet and disoriented. Despite a 187′ drop into the shipping channel, he was just fine. Another jumper around that same time was not so lucky though. He jumped off the bridge and landed (fatally) on the deck of a passing ship.
Officers, could you drive me home?
One night we got a call that young burglars were seen running through an elementary school. Three other police cars were at the scene as we drove up. Just before we got out of the car a 14 year-old girl with bright red hair and wearing a baseball cap approached us and asked, “Officers, could you drive me home? All these police cars are scaring me.” We had her jump in the back and drove her to her house, lecturing her on the way about being out alone at night. Arriving back at the school, our sergeant approached us and said, “It looks like we got them all, except for a young redhead wearing a baseball cap.”
One night we got a call that burglars were on the roof of a corner drug store. As we approached the location we saw someone scampering across the roof. We drove to the back of the store and noticed that a telephone pole was conveniently abutting the building. I climbed the pole (the junior officer often got the dirty work) and stepped onto the roof. In those days the illumination from flashlights was puny, so as I walked across the dark roof I was basically blind. I kept taking small steps, then suddenly I fell. The burglars had chopped a hole in the roof and I dropped right through it into merchandise racks 12′ below. In the process I dropped my flashlight and my gun fell out of my holster. So there I was, flat on my back inside an unlit drug store, with bad guys maybe right next to me, with no flashlight and no gun. Somehow however this misadventure ended well for me, with only some minor bruises and injured pride.
My partner and I were working the Day Shift in San Pedro when we got a radio call to contact the front desk at Harbor Division. The sergeant on duty said that a man from Boston had called and said that he hadn’t been able to reach his elderly mother on the phone for several weeks. My partner and I both knew what that meant. As was often the case with these types of calls, all the doors were locked tight and we had to find an open window to get inside the house. Once inside we came upon grandma, who should have never suffered such an indignity: alone, dying and finally decomposing in her own home. The moral of the story is simple. Sons and daughters – call your elderly parents frequently and if they don’t answer, don’t wait two weeks to escalate your concerns.
The dying declaration
One night we got a “Shots Fired” call at an apartment building in San Pedro. We arrived at the scene to find a man in his 20’s who had been shot at point-blank range in his chest with a .357 revolver. The bullet was “through and through,” entering the front of his chest and exiting out his back. We quickly determined that the shooting was over a drug payment dispute. We also assumed that the guy with the bullet hole was going to die. Our sergeant arrived and told me to ride in the ambulance with the victim to see if I could get a “dying declaration” from him. In legal terms this refers to obtaining a verbal statement from a dying individual regarding the circumstances of their impending death (who shot them?). If the shooting victim gave me a statement and then he expired, I could testify in court as if the words were coming directly from him, and they would not be considered hearsay. Despite my best efforts the victim wouldn’t say anything on the way to the hospital. I assumed he was reflecting on his last moments and my efforts to get him to talk were not important to him.
About a week later we were driving down the street where the shooting occurred and we saw the victim washing his car. We stopped and asked him how it was possible that he was able to walk around, let alone wash his car? He smiled and replied, “It turns out that the bullet missed everything. It nicked my heart, slipped past my lungs and brushed by my spinal column. I’m fine.” He then thanked us for helping him out that night. As we drove away I was thinking that there was probably someone else he should be thanking.
That’s all for now. I’ll exchange some notes with my partner George and write another chapter in a few weeks.