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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Night Watch

by Paul Pekin

        I'm no good at political arguments, one side always right, the other always wrong. The current uproar over police shootings finds me outside my comfort zone, finds me disagreeing with very good friends. "I'd like to see," I told someone I very much like and hardly want to quarrel with, "I'd like to see Jon Stewart make a traffic stop on a dark lonely road, walk up to the driver's window, and make that arrest."
        "That's not what we’re saying," she replied, with some heat. Of course there were good police officers, and no one was blaming them, she acknowledged. It was just that …
        My side of the argument was lost before I could find words for it. Could this be because, after many years and many jobs, I finished my working life as police officer? Not something I ever planned on doing, but a man needs work, health insurance, a shot at a pension, and sometimes you take what is out there. Life, you know, happens.
        So I stay out of these arguments. They bring me back to the days when I drove a beat, wore a uniform, carried a weapon, and was expected to routinely do things I never, in all my life, planned on doing. Such arguments feel personal to me.
        Instead of making an argument, let me tell you a little story. Imagine me, a man in his fifties, finding himself working for the county forest preserve police, a small department, but police all the same. Guns, squad cars, uniforms, radios, all the stuff that sets you apart from the rest of the citizenry. Walk into a Burger King on River Road at nine pm and you will be seen not as a person, but as a cop. And, as a cop you will, almost certainly, take a seat facing the door, because you never know who might come walking through it.
        When I drove these late shifts, I was always alone. It was my job to lock up the forest preserve gates and see that no one came into the woods after hours. If it had been up to me, this sunset to sunrise rule might have been a bit different, but it wasn't up to me, just as it wasn't up to me to decide how fast people could drive, or where they could park. I locked up the gates, I chased people out, and I arrested those who were up to mischief, mischief mostly being large bonfire parties involving teenagers and alcohol, parties I would have gone to myself when I was a teenager.
        The night I almost shot the kid happened in this context. I'd already closed all my gates. It took hours to do that. And now I was just driving from one grove to another, looking for a little action. Yes, I did look for people to arrest. The nights were long and tedious, and time passed so much faster when I was processing a drunk driver or, more likely, chasing a gang of kids out of a picnic shelter.
        That night there was someone in the shelter at Davis Woods. When I pulled into the parking turnaround, planning on killing a few minutes going over my reports, I heard what sounded like firewood being broken in the shelter. It seemed odd because I could see no fire, nor could I smell smoke. But this particular shelter, a stone structure built back in the WPA days, was distant from the road and surrounded by trees, which made it popular with certain people. It was a place I kept a watch on.
        But the last place on earth where I thought someone would point a gun at me.
        I got out of my squad-car, locked it, and started down the path, flashlight in one hand, baton in the other. The moon was out, I could see pretty well, and my flashlight was turned off. If it turned out someone worth arresting was waiting for me to arrest him, well, I didn't want to scare him off.
        What seemed odd was there was no sign of a fire in the fireplace. So what was that cracking sound I had heard? As soon as I stepped off the path and onto the concrete walk, I switched on my light, one of those long black police flashlights with about eight batteries, very bright, and also very heavy in case of a fight.
        Instantly I caught a figure in the beam, a male who spun around before I could identify myself and, using a two hand grip, aimed a pistol directly at my face. I'm dead, I thought. My own weapon was safe in its leather and no way to get it since my hands were already full, one with my flashlight, the other with my baton, "Police," I shouted, pointing that metal baton at him, exactly as if it were a gun. "Put that down or I will blow your head off!" I may have used the f-word as an intensifier. In certain situations, a wise cop will try to sound a little fiercer than he actually is.
        This is a story I have told many times, and the next line always is, "It took me and that kid almost fifteen minutes to find his gun, that's how far he threw it." Then I explain it wasn't a real firearm, just a pellet gun, not quite a toy, for no one in his right mind would want to take a pellet to the forehead, but still, not a real firearm, nor did it even look all that real once we had found it.
        The kid, and now I saw he was only sixteen at the most, had been playing "war" with his buddy (who, I suppose, was still running). They had been shooting at each other with these pellet guns and when I arrived with my flashlight, quite naturally he had mistaken me for his antagonist.
        "Don't you know you can put an eye out with one of those things," I said. I couldn't resist a little joke. Meanwhile, I was thanking all the gods that protect the police that I had been reckless enough to approach that shelter with my baton in my right hand, and not my loaded Smith and Wesson.
        I wrote the kid a ticket and confiscated his pellet gun. We met again about a month later in court. I never expected to see him there because these personal recognizance tickets we gave out were little more than invitations. But there he was, and my favorite judge, the one who tossed out so many of my tickets, was in charge. This isn't going to go well, I thought. This judge had never looked favorably upon me or my fellow officers. He seemed to think cops wrote tickets just for the fun of it and routinely lied in court. But this time, fingering the kid's pellet gun (offered in evidence) he got it. And delivered a very well put lecture to that kid. "You can thank this officer for your life," he said. And the kid did. No further penalty was necessary.
        I suppose the point of this story should be obvious. When the talk turns to "police shootings," I think first of myself, and there is no way this cannot be. So I back away. I say, yeah, that cop shouldn't have used the choke hold, shouldn't have fired the extra shot, shouldn't have done whatever they say he did. I leave unsaid the way it feels to get out of a squad car and walk toward the unknown, and why a person would do it.
        I could have killed that kid. I think that.
        And if he had been something more serious than a kid with a pellet gun, who knows what he might have done with me.

Born in 1928, Paul Pekin currently draws a pension from the Cook Count Forest Preserve Police, the last of a succession of jobs that included teaching Fiction Writing at Columbia College of Chicago, English Composition at the School of the Arts Institute, owning a little mom and pop store on Diversey Avenue, and working as a letterpress printer back in the days when there was such a thing.

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