The recent incident in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police, has stirred up a lot of feelings around the country. For some, it has evoked memories of their own encounters with police. For others, it reinforced feelings of racism or police brutality. And for a few, it provided fodder for their personal agendas. I carried a badge and gun for thirty years, and the Ferguson incident brought up memories for me too.
In the early 1980s, I’d been a street cop for several years in Oakland, California. It was a tough place to be a cop; in most years, the murder and overall crime rates landed the city among the worst in the nation. A cop in Oakland experienced more crime and human suffering in a year than most officers do in a twenty or thirty-year career.
I was working a single-officer car on the swing shift, four to midnight, and was dispatched to a 415F, a family fight. My beat partner, working a solo car on an adjacent beat, was dispatched as backup and pulled his marked car to the curb behind me. The call had come in from an anonymous caller who said she heard sounds of a fight and a woman screaming for help in the apartment next to hers. My partner and I had each handled hundreds of domestic disturbances and knew the potential danger that existed in these emotionally charged calls and how one or both parties could turn on the police in the blink of an eye. Although we never treated these calls casually, they were so commonplace that it was impossible to get as amped up as with an armed robbery in progress call or a gang shooting. Besides, a calm demeanor often helped diffuse a volatile situation.
I stood well to the side of the door and knocked. A heavy-set woman dressed in a velour sweat suit answered. Blood ran from her split lip, her left eye was nearly swollen shut, and a tuft of kinky black hair, obviously ripped from her scalp, hung from the shoulder of her jacket.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What always happens when he drinks,” she said. “He beat the shit out of me for no reason.”
“Where’s he at?”
“In the bedroom.” She pointed through the living room to a short hallway.
My partner swept through the kitchen and living room and positioned himself at the mouth of the hall. I asked the woman a few more questions and learned her boyfriend had been arrested for beating her twice before. Both times she refused to go to court and testify. They had two children together, both of whom were staying with her mother in the Acorn Projects a few miles away. Although, she said she’d never seen her boyfriend with a gun and there were no guns in her house, I’d been a cop long enough to know that people routinely lie to the police.
“You want him arrested?” I asked. The extent of her injuries made the crime a felony, so we could arrest him even if she refused to press charges, but it exposed us to less liability when the victim made a citizen’s arrest. No matter what she said, the man was going to jail. It didn’t matter to me whether she later dropped charges and took him back, there had to be consequences when a man beats a woman. I hated returning to the same houses week after week, seeing the same women beaten. The only tool I had to combat it was the power of arrest, and I used it whenever I could.
“Yeah, arrest his ass,” she said.
I had her sign the department arrest report and called for an ambulance on my portable radio. I told her to sit on the couch and not move until the ambulance arrived. I’d seen women who one moment insisted we arrest the man, only to turn on the cops as soon as we tried to handcuff him. But my partner and I were both good at talking people into handcuffs. We would normally separate the two parties, and while one of us took a statement from the woman, the other would talk to the man and try to get a written statement. Unless there were extenuating circumstances, we’d then tell the man that we needed to take him downtown. Most resigned themselves to their situation and allowed us to handcuff them without incident.
I knocked on the bedroom door. “This is the Oakland police. We need you to come out and talk to us about what happened.”
“Fuck you. I ain’t going to jail again ‘cause of that bitch.”
I exchanged comments with him for a few minutes, but got nowhere. I turned the doorknob and pushed the door open a few inches. The man slammed it shut.
“If you don’t come out here and speak with us,” I said, “we have no other choice but to come in there and arrest you.”
“I ain’t coming out, so you do what you got to.”
I pushed on the door, but it didn’t budge. I could feel the man’s weight against the door holding it shut. I put my shoulder against it. It squeaked open an inch, then I heard a grunt from the room and the door slammed shut again. My partner put his shoulder against it and we both pushed. We got it open about six inches and I put my arm inside to get leverage and pushed with all my might.
I saw a large man several inches taller than me, with a huge head supported by bulging neck muscles. He was holding one of the old, black, Bell Telephone rotary-dial phones in his hand and yelling into the receiver that the police weren’t going to take him to jail. At six foot tall and 170 pounds, I was in excellent shape. I hit the gym several times a week and ran about five miles the other days. But the man on the other side of the door outweighed me by at least a hundred pounds, and when he pushed against the door, it closed on my arm.
My partner and I pushed as hard as we could, but we were no match for our opponent’s size and strength. My arm, trapped between my bicep and shoulder, was being crushed by the door.
I heard a crack like the sound of a home run and cried out as a sharp pain raced down my elbow. I peered through the crack in the door to see the man raising the old phone’s receiver for another strike. Nothing like the light plastic phones of today, the Bell Telephone receivers were heavy and solid.
TO BE CONTINUED