Cops love to talk about their work. They can’t get enough war stories, either their own or those they hear from other cops. Their shop talk is frequently impulsive, sad, and heartwarming; it is also earthy and often reeks of the here-and-now. There is little time for police-approved restraining methods when a guy is trying to stab you in an alley fight. The stories cops tell one another are full of descriptions, emotions, survival techniques, and bravado that few civilians understand or even agree with.
A good majority of the time, cop talk is downright funny. As most standup comics can tell you, people and their problems can be damned entertaining.
Cops love to talk, but only to a select audience. Spouses, friends, and beer buddies may get a kick out of their crime-busting stories, but as a rule, the public gets apprehensive after too many tales about violence and street scum. Most cops, therefore, spend most of their time talking to the only logical audience: other cops.
Police work is deadly, demanding, demeaning, and dull. The expression “hours and hours of boredom, followed by minutes of sheer terror” was coined for police officers. Few jobs expose a normal human being to so many sides of life. What other job gives you nightmares? Where else can you write a parking ticket on one block and be forced to kill an armed robber coming out of a market a hundred yards away?
The vocabulary of police work is almost like a foreign language: cops talk in terms of penal codes, radio codes, and street slang. Every cop in this city knows what his or her colleague means when he or she starts out a story with, “I stopped this real dirtbag the other night...”
Citizens who go on ride-alongs are amazed to hear the constant crackle and chatter of the radio. They often wonder aloud, “How do you keep track of everyone in this area, listen for your own call sign, and still operate the car?” The answer is, “You get used to it.”
And so it is for the members of the San Diego Police Department. They get used to it. Speaking off the record, dozens of San Diego police officers recount what it is like to do the job.
- Sometimes little kids come up to you and point at your gun and ask if you ’re going to shoot them.
- I forget how the call came out, but it was some kind of neighborhood disturbance out in Tierrasanta. I get there to find a whole group of people backing away from something in the street. As I get closer, I see this skunk running in circles, spraying everything in sight. It’s got this plastic Yoplait yogurt cup stuck on its head, and it can’t see a thing. This animal is really getting mad, and by now, the whole neighborhood reeks of skunk juice.
One of the cops is watching this incredible scene and waiting. When he figures the skunk has finally run out of spray, he calmly leans over and plucks the yogurt cup off its head. The skunk looks up at him for a few seconds and then runs off. I laughed all the way to my next call.
- Quiet residential neighborhoods always have the most multiple homicides.
- I broke my back chasing a guy across a railroad bridge. I fell off the bridge and landed across the railroad ties. My adrenalin was pumping so hard. I didn't even feel it. I got up and continued to chase the guy. I finally caught him, and then I felt the pain. I couldn’t even handcuff him, it hurt so bad. I just sat on him until my cover units arrived. I was in the hospital for months
- People kill themselves in the strangest ways. One guy drove his car off a cliff and shot himself on the way down. That must take some amount of nerve to be able to kill yourself on the way to killing yourself.
- You can be on patrol in a deserted neighborhood at 3:00 in the morning and see some guy walking all by himself. When you pull up next to him and say, “Hey buddy, I want to talk to you,” he’ll invariably turn around, look at you, and say, “Who, me?"
- I was working a prisoner transport unit one night downtown. Some other officers stopped a drunk in the street, and I came by to take him to the detox center. His shirt had some blood on it, and he said he had been fighting with another transient. I didn't think much about it since those guys were always mixing It up. I dropped him off at detox and finished my shift. The next morning, the homicide detectives called me at home to ask about the guy. He had stabbed another man to death only minutes before the first unit stopped him for public drunkenness.
- A training officer I had once told me the best way to tell if someone is lying is that their lips move when they talk.
- We made this bust in Southeast San Diego. The guy who called us said he was tired of the drug dealers in the neighborhood and even the little kids on tricycles were playing ‘ Let s do a drug deal.” Can you believe it? He said they even knew the right terminology and were asking each other, "How much for a bindle?" and things like that. We took out six people for selling heroin and crack cocaine in an apartment ten feet from where the kids were playing.
- Whenever you are talking to a group, like some gang members or some surfers or some bicyclists or whoever, they always say, “Why are you picking on us all of the time?”
They don’t seem to understand that we aren’t. We talk to everyone, all day long. Christ, even little kids on skateboards in the street think we have nothing better to do than “pick on them.”
- I caught this downtown whore trying to proposition this guy one night. She was bleeding from her vagina at the time. She told me she had a miscarriage that same night. We eventually found the fetus in a dumpster nearby. She was back turning tricks, and this kid was barely dead an hour.
- Taxi drivers always fight their tickets.
- My partner and I responded to a call where a man had been shot six times in an apartment. When we got there, a big guy in a T-shirt answered the door and invited us in. He was drinking a beer. We asked about the shooting, and he said, "Hell yes, there has a shooting, and I'm the victim." Then he pulled up his shirt and showed us six .25 caliber bullet holes in his stomach. I guess all of that fat saved him.
- One of the stupidest things I ever saw was a cop reading the Miranda admonishment — “You have the right to remain silent,” et cetera — to these three eight-year-olds who had thrown rocks through this woman’s window. It wasn’t the officer’s fault — you have to read it to all juveniles — but it sure looked ridiculous to see those kids standing there and listening to all of that legal mumbo-jumbo.
- I had this crazy partner one time. We found this guy we knew had just beat up an old lady and took her last few bucks before her Social Security check came, but we couldn't prove it. My partner took out his .38, cocked the hammer back, put the barrel against the guy’s balls, and asked him to confess. Sure enough, the crook came up with the lady's money and her ID card. We gave it back to her and let the scum go. I think he got the message.
- Defense attorneys always start their questions off with, “Isn’t it true. Officer....” The bastards are always trying to put words in your mouth.
- I found this woman dead on the floor of her house. She died next to a space heater and laid there for ten days. I vomited, the coroner vomited, and the guys in the meat wagon vomited. I thought those guys had seen it all, but I guess even the body snatchers feel it now and then.
- I stopped this drunk driver one night. The driver and his passenger looked a little spooky, so I was careful not to lean into the car too much as I talked to them. I got the driver out of the car and put him in between me and the passenger as I gave him the field coordination test. My cover unit arrived and walked up to the passenger side of the car. The passenger, who never took his eyes off me, didn’t even see the other officer approach and open the door. My cover officer saw that the passenger was pointing a 9 mm pistol at me from inside the car. He grabbed the gun and we arrested both guys. I found out later that these guys had just murdered someone in L.A. and were heading to Mexico. The driver told me his friend would have shot me if he had a clear shot. Thank God I never gave him one.
- I arrested a guy for operating his private plane while under the influence of alcohol.
- Hookers who chew gum all of the time say it’s because they hate the taste of condoms.
- My partner and I went to a check-the-welfare call. Those things usually turn out two ways: somebody is dead or on vacation. On this particular night, we went to this large apartment complex in North Park and found the friend of this very old man waiting for us. He urn worried because he hadn't heard from his friend in several days, and that was unusual. We tried to get into the apartment, but it was in a high-security building, and the manager lived on the other side of town. Finally, we decided to kick the door. As soon as I came crashing in, I saw this man lying on the floor, bleeding from his head. When he heard us come in, he raised his head slightly, as if to speak. Then he just died. I felt sure he heard us talking outside his door, but he just couldn't hold on any longer.
- One night on the beach, my partner and I got this “check the welfare of a cat” call. We thought somebody was pulling our leg, and we laughed all the way to the address. This guy meets us out front and says his cat is trapped inside his neighbor’s house. We go up the stairs, and he taps on the window and calls the cat’s name. Sure enough, this cat appears in the window, meowing his head off and looking afraid. We couldn't legally break into the house just to get the cat, and no landlord was in sight. We told the man to wait one more day and then "do what he thought he had to do” to get the cat out. I felt bad about that poor cat, mewing at us from inside some stranger’s house. I never did find out if the guy got his cat back. That’s the trouble with this job. you never hear what happens after you leave.
- I remember one time I was at this major crash scene. We thought we had found all of the bodies. I was going through a pile of clothes on the floor of one of the cars when I found a baby doll. I thought it sure looked real and reached down to pick it up. Then I realized it was a dead baby. It hadn't been in a car seat and was thrown against the windshield during the crash. I see that baby every time I see a child's doll.
- I went to a jumper call on the Coronado Bridge. I got there just in time to see this older man put his driver’s license on the hood of his car and jump off. I looked over the side and saw him floating face up in the water. His arms were folded across his chest, just like he was lying in a coffin. It was eerie.
- One of the most disturbing calls I ever went to involved a swimming pool, a three-year-old boy, and his pregnant mother. She was talking on the phone and looked over to see the kid's Big Wheel floating in the pool with the kid at the bottom. She was eight months pregnant and couldn't swim. She jumped into the pool and sank like a stone. Some neighbors saw the whole thing and called for the paramedics. I get there to see mom and son in the pool. So who do I save? I jumped into the pool in full uniform and grabbed the kid first. I couldn't move the mother, she was just too heavy. The fire department arrived and pulled the mother out of the water. Both of them died at the scene.
- People have no sympathy or compassion for us anymore. I had to shoot this German shepherd that bit me on the thigh. I didn't want to do it, but the dog kept attacking me. People in the neighborhood called me “dog killer” and all kinds of pleasant things like that.
- It still irks me, even after all these years, to have a motorist ask me, "Don't you have anything better to do than give me a ticket?” I always tell them I would rather be catching a burglar or rapist, but writing tickets is also a part of my job. And if they wouldn't speed, I could get back to catching real criminals. They never seem to understand that.
- People always give you the big eyeball when you go into a restaurant. You can almost hear them think, “Does he have to pay for his food, or does he get it free?” I pay for my stuff just like everyone else.
- Shift work is hell on your life. On second watch, which starts at 3:00 p. m., it always seems like you ’re getting ready to go to work. On graveyard shift, which starts at 9:00 p. m., your sleeping schedule gets incredibly messed up. I've come home at 7:00 a.m., slept until 7:00 p.m., ate, showered, and went back to work at 9:00 p.m. dead tired. My family hates graveyard shift the most because I’m tired all of the time. On my days off, I can 7 sleep normal hours. I’m usually wide awake, watching television at 3:30 in the morning.
We responded to a call about a loud woman raising a fuss in a bar. Sure enough, we could hear her clear down the street when we got there. When we went inside, we saw this woman perched on a bar stool, yelling and cursing like a truck driver. My partner and I got her by the arms and started to lift her off the stool when we noticed she didn't have any legs. Well, she kept up the ruckus, so we took her out to the car and put her in the back seat. When we got back to the central station, we went into the watch commander’s office to tell him about the arrest. She continued to yell and curse the whole time. The watch commander got upset and told us to bring the prisoner into his office so he could tell her to shut up. We carried her in by the arms and plopped her right on his desk. She never missed a beat and just kept going with her foul-mouthed commentary about all of us and life in general. You should have seen the watch commander’s face.
I used to work on El Cajon Boulevard, where the whores do their business. It used to amaze me, that there was always a couple of them who would buy kids hamburgers because they knew they were hungry. I always felt kind of bad when I had to arrest one of these hookers for something.
- I ask you, why should a sixteen-year-old black kid work at Burger King and make $3.50 an hour when he can sell crack cocaine a couple of days a week and pull down an easy $1000?
- I was at the San Ysidro McDonald’s after James Huberty killed twenty-one people inside. I stood outside of the door looking at the kids and parents on the floor, next to where Huberty’s body lay handcuffed. I almost had to stifle myself from telling them it was all over and they could get up now.
- I almost shot some idiot on the boardwalk one night. My partner and I were looking for a parole violator who had escaped from some narcotics detectives. We were walking along the bayside when we saw this guy lying on a blanket and trying to look unobtrusive. We walked over to talk to him. and when he saw us he sat up. turned his back to us, and pulled this black blanket over his head. I pulled my gun and told him to turn around. He swiveled towards us and shoved both of his hands into his waistband. I saw him grab at something shiny, which I took to be a chrome-plated gun. I was just about to pull the trigger when something told me to stop. He pulled out a pint Scotch bottle and threw it on the sand. I was so mad at this jerk that I couldn't stop yelling at him. I nearly shot a guy who was worried about getting a ticket for a damn bottle on the beach.
- Ya know, whenever you go to a family fight, ya should always split ’em up. Then go to the husband, and listen to his story, and say you agree and think it’s just awful what she does.
Then go to the wife, and listen, and tell her the same thing. Everyone calms right down and gets happy' and you can go back and finish lunch without gettin ’ your uniform torn or somethin ’.
- When little kids come up to me. they always say, “Hello, officer." I always say, “Hello, citizen.” You know, just like Batman used to do on the TV show.
- I got this call one time, “Take a report concerning a stolen house. ’' I asked the dispatcher if she meant a theft from a house. She said, ‘ ‘No. Somebody stole a house.” Sure enough, I get there to see that someone backed a truck up to this house on a trailer and removed it from the lot during the night. Can you believe that? An entire house?
- I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve pulled out drunks who have drowned. People start partying, and suddenly it seems like a good idea to go for a swim in the pool, a fountain, or in the bay. Sure enough, one of them will drown. It happens quite a lot.
- I always hate to go to 11-83s. That means "no-detail accident." It could be a fender-bender, or it could be a decapitation. You just never know until you get there. One night about 2:00 a.m., we were en route to another call when this 11-83 came out. We were about a block away, so we went to check. As we approached the scene. I saw this mangled bicycle and a crumpled figure lying on the side of the mad. We jumped out and ran over to the guy. According to witnesses, he had been walking his bike along the side of the road when someone hit him. As he fell, another car hit him, and then another car hit him, too. This guy was run over by three different cars, and not one driver bothered to stop and see if he was alive. By the time we got to the guy, he was already starting to cool. The paramedics worked on him, but he was already dead. I still shudder every time I drive past that stretch of road. For a brief instant, I can see him lying there with all of those cars just going right on by.
- We stopped this guy one night who was drunk. On the way to the detox center, he said he saw somebody murder another bum. We said, "Yeah, sure,” because they’re always making up stories to stay out of jail. Well, I’ll be damned if a body didn't turn up later, right where he said it would be. We beat feet back to detox and took this drunk with us back to the scene.
- We went to the spot where the drunk said the murder suspect was, and we found some bum in the bushes. My partner was searching this guy when he suddenly jerked his hand out of the suspect’s pocket and yelped. It turns out this guy had cut the ears off the bum he murdered. He had them in his pocket. We searched the suspect’s pack and found a whole string of ears on a coat-hanger wire. They were dried up and looked like dead leaves. We learned that the suspect had started collecting ears in Vietnam and just continued doing it when he got back here. We solved about five other cases around the country that matched up to this guy’s strange habit.
- The people who are always the most understanding and apologetic when you give them a ticket are the first ones to fight them in court.
- If five cops are at a scene, the one with the least amount of time on the job usually ends up doing the report.
- The urge to sleep on graveyard is very powerful. You feel like a cloud is hanging over your head. Sometimes at 4:00 a. m., it's all I can do to keep from falling asleep at the wheel and crashing my car. Some cops do crash, and then they try to say they were chasing a prowler or something. But everybody knows what really happened.
- I knew this hype. She had a baby. She told me she was always careful not to shoot up just before she breast-fed her kid. Very considerate. I thought.
- Some guy was driving down the freeway at fifty-five when he suddenly put a .22 caliber pistol to his head and shot himself. His car went careening out of control and finally crashed. At least he didn't kill anyone else.
- A lot of times, parents will point at you and tell their little kids, "If you don’t behave, that policeman will get you.” I always hate that. I carry little badge stickers that I give to the kids when their parents say that. I always bend down and tell them I won’t get them.
- I used to know this old-timer. He had been on the force for about thirty years and was still working as a patrol cop. Whenever a citizen would get on his case, this cop would just shake his head and say, "I don't have an answer for you. I just don’t have an answer for you." I’ll tell you why we re not too popular these days. It’s because we’re in the Public Control Business. We have to enforce the laws and tell people not to do things they think they have a right to do. Turn down that radio, sign this ticket, stop beating your wife, leave that other guy’s property alone, don't drink and drive, stop taking drugs. It's all the same. People hate to be told what to do.
Just about the time you think you've seen everything and have it all figured out. something new will come along and hit you right in the face. It doesn't matter how long you've been on the job, you can't even begin to see it all. Not even a little....
(Steve Albrecht is a San Diego police reservist. Roy Huntington is a member of the San Diego Police Department.)