Jim Harrell makes a fist. Shows a brown hump of knuckle. How the fist feels is hard. It’s not as big as a breadbox, but pretty near the size of a pound round loaf of pumpernickel. Up close, you see that his index, second, and ring fingers’ knuckles have been driven back into the hand. He grins, says his knuckles got that way from doing to bad people what bad people needed done to them. He jabs at air, says — tone flat, no juice, no boast in it, “It was like hittin’ ’em with a rock.”
He undoes the fist, puts out his hands on the dining room table, palms down. “You can see where teeth used to go in.” He waggles a finger, “You can see where a dog bit off the tip of this.”
Harrell, 73, is called by those who know him "one of the toughest cops to ever hit San Diego’s streets,” “a real-life Bumper Morgan” (hero of Joseph Wambaugh’s Blue Knight). He retired in 1972, after 31 years with the SDPD. Over and after lunch in the North Park home in which Harrell and his wife Eleanor raised their two children (a son now 49 and a daughter, 42), Harrell talks about those years.
Just under six feet, weighing only a few pounds more than he did at 25, Harrell has wide shoulders, his torso is long, legs short and stocky. He looks strong, fit. You wouldn’t guess he’d had two quadruple-bypass heart surgeries, the last performed three years ago. The "simple, honest kisser” Wambaugh gave Bumper Morgan will do to describe Harrell’s face. Add a Kirk Douglas cleft to his chin, big ears, wisp of grey hair, blue eyes, and you’ve got him.
Born in Texas in 1916, Harrell had not been one of those men who, as a boy, dreams of becoming a policeman. He hoped to enter college, take a pre-med course, become a doctor. (The Harrells’ son James is a thoracic surgeon.) Depression hard times scotched that; Harrell followed his master-carpenter father into construction. They moved in 1937 to San Diego. By 1939 the younger Harrell held a contractor’s license.
1941, Harrell was a builder, doing, he says, “all right.” But with the war effort, materials were harder to get, it was taking longer to get loans through. One day a plasterer told Harrell, "They’re having a police exam downtown.”
Harrell took the test. “A simple IQ test, that’s all patrolman exams were in those days.” His score put him among the top 20. In the fitness exam, he did even better. “When we took the agility test — at the University Heights playground — I ran, and jumped, and scaled the course in 60 seconds.”
December 15th, a week and a day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the SDPD issued Harrell a set of the “old blues” in wool and cotton, a badge, a five-inch .38 Colt, and 20 rounds of ammunition.
"You had to buy your handcuffs, your Sam Browne belt. That belt,” Harrell says with satisfaction, “lasted me the full time.
“There was no book of regulations. No police academy [and, because of the war, there would not be an academy again until 1947). They didn’t give us any training.”
His first day, Harrell went into the captain’s office. “I said, ‘Hey, they just handed me a badge and a gun. What do I do?'
“He looked at me. Asked, ‘Do you know right from wrong?’
“ ‘Yeah,’ I said.
“ ‘Well, if you think somebody’s doin’ somethin’ wrong out there, you bring ’em down here and I’ll tell you what to put ’em in jail for.’
“That’s it,” Harrell pins me with his eyes. “That is police work, basically. A lot of people don’t realize, when a policeman goes out there, that people want action. You wouldn’t call a policeman if you didn’t want action.”
He fast-forwards to a time when he, as a sergeant and then a lieutenant, was in charge of other men: "I used to demand that a policeman give the people satisfaction. In other words, if you had a problem, we’d correct it. If a policeman said to me, ‘But the Supreme Court said ... ’ I'd say, 'To hell with the Supreme Court. We’re gonna give them peace tonight. Let the Supreme Court sort it out tomorrow morning.’ Because if somebody’s doin’ wrong, you stop it.”
One of the Harrells’ granddaughters, an attractive woman in her early 20s, had come by for lunch, sitting at the other end of the large dining table, chatting with her grandmother while Harrell and I talked. In retirement, Harrell returned to carpentry, and recently, for his grandchildren, he has been building free-standing mahogany closets.
The granddaughter has asked Harrell a question about her closet — an “organizer” closet. He answers, saying, "We’ll put your evening dresses at one end, then your regular dresses, then your blouses.” To me, he says, “I have a shop out back, there's 40,000 bucks’ worth of tools in it.”
Ready to leave, his granddaughter puts an arm around her grandfather’s shoulder, kisses his cheek. He looks up at the pretty, carefully groomed girl, returns the kiss, says, “I love you, honey.”
We move to the living roorm Harrell carrying our iced tea, settles me at one end of a couch, settles himself an arm’s length away, in his favorite chair. Open on the coffee table in front of us are scrapbooks whose pages chronicle Harrell’s career. Next to the books is a stack of old newspapers.
From December 1941 to 1946, Harrell served as a patrolman. Then, for 18 months, he was assigned to plainclothes work in vice, returning after that to patrol, where as patrolman, sergeant, and finally, lieutenant, he remained for all his career. He was assigned for many years to Southeast San Diego and East San Diego, including, for 18 months, the old East San Diego substation, closed in the early '50s. From the late '60s until retirement, he served in La Jolla, in the Northern Division, and for the last two years commanded a shift in the communications division.
“I had a good time wherever I was because if I didn’t, I’da quit and gone back into building.”
In his first years on the force, without training, Harrell and his fellow recruits “just kinda picked up ways of doing things.” He adds, it was "the old-timers who taught me to survive.
“Nobody ever shot me, cut me. I went through all those riots [at UCSD during the ’60s], never got hit with a bottle, never got hit with a brick.
“I don’t want ever to sound like I'm bragging,” says Harrell. “What I had was a God-given gift. They used to call me ‘Fast Eyes’ If somebody shot a .38, I could actually follow the bullet all the way to the target. I never knew how good my eyes were until they began to go bad.
"Another thing they used to call me was ‘One Punch’ ’cause I’d take the one punch and that was usually it. Those last two years, they put me inside. That’s what almost killed me.”
Did they put him inside because he was getting older? “No,” Harrell answers, tone flat, “it was because I wouldn’t conform.” A split exists between the old-style, foot-beat street cop — “gorilla” — and the new-style, college-trained, “good public relations” cop. It was to the latter style he wouldn’t conform.
Harrell talks, the “war stories” pile up — World War II bar brawls, “perv” busts, a baby delivered in a police car, a daring rescue from a hotel top floor, '60s riots. Indeed, he doesn’t brag. There’s no swagger.
He doesn’t bathe himself in a hero’s spotlight.
A happy memory, a not-so-happy memory show up on Harrell’s face the way weather works water. By the time we've moved from dining to living rooms, I’m able to read from his expression, before Harrell even speaks, if what he’s about to say gives him pleasure or grief.
Harrell talks to himself as well as to me, uses the opportunity of my inquiries to ask himself about himself. He looks back over his life, asks, “Did I do right? Did I do wrong?” He questions himself the way a cop questions a suspect: the old “good cop-bad cop” routine, for one moment hard on himself, cold, and the next moment easing up, warm.
Occasionally he reaches over, picks up a tattered Union, studies the page on which his name appears. His eyes narrow, he looks at the yellowed black-and-white photographs of himself 20, 30 years younger. If he’s searching those photos for something specific, waiting for some revelation, he does not seem to find it.
He goes back to his hands, runs an index finger over horny scar tissue along the enlarged knuckles. ‘‘The first thing we used to do when we come in from some tangle, we’d get out nitric acid and alcohol and then take a two-ended swab. Stick one end of the swab in the nitric acid and the other end in alcohol. You’d burn the wound out with the nitric acid and neutralize the acid with the alcohol.” He flexes his hands. "This is what I ended up with.”
He makes a fist. Grinds his jaw. “I hit a man once with my left hand, gloves on, and when it was all over and I took off my glove, I saw I’d split my ring into three pieces.”
He answers my questions. “Yea, I’ve broken jaws. I’ve broken lots of bones. Sure, you can hear ’em break. You can feel ’em go.”
Busting up bar fights, he says, “I used to rather fight ’em in bunches. More fun that way. Because when you hit one, the rest of ’em’d turn their head a little bit to see what happened to him. Then, just as fast as you could go into ’em, you could knock off five or six, like that.” Harrell snaps his fingers.
“I hated to fight one-on-one. I would much rather fight a group any time of the day. Because of the fact, then I can turn loose. Because I don’t like to hold back.
“If I have to go, I wanna go first class. An' I usually did.
“I look back, and I didn’t realize how strong I was in those days. As a youngster, I’d been trained to take care of myself. I had boxing and wrestling all through high school. I learned pain. I learned to accept pain.” A silence falls between us, fuller than some moments of talk.
When Harrell became a policeman, he quit boxing as sport. "Completely. I would never even spar. You knocked your timing off because you would hesitate. If you ever hesitated out there, you were hurt.”
During the war, the SDPD sent four or five patrolmen over to the Marine Corps to take a class in judo. "Which is nothing in the world but mayhem. They taught you how to break bones and kill people with your hands. It’s so easy to kill people with your hands that the average person doesn’t realize how easy it is. I can take a man and snap his neck by the time he says hello.”
Can he still do that, today?
"Yes, I can.”
When Harrell joined the SDPD, the department patroled the entire city with three squad cars — one downtown, one in East San Diego, and one for all the beach areas. "Downtown we had beat 21, beat 15, beat 19. That’s it. Beat 21 took in everything from Laurel Street to the bay and from 16th Street to the bay. Old beat 15, that took in from 16th Street to the city limits and from Laurel Street to the city limits. Beat 19 took in from Laurel Street to Mission Valley, from Midway Drive up to Third.
"We had ’39 Fords, and AOs. Had a little old dingy red light on top ’em, we called it the cigarette lighter. Used those Fords all through the war. Biggest bunch of wrecks you ever seen. We’d take ’em into the shop, and they’d patch ’em back up. Rattle and bang. You’d go over the railroad tracks, be sure everything was gonna fall out.
"The first arrest I made was for drunk driving. I was on foot. They had me walkin’ the beat at Fifth and Laurel. I was working a 12-hour shift, it was about 11 in the morning. Cold, December." Harrell shivers. "I was standing on the northwest corner and here comes a big, baby-blue Cadillac, runs over the corner and almost hits me. Here’s this drunk in there. I reach in an' take him out. I hear a groan. I look in the back seat. Here was another drunk, layin’ stretched out. I got him out, got ’em both out of the car and up on an’ on their feet.
"We had a call box around at Fourth and Laurel. Here I am, I’m holdin’ up both these drunks, walking to the call box. I get to the box and hook the guys together a little, get my key, and open up the box.
"Now, this was my first arrest, and I wanted to be nonchalant, a little bit hip. So, I talked like this,” Harrell tucks his chin to his chest, deepens his voice — makes it comically deep, " ‘Got a couple of stiffs up here at Fourth and Laurel.’ ”
Harrell relaxes his chin, resumes his normal voice, brighter now as he laughs at himself, "and pretty soon here come all these cars, sirens wailing, and the men get out, take a look at these drunks I’m holdin’ up, and say, 'Harrell, those aren’t stiffs, they’re drunks.’
"I can also recall the exact day I became a policeman. Up to then, I thought I was a policeman. Gee,” Harrell shrugs, "I was wearing the uniform, I was walking a beat.
"It was in the evening. We would regularly walk into the Exchange Club. The war hadn’t gotten going yet, so there wasn't that much goin’ on. I went back to the men’s room, I walked in, there was a man sitting on the stool. There was a man standing up in front of him getting a blow job.
"It embarrassed me. I said, ‘Oh, pardon me,’ turned around, backed out fast.
"Once I got out, I said to myself, ‘You dumb son of a bitch, you’re supposed to do something about this.’ ”
Accustomed to talking with people younger than he, Harrell habitually "footnotes,” and now, he stops, explains, without salaciousness, that blow jobs, cunnilirigus, at home or in public, were at that time prohibited by law: "They used to go to prison on that, any oral sex, between man and woman or men and men.
"In my own mind, that night, I was a civilian still. I didn’t want to get involved. Was none of my business. But if you're a policeman, that’s what you’re paid to do: become involved.”
"That was when the war was just startin’. It wasn’t very bad then. Downtown.”
Mid-1942, everything changed. Downtown became "a sea of hats — blue hats from the East Coast, white hats from the West Coast.
Frenchmen with hats with the red tassel on the top. Australians. You had every nationality, practically. Up and down Broadway, milling, all night.
"Club Romance, Paris Inn — Jimmy Kennedy owned Paris Inn and a place out on University that had Western music. There was Sherman’s Dine and Dance, a big place — like a big old warehouse — on State and B.
"Blackout was in force. Nobody had lights on outside. No neon signs. None of that. We’d drive around with no lights. Everybody was rationed on gas. So there wasn’t any traffic. I worked graveyard or swing shift most of the time, and I got to the point I could see better at night than I could in daytime.
"Every night was fight night. Every night. They’d be out at the Last Roundup fighting all the time. We hit every place that there was trouble. I think every other Marine that left the Marine base had to have a fight with a policeman. I got to the point where I hated to see ’em coming.
"I could pretty well take care of myself. You had to in those days; we had only a thin line of officers to do the job.”
I stop him, ask what it was like to fight, what it felt like to know somebody was going to hit you, to know you were going to hit somebody.
"I would get a shot of adrenalin you wouldn’t believe. It hit me all at once. It would hit and explode in me like a bomb. Once I start I can’t stop. It’s like golf or anything else, you gotta follow through, you gotta finish it off.”
While he was in a fight, all the action, says Harrell, seemed to happen in slow motion. "I didn’t realize until later on some of what I was doing. Say you’re driving 80, and you slow down to 50, you feel then like you can get out and walk. Because your reflexes are going 80 miles an hour.”
He closes his eyes, re-creating the scene in his mind. “Down at Club Romance, ah, I can still see this guy. He’s shifting his feet like he was trying to get on balance. Well, I just move a little bit, throw him off balance. But he keeps shiftin’ back.
“I can see his hand. I can see him silly bastard is going to hit me. He’s gonna hit me!’
“It goes on, goes on. Pretty soon I let him get on balance. Then I see him strike a punch. I see the punch cornin’ at me. I say to myself," Harrell’s voice turns querulous, its pitch rises. “ ‘He’s gonna hit me.’ “This is all happening at me... ’’ Harrell opens his eyes, doubles his right hand into a fist, moves the fist — slowly, slowly — toward me, “... this fast."
He closes his eyes again, returns to his account. “I can see that fist cornin’ at me now. When it did I was incensed." Harrell’s jaw twitches. “Just the last minute, my head moves a little bit," Harrell moves his head, "and he — he throws a punch — goes this way." Harrell mimes the man’s jerk to the left, then raises his right hand, doubled into a fist, veins rising, muscles rippling from wrist to elbow.
“The punch is going....’’ Harrell throws the punch into the warm bright-lit air of the living room, “and right as it’s getting there, I see his mouth coming open just as I go through his head, take his whole jaw and lay it on his shoulder.
“I hammered him down in the ground like he was a stake."
Harrell opens his eyes, lets loose his jaw. “I think I saved a hell of a lot of those young Marines’ lives. At the base, they’d get ’em all pumped up. They’d give a kid a three weeks’ course. Then they’d tell him, ‘You’re the best.' Hell, cannon fodder was all it amounted to, was all they were. When these kids’d start in to try some of their stuff, I’d short cut it. They’d find out they weren’t invincible."
I had heard that as World War II gathered force (and again during the Korean conflict), the military took over downtown San Diego. I mentioned someone’s telling me that local boys as young as 14, boys who couldn’t even grow whiskers yet, boys just walking home along Broadway from a soda jerk’s job, might be stopped by a gang of Marines, braced against a wall, asked why they hadn’t enlisted, and then beaten up; that girls and women were harassed, humiliated by suggestive gestures, ugly invitations. I’d heard that drunk sailors and Marines tore out trees by their roots, smashed taprooms’ glassware, stood in hotel rooms and urinated out of the windows. Another person had told me, sneering, about military deportment during the war years: "Texans and Cajuns away from home for the first time, lit on testosterone and booze." Was there one incident from those days that stood out, still, in his mind?
Yes. There was a bar, its name lost now to Harrell, “up there right across from the Spreckels." A call came that a fight was in progress. “Always," says Harrell, “in a bar-fight situation, I’d be the first one to get out of the car, and my partner’d lock the doors."
In Harrell went. A melee. Packed in there solid. Someone yelled: “Hey, there’s only one cop here! Let’s take the son of a bitch and beat the shit out of him."
Outraged still, almost 50 years later, Harrell’s eyes narrow, voice turns menacing, cold. “I never even missed a stride. I just walked up to this S.O.B. and hit him. Then I picked him up, bodily, over my head, this way,” Harrell lifts his arms, “an’ started walkin’ through the crowd. Kennedy, my partner, opened the car door, and I threw the S.O.B. in the back seat. Kennedy started up the car, and we took off. Situations like that, you don’t waste any time. You don’t stop for niceties.
“We swung over to Newton Park ’n stopped the car. I said to this guy, 'Over there with that crowd, you wanted to get that gang to beat the shit out of me. I want you to think about tryin’ to get me hurt back there.’
“This guy is lookin’ in my eyes, sayin’, ‘Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.’
“Kennedy turns around, says, real slow, ‘Don’ — quite — kill him, Harrell.’
“So all I did, I said to the guy I wouldn’t hit him hard, I’d just break his ribs. Said he was gonna hurt for about a week. I knew the ribs to hit. When I got through, he was pantin’, he couldn’t breathe. I said, ‘Now, next time, I might kill you if you try to get me hurt.’ ”
Harrell heaves a big sigh, asks, “So, where were we? Yeah. East San Diego, that was beat 22. I started there in 1942, was there for a year. Once you established yourself down there, it was the easiest beat to work of all. You were boss. ‘Mr. Boss.’ That was the way you kept it.
“You had above all to be fair. You could do anything after that. For instance. There was a big Marine — half drunk — walking along there shoving them off the sidewalk. They were getting out of his way. I stopped him, I said, 'You can’t do that. You get up on the other side of Broadway, and you stay up there, and you don’t come here and push these people around.’ He said, ‘You’re a nigger lover, aren’t you.’ I knocked him out.
“I could go on for days," says Harrell, about stories he has to tell.
“Tell me one of your favorites."
“1945, we’d been havin’ gang fights, I’d broken up one alone, up there, between Linda Vista and the Tunavillers. That’s what we used to call the fishing families who were here at Point Loma. Linda Vista at the time was mostly navy housing.
“Anyway, I got word that the group from Point Loma were headin’ for Linda Vista. Had a shore patrolman with me. [During World War II, to bolster the SDPD’s numbers, the department and the military paired local policemen with shore patrolmen.) I spotted them on the Sixth Street extension. I drove up ahead and stopped them all — 35, 40 cars.
“I told the shore patrol, ‘Go back near the end of the line, start grabbin’ drivers’ licenses and car keys.’ I started at the other end, picking up drivers’ licenses and car keys. Pretty soon everybody was out of the cars, gathered around. At my feet, I got car keys and drivers’ licenses stacked up like this." Harrell indicates a pile several feet high.
“I say, very calm, ‘I understand you boys are going up here to Linda Vista to get into a fight. Now, we’d appreciate it if you’d all go home. ’Cause we got enough to do without having to go up and referee your fights. If you can think you can do that, here’s your keys and your licenses.’ Then the shore patrol and I got in our car. We sat there and waited while they rustled through that heap of keys and papers. Pretty soon, they’d all gone off. And that was that.
'‘After the war, I worked vice. Lotta gambling in the AOs, always has been, always will be. I don’t get excited. People will gamble. I guess I knew about 75 bookmakers at one time. Lot of ’em started out as shoeshine boys. Most of ’em were curbstone bookies. Stand out on the curb and just take bets as they go by. They’re still around. A lot of them are straight businessman now.
“I worked the prostitutes. Never could get excited about that, either. Prostitution will be around as long as anybody has a little red blood in ’em. With me, I could no more get hopped up about patronizing a whorehouse than I could fly. But a lot of men do. They have this pedestal complex. Some guys have very little to do with the wife because they don’t want to think about her in that way, but they can let themselves go with a prostitute.
“Prostitutes serve a purpose. The big argument has always been that it brings organized crime. I’ve never seen any instances of that."
Another story. “This fellow name of Brown, beautiful when he was dressed up. Here was Brown all dolled up like a female and he was walking along with a sailor. I said, ‘Hey sailor, where’d you meet the girl? Where you goin’?’
‘Up to the hotel,’ sailor tells me.
‘Oh, up to the hotel, hey,’ I say. ‘Well, you’d better check him. She’s got bigger balls than you have.’ ”
One big change during Harrell’s years on the force was the Miranda decision in 1963. I ask about that.
“Before Miranda,” Harrell says, “it didn’t make any difference how you got your information. You could even burglarize to a degree. If we’d get a tip someone was a burglar, we might check, see if he had the loot, and if he did, we’d be waitin’ for him when he came in. We didn’t go through all this BS, this lollygagging.
“I can remember being confused by the Miranda decision. Like they’d say, ‘You went into this man’s house and you arrested him. Did you have a warrant?’ I’d say, ‘No, I didn’t have a warrant. I knew where he was, and I wanted him, and I went in, and I got him.’ They’d throw it out of court; and it dawned on me, ‘That’s not the way to do it anymore.’ ’ ’ After a few seconds’ pause, Harrell adds: “Your newer ones weren’t confused about it."
As a sergeant, Harrell broke in rookies. I ask how he taught new policemen. “You’d get a new man, they’re all hot to trot. They would think I was the meanest son of a bitch that ever was, because I would try to take all the shock out of them as soon as I could.
“I’d tell ’em, ‘Look, don’t ever be surprised by anything you see. Everything has happened before. There isn’t anything new.’ ’’
What else did he tell them? “I’d always say, ‘I won’t hold anything against you unless you’re not truthful with me. If ever you’re afraid, you let me know. And then I’ll look out for you. There’s nothin’ wrong with being afraid. I’m crazy, I’m not afraid. So I’ll take care of us both. But if you ever run out on me, I’ll break your back.’ " I can hear Harrell’s jaw grind.
“ ‘Run out,’ " says Harrell, “means they take off and leave you in the middle of it. I said I better never catch one that did it. I’d say, ‘You’re gonna have to face me if you do anything to endanger your partner in any way.’ ’ ’
From several policemen, now retired, I’d heard that Harrell became a hero to the rookies he broke in. I tell Harrell this, he blushes, but admits, he did give them some good advice. “With these young guys, when one of them would start complaining about the old-timers, say, ‘He was doin’ this, and that, and doin’ the other,’ I would say, ‘You better listen to him, he’s a survivor. Keep the part you like about him, and take the part you don’t like about him and throw it away. Maybe you will even understand the part you don’t like. But he will teach you to survive.’ ”
In all Harrell’s 31 years on the force, who did he believe was the greatest policeman he knew?
The answer brings Harrell a beatific smile. "The man who stands out the most in my mind, one of the cleanest men I ever knew, one of the nicest, he had a whale of a mind on him — that was Uncle Louie Schnug. He was later on an inspector, which is now a commander. He had a way of not puttin’ you down, but he would take and explain the situation. I would go in all hot about something, and he would just calm me. He was a calming influence on me.
"Uncle Louie, a smart, smart man. He was a stubborn man; nobody could move him once he made up his mind. He changed witfthe times, but he changed with* thought. He really thought about things. I saw him just a few minutes before he died. Sometimes I believe ever’body’s dead but me.”
We’re quiet. I ask, finally, how he felt about today’s police department.
"Right now,” he says, "ever’body’s afraid to make a decision. When I went on the police department, nobody told me what decision to make. If I wanted to put a man in jail, if I was big enough to whip him and put him in jail, I put him in jail. Nobody told me I couldn’t. Matter of fact, the law was that if anybody interfered with that arrest, you could put him in jail, I don’t care if it was the chief of police, the captain. Nobody interfered.”
What, I ask, would he do, today, if he were running San Diego’s police department? Harrell responds immediately. "I would do what the book says. I’m not a book man, but I’d do what the book says, and they don’t. And that is, every decision will be made at the lowest possible level and only kicked up to the next level when it’s an impossibility for that party, from lack of knowledge of something else, to make the decision. Now, they go all the way up to commander to make a decision.”
"What’s the very worst?” I ask,
"The worst incident with which you had to deal?”
We sort through the newspapers, look at the scrapbooks. Harrell stops at the photo of a burned-out car sitting at the bottom of Tecolote Canyon. "This guy, he had to go buy two gallons of gas to do this, when a can of lighter fuel woulda done it as well. When I got there, the fire department was there, the fire was just about out. Guy’s head was laid back on the seat. And I mean he’s charred, he’s total charred. Even the skull’s practically charred.
"First thing, I sent guys out around the neighborhood, to ask if anybody saw anything. We wanted to know if he was a suicide or homicide. Sure enough, they found the place he bought the gas. Found out he’d been havin’ trouble at home. sortin’ things out and one of the motorcycle policemen comes over, he looked into what’s left of this guy, and he says, ‘What’s wrong here, anyway?’ And one of us says, ‘Well, can’t you see?’ An’ he tells us, ‘Hell, you mean this? I look a lot worse than this on Monday mornings.’ ” Harrell laughs — hard; doesn't let the laugh die out, but cuts it, clean, tightens his jaw: "All of a sudden, you turn it all off. It’s a job.” The "it" that you turn off, he tells me, "that’s your feelings.”
He says, voice low, "I’d been around a lot of rough people before I became a policeman. But after 1941, I saw things I’d never seen. I went through a lot of shock before I learned the world was not all wonderful."
There are, Harrell admits, things that just stick in his mind. Didn’t, don’t, won’t go away. "Got a call out to that navy housing used to be on Point Loma.
A sailor. Here he is up in the middle of these two little girls and stompin’ them to death; and he’s taken the baby by the heels, and here’s blood all over the walls and parts of the baby all over the place. He’s banged it up against the wall.
"I knocked him loose from the little girls. They had ruptured spleens and a few other things, but they lived. Of course, the baby was dead.
"They let him off, never even charged him. Temporary insanity. You know what his defense was? He had married a prostitute in Long Beach, and they married and had three kids. He was low on the totem pole as far as pay, and they were getting in debt. He came home, there was a note from his wife, Take care of the kids. I’ve gone back to the trade again, to get us out of debt.’ He blew up at the thought of her becoming a prostitute again, so he started killing the kids.
"Incidents like that are the ones you think of. Like the woman out there by Encanto that killed and dismembered five kids; and then they pronounced her sane, and she had four more kids, and she killed and dismembered all them.
"A homosexual murder, I remember that real clear. I was the first person there. They gave him an enema with Clorox, really fouled him up pretty good. Split his body open, his gut open. He was cut all over. His guts had pulled up and stacked up on his chest. There was blood all over the walls. Quite a mess.
"Photographers took a picture of me. Ever’body always figured nothin’ ever bothered me. I look in that picture like I was gonna puke.
"Couple of sailors did it. Queer bashin’ is about what it amounted to. Sailors went up there, took the guy’s money, all of that.
"I go back to this one and this sailor out on Point Loma — the baby stompin’. I go back to those."
Silence. "I do."
I’ve asked if Harrell has a theory as to why people do, say, "baby stomping," and he shakes his head, no. "It’s all percentages. A certain percentage of your population do certain things. I can almost forecast it.
"Take preachers," Harrell stops, says, "I’m for all religions. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in them very much because I believe it’s a necessity people should believe in something.”
Disclaimer made, Harrell says that he got a call from Balboa Park. Someone had complained of seeing two men, one was “givin’ this guy a knob job.”
One party was a Roman Catholic priest, dressed, says Harrell, “in civilian clothes.” The other was a young Marine from the Midwest. Harrell pauses, reflects, grinning. "I used to enjoy very much getting as witnesses these guys off the plains, off the farm. They made the best witnesses in the world, because they don’t have all this extraneous stuff to sift through. They tell you, ‘It happened this way.’ Very sincere, good witnesses.
“Priest told me, ‘I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened.’ Giving me all of this stuff.
“ ‘Okay,’ I said, and then turned to the serviceman, asked, ‘What happened, sir?’
“ ‘Well, I just got out of the boot camp over there and was down on the plaza, and this here fellow comes up in his car and asks me if I wanna go for a ride and, hell, I wasn’t doin’ anything, so we rode around together. After a while, he asked if I’d like to have a drink, and I said, hell, I’ll drink with anybody; and he reached in the glove compartment and handed me this bottle.’
“ ‘I hadn’t been drinkin’ much lately, and I got a little drunk and we pulled up here and parked, and I passed out, and when I come to this guy here was suckin’ my peter.’ ” Harrell took the priest to the station. “Didn’t book him, put him in a holding cell. I knew Bishop Buddy; and I called him, and he came down and got him. Bishop Buddy said, ‘You won’t hear about him anymore. He’s gone.’ Bishop Buddy was hurt by that, he was real hurt.”
Had the priest’s “partner” been a minor, Harrell says he would have treated the matter very differently. Child molestation, he says, tone icy, “I draw the line on.” He adds, “But still, as a policeman, you have to understand the whys.”
He tells of a Protestant minister accused by a seven-year-old of sexual molestation. “I went over and got him out of a Wednesday night prayer meeting. That was before we had to read them Miranda and all that bullshit. I got him in the car, and I talked to him. We talked and talked and talked.
“More and more came out. We got down to the nitty gritty. I said, 'You’re a fine Christian man, and now, remember, God’s watching. Are you going to tell me the truth on this? Yes or no?’ He looked at me, and he began to cry. He said, ‘I’ve asked God to forgive me, will you forgive me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, brother, I’ll forgive you, but the judge is goin’ to get your nuts.’
“This is what used to get me in trouble. I couldn’t resist that little extra punch in there. Turrentine was the judge then, and men convicted of sex crimes with children, he’d make ’em go through an organdectomy — cut off the guy’s nuts.
“In court the guy’s lawyer said what I’d said back to me, ‘Did you tell this man that you’d forgive him but the judge was a son of a bitch and he’d get his nuts?’ I said I did.
“I used to have a sixth sense for what I was looking for, I built it by observing and not condemning. Condemning gets in your way. You take a man, no matter how obnoxious he is, no matter what he does, you learn something from him.’’
He never felt frightened when he went to work. Once you got out there, he says, you didn’t have time to be afraid. “Only about two or three things in my life I’m afraid of. Heights is one. And yet I’ve gone on top of buildings and gotten people off. But if I contemplate heights, I feel like I’m going over. If I have a job to do, it’s okay.”
As example of “having a job to do,” Harrell hands me a newspaper. In the page-one photograph, Harrell holds by her elbow a weeping woman. “It was at the U.S. Grant. This WAVE was gettin’ ready to jump; her husband walked out on her.” Harrell stops, footnotes. “This was after the war. They used to run whorehouses in the U.S. Grant and the El Cortez, you couldn’t get up there. They had it sealed off. It was mainly like Spanish Marie’s girls. When she was younger, Spanish Marie was a beautiful gal, smooth, soft skin. And she was a real lady, a madam, and she had the prettiest whores in town.
“Anyway, these gals — all call girls — they would meet their clients up in the Grant or the El Cortez, away from everything, and you couldn't get up there.
“This WAVE was up there, teetering on the edge of the U.S. Grant. I said to the elevator operator, Take me to the roof.’ And he said, 'I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘You sure can get knocked on your ass then, you son of a bitch. I’ll knock you on your ass, and I’ll take us up there.’ He got the idea.
“So, I’m out there on that ledge, and I reach out and grab her; and she weighs 130 pounds, and when I grab her she lets go; and here I’m there with her pulling me this way, and my partner got my arm, and we pulled her back in.”
Among the Unions we look at is a 1944 issue. Front-page headline: “POLICE OFFICER FLATLY DENIES BRUTALITY STORY.” Paragraph One: “As official investigation continued into two charges of brutality leveled at members of the police department, James H. Harrell, one of the accused officers, yesterday flatly denied that he had used undue force in arresting....”
Harrell nods, says, “Yep, I went before the grand jury a couple of times. For brutality. They always cleared me.
“The times I went before the grand jury, they kept demanding to know, 'You hit these people. Well, why?’ I said, ‘Because they were hitting me. Because they were getting ready to hit me.’
“I never considered myself a physical person. But when I hit a certain point, then I become dangerous. Very few people have seen me that way. However, it is true that a lot of people who have actually seen me that way, they don’t like me as well.
“A sergeant one time, he puts down on my efficiency rating, ‘Loses temper easy.’ Well, he’d been pickin' fights and pickin’ fights and pickin’ fights for me. I went in to see him, and I said to him, ‘You son of a bitch, you get me into these fights.’ I said, 'I’m not pretty when I fight. I fight to get it over with.’ ”
Harrell heaves a sigh. “I’ve had more than one of them tell me, ‘I can’t understand it, Harrell, you’re not even human.’ ” Answering my question, he says, no, it didn’t hurt his feelings, people saying that.
“Violence is not human. It’s all according to who’s being violent.” Harrell stops, looks away into the room, one end of it, now in shadow.
“These people can be violent upon you. Most of the fights I’ve had were in defense of someone else. Like, the last memorable one I had at the 3500 block of National Avenue in 1962. Took on a whole family. Six of ’em, by myself. Put ’em in the hospital.
“The only people I ever hurt were those who wanted to hurt me. The chief called me ‘Muscles.’ I didn’t care. It held me back in a lot of ways. A lot of people didn’t want me around because they figured everywhere I went there was heat.
“There was. It was true. If you’re a policeman, and you go out there and see something, you take care of it. Sometimes it’s a pretty rough situation. Then you’re trouble. And I guess I was trouble. I’m not too nice a person sometimes.”
Did they have stress counseling back then? Harrell looks at me, laughs, laughs more, as if I’d gotten off the world’s best punch line.
He’s stopped laughing when he says, “You took your stress counseling out on the field. We used to say, ‘You go along, and you take and you take, and you build up and you build up; and some poor son of a bitch would come along and whack and take a swing at you, and you’d unload on him, and all of that stress was gone, ever’ bit of it. You’d feel a little sorry for him, but,” Harrell laughs, softly, the laugh sounds like a growl, low in the throat, “you’d feel so much better.
“If you’d have even mentioned anything like stress, they woulda fired you. You weren’t allowed the luxury of crying. I’ve cried since.
“I found out later you cannot keep from being emotionally involved. What I’m talking about, you want to see?” Harrell opens his shirt, draws his finger up and down along an ugly purple cross-hatch of bypass scars. He buttons back up his shirt, catches my gaze, holds it: “What I’m getting at, it takes a toll inside.” We look at each other for a long time.