It's something we don't talk about. One of those subjects everyone
wants to know about, but few people can understand. Because unless
you've been there and done it, who can really comprehend what
a cop's life is like? There's plenty of people who swear they
know the real story, starting with an officer's family and ranging
all the way to Hollywood, where a host of producers and writers
churn out yet another 'true-life' cop show. But no one can ever
really know, not unless you've been sworn in as an officer of
the law, worn the badge and walked the walk.
As cops, we experience first hand what the rest of the world can
only imagine. The strange, the poignant and the ludicrous mixed
with a sizable portion of violence and danger are standard fare
during any given watch. When we don our uniforms, we become the
enemy, the savior, the protector, and the answer person. We're
expected to protect the citizens, solve problems, keep the streets
safe and believe the lies we're told on a daily basis by people
who look at us with equal parts of fear and resentment.
("Honest, Officer! That light was still green when I went
through it! And I have no idea how that bag of marijuana ended
up in my sock. Maybe my clothes got switched at the laundromat!")
For those of us who are sworn officers, we know that our job is
an adventure, a blessing and a curse. Dealing with people at their
worst, witnessing the sometimes unspeakable acts they're capable
of takes it's toll. It can be emotionally draining and mentally
exhausting. Every cop who's every worked a beat experiences things
that affect and change us in ways that Average Joe Citizen would
never comprehend, not unless he's been there. Sometimes an eight-hour
shift feels like a century, a labyrinth of living nightmares from
which there is no exit, no reprieve. It's that good vs. evil battle,
and most times, it's not clear who's winning. The only thing certain
is that it keeps coming, - the crime, the danger, and the pain.
Your heart breaks, your stomach turns, and you wonder if anything
that you - or anybody - does, will actually make a difference.
But the only thing to do is hang in there, because that's what
cops do.. These are the sworn secrets that only a cop understands.
Like the secrets from one particular midnight watch during January,
It starts in the usual way, as you lurch awake to a shrilling
alarm after too few hours of sleep. It's always like that on midnights,
but worse on court days. On this particular day, you sat in Gun
Court 'til mid-afternoon, leaden with fatigue, then drove home
to an annoyed spouse and a whiney daughter. The wife is huffy
that you won't be attending Parent-Teacher conferences this evening.
It would be nice, you're told frostily, if just once both parents
could attend. Your daughter reminds you that her Science project
is due in three days and you promised to help. After all, what
does an eight year old know about building the solar system? You
gulp down your dinner with an eye on the clock - if you take a
nap immediately after dinner, you just might squeeze in a couple
hours before work. But it takes at least another hour for your
significant other to crank out the latest complaints, and thirty
minutes more before you relax enough to fall asleep.
Now, as your squad car rolls out of the station lot, you wonder
how you'll make it through the night. The weather is brutally
cold, with a vicious wind that savages the frozen landscape. Your
partner is driving tonight, and he heads for the closest convenience
store to get your first caffeine fix of the night - the first
of many black coffees. Then he pops a cassette tape into his portable
radio - musical counterpoint for the crackling police radio. "B.B.
King," he informs you. "Nothing like some mellow blues
to clear your head."
While the music throbs like a heartbeat, and B.B. croons about
paying the cost to be the boss, Dispatch gives you your first
assignment: Disturbance with the woman on the porch. By the time
you arrive at the location- a modest brick bungalow, you can see
that she's no longer on the porch. Instead, she's taken it to
the streets, all three hundred-odd pounds of her, stark naked
and wobbling like pale jelly in the moonlight. Oblivious to the
cold, she's dancing in a drunken circle, belting out 'Delta Dawn'
at ear-splitting decibels. And responds to your suggestion to
cover up and go home by planting a sloppy, hundred-proof kiss
on your partner’s cheek. Since aim is a tricky thing under
the influence, the kiss lands in the vicinity of his shirt collar,
which leaves a smear of lipstick he'll have a hell of a time explaining
when he gets home. By the time the dancing queen is back in her
house, and you're back in your vehicle, B.B. is warbling about
The next job is less amusing. It's a late-model Toyota, pleated
like an accordian by the truck it crashed into before careening
through a hardware store window. The car is crushed so efficiently
that only the blood seeping through its doors tells you the occupants
are still inside. It's going to take the Fire Department Emergency
Team, and almost an hour of blow-torching, to extricate the passengers.
None of these three teens will make it to their seventeenth birthday.
The residue found in the car tells the story - a paper bag and
a rag soaked in Trauline, a liquid engine cleaner known for producing
a zombie-like high while literally eating away the brain cells.
It becomes your job to tell the parents why their Jimmy, and Diane
and Eddie won't be coming home tonight - won't be coming home
ever. While your heart is breaking over their tragedy, you think
of your own kids, including your sulking mini-scientist. Somehow,
your quick silent prayer for their safety doesn't seem like enough.
"How blue can you get?" sings B.B. as you head back
into the night. The music and the assignments continue as the
night wears on. Your next job brings you to an alley behind an
auto body shop. The relentless wind has knocked down a power line
which dangles, still sparking, on the ground. Beside it lies a
man who smells like roasted meat. His face is frozen in an obscene
death mask with bulging eyes and teeth bared in a futile snarl.
Witnesses tell you the man, a regular at the corner tavern, was
seen wandering down the alley where he stopped to relieve himself.
And apparently decided to play 'fire extinguisher' with the fallen
power line. It was an awesome thing to see, the witnesses report.
Like a one-man fireworks show. You decide to wait in the warmth
of your vehicle until the squadrol arrives to remove the body.
"I pity the fool," B.B. is singing, and this time, you
You decide it's time for a much-needed coffee break and head for
the Steak 'n Egger. The place is empty except for a truck driver
hunched over a plate of pancakes, gearing up for his morning run.
The waitress, Mimi, brings your coffee - hot, black, and strong
enough to strip the rust off a tramp steamer, but tonight it tastes
like ambrosia. You sip it slowly to savor the heat and dilute
your fatigue, and smile when Mimi leans a well-padded hip against
the counter and asks how your night is going. And slides a couple
of fresh cruller in front of you as she listens intently. She's
heard it all, a thousand times from a thousand cops who sit on
these stools and brace themselves before going back into the fray.
Stories she can gasp at and exclaim over, but nothing she can
feel, not like you do, when your heart is clawed out by the broken
bodies and lost souls. But Mimi offers a sympathetic ear and a
warm smile that flashes a gold tooth. For the umpteenth time,
you reflect that this grease-filmed little diner is your sanctuary,
and Mimi with her flourescent red hair and tired eyes is the brief
respite you seek from the long night. So you trade wisecracks,
tell a few corny jokes, and drain your coffee before heading back
out. And somehow it's enough to get you through whatever comes
B.B. King is singing, "We're gonna make it," and with
only three hours left to go, you think that maybe you will. The
police radio is quieter now, the jobs less frequent. You write
a few parking tickets and prepare to coast through until the end
of the shift. The music is pulsing and funky, oozing around you
as the assignments are doled out. You take a missing-person report,
knowing even as you fill out the paperwork that it's futile. The
'missing' girl is eighteen, a known gang-member and drug addict,
and a frequent arrestee. A girl more likely to be passed out over
a crack pipe somewhere than missing. But her mother is distraught,
gripping her rosary beads with one trembling hand as she swipes
at tears with the other. It's her daughter, her only child. A
good girl, she insists, and begs you in a sobbing mixture of English
and Spanish to find her.
Another car accident is next, this time with damages minor enough
to be directed into the station. With less than two hours left
of your shift, you're sent to a domestic disturbance on the ninth
floor of the housing projects where a disgruntled wife has come
up with a novel way to keep her cheating husband at home. After
his usual evening out with the girlfriend du jour, the man in
question staggered home drunk and exhausted from hot women and
cold beer. As he stumbled into his darkened apartment, his waiting
wife gave him a shove into the open trunk positioned just inside
It was easy, she tells you, to fold his legs inside and slam the
lid down, even easier to snap the padlock closed. She's a woman
with a plan, the plan being to ship his drunk ass back home to
Greenville, Mississippi. Maybe back in the country, he won't have
such a wandering eye. Only problem is that the trunk won't fit
in the building elevator, so she needs the police to carry it
down nine flights. And cops a major attitude when you inform her
that your duties don't extend that far.
"You're the police," she snarls. "Ain't you supposed
to protect and serve?"
"Gonna move to the outskirts of town," B.B. is singing
as you drive away. Just one more hour to go now, and now the frigid
sky is softening in bands of pale dawn. One more hour until you
can head home, slip into a hot shower, and then, finally, the
luxury of your own bed. But today is Thursday - your turn to drive
the kids to school. So you tack on another twenty minutes to these
last sixty. It doesn't matter when the pay-off - a long stretch
of much-needed sleep - is the same. And that's when the call comes.
"Nineteen-twelve, you've got 'Information for the Police,'
- 32XX North Campbell. Citizen's name is Drexel, says she'll be
waiting for you in the vestibule."
'Information for the Police' - that famous catch-all description
that covers everything from the woman who's receiving signals
from Venus through her toaster oven to the concerned citizen who's
certain the corner ice-cream shop is a front for South American
terrorists. It might be an observant party who's noticed that
his mailman looks suspiciously like Jeffrey Dahmer - never mind
that Dahmer's been dead for years now - who knows for sure? There's
even some people out there who actually believe Elvis is dead!
When you arrive, the complainant is huddled near the door, shivering
in her leopard-print caftan. She waves you over with a pudgy hand
tipped in acrylic rhinestoned talons that twinkle in the early
"There's something funny going on," she tells you, patting
her pink sponge-rollered hair importantly. "First, I ain't
heard the baby cry in two days. In fact, I ain't even seen it
in no telling how long. Then the mama come over to my house, asking
me can she borrow my blender. Like why she need a blender in the
middle of the night? I tell you, Officer, somethin' just ain't
right up in that place!"
She precedes you up the grimy stairs, oblivious to the skittering
roaches and urine stench, and pauses ominously before a peeling
"This where she live," the woman whispers. "Her
and the baby. And sometime he stay here too."
"Dope dealer, most like. And her pimp. I see her all the
time on the corner, be looking for tricks. But the baby.....she
'bout thirteen, fourteen months, just as cute as she can be. And
I ain't seen her, ain't heard her cryin', even when her mama be
arguing and carrying on. And you know that ain't right."
She nods sagely and flattens herself against the wall, watching
as you knock on the door.
The woman who opens the door is slack-jawed, shriveled in a filthy
T-shirt. Her eyes are glazed, the track marks on her arm as thick
and twisted as sin. She barely nods as you walk past her into
What you find there will haunt you for years to come. The lady
of the house is a junkie, and that man passed out on the mattress
in the corner is a businessman, his business being drugs and women.
He supplies her with drugs as long as she comes up with the cash.
Which used to be no problem - just turn a few tricks and she'd
be ready for the next hit. Except that now it's a little harder
to get customers, especially with those oozing lesions right there
in plain view. But she still hits the streets, trying to hustle
up some money, while her man babysits her daughter. Only problem
is, his memory's not the greatest, not after years of alcohol
and drug abuse, so he never could remember that babies need to
be fed and changed. So when the baby started to wail, he'd do
the simple thing, which was to whack her until she shut up. This
time, though, after a few drinks and some lines of coke, it seemed
easier to throw her at the wall. After that, he never had to worry
about her crying again.
When the mother came home, her only concern was how to dispose
of her daughter. Dead bodies smell, she said. Sooner or later
somebody was bound to notice. Too bad they didn't have a dog to
eat it. Which was all her man needed to come up with a solution.
There were plenty of stray dogs hanging around the dumpster outside,
he said. Why not slice up the baby, feed it to the dogs like steak?
That way there'd be no evidence. The mother was dubious. It sounded
like a good idea, but what if the dogs didn't eat it all? What
if the neighbors found it?
Simple, the man told her. Just coat the pieces in cornmeal batter,
fry it up like chicken. Everybody knows how a dog loves chicken.
Fueled by more drugs, they carried out their plan, or most of
it. The baby's head presented a problem. Too big to batter and
fry, too obvious to throw out. What about tossing it in a blender
to grind it up? They didn't have a blender, but the neighbors
did. Why not run over and borrow it? Nothing suspicious about
a drugged-out junkie dripping with her daughter's blood coming
to borrow a small appliance in the middle of the night.
There's nothing in your training, not from the Police Academy
or your years on the street that can prepare you for this. The
horror, the abomination of not just the act, but the utter detachment
of the mother deliver a one-two K.O. punch that leaves you reeling.
You want to scream, to retch, to rip out the hearts of these monsters.
But you're the police, an officer sworn to your professional duties.
So you swallow your horror and do what you have to. It's only
after the crime lab has arrived, and the handcuffed prisoners
are led away that you notice the slogan emblazoned on the mother's
T-shirt. Streaked with filth and nearly obscured by her daughter's
blood are words in curving gold script that proclaim, "World's
By the time you make it back to your squad car, you're already
in your second hour of overtime, which means you've missed driving
your kids to school, which means guaranteed attitude from your
spouse later today. It doesn't matter. Your family is loved, and
safe - for now - and you'll do anything to keep them that way.
And protect them from the kind of evil that preys on the weak
You shut your eyes as your partner starts the car, trying to forget
what you've just seen, wondering how you'll do this again tomorrow.
And knowing, somehow, that you will. But you can't quite stop
the parade of baby images that taunt you. Music fills the car
as the cassette clicks on, and a single tear falls as you listen
to B.B.'s last song of the night:
"Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin' too."
2002 by Gina Gallo