It's 4 a.m. and the patrol shift change is in two hours. You feel yourself lulling and roll the window down for the bite of night air. It's a high-crime area, but even it has to sleep.
Then you hear pounding music and see a tricked-out car sitting in an empty lot. Maybe some kids drinking or a bout of quick sex. Maybe.
You flick on the overheads and pull in behind. Tinted windows make the car a mystery. You call for backup, but that's minutes away.
In the other car, the door opens and a man steps out. In his hand is a black object visible in your headlights. Gun or cellphone or wallet?
You unholster your gun. You want to go home in two hours.
Al Owens knows this scenario is real. He lived it as a cop for 21 years, first on patrol and then as a watch commander. Before that, he served for four years as a Marine MP.
Owens is a buff, friendly, good-looking fellow of 57 who could be an AARP magazine model. He retired as an Escondido lieutenant just three weeks ago.
Even though he has handed in his badge, Owens still talks and thinks like he's on the job. Decompression is not an instant process.
One late night years ago, Owens was on patrol and following a car that ran a red light. The driver turned into a driveway and stopped. Owens pulled in behind and ran his plate. The man was wanted for assault with a deadly weapon and was a person of interest in a drive-by shooting.
All of a sudden, this was serious.
"My gun comes out instantly because I don't know what's going on inside that car. Fortunately, we get him into custody and he has a bunch of drugs in the car, but no weapons. I was able to keep my cool long enough so no mistakes happened."
He shakes his head at the memory. "At that time of night, if he'd shown a weapon, I probably would have ..."
"Yeah. I would have shot him."
The press rarely reports police situations that include the word "fortunately."
Violence against police has always been a reality, but up to now it has been an outgrowth of trying to evade arrest or capture. However, probably as a result of the "Hands up, don't shoot!" incident of two years ago in Ferguson, Mo., police-targeted violence has reached never-nightmared-of levels, not only in the number of incidents but with a brazen urban-warrior mindset.
And we can't let police officers off the hook. The greater violence against them has come on the heels of video footage showing suspicious or even outrageous shootings by officers. That's a question mark that punctuates every story like this one.
With body or car cameras now in most police units, and the presumption of people's cellphone cameras on practically every street corner, officers who have the urge to abuse a subject do so at great risk to their careers.
A police chief whose department is responsible for a city paying out a million-dollar abuse settlement might anticipate becoming an ex-police chief.
Obviously, the attacks on police have caused blow-back in squad rooms. Owens says you'll find depression and anger there, not toward anyone specifically, but generalized toward the situation. Fear is also there, though officers don't like to acknowledge it. And where there is fear, there is tension.
Tight wires can snap from tension. That's physics.
Even in the most placid of police involvements, tension never goes away, and it's intensified in high-crime areas.
"Tension." Owens repeats the word. "Always stay alert. Always be ready to react. Are you more nervous? Yes. You'd be stupid not to be, especially late at night, when most officer-involved shootings happen."
Owens has experienced racial animus, even from other African-Americans. "I've been in some places where gang member types will teach their younger brothers and sisters that they're supposed to hate me. One kid told me flat out: ‘I haven't taught my 2-year-old brother to hate you yet, but one day he will.'"
Owens doesn't dwell on the societal big picture, but he believes that what local officers can and should do is redouble efforts to connect with minority schoolchildren, to let them know that cops do good.
For years he has tried to personally spread the word by his involvement with the Police Athletic League and by speaking to churches in Escondido and Vista, where he lives with his wife, Kristina.
He knows that kids' values typically come from the home, and he faults some parents for not doing a better job of teaching them right from wrong, not to mention the stupidity of getting into fights with cops.
There's also no excuse for schools to not emphatically teach restraint and courtesy as the sensible way to deal with authority, he says. Teachers need to explain that every police department has complaint procedures for dealing with errant cops: Do what the officers say, then go file a complaint.
Owens' work with kids is a hobby in which he often turns missionary. "I tell them, ‘If you run into a police officer who is a jerk, and if you're a jerk back, I'm telling you right now, you're going to lose that battle.' None of the schools are emphasizing that with the kids at a young age. I know that because my (Police Athletic League) work is with high school kids, and they hadn't heard that before."
Of the police department he just retired from, Owens says, "Every complaint of misconduct by an officer is thoroughly investigated." He pauses to double-up on his emphasis. "Thoroughly."
Owens stops and then says, "Do you want a personal example?"
"Back in Utica, N.Y., just before I joined the Marines. ..." He tells the story of being a passenger in a car stopped by hometown police. He was pulled out of the car and pushed around by the cops. The driver, who was white, started to make a fuss.
"I told my buddy, ‘Shut up. Back off.' The officer pushed me again. I did nothing. Finally, I said, ‘I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to get me to fight you. You're going to beat me senseless if I do that.' I held my temper and said, ‘I'm totally confused. In my family, we were taught that if I needed help, you're the people I'm supposed to come to.' I kind of embarrassed them. They stopped."
On the other hand, he once made a stupid young-guy decision by running stoplights on a deserted street late at night. Sure enough, flashing lights abruptly appeared in his rear-view mirror.
The traffic cop asked him why he ran the lights. Owens remembers saying, "To be perfectly honest with you, sir, I didn't see any cars out there at all, and I sure didn't see you." He says the officer just kind of smiled, and said, "You know what? I like your honesty. You go ahead and have a good night."
Owens had a light click on. "That made me think right there: You know what? Not everybody's bad."
For a black cop, the sword of racial anger can cut on the backswing as well. One time, Owens tried to break up a fight between some black guys. He called for cover and the situation settled down.
However, one of the fighters said to him, "Oh, now you get your white buddies to come help you, huh?" Owens says, "He started to berate me like you wouldn't believe. Then after we got enough officers there to get the thing under control, I said, ‘You and I, we're gonna go talk.'
"I pulled him over to the side and I said, ‘One thing that bothers me is we want more black officers, but as soon as you saw me, you disrespected me.' I said, ‘You're calling me all kind of names out there. You're calling me the N-word out in front of all these other cops here. How do you think that makes me feel? How does that make us look as a people?'"
He thinks the issue is fed by a media obsessed with racial conflict, often ending with a condemnation of "profiling."
Owens then turns his attention to profiling, but not in the way you might think. He points out that profiling, as such, is essential to good policing and is often mischaracterized.
"One night on patrol, I had a reporter riding with me. I said, ‘OK, I'm stopping this car for this reason. What's the driver's race?' She goes, ‘I can't see.' I said, ‘Neither can I.' If you're in the middle of Escondido, we've got a Hispanic population there. Chances of stopping a Hispanic are pretty high. Some of the areas where there's a lot of blacks, pretty good chance you're going to stop somebody who's black. It's not racial profiling.
"But we profile certain things that we know can indicate trouble: Loud music. Gang tattoos or prison tattoos. That's profiling. You couldn't do your job without it."
Profiling should exonerate as well as accuse, right?
"I agree. If I see a Hispanic male coming down the street, bothering nobody, minding his business, I'm not even looking at him twice, and no other officer is, either. But if I see a bunch of Hispanic guys in a car, and I see shaved heads, and I see the tattoos, the loud music, the gang paraphernalia, yeah, I'm looking at that car."
I say to Owens: I was told of a successful black man who said he'd been stopped unfairly 18 times. Do you believe that?
Owens says people forget that police officers get scared, too, when their lives are in danger. He has debriefed many police shootings and says, "Every time, the officer thought he was going to die if he didn't take that action.
"Almost every officer I dealt with that's been in a shooting, they've experienced a lot of grief. Nobody wakes up in the morning saying, ‘Geez, I want to take somebody's life today.'"
Have you ever had to shoot?
"I've never had to. A lot of close calls. There was the one time I still remember. I was fairly new at the time. It was a traffic stop, and I saw the person put his foot out, and then I saw something black in his hands pointed at me. My heart was racing like 200 beats a minute. I stepped to the side, I came up with my gun and I get ready to pull the trigger, and then I quickly saw that it was a badge he was holding. He was a security guard driving an unmarked car at three in the morning. It looked like a gun. I was like, ‘Oh, my god.'"
How close were you?
"Very close. I was pulling the trigger back."
With the media and legal pressures, is there a danger that cops will hesitate to shoot when they shouldn't?
"I definitely agree with that. I think there's definitely going to be hesitation, and hesitation could cost lives. Hesitation kills."
And often hesitation can be caused by confusion. "They even sell pistols that look like cellphones," Owens says with an air of disbelief. "Look it up. They're on YouTube."
I did. They are.
What's new in all this? Crime isn't. Thugs aren't. Even bad cops aren't.
Criminals are survivalists in their own way. So, what compels them to almost be guaranteed life in prison or a lethal injection in exchange for the "momentary pleasure" of killing an officer they don't even know? Perhaps they sense a palpable anger in their neighborhoods that makes it a heroic act to kill cops.
Something has happened in society to "let slip the dogs" of cold-blooded murder of authority. But this isn't about a Shakespeare quote. This is about pooled blood mingled with oil stains on dirty concrete. It's about a parent who will not be there to send a child off to school.
I don't have the answer, and neither does Owens. We can start by no longer listening to the agitators on all sides and start ignoring their slogans and sound bites. If we do that, then maybe we can talk things over without shouting.
Al Owens just wants his cops to make it home. No longer a routine want.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at [email protected]