It is that rarity in southeastern San Diego: a hot summer night. People are out on the streets, staying cool and being cool, like Chicago in August. Suddenly, two San Diego cops get a call that a kid is riding a bicycle and randomly pointing a pistol at the crowd.
When the officers arrive, the anxious crowd points toward a darkened alley. They draw their weapons and aim toward the black hole of the alley entrance and wait. Slowly, the boy rides out, and the cops’ pistols follow his path. A pistol in the hand of a boy on a bicycle is as willing a tool as in the hand of a criminal.
One cop named Chelberg later says, “I remember squeezing down on the trigger. As I was concentrating on preparing to pull the trigger, I entered what they call ‘the zone.’ Your training takes over, and nothing else matters. You don’t hear or feel anything except what you are doing.”
The cops yell at the boy to throw down the gun. Instead, he points it at them. The boy is a slight trigger-finger pull from dying. But then, at the last possible moment, he throws the gun down and is taken into custody.
One of the officers retrieves the pistol. It turns out to be a pellet gun. The boy almost dies because of acting cute with a BB gun.
When the crowd realizes the 12-year-old boy had almost been shot by cops, it turns ugly and threatening. The two officers rush the child into their vehicle and get out of there.
From friend to enemy is an easy step for a cop on a hot summer night in a restless minority neighborhood.
Later, when the events of the night sink in, one of the officers shudders, realizing that in doing her job to protect the crowd, she almost killed a child.
The year was 1976, and the officer was Janet Chelberg, one of the earliest female patrol officers of the San Diego Police Department. She joined the force in 1974, not long after graduating from San Diego State University in criminal justice. At 23, she was cute as a cheerleader and had a toothpaste-ad smile.
To start her career, she had to wear men’s pants and shirts, which was no big deal, considering that three years earlier, women in the department were required to wear a short jacket and a skirt-like, knee-length tunic over their trousers, and also low-heel pump shoes.
Janet grew up in East County, and while the neighborhood boys were pow-powing each other playing cops ’n’ robbers, she was curled up on a sofa reading Nancy Drew mysteries, a teenage potboiler series based on the heroics f the title character. Nancy was a girl detective who solved crimes by often employing feminine wiles to best the bad guys without the “pows.”
Janet wanted to be Nancy Drew.
In the early going, she experienced light to medium harassment from cops who probably thought she should be in the kitchen, but she could deal with that. However, the experience later caused her to double-down on helping recruit and then support other women who might choose to follow her.
“There was no one to complain to back then. If I complained, I would have been labeled a troublemaker or a female officer who couldn’t take a joke. So, I just took it and kept doing the job.”
On her first day ever on patrol, she and her partner were at the foot of Newport Street in Ocean Beach to look for a man selling heroin, packaged in small balloons. When the dealer realized he had been spotted, he swallowed all the balloons, which meant he had just set the world record for overdosing, possibly at the cost of his life.
When Janet and her partner got him into the squad car and prepared to rush to the hospital, a group of “angry hippies” thronged the car and started rocking it and screaming threats. Her partner shouted to her to put the car in reverse and “jam it,” which she did, leaving a crowd of angry hippies to grumble about the sudden departure of a local businessman.
Domestic-violence calls are considered by most cops as a good reason to take early retirement. They hate them. They are thrust into a situation of white-hot anger between two people who might even love each other when calmed down, and who can — together — quickly turn on their “protectors.”
Cops’ street lore says female officers are better at defusing tense domestic situations, but not always. Certainly not on one afternoon in North Park.
Janet and her backup arrived and rang the doorbell. A woman answered and said her husband had been drunk and menacing for three days. Janet and two other officers followed her into the house. Suddenly, the husband came out of a bedroom pointing a rifle at the cops.
“I saw him first and yelled ‘Gun! Drop it!’ We had a standoff. We took cover in the kitchen and were yelling at him to drop the weapon. He was yelling back at us. I think at that point he just wanted us to kill him. Finally, after several minutes, he threw the gun on the hardwood floor, a wonderful sound.
“The three of us went after him, got one handcuff on him and it was off to the races. We fought through the bedroom, over a water bed, down a hall, through a dining area and living room. He dislocated the shoulder of one officer, hurt the finger of another, and I had cuts on my hands and arms from the flailing handcuff.”
(She learned later that the wife had shortly before told her husband she had been having an affair with his best friend and wanted a divorce.)
Janet remembers that after the man was secured, one of the officers unloaded the rifle. “As the ammunition from the 30.06 dropped onto the car hood, my heart just thudded to the sound of it. I lost it. Other officers told me to just go away, they would do the paperwork. I drove off my beat to a restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard. I walked in and saw a waitress I knew, and she asked what was wrong. I told her I had almost been shot by a man with a rifle.”
As Janet struggled to compose herself, her walkie-talkie went off. An armed robber had just held up the liquor store across the street from the restaurant. She brushed her tears away, grabbed her equipment and rushed out. Back to work.
“One day I was patrolling in Golden Hill and saw some kids playing. I pulled over, opened the trunk and got out some SDPD stickers in the shape of a badge they could wear. The kids looked about ages 4 to 8. The littlest guy just stared at me, confused. I asked if something was wrong. He then asked if I was a man or a woman. I told him I was a woman, like his mom. I’ll never forget the look on his little face.”
It was 1975, and downtown San Diego was swinging, busy helping sailors and Marines spend their pay. The short-haired, young servicemen were primed for action. Townies joined the crowd hoping for a share of the fun. Prostitutes flew in from San Francisco and Las Vegas on a Navy payday in San Diego to work the streets.
Standing at the corner of Fourth and G, Janet was a new arrival to the parade of street walkers trolling for some of those dollars.
She looked more like a college student than a hardened hooker, and the other women immediately knew who she was. “They would walk by and they’d say, ‘Stay off my corner, honey,’ ” Janet says. “I don’t know how, but they knew I was a cop. I was resented because I was competition and was getting the customers arrested.”
The “johns,” customers, and Janet would dance a minuet around the law. The johns didn’t want to commit until satisfied that she wasn’t a cop; Janet had to be careful not to entrap. Once talks and bargaining sufficiently progressed, she would get into the john’s car wearing a secret recorder that would be monitored by undercover cops following a block or two behind.
When the stop was made, Janet was treated just as a real hooker and driven away, then dropped off near her corner amid the glares of the prostitutes.
The “customer base” for the prostitutes’ johns was an interesting slice of life. “I met a very nice man from Coronado who brought his 15-year-old son who was a virgin, and he wanted the services of a prostitute so his son would not be a virgin anymore.
“There were men that pulled up in fancy cars with nice suits, jewelry, and then other men would walk up or have a beat-up jalopy. It was just lonely men.”
At one point, it was suggested that Janet apply for the SWAT team, but that idea was dropped when there were no Kevlar vests with cups.
“While I was on patrol, I was often the only patrol woman working in the city. I remember the day a female friend graduated from academy and went into patrol. It was so nice knowing there was another girl out there.”
Not all women were enthusiastic about female patrol officers. Janet said civilian female employees, who often dated cops, would sometimes glare at her as she mixed with the male cops at the start of shift.
Before her “generation,” female cops would be assigned to detective work. However, when the decision was made to put women on patrol, Janet was often made a training officer for women who had more than a decade of police work. Not all were grateful to be taught by a “girl” years younger.
After four years, Janet sought a change. “Frankly, I was tired of working the midnight shift. At the time, in order to become a detective, it was more sort of like who you knew rather than what you knew. I saw women who were hired after me that were women of color who were Hispanic or black, and they were being promoted.”
In December 1977, she was hired as investigator of consumer fraud in the City Attorney’s Office, and worked at that until retirement in 2006.
She can look back on her years on patrol with a thoughtful smile. “Some days were so much fun, I couldn’t believe the city actually gave me a car to drive around and paid me to do it. Other days, when you went to a teen suicide or a fatal traffic accident involving a child, no amount of money was worth it. It was often heartbreaking.”
Today, Janet, now named Burgess, and her husband, also an ex-cop, live in San Carlos. She is a cookbook author and wears an apron as owner of a cooking school for children called 4 Little Cooks.
Finally, those few cops who thought Janet should be wearing an apron in a kitchen were right, but four decades later than they had hoped.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]