|Sirens scream and bright lights flash as the patrol car Im riding shotgun in lunges at break-neck speed through the Nations Capitals notoriously crime-ridden Southeast Quadrant. The officer is doing 60-plus in a 35-mph zone in response to an all-units call for an officer in need of assistance, barely slowing at red lights. The dispatch operator described the officer in need having his gun drawn on a suspect, so were responding from a distant part of the district, barreling through intersection after intersection.
I chose this police district for my mission, not in sanitized New York City, but in Washington DC, whose crumbling infrastructure and web of red tape provided a more intriguing backdrop for what I sought as part of my ongoing probe for the Jinx Project. When I arrived at the 7th District station, I found half a dozen busy cops, counter-to-ceiling bulletproof glass, metal detectors and buzz-in steel reinforced doors. While waiting, I reviewed the Annual Crime Reduction Awards that hung on the walls. Crime decreased 32% in this district in 1994, but only decreased 4.9% in 1995. And this was cited as the "Best in DC." No such awards hung for more recent years. I knew this shit was for real when the desk officer had me sign a waiver that relieved DCPD and the local government of any liability, should my survivors wish to sue in case I should, in the words of the officer, "get my head blown off."
This phrase came to mind later as I sat, sans bullet-proof vest, in the front passenger seat of the patrol car while the officer explained why pedestrian gunmen are so dangerous to police in patrol cars their better range of fire, superior mobility and tendency to "see you first." Upon first seeing Officer S.W. Holmes, I surmised that he was one of the biggest cops on the force at 63" and 250-plus pounds, with a solid frame and strong arms. Before dealing with random gunmen on foot and domestic disputes-turned-homicides, Holmes did weapons- and narcotics-related surveillance and undercover work, often working with the FBI and the ATF. Crack cocaine exploded on DC streets in the 1980s, and Holmes and his colleagues became part of the citys massive effort to curtail the drug-related epidemic of homicide and other violent crime. He recalls those days with fondness undercover bust operations where he rode in the backs of ambulances and city buses, high-speed chases and carefully-planned stings that erupted in lethal gunfire. Once, Holmes partner shot and killed a drug dealer at close range - he recalls seeing "the casing come out of the gun, spinning in the air in slow motion."
Though drug-related violent crime continues to proliferate in Washington, the current police administration has chosen to all but ignore the problem. Holmes explains this philosophy as he steers a hard right, his foot never leaving the accelerator "Its not a problem unless you make it happen." You have to make arrests to get crime statistics and thereby "create the crime." If you dont make arrests, theres no such problem. The centrifugal force of the turn hurls my seat-belted body against the door of the patrol car in one of many violent vehicular thrashings I surrender to during the high-speed response to the call. Nowadays, the DCPD administration focuses on high visibility public relations more than on effective crime fighting, in essence denying that any "problem" exists in the first place. This attitude explains why Holmes is a patrol officer now the administration wants its officers out in uniform to appease the community. This "Cops on Show" mentality has united Holmes with me on my deadly mission as we race on to meet unknown urban dangers of the night. The Powers That Be do not realize that police visibility simply cannot stop all crime. As Holmes put it: "If they want to kill somebody because he owes them money, theyre gonna do it today, tomorrow, next week whenever."
A recent drug-related double homicide in a back lot illustrates this lethal inevitability. So does the slaying that ended a soured domestic dispute in a low-rent apartment complex. Officers caught the murderer as he disposed of the murder weapon in the trash. This "surprise discovery" variety of bust demonstrates the unpredictable nature of police work. Often, cops make the "best kind of arrest" when pulling someone over for expired tags or broken headlights, only to discover guns or drugs in the car as well.
Of course, this unpredictable aspect of the job can also work against the officer. Violence often erupts from nowhere, with no warning, whether its subduing suspects that attack the officer to dodging gunfire at the most "routine" of domestic dispute calls. Maneuvering through one intersection, Holmes describes the emotional drain of maintaining alertness during late-night ten-hour shifts.
Suddenly, a Volvo smashes into the back passenger side of the patrol car, causing it to spin before Holmes can wrestle back control and continue the urgent reply, all the while keeping his gaze locked on the road ahead. Not until later does he mention having gotten clipped.
Earlier, we responded to a breaking and entering call at a local elementary school, where, after officers searched the building from the outside with searchlights, the sergeant decided to let the K-9 units in. Before unleashing the dogs however, the officers apprehended the sole perpetrator, a criminal who began his career here tonight at the tender age of ten. Officers take such minors to the juvenile detention center and lock them up for a few hours, arresting them, but not charging them with anything. They release the young offenders whenever their parents come to get them.
Picking up more speed as we near the site of the officer in need, Holmes describes an incident where the K-9 unit was deployed. A serial rapist broke into a womans apartment, raped her and stuck around afterwards while she escaped to a neighbors to call the police. The K-9 unit sent a German Shepherd into her apartment to corner the rapist. Officers train these dogs to locate the suspect and bark continuously, alerting the officer to their whereabouts while detaining the suspect. If the suspect resists or tries to escape, the dog bites, and in this case had bitten the rapist all over by the time he surrendered. He had been watching this woman for a while, and was high on crack cocaine at the time of the rape. Apparently, he was also out on parole.
Another serial rapist is still at large, having beaten his last victim severely and cut her throat after raping her and she was a security guard. No one is completely safe, cops or no cops, in Southeast. This is not the Washington DC that millions of tourists visit each year. Neither the White House, nor the Smithsonian, nor any of the citys countless monuments grace this crime-infested part of town. Many people only end up here by getting hopelessly lost in the Capitals labyrinthine system of streets, avenues and traffic circles. And they get the hell out as soon as humanly possible. Despite the recent efforts to tear down housing projects and revitalize the quadrant, and the migration of much criminal activity into bordering Maryland counties, Southeast still maintains its dangerous reputation, its stigma of crack houses and gangs running guns. But in the face of looming violence, urban decay and an administration that looks the other way, police officers like Holmes fight to maintain a delicate balance, keeping Southeast from toppling into an uncivilized battlefield of bedlam and anarchy.
After flying through miles of winding DC streets, dodging traffic and narrowly averting crash after crash, we arrive at the location reported by the dispatch of the officer in need of assistance. The call was a false alarm, and the dispatch operators confusion over similarly named streets has led us to the wrong place. Im left with the feeling that anywhere in Southeast is the wrong place.