When you are a witness in a criminal case they don’t let you sit in the courtroom during the entire proceedings. I’m not sure if it is to keep your testimony pure from the taint of other people’s stories or to simply add some dramatic flair with a dramatic reveal. “Your honor, the state calls Dalyn Montgomery”, the doors swing open and there I am cape fluttering in the wind. Whatever the reason, I once found myself in a sort of holding lobby outside a Philadelphia courtroom.
I wasn’t alone. With me were two police officers, the ones who caught the guy stealing the radio out of my car. There wasn’t any doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, they caught him in the act and the thief left his phone in my car when he tried to run. We were the prosecution’s bull pen and we were sitting around, waiting for our numbers to be called. We were there more than an hour, plenty of time to get to know each other.
I already knew the one with the shaved head. He used to be my FedEx delivery guy. I once had this job where the company would send me packages every week, sometimes more often, and the guy would call me on my cell phone to see if I was going to be home. My street was really narrow and he didn’t want to drive his truck down that little alley if I wasn’t going to be there. It was odd seeing him in this different uniform but I knew it was him right away; he had a scar in the shape of an x almost right between his eyes. He told me it was from his brother stabbing him with a Phillips screwdriver when they were young and ever since people have mistaken him for a Charles Manson follower. “I’ve been doing this (serving as a police officer) for almost a year now. You still get giant boxes in the mail every day? Your street sucks for big trucks.”
I told him the deliveries had stopped once he was no longer the driver.
The other guy had blonde hair and a bad disposition. “Quit f- – – -g around and let’s get this together,” he instructed his partner. “Now read me what you got.” My FedEx guy pulled a queue card from inside his hat and read off an account of the night in question.
“We received a call from the owner saying his car was in the process of being robbed. We stopped our car at the end of the block and proceeded on foot toward the car in question. The driver’s door was open and as we approached, the accused jumped out of the car and started running toward the other end of the block. I pursued while my partner cut through the alley off to the right. At the top of the block I saw the accused hop on a bike and turn down the street to the right. When I got to the top of the block I saw my partner had caught the accused and was in the process of handcuffing him on the sidewalk.”
The blonde guy looked over at me and said, “That’s what happened right?” I replied I had no idea since I was asleep during that whole scene. “My neighbor had been having a beer on his stoop at three in the morning and the guy didn’t notice him there when he broke into my car. My neighbor is the one who called you guys. By the time I got pants on and answered the door you already had the dude in the back of your car.”
“Mother f- – – – ,” the blonde one said to the other. “This is the type of s- – – – I can’t stand.” The officer looked to be in his late 20’s, maybe thirty, close to my age. “Sorry about that. I just get frustrated about these little things because this is how lawyers ruin the work we do. We arrest the bad guy and then these mother f- – – – – put ‘em right back out there again because your neighbor is the one who made the call.” I admitted that I could see how that would be frustrating. “This happens regularly, lawyers getting the person off the hook?” “All, the f- – – – – -, time.”
“Dude, your mouth. This guy doesn’t curse like that.” The bald guy told his partner. “F- – – – you, he doesn’t care. Now re-write your card so you don’t screw it up.” While the junior officer scribbled on the card inside his hat I talked to his partner.
He said he had been on the force long enough to remember when things were better. He told me he liked his job when Rizzo was the police chief. He said that down at the station there is a huge poster with a picture of Frank Rizzo holding a Billy club with the words “There aint no courtroom that can dispense justice better than the end of my night stick.” Frank Rizzo was no longer the police chief, and by the time we had this conversation he was also no longer the mayor. The blonde officer explained that it had gotten so bad in the court rooms that he does everything he can to be the first one to catch a perp, hoping that he can have a couple seconds to himself before the other officers show up. He wanted just a little time to dispense some justice before the crowds arrive.
“Really? You want to beat somebody? What if the guy you catch is the wrong guy?”
He looked at me blankly as if he didn’t understand the question.
“Haven’t you ever caught the wrong person?”
He answered me flatly and with no sense of irony. He meant it.
“In all the years you’ve been a cop you have never once caught the wrong person? Never brought in an innocent suspect?”
He looked up in the air as if trying to recall something, looked back down at me and with a shrug replied that, no, he had never arrested an innocent person. I could not hide my surprise and must have chuckled just a little bit. My chuckle opened up a barrage of stories from these two about incidents where police officers have injured each other while attempting to injure a captured suspect. I was told of a plain clothes officer who while in pursuit of a bad guy was caught by an officer in uniform and given three broken ribs before he was able to produce his badge. The bald guy showed me a scar on his calf that he said he received from one of his comrades who beat the wrong leg with a baton in a multi officer melee.
After listening to this for a while I told them the story about my friend Terrell. I told them about how he was ID’d by the victim despite his eyes being swollen shut at the time of the ID. I told them how the victim testified he never saw who hit him and had never met Terrell before. I told them about how the cop testified it was easy to catch Terrell because “the accused is fat and slow.” Both of these officers sat silently listening to the details. When I finished they sat there silently for just a moment.
Then the blonde one spoke up, “F- – – – that. Your friend did it.”
Eventually a bailiff opened the door and told me it was my turn. Sadly there was no theme music as I made my way up to the witness stand. Once seated I was able to settle in and take a good look into the eyes of the thief. I had never seen him before. He was a scrawny little white guy in a suit three sizes too big. His hair was cropped short and he had the sort of beard a person grows when they haven’t hit puberty yet. I told my story to the lawyers while the judge looked at me intently. There was no jury. After my ten minutes was up they all thanked me for my time, by all I mean those employed to be there, the accused just sat there hunched over uncomfortably, and I went back to the bull pen.
I got to go back out for the decision, guilty, and the sentencing. The judge listed off a series of other convictions, then noted the defendant was an expecting father and an addict. He ordered that I be paid restitution equal to the amount of the damage of my property and that the accused, now the convicted, enroll in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. It sounded fair to me till the prosecutor leaned over and whispered to me that there was no mechanism in place to make sure I was actually paid what the judge had ordered, blood from a turnip and all that. He told me I should just be happy with the moral victory.
Six months later I was summoned to the court to hear the appeal. The conviction was overturned on account of the officer’s inability to recall what color hat the defendant was or was not wearing at three o’clock in the morning of the night in question.
My neighbor was upset but not surprised that the guy got off. “I bet that was the same little pissant that stole Paulie’s radio. How much you get for a stolen car radio, five bucks? Ten maybe. Stupid Kenzo.” A Kenzo is someone who lives in Kensington, the bad neighborhood that started 1oo yards west of my good neighborhood. It was always the Kenzos that caused trouble, and by Kenzos they meant the new Kenzos as everyone in our neighborhood grew up over there before the black folk moved in and ruined it. My neighborhood was filled with retired school teachers, guys in the carpenters union, and the parents of police officers. Philadelphia is a tough town in which to be a police officer.
Police get killed in Philadelphia. It was surprisingly normal for I-95 to be shut down to let a motorcade escorting a fallen hero travel unobstructed. Whenever an officer was killed in the line of duty my neighbors would replace their porch lights with blue light bulbs to show support. On one such occasion there was a frantic search for the killer who had evaded capture. Having spotted an individual matching the description the authorities gave chase and we all watched it on television. The news helicopter got a great shot of a huddle of blue clad men beating something or someone for a good five minutes. It turned out the man they caught was the wrong guy. While in the hospital he was charged with resisting arrest.
I sat on my stoop talking to my neighbor the next day and she didn’t see it the same way I did. “I can’t blame ‘em. That mother f- – – – – killed a cop.”
“No. someone killed a cop but that was the wrong guy. They beat an innocent guy.”
“Innocent my a- -. They know what they are doing.”
“Wait, what? I get that the guys were a little charged up and its dangerous but they put the guy in the hospital and it was the wrong guy.”
“Yeah. You say that because it isn’t you. They kill cops out here and you have to watch out. I’ll listen to the cops and not some reporter on channel 9. They know what they’re doin.”
We had lots of conversations sitting on the stoop. She never doubted the officers. Not when they were caught on camera shaking down the corner store, not when the five guys were caught running a steroids ring out of the precinct, especially not when they pulled over the black guy, patted him down and never gave him his wallet back. Turned out the black guy was retired officer himself but my neighbor took the side of the current duty boys. She kept the faith all the way up until that one party around Thanksgiving.
Some folks a few blocks over threw a birthday party for their adult son. One of the guests was a cop. He knocked back a few, because it was a party, but then he got in an argument with the home owner. They sent the cop home. Ten minutes later he came back with is service weapon and shot the birthday boy to death. The whole neighborhood was up in arms and mobilized when it looked like there weren’t going to be any charges filed. The same people who normally went around distributing blue light bulbs, came around again, but this time they were giving out orange. The whole block, as well as the next one over, lit up their porches with orange light to show their support of the victim’s family.
I sat on the stoop and asked my neighbor if this made her doubt all those incidents from the previous year. “You can’t hold everyone responsible for one bad cop. This guy is a disgrace. They need to charge him with murder.”
“Oh I agree. You can’t blame everyone for the mistakes of the bad ones… But what about those guys from last year? The ones who shook down the corner store over in the black neighborhood?”
“See, you don’t get it. The news is out to get these boys and its war on Cops on the streets. Naw, these boys know what they are doing. That’s a whole different thing.”
The officer was eventually tried and convicted of murder and all the bulbs are back to blue. I’m not there anymore but I’ll bet my neighbor thinks all this “I can’t breathe” stuff is bull. I would wager that she thinks those cops in Brooklyn knew what they were doing and that the guy deserved it. It is indeed war on the streets. A war on truth, a war on reason.
I think being a cop must be the hardest job in the world. I respect that. They should get paid more. We need not just cops, but good cops. We need great cops. How hard it must be to pin on a badge that feels like target for $50K a year? How hard to clean puke out of the back of a squad car, argue with people who claim they didn’t just punch that woman while you just watched them do it. Hard to keep catching the bad guy because a lawyer insisted the perp was wearing a hat you never saw. A hard job.
I also know Terrell never beat that guy.
I also know you can’t shoot someone because you got in an argument at a party. I know that no matter how flawed the courtroom is, the answer isn’t a nightstick. I know too many black folk who know too much about both courtrooms and nightsticks.
At the end of the day I know that bad guys are going to be bad guys. Because of this, the good guys need to be even better than good, they need to be great. Part of being great includes recognizing when you aren’t acting as such.