In the current spasm of civil unrest, where angry groups trade words and projectiles with ranks of police, I am reminded of a single moment in time.
Itn the mid-90’s I was a Tacoma Police Patrol Officer assigned to the One Sector. In addition to downtown and Northeast Tacoma, this area also included the Hilltop neighborhood, which was still in the grips of gang violence and narcotics crimes. Gunfire was common and the police response often included extra officers. It was also a time when many residents harbored a strong resentment towards my former department.
Though I can’t recall the specific date, I remember it being close to midnight. Swing shift was almost over and graveyard officers were already on the street. I also remember the adrenalin jolt as the priority tones interrupted radio traffic. Along with four other cops, I quickly made my way to a tree-lined street just east of Sprague to back up two officers having unspecified trouble during a warrant arrest.
When I got out of the car at the scene four officers were at the front porch of a house in a heated argument with the resident. The officers were attempting to explain, unsuccessfully, that a search warrant was unnecessary (an arrest warrant served at a subject’s known residence was legally sufficient for entry in this case).
But the explanation, which was being done for the purpose of de-escalating the situation, was backfiring. The loud voices were bringing neighbors to their doors. Soon there was a chorus of anti-police rhetoric and I remember thinking, “Ugly…could get uglier.”
By this time there were about a dozen cops on scene. We were awaiting the sergeant’s arrival before proceeding because the incident was becoming so volatile. Facing us, from doors at our backs and to the sides, were dozens of the people who lived on the block. If there were a friendly face among them, I didn’t see it. Possible scenarios started running through my mind, all of which involved fighting my way out of a mob.
Then two things happened. First, an officer went back to his car and grabbed his shotgun. When he returned to the porch he loudly racked a round into the chamber. This “in-your-face” blunder prompted the next door neighbor to yell loudly that he, too, was getting his gun.
In that explosive moment the sergeant arrived. He had already been briefed on the call and needed no more than a brief look up and down the street to get a clear picture.
He walked briskly to the porch and said quietly to each officer, “Get back in your car and drive away.”
Just that quickly it was over.
In the ensuing days the incident was discussed ad nauseum. For my part I felt the strange and bitter taste of defeat. In my world, where cops arrest bad guys, the idea of a retreat (or tactical advance to the rear as other officers joked) was shameful.
In that instant when the possibility of imminent and violent confrontation was more likely than not, a hard decision was made. At the time I thought it a humiliating choice. Now I know differently.
Through the lens of time and experience, I have learned that there are many ways to lose. Igniting a street battle for the sake of a single arrest is one example.
Today, if you were to drive down that street you would be hard pressed to resurrect a comparable sense of hatred or fear. Over the last few years the community has erased much of the blight from street gangs and drug dealing, and they have reclaimed their homes. The residents have also forged a much closer relationship with the police officers who patrol their neighborhood.
And that sure feels like a win.