I know I’m in trouble when the young man suddenly springs from the waiting room couch and leaps toward me, grabbing for my holstered Colt .38 revolver. My ability to subdue him without either of us getting hurt is not a certainty. This struggle is going to be all-out because he’s slim, fit, and explosively manic. It’s going to be just as difficult to explain to my sergeant how I got to this point.
I clasp my hands over his, both of us bearing down on the butt of the revolver and the keeper strap of the holster. He’s trying to get the strap free and the gun unholstered; I’m trying to freeze his hands while I think of what to do next. Like him, I’m in my mid-20s and in good shape, so for several long seconds we remain in each other’s grasp, hands locked, in the wide, nearly empty reception area of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in southeast Washington, D.C.
My encounter with the young man had started several hours earlier on this breezy March afternoon in 1973. I was in my scout car (police patrol car) within the Sixth Police District (6D) in northeast Washington and I’d responded to a radioed assignment. When I arrived at the small white aluminum-sided house, a woman in her mid-50s met me on the concrete stoop. She was red-eyed and distraught, clutching at a tweed coat pulled around her shoulders as the wind raised a few of last fall’s leaves off the narrow, mostly bare front yard.
I had been a policeman long enough to know that when you’re greeted outside the house, it’s because the complainant wants to talk in comparative privacy, away from whomever is inside. Her son had suffered from mental issues for years, she told me, and had let himself into her house a few days earlier without her permission and wouldn’t leave.
Mental health professionals had offered varying diagnoses over the years, ranging from bipolar personality disorder to schizophrenia. There had been an assortment of medications, although none had provided long-term improvement. Last night and this morning, the son had been menacing toward her — to the point of wielding a knife — as she tried to convince him to go to one of his former counselors. The mother had taken this morning off from work to make phone calls to clinics, but her son now refused to budge from the back bedroom and she was afraid to leave him alone in the house. Was there anything I could do, she pleaded.
Her simple dark blue dress, plain-toed leather shoes, the gray in her neatly pulled-back hair, and the creases in her downcast face told me as much about her long-time federal clerical employment as did her answers to my questions that I needed to complete the police report form I was filling out on a clipboard as we talked.
When I went inside, the faint aroma of bacon and possibly home fries filled the air. Three mismatched but carefully arranged living room chairs, each with an antimacassar, sat in a semicircle facing a small TV set on a stand between two windows in the front room. Each window was covered with plastic film as winter insulation, and looked out to the sidewalk and street. The triple portrait of Abraham, Martin, and John, which I’d seen in so many homes in this area, hung on the wall behind the chairs. Sometimes Bobby was included.
I walked through the small kitchen with its two-burner gas range, older refrigerator, and chrome-tube table and chair set, and knocked on the brown wooden door of the back bedroom. Hearing a “huh” from inside, I slowly opened the door.
The young man did not seem surprised to see me. He was sitting on a small bed, smoking and looking out the window. I sat down on a straight-backed wooden chair near the door and asked him how he was doing today.
“Not too good,” he replied.
“What’s going on?” I asked, trying to keep it open-ended.
He told me he had been working in a warehouse at nights, loading pallets with two other guys and a foreman. A couple weeks earlier he got into a fight with one of the other guys and had been fired. With no money to pay his boarding house rent, he had been kicked out. So now he was at his mom’s house, with no money and no job in sight. I told him that his mom was concerned and wanted him to get some help, and she also wanted him to leave. I didn’t know what direction this conversation was going, but I was glad that he was at least talking to me because time is always an issue on assignments like this.
I knew I could have told the woman that the issue with her son was a civil matter and — bottom line — she would have to get him evicted if he refused to leave. That would take weeks. But she had mentioned a knife, and that made a difference, especially if I could get him to confirm that part of it. So I told him that his mom was also concerned about threats he had made, and about the knife.
“Oh, I just did that so she’d leave me alone. I need time to think, man.”
I was trying to piece together some resolution to this. I thought back to a field trip we had made to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital when I was in training at the Metropolitan Police Academy a couple of years earlier. Part of the trip had included role playing various scenarios involving mental health crises; I had been impressed with the passion and commitment of the hospital staff.
“How about checking out St. E’s to see if they might have something to help you feel better?” I finally offered, in the most nonchalant tone I could muster. I knew (and I think the young man knew from his experience, as well) they could admit him for 48 hours mandatory observation based on him being “potentially a danger to himself or others.” To my surprise and relief, after a few minutes, he agreed.
I had learned that stressful situations could sometimes be de-escalated by keeping the person’s focus on small decisions. This kept them from thinking about the big picture — I’m getting locked up; it’s fight or flight time — and instead thinking about which jacket they need or if they can keep their cigarettes, and so forth.
Back outside, I explained that I’d need to radio for a transport — a two-officer car — and that it would be necessary for him to be handcuffed for the ride. Within 10 minutes, Officers Schaub and Murphy pulled into the driveway, patted the young man down to check for weapons, put on the handcuffs, and headed toward the hospital. I followed and let the dispatcher know that we were leaving 6D to take a MO (mental observation) patient to St. E’s, which is in 7D.
While we waited for a hospital staffer to begin the intake process, the young man sat handcuffed on the waiting room couch. Schaub, Murphy, and I bantered about what was going on at 6D — transfers, promotions, and so forth. A couple of months earlier, Schaub and I had been standing next to each other on Pennsylvania Avenue for Inauguration Day parade security when he was struck on the left side of his face by a small piece of mud thrown by protestors far back in the crowd. Moments later, a squad of SOD (Special Operations Division) police pushed through and forcefully apprehended several of the mud throwers.
Meanwhile, another protestor had scaled to the top of a nearby traffic signal pole, and as the SOD team pulled him down, the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” And across the Ellipse, I had seen several mounted U.S. Park Policemen ride into the crowd that was lowering and scavenging the flags which encircle the base of the Washington Monument.
On this March afternoon, it was getting close to 3:00, and that meant time for check-off back at the 6D station, located at 42nd and Benning Road, NE. Although we weren’t allowed to go back until the radio dispatcher announced, “6D, your relief is ready,” we were always eager to avoid being the last in line to turn in reports and take care of any messages left for us during the 8-hour shift. Check-off could take 30 minutes or more.
I suggested to Murphy and Schaub that they head back to 6D so they wouldn’t be late, and I asked them to let my sergeant know what was going on. While Murphy took his cuffs off the young man, he asked — by raising his eyebrows at me — if I wanted to re-cuff him. Thinking it wouldn’t be long before intake processing started, and knowing that the young man surely wanted another smoke by now, I replied with a “nah” frown and slight shake of my head.
The smoke from his Kool drifted lazily up the late afternoon sunbeams coming in through the tall westward-facing windows of the reception area. At times like this I was struck by how lucky I was to be working in Washington and how different it was from the central Ohio industrial town where I had been a policeman for about three years right after serving in the Marines.
In this minority-majority city, race was a subtext in every conversation and encounter — understandable if one were old enough and perceptive enough (which I wasn’t) to comprehend the enormity of the diaspora that had brought so many people to the District from the segregated South, particularly North Carolina.
The few months I had been stationed in that state provided me with a helpful source of commonality with 6D citizens. Many of the officers were from the South as well, having responded, like me, to the nationwide civil service campaign to raise the MPDC ranks to 5,200.
In 6D, I’d learned about slurpin’ clams, eating grits and gravy, and drinking coffee from Little Tavern’s 24/7. I’d seen Angela Davis and Jimi Hendrix depicted in an almost endless variety of posters and pop art. I’d been surprised at the way the officers segregated themselves in roll call: blacks on the left, whites on the right. I’d been dismayed at the covert yet virulent racism of some of the officers, but inspired by the altruism and good-heartedness of many others.
I’d learned that I could be knocked right over at night by a backyard clothesline when chasing a bailed-out car thief. I’d idled a bit too long sometimes at the corner of Southern and Eastern Avenues, wondering what the world might have looked like to those 1790 surveyors. I’d been alarmed in some homes seeing 11- and 12-year old kids eating in the hurried ways of middle-aged commuters. I’d been surprised at the shock a half-dozen dice shooters showed as they leaped and jumped inside their apartment door when I rounded a corner.
I’d heard the purposely ironic taunt, “Hey, boy, get outta my neighborhood!” as I’d patrolled through residential areas. I’d wondered how things would work out when I was writing up a summer evening traffic accident report and suddenly noticed 50 or 60 people milling around the scene. I’d been concerned while inside a home with a woman who was alternately crying and yelling at us, with six or so of her family members present, when my experienced partner whispered to me, “I don’t know what the hell to do here.”
I’d been broken-hearted when a fellow 6D officer — a mischievous, playful guy — had been shot to death, off-duty, downtown. I’d been worried about the reaction to a 6D policewoman’s shooting of a knife-wielding city bus passenger. I’d been dazzled by beautiful women who, I was told and could then see on second look, were not women. I’d been taken aback by the cell-like quality of many apartments, with double and triple locks on metal doors, concrete floors, and tempered glass windows.
My reverie vanishes as the young man makes a grab for my gun. I twist my torso around almost 180 degrees, his grip is loosened, and I sense he won’t continue the fight. I’m reaching with my right hand for my handcuff case and he bolts for the door. We run up the gentle slope of the long parking lot, passing employees and visitors with their questioning stares. In a sort of out-of-body experience, I take in the beauty of the little yellow and purple crocuses peeping up alongside the pavement while I also anticipate my sergeant’s mood when he confronts me about not maintaining control over a detainee who may pose a danger to others.
My uniform cap, tunic, Sam Browne belt with shoulder strap, and the dress shoes in which I’m running give the young man a considerable advantage. But before we have gone the 200 or so yards to the street, his Kools have given the edge back to me. He doesn’t resist as I grab his left arm and handcuff him.
Before I can walk him all the way back to the reception area, a 7D scout car appears and the officers tell me they were dispatched pursuant to a call by an anonymous citizen reporting a policeman chasing a man in St. E’s parking lot. They ask me, “What’s going on?” I don’t know these guys, so I try to explain without giving them a full mea culpa. They give us a ride back to the entrance and stay there until the young man is taken into receiving shortly afterward.
It’s 6:30 p.m. when I leave the 6D station on that March evening, head south on Benning Road, past the Shrimp Boat restaurant, and then right on East Capitol Street. Soon the ivory dome appears through the leafless trees. The same one that’s embroidered on the shoulder patch of my uniform. The same one that holds so many diverse meanings for so many people the world over. The same one whose meaning for me was made forever more complex by my time in 6D.
George Peter Angus was a Metropolitan Police officer in the 6th District from 1971 – 1975. He is currently a government employee and part-time tax and accounting professor.