Cops have them. Old time retired cops have more and better ones. Not guns, but something almost as good — stories. War stories to be exact. All cops have them some but some just need to be pried lose with a glass of warm milk or other refreshing beverage. This is a true story about a light bulb. Not a lamp fixture type light bulb but the kind of light bulb everyone has inside their own heads. This is about the dimmest-witted, dumbest but most fortunate burglar in town on this particular night. It’s not even my story but rather one owned by two of San Diego’s finest patrol coppers working the graveyard watch in downtown San Diego.
It was back in the early 1980s when San Diego truly was a navy town with a bustling navy trade in the area of lower Broadway. In years past it had been noted and frequented by legions of young tender sailors out for a good time on the town. It was full of dive bars, penny arcades with their pin ball games and souvenir shops in the days before video games and digital shows. This was a time when a buck would get you a watered down drink and some exposed skin at any of the bars on lower Broadway. It was a place where you could get a cold beer and a dental job without even being seated. It could be a rough place, especially after the sun went down.
“Something had made his little tiny internal
light bulb turn on and he had to know.”
Cops back then worked one officer cars with cover pretty close. This is the story about two such patrol officers who were dispatched to a burglary call at a take-out pizza shop near the corner of Union Street and Broadway. The place closed around midnight, depending on the take-out trade for the evening. It was a small place, no seating or counter space for eating, take-out only. A long kitchen counter with the pizza oven behind and a very small entry for customers. It had a door leading to a stairway and loft containing the pizza supplies.
The two beat cars arrived almost at the same time, each approaching from the opposite direction and each having a good view of the front of the pizza place. The officers slipped from their patrol cars, each keeping their backs to the store walls as they made their approach. Taking a look at the front door told them the whole story. The glass door had been shattered, and shards were on the ground — and the door was ajar. Radioing dispatch of a good burglary, they eased into the store as quietly as they could given the glass on the ground. A quick look showed no one was in the front portion of the store and quickly determined the door to the supply room had been opened. The game was afoot, as they say.
They entered one at a time and immediately had to navigate a narrow stairway having five or six steps, then a small landing where the stairs turned back and went to the up-stairs supply loft. The first officer started up the stairs, with his cover officer remaining at the bottom of the stairs until the first officer made it to the landing. Both had their issue Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolvers out and their flashlights on and braced and ready for action. Both spotted the movement at the same time — a man stepped from the shadows in the up-stairs landing and stood at the top of the stairs. The suspect had been caught in the act, a pretty unusual occurrence given the ringing or audible alarm making such a racket.
The first copper called to the suspect telling him they were San Diego police officers just in case he couldn’t figure that part out for himself, and commanded him to freeze,” the popular command of that generation of cops. At that moment the officer’s lights playing over the suspect shone on something long and skinny. It was an 8″ kitchen knife the suspect had armed himself with. That changed the dynamics of everything. The second officer took a bead on the suspect’s chest, covering him as the first officer issued commands.
Now, this was in the days before verbal judo became the rage. It was back in the days of well, let’s say, plain-talk communications. It was in the days before you received days off or were sent to a “communications workshop” for using vulgar language during an arrest. In fact, back then it was considered mandatory to use a number of popular, um, “street phrases” to gain the attention and compliance of a suspect.
It just happens the first officer was a master of those communication skills and set to work. Remember, we didn’t have tasers or phasers or less than lethal shotgun projectiles. We had guns, saps (usually employed to the noggin of the suspect in direct violation of approved striking areas), straight hardwood nightsticks with leather straps for twirling; and sometimes progressive departments issued Mace, a chemical agent used to cause irritation to the eyes of the suspect, arresting officers and anyone within 27′. As a matter of fact, any officer pulling his Mace in the presence of brother officers was likely to have it ripped from his grasp before the irritating agent could be deployed, thereby sparing those around him irritation of several types.
VERBAL SKILLS APPLIED
So, the contact officer launched into his diatribe with the usual commands. “Drop the knife. Drop the F*^ knife. Drop the Mo*&^% F*&^%ing knife Mo*&er Fu*&er!” etc., etc., etc., blah, blah and blah.
This diatribe continued for several minutes, getting more colorful with each rendition and repetition. The officer was giving it his, all but alas, the dumb burglar just hadn’t gotten the point of it all.
Not wanting to get any closer, the officer continued in a louder, shall we say, more aggressive manner. The cover officer maintained his position and had the suspect dead in his sights. Somehow this had to end.
There was not going to be any SWAT callout a sole burglar with a knife, not in 1980. No negotiators either. Not even a sergeant on-scene to add to the confusion and issue meaningless orders. Nope, this would end right here in the dingy, little cramped stairway, as it should. Either dummy was going to give it up, or dummy was going to get lit-up pretty quick.
Something had to give. But there he stood. Ten feet away from the first officer, with only a few steps and a very small landing separating the two — and a very long knife. Cop vests don’t do too well against stabbing instruments and you can bet both officers were thinking about that one quite a bit. The commands continued.
Then the light bulb came on. Dummy’s eyes got as big as a bovine’s in heat and he stiffened his entire body as if he had been shocked. He dropped his knife and surrendered. The first officer stepped up, and after ordering dummy to turn around, cuffed him and led him down the narrow stairway in front of him to the bottom of the steps. Then out the door of the pizza shop to the waiting back seat of the squad car for a very short, three block ride to the San Diego grey-bar hotel, then located at 222 West “C” Street, a well known location and address for San Diego area cops for 30 years. Then it occurred to the officer, something had changed the dummy. Something had made his little tiny internal light bulb turn on and he had to know.
Suspending Miranda for a moment the officer asked dummy if he had known if the officer was about to end the stand-off and shoot dummy at the precise time dummy dropped the knife and gave up. Dummy agreed he indeed did know he was about to be lit-up. The officer then asked how he knew. Was it the tone of his commanding voice that did it? No. Was it the loud vulgar language that did it? No. Was it looking down the barrel of my Smith & Wesson 6″ .38 special revolver? No. Was it my uniform? My badge? No, and no again.
What was it then? Dummy stated for all to hear: “It was when your partner put his fingers in his ears that did it”.
Even the dumbest, slowest crook knows. And if you can’t use this as a training lesson for partners, then I’ve wasted our time — and the light’s still out. Bet you don’t get this kind of training at your agency, eh?