Picture this. Five uniformed Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies and yours truly seated around a pair of small tables at a Lebanese joint in a Compton strip mall. Yes, that Compton. South LA. Famous for its not so distant history of Bloods versus Crips, gangbanging, and the breeding ground for Dr. Dre, Ice T, and the rest of the iconic barrier-busting NWA crew. We were all there for an early evening meal, the halfway point through an afternoon/night shift of street patrol. It wasn’t my first ride along. I’ve done loads, including a rare “fly-along” with LAPD’s air-support. But up until that night a little more than a year ago, I’d never ridden in a black-and-white. I was chuffed for the hours that lay ahead.
First though, it was chow time. Kebabs, tabouli, and freshly made hummus. Because I was readying to write my next Lucky Dey thriller, I looked forward to the cop talk. The banter. That brotherly rip ‘n’ ribbing our frontline responders are well known for. But then an issue was raised. A concern. Body cams were coming. What would they capture? What would be archived? All of it? Every second? In what way would it change policing, if at all?
“Would it have changed that Baltimore thing?” one deputy asked.
“What part?” I followed up. “The thing that happened with the transport van or the indictments?”
“What indictments?” asked another deputy.
“Of the Baltimore cops,” I replied.
“Which Baltimore cops?” he asked.
“All of ‘em,” I answered. “All six. Indictments were handed down this morning.”
If you’re not entirely with me, perhaps I should lay down a little context? If you are, feel free to to skim ahead (if you’re not already.) So. On April 12, 2015, a man named Freddie Gray was pursued and arrested by Baltimore police officers for possession of an (allegedly) switchblade knife. Somewhere between being packed up in a police transport van and arrival at the jail, Freddie Gray either received or self-inflicted injuries resulting in his eventual death. Riots followed. In her rush to quell the violence, the state’s attorney very publically promised swift justice in exchange for calmer voices. Her answer was to indict everyone from the arresting officers to the van’s driver with charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree murder. Okay, you’re caught up now. Back to the scene at the Lebanese joint.
“All six?” asked another deputy. “Jesus.”
The deflation I witnessed was palpable. All five cops looked as if I’d pulled out a tool and unscrewed each of their valves. I was surprised by their unified reaction. Hell, I didn’t even know they were up to speed on the police goings on three thousand miles away in Baltimore. It was, in fact, a remarkably ignorant assumption on my part. They were police officers working a beat in a tough zip code. What happens on the east coast could happen on the west and everywhere in between. There’d already been civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over another controversial and deadly cop vs. black man conflict. Upon further thought, I couldn’t imagine a pre-shift briefing in any urban PD where such issues hadn’t been discussed at ad-bloody-infinitum.
Now, I recognize any discussion of these issues brings out emotions on both sides of the issue. There’s a significant divide amongst some Americans when it comes to policing in neighborhoods of color. Issues, I might add, I was looking to embrace in my newest novel, Reaper. The reason I wanted to ride along in black-and-white was because I planned to return my leading man Lucky Dey to action behind the wheel of a Sheriff’s radio unit—in the City of Compton—assigned as a training officer to a young, African-American trainee who just so happens to be a woman. Of course, because I’m playing in that noirish world I call Luckyland, trouble gets stirred and all hell eventually breaks loose. It is, after all, a thriller.
Yet all excitement aside, there are some things I wanted to get right—one of which is the morally complicated world of urban policing. Imagine it: all the pressures of living and operating within a high crime environment—for both residents and police officers. Layer in the external influences I described before, making all the inhabitants and stakeholders within feel as if they are under a microscope—like some kind of sociological lab experiment on anabolic steroids. Every moment is life versus death, policy versus politics, affection versus hate, morality versus anarchy. And those are just the puzzle pieces. Inject into every cellular moment the intricacies, natural and/or cultural biases, and flaws of all human beings, let alone their interactions with others, and it might seem to be some kind of miracle that traffic infractions get written up without chaos taking over.
Something else. Police officers working these beats are often forced to make life-changing decisions in a matter of microseconds. Of course, some of you might argue that if cops would only take a few more microseconds before committing to an action—while some others might suggest shaving some of those microseconds might mean that uniform cop will return home safely to his family. Criminy, folks. One might need a double does of Xanax just to process all the ways a single event could spin out into conflagration.
One could also argue it’s a phenomenon of sorts that those moments of deadly conflict are far more often pacified than not.
My agenda in Reaper was to make Lucky Dey an anti-heroic vessel for our morally bent world. As Lucky reluctantly survives in a landscape of gray, he still seeks some kind of demarcation between right and wrong. For Lucky, that elusive line can only be found in the one place he’s most comfortable: the gutter. No matter how high into Los Angeles society the crime reaches, Lucky works to drag it down into its most primordial place to divine what is good and what is evil. And even there, the line can be horribly blurred.
I’m not looking to tweak anyone’s pro or anti-police leanings with this post or my book. I will say that my first Compton ride-along was somewhat uneventful. But the subsequent shifts went all the way from hallelujah to flatout hair-raising. A significant amount of my experience ended up in Reaper.
I am hoping you click through the link and give Lucky Dey and his recent pile-up of moral and immoral quandaries a joyride with Reaper.