Our Special Tonight is Sudden Death

One of the things that drew me toward police work as I was leaving the Marines was my massive curiosity about this mysterious thing.  I can’t list for you now what my specific questions were, and frankly lack the patience to do so.  That is somewhat beside the point now.  The point is that the institution, the profession, were massively mysterious and extremely difficult to do on the level that I was considering.  I had a few go rounds with RP previously, and tried to stay away from personal experience, but that will not be possible now, so…excuse me while I whip this out.

There were numerous ways to pursue my curiosity back as a 25 year old, when I was first considering it.  I was a 25 year old, experienced yet salty Marine veteran who could not be persuaded to continue in the Corps for any amount of money.  Seriously, no amount of legal tender would have lured me back.  I had scratched that itch, satisfied that curiosity about the world, and was bound for other challenges.  Challenge was a big part of my motivation at that time.  I don’t think I can really explain that.  If you have felt them, and chased them, then you likely understand.  If you haven’t, then you likely do not.  It is an adrenalin high that propels you through physical weakness, focuses you though confusion, and steadies you through fear.  At that age, when you can find that groove, it can be enjoyed.  I was bound for the next one, and I required difficulty.

So, I was headed back to California.  I had previously lived in Newport Beach and was planing to again because I enjoyed it.  I applied to that department and pictured working in khaki shorts and riding in a Jeep on the beach for a major portion of my time.  I also applied to the LAPD…because it was the LAPD.  I went through a process that took about a year of flying back and forth from Atlanta to Southern California for the interviews, and testing, etc.  In California, it is a rather involved process.  I liked that.  I wanted to compete against the best.  After their portions were over, I was at the top of both of their lists for their academy classes.  I wanted that.  They competed for me.  They pitched me on their departments.  I was sure I would be working in Newport Beach, where I was already living by that time.  Then I took my last visit with the LAPD where they pitched me.

After a year of probing me psychologically, maybe they had a lead on how to persuade me.  I don’t know.  All I know is, their pitch was no bullshit, and the most persuasive argument I had ever heard in my life.  When you are applying to police departments, you must reveal to whom you are applying.  They share information.  LAPD knew I was applying at Newport Beach.  Both pitches accurately described their respective cities.  LAPD’s pitch went something like the following.

Los Angeles is a dirty, busy, dangerous city.  There is crime around every corner, and you will work non-stop.  You will rarely have a minute to yourself.  The vast majority of your days will be spent going from one incident to the next, and your queue will never be worked off in the corse of an evening.  It will start full when you begin, and it will end full as you turn your reporting district over to the next shift.  You will work so much that you will barely recognize the inside of your apartment.  And you know what, that is exactly what you want.

The last thing you want to to work where it is comfortable, pleasant, and easy.  You’ll lose your edge, your partners will lose theirs, or ever worse, they may be incompetent.  Then suddenly, when something requires sharp awareness, you’re dead.  You want to be where it happens all the time, and your partners will be honed to a serious proficiency.  You are safer in a dangerous environment among experts than in a resort area among relative tourists.  

Not only did that approach work, it is accurate.  Was I a challenge seeker?  Yes.  Did they likely know my psychological profile more than I knew myself?  Quite possibly.  Is it accurate?  I still swear by it.

So, a little more curiosity was fed.  And more riddles were ahead of me.  Living as a Black person in the Midwest in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s had a certain mystery aspect to it.  White people who surrounded me, knew me and my family, and shared every experience that neighbors and friends share still only partially knew me.  There were, and remain misunderstandings of what my life is like…completely.  (Incidentally, this applies for me as well, and I began to see it as a high school senior thanks to my girlfriend at the time.  I had zero concept for the continuing need for women’s liberation, and was blind to the level of misogyny built into our America). 

Police work is directly analogous as an outsider status to being Black in America.  Crazy assumptions about psychological motivations exist in ways, even among open-minded liberals, which would be condemned if the subject involved ethnicity or religion.  Generalities which could not apply to a group so large are taken for granted.  At 25, this curiosity was fascinating.  At 56, it is exhausting.  

My mom’s younger sister, Nancy…Aunt Nancy, had a clever way of putting things.  Her daughter, my cousin Andi graduated from my high school at the age of 15.  Andi was insanely intelligent..and talented.  Her option for college were unlimited.  I recall a conversation at a kitchen table between Aunt Nancy and my mom about financial aid…just a portion of it actually.  I remember my aunt saying, that application is quite invasive.  They want to know absolutely everything.  Then she said, “they want to know when was the last time you took a piss, and which way the wind was blowing when you did.”  

Now, I don’t know if she invented that saying, and I don’t know what adults in your environment talked like in front of kids (I was 14 at the time). But, I know I had only heard either one of them say “shit”, “damn”, and “ass”…and occasionally “shit-ass”.  And those instances could be marked on a calendar.  Those two teachers didn’t swear much or use graphic imagery.  “Which way the wind was blowing the last time you took a piss…”, that one stuck.  Thanks, Aunt Nancy.

That description, and the FAFSA for college tuition assistance was nothing compared to the background investigations, and the psychological investigations by the LAPD.  I couldn’t possibly remember all of the things I was asked by detectives, and that doesn’t include the distances they went to talk to people from your past, like my 3rd grade teacher at a distance of 2,400 miles.  Let’s just say they are thorough.  They rejected 997 out of every 1000 applicants.  That was just to gain entrance to the academy.  You still had to pass.  You had to live by a strict set of rules that no one in society had to live by…and you had to survive.  Just thinking about it now is exhausting, but at the age of 25, and just having left the USMC, it was beyond appealing.  Many, many Marines I knew before leaving thought is was insane to seek that job in L.A.  “Too dangerous” they said.  All the better.

Academy was 6 months of long days, and 6 day weeks.  Blah…blah.  The training was loosely based on USMC training, and one of the Chiefs from the 1940s was a USMC veteran…yada, yada.  Blah, blah…blah blah…I graduated and got out onto the street.  Life began.

Life actually began the last week of the academy, and before graduationI never knew .  Graduating recruits are certified, and placed in cars with training officers at various divisions for regular shifts.  This is one’s opportunity to see different styles, and for the divisions to see you.  One woman in my class was actually involved in a shooting (shot at) during that week.  She was not injured.  I only say that to say, this was not your typical orientation.  This one involved live ammunition, and people willing to use it against you.  Whether or not you had graduated was not a factor.

I recall two officers killed during my rookie year on the department.  I had a connection to both of them. Funerals for police officers are special things.  I had been to many funerals in my time for family members, including my dad, and many members of the military that I did not know, so I thought I had some experience with funerals.  Funerals for cops…and firemen are special.  Funerals for these people who die on duty are always young, and the deaths are always violent and tragic.  There are almost always young spouses, and often young children.  These funerals are sad.  The experience of burying my own father was not preparation for the sadness around a young officer, and an older Homicide detective that I barely knew.

The Detective’s name was Russ Custer.  He was the head of Homicide in my division.  If I remember correctly, Russ was from Iowa or Nebraska, or something.  He was midwestern.  He grew up on a farm, and was taking care of his parents who still managed the farm…again, if I remember correctly.  Russ was well respected, well loved, and quite accomplished.  He was a likable man, as reputation held.  I did not know him well enough to attest to that personally.  

Russ died while eating dinner at a Hungarian restaurant in the Hollywood hills.  He was there with his wife, and some friends.  What happened that night was just a crazy bit of happenstance.  This restaurant was the favorite restaurant for Russ Custer and his wife.  They dined there often.  On the night of his death, there was a disturbance in the restaurant.  The killer was a man who I remember by the description as being part of the “Hungarian Mafia.”  I never knew Hungary had a Mafia, but I am well aware, at least by now, that there is organized crime everywhere.  This particular man had been convicted here in the U.S., and the U.S. had been trying to deport him.  Hungary wouldn’t take him, so he was stuck here.  

On this particular night, this man tried to pay his dinner bill with a card that was declined.  The waitress returned and let him know, and he went ballistic.  He demanded that they take that payment.  That was is possible, of course, so he continued to press his case.  Eventually he stood up and pulled out a handgun.  The gun had a laser pointer on it, and he started putting the pointer on various diners, playing the bay guy.  Then the waitress said, “you had better knock it off because that man over there is Russ Custer, and he is the head of Homicide and Hollywood division.”

The Hungarian man found this interesting, so he turned to the man that the waitress has pointed out, and put the pointer on Russ’s chest.  At that point, Russ was still seatedives are by death. with his hands in his lap.  He started talking to the Hungarian and said, “look, nothing has happened yet.  Just leave.  No harm, no foul.  Don’t take this any further, go out the door, and it’s all over.  No big deal.”  Russ was holding his gun in his lap, unbeknownst to the Hungarian man.  

Soon after that, the man fired a couple of shots into Russ Custer’s chest, and ran out the door.  As he was going out the door, Russ shot the Hungarian man in the back.  The Hungarian man collapsed over a short wall just outside of the door.  Russ died at the table.

I was working with Gene Hubbenthal the week of Custer’s funeral.  I remember that only because I recall asking him if he planned to attend the funeral.  Gene said, “nooooo, bud.  I don’t do cop funerals anymore.  Way too sad.”  Now, I already loathed Gene Hubbenthal. I loathe him still.  Gene Hubbenthal was possibly the worst human being I had ever known.  He was an asshole with distinction.  Gene once tried to talk a woman out of making a rape report because he wanted to go home.  That’s just one taste of Gene Hubbenthal, and I have plenty.  That should suffice.

So, when Gene said he wasn’t going, I just thought it was because he was such an asshole.  He had zero credibility with me.  Then I went to Russ Custer’s funeral.

To explain this portion requires you understand how crusty, cynical, and unemotional cops can be.  Further still, you would have to have some idea of how completely unaffected Homicide detectives are by death.  I have watched detectives from that table look at pieces of dead bodies on the street, or deceased people with family members all around, and crying like it is the end of the world, and express zero emotion.  None.  Then, you must experience detectives presiding at a funeral for their boss from their little group.  And being that this murder took place in the division, it was the responsibility of these same detectives.  This was not just the loss of a friend, but it was work.  It was added to their workload…and then again it wasn’t.  What I remember of the speech was the detectives explaining the story of the incident at the restaurant.  They gave the details step by step.  They cried, and broke down, and several had to take over for the one before him he finished.  Then the last guy explained that Russ did them all a favor by solving his murder on his own.  

In that explanation there was sadness, and gratitude, and reverence.  It’s hard to recapture.  But at the end, I thought, oh yeah, he did solve it.  It was dramatic, and profoundly sad.  The killing was senseless and had nothing to do with the job, and everything to do with the fact that he was a cop.  Such is the life.

The other funeral was for a rookie officer.  This particular officer was a woman.  I thinkrticle  she was nearly 5 months behind me at the academy.  She was brand new on the department.  Let’s say she was about 24 or 25.  My age. She was married to a fireman, LAFD.  They had two small children.  She was at the part of her training where a training officer would look for certain activities to get her experience with the incident, and the report writing.  I do not recall what he last stop was, but it was something innocuous like jaywalking or public urination.  Something pretty low on the threat scale.

So, in this incident, the training officer was driving.  The rookie was the passenger officer, and handled the computer.  They saw an individual, and the training officer asked her if she had done one of those reports…whatever that was.  She said no, so they stopped.  In an LAPD uniformed patrol car, you bounce out of the car as soon as it comes to a stop.  It is a habit you practice for safety reasons.  In fact, if you wear a seatbelt at all, which is rare, you remove it before you get where you are going, which makes them almost pointless.  Anyway, the driver stopped the car and bounced out.  When I say bounce…I mean bounce.  Hit the brake, throw it in park, have the door already cracked at get your feet on the ground.  You get out of the car because it is a death trap in the case of an ambush.  So the trainer bounced, and the rookie, not yet up to the pace and the procedure took an extra second to enter the code for “at scene.”  The trainer started walking toward the suspect, and the suspect saw that the car had stopped and the officers were getting out to come talk to him.  He started running immediately and pulled out a gun and shot over his shoulder without looking.

I don’t recall what happened to the suspect.  I think he got away.  No one knew he was armed.  I recall the training officer turned around and walked back to the car.  The rookie was still looking down at the computer screen…or so he thought.  What actually happened was that the one shot over the guy’s shoulder went through the windshield and hit her squarely in the center of her forehead.  She was dead by the time the training officer got back.  

This wasn’t a dangerous stop.  This was the opportunity to get a report for a new officer.  What wasn’t known, and what could not be known at that point, was that the man had warrants, and was a dangerous criminal.  He was determined to not be arrested, and was at the highest threat level in his head.  The officers had no way of knowing that yet.  That would have taken running him for wants and warrants, and they had not even approached him yet.  He assumed that he had been identified.  

I read an article about the various types of danger on police calls.  This article was written in 1986.  If I am not mistaken, the article if from statistics compiled by the FBI.  The article, and the statistics give a ridiculous analysis of what is more dangerous than what.  The analysis is based upon the occurrence of death to officers in various types of activities.  The fact is, that is not how it should be determined.  The most dangerous thing that officers face is the unknown.  Statistically, most officers die in traffic accidents when all activities are taken into account, and I maintain that even that involves the unknown, but the larger point is, things like domestic disputes are extremely dangerous because they are so wildly unpredictable.  Also, the lethal act by the citizen does not necessarily come from the main two people involved in the dispute.  It could be anyone, like a child in the residence.  I was personally attacked with a knife during a domestic dispute that I was called to.  The attacked was a teenaged daughter.  I just happened to catch her coming at me from the corner of my eye.  I wasn’t looking at her, and no one was speaking to her.  These situations are wildly unpredictable.  

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