I chase TJ down the narrow alley between Ed’s Liquors and Payday Loans. Even after twenty-two years on the job, I love this shot of adrenaline, fear and gonna-get-em that pushes me when I’m after a perp. TJ might be ahead of me by a block, but he’s not getting away.
Calling this strip an alley is generous. A dirty, dark, stinky lane, not even wide enough for a car. I swerve around two sleeping bodies, shoving their grocery cart piled high with who knows what to the wall. No outside lights, only the shine from inside the two crummy businesses that feed off the poor slobs who live in this neighborhood.
Damn, TJ’s near the end of the alley. He’ll disappear in the housing projects if I don’t run faster. Lord, let me get this guy. He’s an asshole, hooking kids on meth. I want to win this one big time.
Oh crap, my left leg. What the hell? Did I pull my fucking hamstring? Keep going, don’t give up the chase yet. Damn, my leg hurts. I’m forced to do a pony walk, my right leg leading, to the end of this stench way. TJ must be long gone.
One round bright light beams across the courtyard. I scan the area. The housing projects are three big ass apartment buildings. Two face each other, with the cracked cement courtyard separating them. One more across the top. Every unit has a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
Where would TJ head? The buildings form a U with dry overgrown grass between them. All kinds of spaces and places for TJ to hide.
Whoa, TJ’s laying face down on the pavement, about thirty feet away. I jog to him, the back of my left leg screaming. How the hell did he get to the ground?
I yank my cuffs off my belt, force my gimp leg over TJ, and stand at a straddle over his body. I pull TJ’s right arm behind him. As I reach for the left arm, I spot four guys coming across the courtyard. By the time I get the handcuffs on TJ, there are about a dozen residents walking toward me. Shit, the cell phones must have buzzed from balcony to balcony.
I need to call for backup. Should have done that as soon as I saw the drug buy. I know better than to head to the projects without backup. And I’ve got this messed up leg now. Every damn TV show shows a cop with a partner. Yeah, like any department’s got money to buy me a buddy.
“Sergeant Ruggeri, backup needed at Everwood projects,” I radio.
“What’s up, Sarge?” the dispatcher asks.
“Get backup here now,” I say, emphasis on now. “Got a perp on the ground and a crowd’s forming.”
My hands pat down TJ’s body. I feel a lump in his right pocket. I hope it’s the meth amphetamine but can’t take time to pull the object out. TJ’s face is bloody. I can’t see what’s causing the bleeding. He seems barely conscious. Is he high or seriously hurt or what?
“Ambulance for the perp,” I bark into the two way.
“What are the injuries, Sarge?”
“No time, just get here.”
About fifty people form a half circle around me. No one’s here to welcome me. Black and brown faces stare at my olive one. About half are young punks. The other half is mostly their mamas. A few older men. One guy, maybe fifty years old, looks familiar. Have I busted him?
I stand straight, still straddling TJ.
“You beat that boy?” one woman asks. “You cops are always beating our boys.”
I was stupid to come here alone. First week on patrol in three years. Running the juvenile turnaround program has left me soft. My right hand is on the billy club holstered to my belt, right next to my gun. I’m ready if I need to be.
“Yeah,” one of the young punks says. “Look at TJ’s face. Police brutality. You didn’t need to do that, cop.”
Several of the young guys move closer to me. Where’s the backup? I pull out my billy club, holding it upright.
“Gonna beat us too?” the same punk challenges. “You come into our turf to beat us?” He shakes his fist at me. “Think again, cop.”
“You come after me, you get the club,” I say. Need to make clear that I’m in charge here. “That’s how it works. You come after me, I defend myself.”
A patrol car pulls up on the other side of the courtyard. Two cops jump out and haul ass across the cement square. Being the sarge does get quick attention.
“I didn’t hit TJ,” I continue. “I don’t know what happened. I’m guessing some of you do. If you do, please talk to me.”
“You didn’t hit him,” says a boy maybe all of sixteen years old. Flips me off. “Yeah, right, you motherfucker.”
I’m not even pissed. Fed up? Frustrated? Yeah. But I still believe there’s got to be a way. So much anger. So much hatred of cops. But how can you give up on sixteen year olds?
A few heads turn and notice the two cops behind the crowd. Other heads turn to see what’s up. The tension releases a bit. Some of these guys might be angry enough to jump one cop, but they’re not taking on three.
“Let’s break it up,” I say. “But, if you know how TJ ended up on the ground, I’d appreciate your staying to talk to me.”
“TJ’s on the ground because you beat him,” a voice booms.
I look into the face of the one man who looks familiar. Grey hair, cut close to his scalp. Big guy, maybe six foot, two inches, two hundred and ten pounds. Paunchy stomach pushing out his Raider Nation sweatshirt.
“This is police brutality.”
I can’t stand that accusation. I’m not that kind of cop. Haven’t known many cops who are. What can I do here? Can I make any headway with this crowd? How about just with this man?
“Stick around,” I mouth to the two patrol cops. “I may need witnesses.”
The crowd is breaking up, some small groups of two or three talking. Others disappear back into one of the three buildings. The man I can’t place turns away.
“Sir,” I say. I take a few painful steps to catch up with him. “I didn’t beat TJ. Like I said, I’ll use force if I have to. But, otherwise, forget about it.”
He shakes his head, keeps walking away from me.
“If you think what you saw tonight is police brutality, you need to come down to the station and file charges,” I urge. “Don’t leave those accusations hanging.”
“I just might do that.”
“What’s stopping you?” I ask. “I don’t know what the hell happened to TJ. I was chasing him but slowed down when I pulled a muscle. When I came out of the alley, he was on the ground. That’s the truth, I swear to God.”
He stops, looks at me. I’m hoping he’s moving a bit past his anger, maybe into wondering what did happen.
“Any of those kids out here tonight yours?” I ask.
“One,” he nods. “I’m raising my seventeen year old grandboy. He’s a good boy but I’m still afraid of what you police might do to him.”
“Why don’t you go talk to him? See if he saw what happened to TJ or if any of his buddies did?” I step in front of him. “Let’s either clear out this police brutality charge or have you file charges against me.”
“I’ll talk to him,” the man says. “You wait here.”
Did I get in his head a little bit? I walk back to TJ. The patrol cops have pulled him to his feet. His forehead is bloody, scraped up. His right cheek has swelled, purple bruises already.
“What happened to your face, TJ?” I ask.
Much as I hate to admit it, TJ’s a lost cause. I came across him several times on the juvie beat. Drugs captured him before I could.
“I ain’t talking to no one without my lawyer,” he says. His head’s hanging, arms cuffed behind his back. “But I’m thinking that Jimmy-O’s Pops might help me get you for beating me up.”
“TJ, you and I both know I never hit you.” Jimmy-O, that name rings a bell. “You guys take him to the station, I’ll meet you there in a little while.”
I hobble to a low cement wall that borders the building and sit down. I’m wiped. My hamstring hurts like hell. I sure don’t want a brutality charge, but I’m not limping away from it. The back of my left leg throbs.
The man comes out of the building on the other side of the courtyard, pushing the iron security gate open. Jimmy-O, now I remember. I caught him with a paint can tagging his school a few years back. I liked that kid. He agreed to community service. Worked at the food bank for a while. Showed up every time he was supposed to.
The grandfather stands before me. I look up into his black face, noticing how tired his eyes look. Just looking at his eyes, I might think he was eighty.
“My grandboy and his pal did see something,” he says. “TJ came storming out of the alley. He turned to haul down the walkway between the apartment building and the Payday Rip Off Your Money place.”
He points to the building closest to the alley, near where TJ and the other two cops are.
“TJ has never been too smart,” the man continues. “That dumbass ran smack into the building, damn near knocked himself out.” A soft chuckle and a shake of his head. “My boy saw him hit the wall and fall to the ground. Then you came out. My boy said you run funny.”
“Thank you,” I said. Man, that TJ is a dumbass. “I appreciate your talking to your boy. I appreciate your taking another look at things.”
“We gotta watch out for these boys,” he says. “Life’s tough. They got a lotta reason to be angry, a lot of reason to do bad.”
“I want to help,” I said. “I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to make things worse.”
“My grandboy, Jimmy, remembers you. You’re the one who made sure he didn’t get that school shit on his record.”
“I remember,” I nod. “Pretty obvious he had someone looking out for him at home. What’s your name?”
“Joe Ruggeri,” I say, extending my hand. Damn, I’m good. Don’t get cocky Joe, but looks like you can still trust your gut.
We shake hands, his warm black hand gripping my chilled olive hand.
Got TJ. Got a handshake. A ripple of relief, a look at hope. Back on patrol.
Marianne Lonsdale writes short stories and personal essays, and is now focussed on developing a novel. She’s had essays published in the San Francisco Chronicle, and in an anthology, Thanksgiving Tales. She was a frequent contributor to the now defunct Writing Mamas website and is excited to be on the advisory board of a new writers’ group, Write On, Mamas.
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