Friday, January 18, 2013

Guest Post: Pat O'Brien's "Oh, Shit!"

I always talk about growing up around great story-tellers in my hometown of St. Marys, Pennsylvania. From time to time my friend, Ray Beimel, has written stories about things he experienced for me to post here. This post is from Pat O'Brien, whose father, Jack, was a popular and well-loved writer for the local paper. Pat lives in Idaho now but was a policeman for much of his career, first in California, then in Alaska. He also served as my "technical consultant" for Henry Werner's police procedures in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall.  I think you will enjoy his story-telling skills!


Oh Shit!”

Pat O’Brien

Shit! Shit! Shit!” Under the circumstances it was the best I could do. 

We’d all graduated from the San Diego Police Academy and had gotten our first assignments for the Field Training Program. We would be assigned to three different parts of the city on all three shifts for three months each rotation. We would be trained and evaluated daily by our FTO (Field Training Officer) who’s observations and evaluations would decide if we would be able to become a regular officer. The Daily Evaluation form was two-sided. On the front was a list of about 50 items that were scored 1-5 or not observed. On the back side was a section for overall performance, the thing we did best during the shift, the thing we did worst during the shift and room for additional comments. 

The stress was incredible. We had to stand for inspection every day, our uniforms, report case, weapons and assorted paperwork all had to be in perfect order. We were expected to be knowledgeable in the city, state, criminal, civil and traffic laws. We were expected to demonstrate textbook officer safety, be a part-time therapist, marriage counselor, preacher and tough guy. Sybil had it easy. We were expected to be creative, innovative, display solid interrogation techniques, good rapport with the public and give the Mayor a ticket if at all possible. We were given daily “hot sheets” with photos and summaries of crimes in our area the past 24 hours. We were expected to keep abreast of this material and be able to talk about it. We had to inspect the car to make sure no weapons or contraband were left behind from the previous shift. 

Learning the streets, housing projects, major intersections, convenience stores, fire stations, and hospitals within our patrol areas was only the start. My hardest part was learning the streets. Much of my time in the right hand seat was spent with my nose buried in the Thompson Brothers City Map book. As we would cruise around my FTO would pull to the curb and say, “Back at the 7-11 there were three teenagers standing out front. What did they look like?” I would have preferred him to just shoot me in the knee. Another FTO, later on, would holler real loud, scream down some streets, pull into an alley at high speed, hit another alley and slam on the breaks. “Okay, you’ve just been shot at. Where are you?” Again, the other knee was up for grabs. Just as we got to know our area we would get sent to an entirely different part of the city on a different shift, to start all over again. It was maddening. 

My first FTO was Michael Dennis, a seven-year veteran. We were working the eastern part of the city on the day shift. It was not an especially busy area. We had a few gangs and dope houses but the major crimes were burglaries and car thefts. About three months prior, two officers had been ambushed on Paradise Valley Road, right in the middle of our area, and were injured, but not severely. Their patrol car had 47 bullet holes in it. Stark reminder that it can hit the fan at any time. Mike was very good and told me the first three days he just wanted me using the map book to learn the streets and landmarks. He chatted on all shift about the locals, traffic codes, “what would you do” scenarios and pointed out things I needed to observe. Driving around as a civilian and driving around as a police officer are totally different things. 

You have to be aware of your compass directions, the street you are on, the hundred blocks and what streets are coming up next. You also had to monitor the radio and keep in mind where all the other units in your squad are and what they are doing as well as looking around at what is going on with the bad guys, and observe traffic for violations. We also had to make sure our presence was known to possible criminal types, so we were always getting out to find out what a group of guys were up to, who really didn’t want to talk to you or cooperate with you. It was a balancing act between being the Alpha male and not disrespecting them, which could end up in an ambush, all on their terms.

Thursday was the first day Michael was going to let me drive the police car. He would handle the radio traffic the first half and I would take it the second half. I was really excited and couldn’t wait to get to work. Before I took over we went to a large warehouse parking lot to practice panic stops. No automatic breaking then, it was all manual. We practiced staying right on the edge of adhesion and avoiding locking up the tires and hydroplaning. That gave us maximum traction, and unspokenly, didn’t leave skid marks that would allow the traffic units to know how fast you were going if you got into a wreck. We practiced panic stops for about 45 minutes. I was ready.

It really wasn’t what you’d call a good day. I hit a kid on a bike. 

Just hang on now, as bad as it seems I do have a little wiggle room here, and naturally I’m going to put as much blame on him as possible. I had been behind the wheel about 20 minutes and had probably gone through two sticks of Old Spice when suddenly we got a radio dispatch to a multiple-car accident, injuries unknown. We were dispatched code three, lights and siren. Mike fed me directions as I drove. It was a three-lane road and I had moved into the middle lane when I saw two kids on bicycles on the right side of the road about a quarter mile away. They turned around and looked at us as we were approaching. I reduced my speed as we got closer to them, and when we were about 50 yards away one of the kids decided to cross to the other side of the highway. He pulled into the closest lane and then into the middle. I dynamited the breaks, turned hard to the left to avoid him, but he kept on the same trajectory as me. 

I left enough rubber on the road to vulcanize a Zodiac. As we got closer and closer I could only swear. I hit his rear tire. He went airborne over the handlebars and hit the pavement running at Mach 1. He never fell to the ground, and thank God, didn’t get a scratch on him. His bike however had placed itself under the right front tire of San Diego City property. We got out and made sure the kid was okay, called for Paramedics to be sure and had dispatch send another unit to the accident as well asking for a Traffic Unit to come investigate ours. 

I wish I could tell you what my FTO said. Thank God it was my work Friday. There was no damage to the patrol car, so after the traffic unit finished with all the photos, tape measurements, skid mark measurement, etc. we headed back to the station. I wish I could tell you what my FTO said. I think I heard “Burger King” in there somewhere. Between, I’ll call it talking, to me, reminding me of the panic stop exercises we’d just done and some uncalled for remarks about being able to walk upright and chew gum, it was a long trip back to the station. 

The next day the shift Lieutenant knocked on my apartment door to hand deliver my letter of reprimand and administer a stern lecture about my future as a police officer. After he left I was totally humiliated and crestfallen, so I did the only thing an honorable man could do. I went to the 7-11, picked up three 12 packs of Coors, a box of Swisher Sweets, went back to my apartment and had some of my buddies over for a poker game.

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