Dozens of cars whooshed over my head every second; I first heard the engine, followed by thunks of axles bumping over seams in the freeway, and then the air as it tried in vain to catch up in their wake. The lamps fifty feet above the cars were the only light sources; only a little of it snuck past the overpass and made the journey down to where I sat, in a police car, beneath the highway. I was left sitting in a memory of light, like the image that remained when you finally turn off an old television that had been on for too long.
This light left too many shadows. The nearby shipping depots and body shops had long since become “mixed use” developments, which meant they were only used for discussion during city council meetings. They loomed like sad bamboo around the Hotel Antillia – squeezing it against the two-lane road that ran along the freeway above.
Officer Timmons turned on the spotlight mounted to the side of his police car as he pulled into the hotel’s horseshoe parking lot and shined it on the single-story rows of hotel rooms ran along either side. Each room had a front door that opened into the attached carport, swallowing the doors and cars underneath in shadow until the spotlight punched through. The spotlight darted from car window, to front door, to the lone window allotted to each room, and then on to the next room.
This was not the first hotel parking lot that we had roamed that evening – we were looking for anyone who had left their room to smoke, or talk to other guests, or sit in their car. Officer Timmons was free to chat with anyone he saw in public, and if that person happened to be high, getting high, holding an open container, or on probation or parole, Officer Timmons would then further intervene into their evening.
“Outstanding.” I heard Officer Timmons as he braked to the right of a red Corolla in one of the hotel’s parking spaces. No need to undo the seatbelt – Officer Timmons had been in and out of his car so often that night he no longer bothered to fasten it. I peered through the passenger window in hopes of seeing what Officer Timmons had spotted in a matter of split-seconds; a woman’s head shot up from the driver’s lap just as the driver tried to sink lower behind the back of his seat.
“Let me guess, it’s not what it looks like,” Officer Timmons said as the driver blinked in confusion at the officer’s flashlight. Both he and his passenger handed over their IDs without being asked. Officer Timmons read each card as the driver spilled the entire saga of how he and his lady friend wound up in that parking lot.
I rolled down my window just a bit, and pressed my ear to the crack.
“You see, officer, I know that this isn’t the right place to be doing this, but she’s married with two kids, and my room wasn’t free because me and two other guys chipped in to pay the $54 it cost to rent a room and they got back early, and there really wasn’t anywhere we could go, and no one was around, and besides, I have every right to be here because it’s a public parking lot.”
“Yes sir, that’s the problem, you’re doing this in a public parking lot,” Officer Timmons said, the threads of his patience holding steadfast.
Meanwhile, the dispatcher chirped over the car radio and into Officer Timmons’ earpiece. No wants, no warrants, and neither party was on probation.
“Alright, I’m going to be back in a half hour to see if you two are still out here. Take what you’re doing inside, or I’ll take you in,” Officer Timmons warned before returning their IDs. “I can’t have you out here making yourselves targets for whoever might want to jack [rob] you while you two are distracted.” He slid back into the police car and continued his inspection of the Antillia parking lot; the two men who had been chatting across the lot through their respective windows had long since closed their curtains.
My night with the Sequoia Meadow Police Department followed much the same pattern. Officer Timmons had no sergeant or commanding officer dictating where he should patrol, and so he spent the time between calls roaming secluded, poorly lit public spaces. We rolled through the Honduran neighborhood to let the local gangs know that the SMPD was out and about. We shined spotlights into empty parking garages and parks that closed to the public at sunset. We visited the boarded-up meth house across from the union hall, whose tenants had scattered after one of them hanged himself inside. We also found the time to swing by the homes in the hills with three-car garages because, according to Officer Timmons, several of the owners had complained that they don’t “feel safe” without a “visible police presence.”
At around 1:00 a.m., Officer Timmons drove toward the entrance to the SMPD’s parking lot in order to drop me off before his lunch break. On one side were the steel skeletons of new, “affordable” $800,000 2-bedroom condos. On the other side, the gray glass façade of a large investment firm; signs and arrows guided drivers to the designated limousine parking. Officer Timmons wished me a good night and dropped me off at my car. He pulled away and went to grab lunch, which at that time of night was going to come from either a convenience store or a drive-through.
I nearly missed my exit home while driving back from Sequoia Meadow; I had gotten lost in thought. In 7 hours, Officer Timmons would finish his shift and begin his hour-long commute to the home where he and his family could actually afford to live on a police officer’s salary. Officer Timmons will have spent the remainder of his shift continuing to roam the semi-secluded public spaces of the city, looking for people who lack the privacy and/or good sense to indulge their vices indoors. If their crimes are serious enough, Officer Timmons will arrest them; otherwise, he will shoo them away back into the shadows for their own safety. This will also save Officer Timmons from having to drive back to Sequoia Meadow on one of his days off to testify in court.
“The system is broken,” Officer Timmons had told me as we filled his tank with gas at the beginning of our ride-along. I had nodded politely, assuming that his reasons for thinking that would be completely opposed to my own. But as the evening unfurled, I learned that our opinions overlapped to a surprising degree. Jails and prisons take first-offenders and hardens them by subjecting them to an environment of constant fear. The defendants who go in hardened become permanently lost. Those who avoid jail are simply ignored like a cigarette butt on the sidewalk; dopers and hookers are cited, released, rearrested when they fail to come to court, and then re-released, and then they go right back to old habits once they serve their time.
Officer Timmons has to figure out whether the psychotic homeless man is off his meds, on the right meds, or on enough meds and if he guesses incorrectly, the doctors release him to go right back to exposing himself before Officer Timmons’ shift ends. Sometimes, Officer Timmons finds a man leaning against the side of a building, too drunk to stand but awake enough to almost answer his questions. This man would be too drunk to safely book into the jail but unless Officer Timmons can prove the man’s identity, he cannot take him to the “drunk tank” to sober up. The last option is to call for first responders. But then Officer Timmons has to decide how urgent the situation is before calling it in; a “Code 1″ (lowest priority) is unlikely to get any response at all, while a “Code 3″ was reserved for life threatening emergencies.
These stories came back to me during my drive home. Officer Timmons represents the boundary between the have-nots and have-mores. Sequoia Meadow’s criminal class invited police intervention solely because they lacked the private space to commit their crimes away from prying eyes. In a matter of seconds, Officer Timmons must decide whether he has a legal basis for intruding into someone’s evening. Once he does, he then has to balance what is necessary to keep the city looking safe to the well-heeled residents while rationing the few crumbs-worth of public resources at his disposal. He has only three options to choose from; jailing someone temporarily removes their unsightly activities from public view, but often makes a bad person worse before releasing them back into the world. Calling upon other public resources, such as hospitals or firefighters, cost a tremendous amount of time and money. Sadly, the most efficient solution is to shoo the problem back into the shadows so that the citizens of Sequoia Meadow can tell themselves that it isn’t there. Afterward, Officer Timmons leaves the city to return to where he can actually afford to live.
Making people feel safe without making things better: this is what Officer Timmons meant when he said that the “system is broken.” Despite everything I had seen, I never quite appreciated just how bad things really are.