Rookie Mistakes and Close Calls

After reading over my most recent story about shotguns etc., I came to the conclusion that I may have been a little tough on the bosses and administration of the Manchester Police Department who were running the PD during my early days. It was not my intent to criticize anyone in particular, or to paint the agency in a bad light. When I arrived in Manchester I found it was largely a blue collar, rough and tumble type of town that was going through some changes, many of which were not for the better. I was a bit surprised and taken aback by some of the attitudes I found and experienced here. However, I stand by the things I said in that story and others I have written about the climate I found myself working in particularly during my first couple of years. 

All this being said, I was fortunate enough to work for some great supervisors in those days, and many of them encouraged me to work hard on the street as well as apply for as much in-service training whenever the opportunity presented itself. In my case, it would be almost seven years before I was allowed to attend an in-service training course which I had applied for. However, even that first in-service training class I had been approved for, I had been initially  denied entry into. When I re-applied for that training, I was told by a certain shift commander that if I wanted to attend this training, I would have to agree not to endorse or participate in certain union actions in the future. ‘Oh, I get it now’ I thought at the time. I grieved that condition to our union, and that condition was quickly dropped and I attended that training in the end. Needless to say my push back in this case did not ingratiate me with some of the bosses at MPD. One even went so far as to tell a third party that as long as he had any say on the matter, neither my brother or I would ever work in a division or specialty assignment (other than patrol). Thankfully, we both eventually went on to work in detectives in various capacities later and had good careers. 

I also came to feel that the reason I had been denied both training opportunities and certain assignments during those years was directly due to my union affiliation and strong support for my union brothers and sisters. But, all this is a story for another time. 

Some of the better supervisors I was fortunate to work for in those early years included guys and gals like Bobby M., Anita L. Tony F, Dick T, Joe D and the late Gary T and Tony L. I went on to work for many great supervisors later during my career, but I also worked for a few who didn’t give a damn about me, or the job I did. Some thought that a good cop was a cop that never “rocked the boat”. What can you do? That’s police work.   

Despite all those things, some of the best lessons and guidance I received in those early years came from watching and listening to other cops on the street. When I arrived at MPD I had the good fortune to work with some great street cops that were already on the job there. They included Kevin K.  Al M, Glen K, Walter F, John B, Biily C, Rob M, Rob “Duke” H, Kevin A, Brain L, Ken P, Tony S and Chris G, just to name a few. There were many others, but I especially learned a lot form these guys in particular. They worked hard, treated victims, street people and even the bad guys out there with both firmness and respect. As I said, I watched and learned. I picked and chose carefully which traits I took from all the cops I worked with, and used them along with my own personality, personal and work ethics to form the foundation of the cop I became as I grew into the job.  

Despite all this, I still made “rookie” mistakes, and fortunately, as far as I knew, no one ever got hurt when I did make a mistake. One of my earliest rookie mistakes occurred after I had finished my Field Training period and was working on my own pushing a one man “X” car, during the old 6PM-230 AM shift the summer of 1991. I was still a probationary patrol officer at the time. It was a busy night, like many nights on that shift, and I was sent to a call where I was told a citizen had seen a man pointing a gun at a woman and trying to drag her down the street at gunpoint. The location I was sent to was the corner of Norris and Somerville Streets. As it happened, I was just a block away and assigned to then 26X car, and I arrived just seconds after receiving the call. 

Norris and Somerville Streets were just at the periphery of what we called an inner city neighborhood. Although many three decker and four floor older tenements were in the area, they were mostly well kept up and it was a relatively quiet neighborhood, compared to what lay four or five blocks to the west. 

As I arrived, I noted one male subject only, and he was walking away from that intersection. I pulled over, picked up my mic and informed dispatch that I was off at the scene with one male subject walking westerly on Somerville St. I didn’t stay in the car long enough to insure that my transmission was heard by dispatch or the unit that was assigned to back me up on the call. It was a busy night, and I learned a short time later that no one ever heard me call off with the fact I was with a suspect. There were too many units trying to call and communicate with dispatch and other cruisers at the same time. An all too common occurrence. My transmission, had been drowned out by cruisers with stronger radios, and as a result, no one else knew I had arrived at the scene 

In any case, assuming that everyone else who was listening knew I had made contact with a possibly armed suspect, I jumped out of the cruiser and decided to stop and question this person to see if he had seen or heard anything. I walked towards him so that he was facing me, I ordered him to stop. He complied, I questioned him for a moment or two, then decided to check him for warrants and possibly complete a field card on him. I dutifully took out paper and pen and started to take notes for my “Box Score” to be tallied on my “Daily” at the end of the night. I had no idea just how much danger I was in at that very moment. I was treating this individual as though he was harmless, and I quickly came to the decision that this was not the guy I was looking for! 

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a cruiser, my back up, pulled up behind the suspect I was questioning. It came rolling to a stop in this otherwise quiet, dark neighborhood. My back up jumped out of his cruiser, walked up behind my suspect and broke the quiet by yelling “GUN, PARTNER!” (just like we were trained to yell in the police academy). Then, to my amazement, he removed a fully loaded large caliber semi-automatic pistol from the belt in the small of my suspect’s back. The cop held it up in the air for me to see, and ordered me to handcuff the subject while he drew down on and and covered my guy at gunpoint. I sheepishly put my paper and pen away and did as directed. I then understood that I was with the armed suspect that we got the call original call on. At the time, I was more embarrassed than fearful. I was never able to locate either the witness, who was an anonymous caller, or the reported female victim. To make things worse, my backup told me he never heard me call off at the scene and didn’t know until he arrived that I actually had someone stopped.  

That cop, who I truly believe saved my life that night was John Breckinridge. I believe that if I tried to take that guy into custody before John arrived, he may very well have shot or killed me. He certainly had the ability to do just that, as I had my sidearm securely locked into my holster, little use to me at the time.

Ironically, 15 years later in 2006, John’s bicycle patrol partner was shot killed early one morning in a dark back alley as they attempted to stop and question two subjects in relation to a shots fired / domestic violence call. John and Mike tried to stop two suspects for questioning. When they ordered the two to stop, one did, and John grabbed on to him, the other ignored their orders and continued on. While John dealt with one of the suspects, his partner, Mike Briggs tried to grab the other guy who suddenly turned and fatally shot Mike in the head. We just never know, no matter how routine things get, and how often we do the same things over and over again without incident during our careers, when responding to a call can take a quick and deadly turn. 

What I learned that night on Somerville St. was that considering the information I was given, and my immediate proximity to the call, I should have stopped this suspect at gun point, held him there until back up arrived and then searched him. It was a mistake I had vowed never to make again. As it turned out that night, my prisoner, who had no permit to carry that pistol also had a criminal record. 

Later in his career, John was nearly dragged to his death trying to apprehend a wanted subject while off duty. That incident set off a police vehicle pursuit which started in Manchester when John tried to make that arrest, and ended in Lawrence Massachusetts when that suspect rammed both Massachusetts State Police and Lawrence Ma. police cruisers. Another simple situation which immediately turned deadly.

Although John was always coy and dismissive about the incident with me any time I brought it up in the years to follow, I truly believe that John may very well have saved my life that night, which was only a week or two after I had completed my Field Training period. Once again, Thank you John for having my back that night. I’ll always owe you for that. 

On another night right around that time, I stopped a guy around Spruce and Union who was driving a beat up old station wagon. The reason I stopped him was that he was driving around the area aimlessly, and I came to believe he was looking to either pick up a prostitute or score some drugs. In any case, I believed I had “articulable suspicion” the legal standard needed for a brief stop and investigation as to whether this subject was committing or about to commit a crime. 

I hit the blues and pulled him over. I questioned him accordingly, checked his license and registration and him for warrants, but all was in order. I questioned him a bit, but under the law I felt I couldn’t detain him much longer unless I developed a further reason to do so. I did note a pile of something in the back of the wagon, but whatever it was, it was covered with a tarp. I thought it may have been construction material or perhaps tools, but I never asked. My instincts told me something was amiss, however, being so new on the job, I hadn’t learned trust my street instincts yet, and I eventually cut him loose since I didn’t feel as though I had enough information to search him or the car, or even detain him any further. 

A very short time later, a drive by shooting came over the air. The shooting was nearby, and a description of the shooter’s car was given by witnesses. No one was hit, but several bullets struck a nearby tenement, and by some stroke of luck no one was hurt. 

About five minutes later Walter, (Another Quincy / Milton, Massachusetts  Kid) radioed in that he stopped a car matching the description from the shooting. I immediately went to his location and backed him up. Much to my surprise, he had the same station wagon and driver stopped that I had stopped a short time earlier. As I recall, Walter (one of the best street cops I had ever worked with) had the driver out of the car was holding him at gunpoint. Walter certainly didn’t make the same mistake I made back on Sommerville Street.

During a search of the station wagon, under the tarp, the same tarp I had previously observed, we found several firearms. We, or I should say Walter, found a firearm that we believed the driver used during the drive by shooting. This was another wake up call for me. When I had stopped him, he seemed harmless enough, at worst some dubba trying to pick up a prostitute but who knew? Would he have shot me if I had him exit the car in order to prevent me from finding all the weapons he had in possession? As I reflect on it now, so many years later, I think it is a valid question. Even more disturbing to me was what if when I cut him loose he actually killed someone during that drive by, after I had him stopped and released him.

All indications were that he tried to do just that. What if he had shot Walter? After my stopping him and cutting him loose still in possession of all those weapons…another hard lesson I am still embarrassed about, but I think it illustrates the kind of split second decisions which cops have to make on a daily basis when they work the streets. Instinct itself, although very useful, doesn’t substitute for the probable cause needed to stop and detain someone on the street. But an experienced cop could always listen to his or her instinct, and then find lawful ways to further question or search someone they felt was up to no good. I hadn’t developed that ability yet. This suspect and his weapons were taken into custody, but we never learned why this guy shot up that house. Another of an endless stream of quality arrests that Walter made on a regular basis.

One day shift while working early in my career I was sent to back up another officer on a domestic dispute. The Officer I was sent to back up was then and still is respectfully known as the Duke. Duke was another hard working cop. He was a motor cycle cop when they let him ride and later spent many years in our Traffic Division working Traffic Enforcement. He was regularly honored at the NH Police Academy, often receiving the annual “Looking Beyond the Traffic Stop” award for his regular numerous high quality arrests he made while enforcing traffic laws. He was always among the first to back us up, and even though he didn’t have to, he went to many, many patrol calls while working traffic. He was a hard working street cop, and someone who you wanted with you when the shit hit the fan. 

This day, Duke had the route car adjacent to me, and he arrived quickly at the domestic, which was on the first floor of a three decker.  I always said nothing ever happens on the first floor, stealing the line from a book about by a former Boston Police Officer called “A Cop’s Cop” and I found it to be true. You could always count on your call to be located on the top floor of whatever two or three family dwelling you were sent to. Except for this day.

I arrived shortly after the Duke did because I wasn’t that close, but I was the closest free unit. When I did arrive, I noted Duke’s cruiser was already there, and apparently he was inside. I got out of my car, and I was immediately approached by that rare and wonderful phenomena, a living, talking, cooperative witness! 

He told me he lived upstairs, and that he called the police. He said the couple on the first floor were arguing all night, he hadn’t been able to sleep, but now he heard banging and screaming and he was fearful for the safety of the woman who lived there. I made a note of his name and date of birth, in case I needed it, along with a mental note of what he told me. I then found the door to the apartment closed but unlocked. Since I knew Duke was already inside, I just walked in.

Imagine how I felt when I saw Duke rolling around the ground grappling with the guy who lived there, each trying to exchange blows with each other. I jumped right into the fray, and after a short scrum, we had the guy handcuffed. Duke brushed himself off, looked at me with a curious expression on his face, then asked me “What Kept Ya”? Needless to say I was embarrassed that I stayed outside for several minutes and let this guy chat me up while my partner, at least for this call, was inside fighting with someone he was trying to arrest. Another mistake I never repeated. But at the time, the chance to actually get a statement from a cooperative witness was just too much for me to ignore. I came to understand that I had those priorities mixed up that afternoon. My first concern should have been my partners safety. 

I’ll close with one more bit of foolishness on my part. One afternoon I was sent to a shoplifting call at the Rite Aid, I think it was, which used to be in the old shopping plaza at Lake and Elm. When I arrived, the manager was detaining a rather down on his luck looking gent who had allegedly stolen a bottle of Vicks Cough Syrup. Cost $5.00. The guy had no money to pay for it, and I asked the manager if he wanted to press charges. He said he did because his store was getting hit hard by shoplifters and as a result the company wished to press charges for any theft, regardless of value. 

Having worked in the retail business for so long, I got it and once I found the suspect possessed no form of ID, that allowed me to arrest without a warrant even though it was a misdemeanor not committed in my presence. I searched him and called for the wagon. The wagon had a few pick ups to make before it got to me, so I was told it would be along shortly. MPD Standard Operating Procedures normally forbid us to transport arrests in cruisers, and that was fine by me. 

Normally, unlike we see on TV often, I always placed handcuffs on a suspect that I was going to arrest before I searched him or her. None of this “put your hands on your head” holding their hands with one hand and searching with the other. Handcuffs go on first. But on this day, I deviated from the normal procedure I was trained to perform and normally followed. 

The guy seemed harmless enough and cooperative, certainly no desperado (or was he?)so walked him out of the store to wait for the wagon. I didn’t feel threatened and didn’t want to make a big deal in the store over a $5 pinch. 

The suspect was polite and asked me if he could smoke a cigarette, and knowing it would be a while before he got to smoke once the wagon arrived, I felt bad and agreed. I told him that once the wagon arrived he’d have to put out the cigarette and I’d have to handcuff him. He seemed agreeable enough. He had his smoke, the wagon arrived so I cuffed him, he was placed inside and off he went to MPD. I followed them there, and when it was his turn, I took him up to the booking officer and booked him in. Violation of RSA 6-whatever, the defendant did, with purpose to deprive…etc…shoplifting-To Wit: a bottle of cough syrup retail value $5, is how the complaint read.  

After I booked him and placed him into a cell, I began what I hoped would be a brief affidavit and report. Meanwhile, the booking officer performed a record check on my shoplifter. Turns out he was wanted in some other part of the country for escaping from custody, and attempted murder. He’d been on the run for a while, and apparently had been on the run for a few years. He was a violent fugitive.

Meanwhile I’m just chatting with this guy while waiting for the wagon while he smoked his cigarette. Why he didn’t attack me and try to kill me to flee, I’ll never know. Maybe he was tired of being a fugitive, and fortunately for me, he went quietly. Maybe it just wasn’t my day to die. Despite it all, bottle of cough syrup aside, it turned out to be a good solid arrest. Yet here was another hard lesson learned. As my career went on, some people I dealt with that I had arrested may have thought I was a hard ass, handcuffing them and taking certain safety precautions for a minor offense and being inflexible about it. Please believe me when I behaved like that I had my reasons.  

I made some other mistakes over time, but I like to think I’ve learned from each one. Maybe I’ll write about those as well. I will say that working the street, you can’t alienate and treat every person you stop or have contact with as though they are about to assault or kill you. Not everyone out there is John Dillinger. You have to find some middle ground when you deal with the public, remaining approachable and courteous, while at the same time taking enough precautions so that you don’t become a victim yourself. 

Suffice it to say that these types of decisions that are faced by cops on the street daily will always be critiqued and criticized ad nauseam by the bosses, other cops and often by judges and attorneys after months and sometimes years of deliberation and second guessing. One lesson I took from my early mistakes was to never underestimate the criminal I have contact I have with on the street because it may well result in my own death, or the death of another cop or innocent civilian. After all, the guy I had stopped at Norris and Somerville, may well have panicked and spun around and shot John Breckinridge as John walked up behind him. If that had happened, whose fault would that have been? The answer is obvious. 

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