The lobby of Portland Police Bureau's East Precinct, located at 737 SE 106th, exudes the kind of sterile, authoritative charm normally associated with post offices and civil registries, in that there are many free brochures, receptionists pull apart sliding glass windows before engaging you in conversation, and the chairs are very uncomfortable. After introducing myself I'm predictably told to take a seat.
My contact for tonight's ride-along is Officer Jeff McDaniel, an eight-and-a-half-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau. He's patrolled the Southeast neighborhoods from 82nd and 136th to the east, and between Division and Holgate to the south, for the past seven years. Known as "Felony Flats" by those who live elsewhere, Officer McDaniel's district is a loose amalgam of dive bars, strip clubs, pawn shops, taquerias, tarnished apartment complexes, adult video arcades, low- to middle-income housing, gas stations, an international farmers market, convenience stores, abrasive neon advertising, strange churches, Asian groceries, barbed wire, Goodwill stores, first-generation immigrants, kids on low-rider bicycles, and several fast food restaurants that have yet to correct their brightly lit marquees that read "ON DOLRR BRGER." Much of the pavement around the empty office parks in this area appears permanently blackened with the worn tread of street-racing vehicles. There's also Lents Park, which recently lost a Minor League Baseball team.
Dispatch reports two teenage girls fighting near the parking lot behind the Taco Bell at SE 83rd and Francis. By the time we arrive, a second officer has separated the girls for questioning. Girl A is pouty and standoffish. When questioned by Officer McDaniel she paints herself as the victim, claiming the altercation stemmed from an earlier incident at school.
"I am bullied," she says. "I'm always being bullied."
To make matters worse her mother—a thin, chain-smoking woman who repeatedly punches numbers on her cell phone yet never places a call or receives one—gives a dramatic statement to Officer McDaniel regarding her daughter's long history of being victimized by Girl B and how said victimization has gotten so bad Girl A cannot go to school due to the general atmosphere of hatred and vitriol aimed squarely at her daughter—a good, honest girl whose only crime thus far is daring to grow up in a society that hates her.
"I can't take it no more," the mother says. "I just can't take it."
Compared to Girl A, Girl B is without friends or immediate relations yet remains taciturn and calm, crossing her arms and glaring off to the side with an impatient air that suggests a familiarity not just with the mechanics of standard police procedure but the highly regimented process that is the justice system entire.
After taking her statement, Officer McDaniel and his fellow officer decide the situation warrants an official "write-up"—which means the details of the case will be sent to the city district attorney, who will then decide whether further action is necessary. In the meantime, no one will be taken to jail. Standing alongside the police cruiser I realize—with a certain degree of shock—that to the carloads of people passing by the situation, it appears that I, an adult male dressed in street clothes, have somehow gotten myself entangled with a pair of teenage girls to a degree that requires police attention. No matter how innocent and official I attempt to appear, nodding my head as if waiting to give my opinion on the matter on which the two officers are engaged, the eyes of the passing motorists harden in condemnation. The sky above me goes dark. The public has come to an opinion.
Officer McDaniel's police cruiser is a basic Ford Crown Victoria outfitted with a "police package"—a phrase that calls to mind cinematic images of battered cruisers jumping city bridges in pursuit of an outlaw vehicle, but in reality means a beefed-up motor, improved suspension, and a horsepower equal to most consumer vehicles with a sticker price over $35,000. Like all American automobiles, it comes outfitted with a boring interior, a lot of legroom, and a depressing sense that the best parts of your life are far behind you. The brakes however are quite impressive. More than once they pull us to a stop so fast the world outside the car snaps back into place a full second after we've come to a halt. Names, addresses, criminal records, mug shots, driving records—all can be accessed by an officer from the detachable laptop computer spored from the dash on a flat black tray. Officers send and receive information using a bevy of abbreviated words and numbers, which to the casual observer appear as indecipherable as serial numbers or computerized lines of binary code. Besides the 9mm Glock in Officer McDaniel's holster, a standard 12-gauge shotgun loaded with beanbags is the extent of our firepower this evening.
Although many consider that "Bad Boys" jingle to be the official soundtrack of the law enforcement profession, the true music of the job is the ever-present sound of the police radio—a constant flow of static hisses, pulsing beeps, and the ever-present voice of dispatch reading off the details of the night's emergencies like the disembodied voice of some impatient God. "212, robbery in progress, suspect appears intoxicated; 212, suspects are engaged in a fight with a baseball bat; 212, victim fled on foot; beep, static, hiss, beep; 212, multi-car accident at 122nd and Foster"—and so on until the end of time.
Now seems like a good time to mention that the seatbelts in this police cruiser are first rate. Before locking the belt clip into place, there is just the slightest bit of resistance in the coiled spring of the buckle before it pops into a hold and the strap tightens against my chest. It is a very good click and in light of the speed the car travels, highly reassuring. When a passing motorcyclist reports a major accident at the intersection of 140th and Division, Officer McDaniel flips the lights and the city bends and in less than 10 seconds we arrive to find traffic moving peacefully.
"People call in fake reports all the time," he explains later, as he attempts to call off the rest of the emergency personnel—fire trucks, ambulance, and paramedics—dispatched to what is ostensibly a non-event. "A lot of the time these fake calls come from mentally imbalanced people. Other times people pull pranks. Either way we don't have any choice but to respond."
Near 122nd and Division, Officer McDaniel points out three young men who look about 16 walking down the street dressed in gang attire—blue Dickies and red flannel shirts. According to Officer McDaniel, in addition to the Bloods and Crips, the Eastside is home to the Family Kings, a gang of mostly Mexican men who as of late have spread out of Gresham and into the outer reaches of East Portland—a move that's been generating a fair amount of static among those gangs who have long claimed the area between 122nd and 136th on SE Division as their own. The Family Kings are known for sending out the youngest members of their gang—such as the three men we see tonight—to walk the neighborhoods as a way of advertising their presence in the area. Higher-ranking gang members, especially those with criminal records, are rarely seen in public and often give orders through lower-ranking members to avoid detection. What's disturbing about gangs is for all their inter-territorial squabbling about boundaries of dominion, gang violence often plays itself out in public using bullets that know no affiliation. In the hands of gang members, firearms are little more than an article of improvisation, a gut reaction to chaos. The results are never good.
"What's scary is that gang members often have no hesitation before firing," Officer McDaniel admits. "They don't aim. They just shoot."
Officer McDaniel says, "One of the worst things I ever saw was a dead body of a man about 12 days after he passed. He was alone in his apartment with drug paraphernalia scattered all around him. His family reported him missing. Arriving at the house we saw the usual telltale signs. Mail had piled up. Newspapers were stacked on the porch. When I came in his entire body had swelled and bloated and his skin was black like the color of charcoal. Jet black. The smell was unbearable. He'd been there for so long the maggots in his flesh had hatched a second generation of maggots that were crawling in and out of the skin. Seeing a human being decay is strange and overpowering. You know it's a human even though it doesn't resemble one. I can still remember that smell. You don't forget something like that."
Officer McDaniel directs my attention toward a skinny woman in a sequined dress shuffling up 82nd in high heels. "You can always tell who the prostitutes are on account of they either walk too fast or too slow. They can never blend in."
Although the Portland police have a separate task force devoted specifically to targeting prostitution on the Eastside, Officer McDaniel has been involved in several sting operations himself, both as the undercover "john" and the arresting officer in a sting. He explains the experience of being an undercover john:
"If a women has been arrested before and knows the deal she will enter the car and ask if I'm a cop. I say no. Then they ask me to touch their breast. Police officers cannot legally do that but it really doesn't matter because at that point we can arrest them on suspicion of prostitution. That's all the evidence needed to take them in."
Dispatch reports a 17-year-old girl with a history of incarceration and psychiatric problems has locked herself in her bedroom at 111th and Division and is threatening violence. We arrive to find the girl in question screaming at her mother on their front lawn. A second officer arrives and the two women are separated. The girl claims she wants to leave the house and go live with her father, which her mother—the girl's legal guardian—will not allow her to do because the father is homeless. Despite the claims of the daughter, her mother hasn't done anything against the law. Seeing as how it's been decided by the officers that the girl is no longer a threat to herself or anyone else, there isn't much for them to do besides nod with concern until everyone calms down.
It's disconcerting to realize how, to this family and many like them, having the police arrive to break up a disagreement is an outcome indelibly thread into the narrative of the argument itself. In other words, a family squabble doesn't end with slammed doors or teary-eyed hugs or a requisite period of non-communication, but when the police show up to end it. Most officers will tell you they spend 90 percent of their time dealing with 10 percent of the population. I can see why. Tonight's trumped-up altercation has an underlying numbness, a characteristic of routine. At one point the mother's boyfriend—a thin man wearing pajama bottoms and a muscle shirt—emerges from the front door holding a trash bag. Walking through the middle of the arguing women, he heaves the thing into a plastic can at the edge of the driveway, brushes his hands clean, and without a word goes back inside the house to fix himself a sandwich. The officers leave soon after.
Through the windows of a police car the darkened city streets appear endless and strange. As Officer McDaniel peels around corners and shoots down side streets lit only by the glow of porch lights, the car is not once without a concentrated center of balance. Even at speeds of 90 MPH, as the lights along 82nd Avenue elongate into a single streak of amber and pedestrians whip by no different than sedentary columns of stone, there is a feeling of control.
Dispatch reports two men fighting in the parking lot of Tommy's Too, a strip club on 103rd and Foster. By the time we arrive the brawlers in question have already gone. I follow Officer McDaniel through the door as he enters to get a statement from the bartender.
The interior of Tommy's Too has that boozy, underwater slowness typical of strip clubs and other drinking establishments devoid of natural light. Upon our entrance, a dozen erections go limp as men mutter curses into the ice of their drinks and look the other way. The only person moving is the onstage dancer, a long-legged African American woman naked save for a leopard print thong, caressing the wrinkled face of an elderly man holding a pair of crutches. I ask a guy standing at the bar how long he's been coming to this particular strip club and if he'd like to be quoted for the article.
"Go fuck yourself," he tells me.
Somewhere in the maze of orange streetlights and quiet houses near 111th and Division we come upon the very Twin Peaks-like image of a shirtless man trying to cut down a tree branch on his property with a handsaw. As the headlights sweep over him, he curses the flimsy saw with that air of inconsolable rage all men get when things they want to break are uncooperative, but fails to notice the motions of our passing inquiry. Other than him, most people along this street have gone to sleep.
Dispatch reports 15 people engaged in a brawl at an apartment complex at 174th and Powell. We arrive to find the first three officers on scene standing at the end of a darkened courtyard with their arms crossed, waiting for backup. It doesn't take long to see why.
In the courtyard roughly 15 feet ahead of them, an unknown number of people are screaming at each other at a volume far exceeding the level of polite conversation. It is unclear what the problem is or who the people are screaming about. If an illustrator were to animate this scene a bunch of squiggly lines with little voice bubbles of starred profanity hanging overhead would be more than adequate. There is just one single spotlight shooting down on the middle of the courtyard and the air smells of charcoal that's been heavily doused in lighter fluid, like a barbeque arranged by pyromaniacs. Everything else is darkness.
Again, it cannot be overemphasized how loud this argument is. Within the next five minutes, four more police cars arrive. The officers then proceed into the darkened courtyard slowly, a solid mass of law enforcement trying their best to maintain calm in the face of what is essentially madness. As they walk forward two officers remain at the edge of the yard, watching the upper balcony for the first sight of a weapon. I'm taking cover behind a truck bed filled with twisted scraps of metal and sharp gadgets that in light of the argument serve no function beyond the general aura of intimidation. To my left an older man in a wheelchair silently smokes a cigarette as he waits for the situation to play itself out in a manner keeping with those he's witnessed countless times before. Noticing me behind the truck, he gives a limp wave.
To spend a significant amount of time with a police officer is to be witness to a series of split decisions, the byproduct of which rarely pleases those affected by the consequences of their choice. The very nature of a police officer's job is to routinely and without hesitation engage in the types of conflict the rest of us go out of our way to avoid, from violent fights to petty arguments to crimes involving children—all while acting humanely and sensibly and without error in the face of a society under no such obligations. Recent news of the murders of four officers in Lakewood, Washington, at the hands of a lone gunman is a tragic reminder that the job of a police officer, while never above scrutiny, is undeniably more dangerous and complex than most members of the public understand it to be. In Portland, a city that sometimes has good reason to be distrustful of authority (as evidenced by recent news of continued misconduct by Officer Chris Humphreys, for example), the job can seem especially thankless.
Consequently I can't help but get a sense that the good-natured humor that prevails among police officers—especially after situations in which another officer's life has been put in danger—feels slightly forced, like jokes told at a funeral.
"Sometimes I wonder if my young daughter will be dealing with these same problems, should she ever choose to become a police officer," Officer McDaniel admits in a moment of rare introspection near the end of his shift. "Will she be going to the same houses and dealing with the same people and be faced with the same challenges as I am or will there be improvement?"
From where I sit in the passenger seat of a police cruiser, it's hard to say.