Today everyone has the right to die on the streets under the meanest of circumstances as a powerless police officer looks on. It was not always thus and recent extreme weather brought back a memory that I thought would be interesting to share.
At one time the cop on the beat was truly empowered to take control of the streets. I clearly remember my first patrol sergeant impressing upon me that if anything went wrong on my beat it would be my fault because I didn’t have control of it. As a young officer the last thing I needed was to be blamed for anything going wrong.
This mindset once lead me astray when I met “Old Charlie.” Charlie was a sweet drunk. I never did find out where he lived. He was more of an apparition than a person and he seemed to appear out of nowhere and was always drunk.
Occasionally I would find him sleeping in a doorway of a store on my beat late at night. If I could rouse him I would tell him to move along and find another place to sleep. But I was mindful that he had to appear to be at least capable of walking and was able enough to communicate. I also knew I had the authority under the old, and since expunged, “Vagrancy” laws to take him in to the station cells if I thought he needed protection. This would keep him out of the cold at least for the night.
There was one big rule that was impressed upon me about Charlie. You don’t take him in to the station house unless it was a last resort. The simple reason was his lack of bladder and bowel control while in extreme intoxication… and believe me… nothing that has been dead less than ten days under a noonday sun smelled worse.
One day a citizen approached me to tell me about a snow bank that was breathing steam on the next street over. I investigated and found Charlie under a pile of freshly fallen snow by the curb side. A snow plow must have passed by and the wave of snow completely covered him. I could see a plume of steam coming out of one end of the pile which I assumed was the talking end.
Several attempts to rouse him were not successful. Closer inspection revealed he was not only drunk and wet but also at his highest level of ripeness.
I went to a nearby phone booth and utilizing my departmental issue dime I called for a patrol car. It was unfortunate but the station house was going to be “sweet smelling” tonight. Charlie was in no state to leave outside.
There was two ethics in those days that were even stronger than the smell of old Charlie. “No one aggravates the Station Sergeant.” The other ethic was simpler and easier to deal with. “No one dies on my beat.” Balancing the two rules was a dilemma at times.
The patrol car arrived and the officer in it looked at Charlie in dismay. But even he had to admit the second ethic took precedence. But how could we possibly take care of the first law of the street.
We mulled it over a bit and came up with a wonderful solution. Let’s just get him off of our beat. Now this had been done before and the usual method was to dump him near another police station … but the cops all around also knew that Charlie was from my beat. Just like many creatures great and small, drunks are very territorial… or another cop conveniently dumped him there. The jury was out on that one.
The great plan, that was once just foggy whimsey, was now taking form. Let’s take him to a station right out of the city. There was this brand new police department just north of the city with its pristine cells that we were in need of initiation. What better way to do so than by introducing them to good old Charlie.
Now this great adventure was fraught with risk. First was whether we could survive the smell of Charlie long enough to get him out of the city. Second was the cruising menace of the Patrol Sergeants both here and there. Thirdly was someone reporting an “out-of-town” patrol car being seen doing its “dirty business” by the locals. Fourthly, of course, was that Charlie had to be taken care of.
With extreme delicacy the two of us loaded Charlie into the back of the two-door police car, belly down, and rolled down all the windows and turned the heater and fan on high. A few groans from our guest reassured us he was still within this realm. Our caper was just beginning.
As we raced northward with our precious cargo we chuckled and gloated about Charlie’s introduction to the gleaming new police station. What few citizens there were at 2:00 AM must have been curious to see the patrol car with two officers’ heads sticking out the window in its northward trek.
We finally arrived in the area of the new police station. We went slowly around the block to check out the most likely place to dump Charlie so that he would be certain to be found.
As we turned about we were surprised to see Charlie just beginning to sit up. My partner quickly stopped him. “Okay Charlie! We don’t want to burst the bubble now do we!” He was referring to the cargo that he was, no doubt, carrying in his drawers. We ensured Charlie was very carefully withdrawn, belly down, out of the back seat.
We were happy to see that the drive and fresh air in the scout car had revived Charlie to consciousness. With the wobbly legs of a newborn calf Charlie was directed, and then started walking toward, the gleaming new police station. Victorious in our endeavours we pointed our police car southward.
In our jubilant and self congratulatory mood there were a few things in our plot that were about to unravel. First point was the inadequacy of our vehicle. It was a 1971 slant six , two-door Plymouth that never saw speeds in excess of 50 km/h (30 mp/h) in its three, never-cool-down, years. In spite of it being a marked police unit it did not come equipped with red roof lights nor a siren. The speedometer registered speeds that were mere suggestions. In a strategic counter attack on our mechanics someone had drawn a line along the inside of the door with writing that said if the dirt and dust reached this level from the floor we were going too fast. It had a circa 1945 Motorola tube radio that caused the headlights to dim when the microphone carrier was pressed. In short it was no comparison with the ultra high-tech toys supplied by that new police force to the north.
We were gone no more than five minutes and half way to the city when we saw headlights accelerating behind us at a speed that almost seemed cartoon-like. It pulled up alongside us and we both felt this sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs.
The gleaming police car came complete with a 440 Hemi engine, brand new roof lights, electronic siren, two shiny-toothed grinning police officers and… good old Charlie in the back seat looking like a basset hound.
I guess in our hastily conspired plan we had forgotten that just because the police department was brand new didn’t mean the coppers who worked there were too.
With a friendly smile and a wave the officers yelled across at us… “Nice of you boys to come visit. Next time stay for coffee!” The roof lights and siren then burst into full bloom as the police car accelerated like a rocket. It then struck us like a thunderbolt. They were going to drop off Charlie near our station. We had to see where they were going to dump him. My partner’s foot hit the gas pedal hard. As the scout car coughed like a cat with a fur ball, sputtered and shook we realized there was no hope at all. We watched helplessly as the roof lights turned into two red dots on the horizon.
Another five minutes passed and we saw the same gleaming high-tech police car coming north. It decelerated to re-entry speed as it approached us and the roof lights came on briefly as they triumphantly paraded past us… still grinning… and resumed their northward trajectory.
Almost simultaneously the dispatcher informed us of a drunk wandering around the intersection near our police station. We were resigned to our fate. The Station Sergeant might be a little grumpy at us for bringing in a smelly drunk but mercifully he won’t know the the rest of the story.
We picked up Charlie on the street corner holding onto a sign post and waving like a flag in the wind. The station Sergeant was not impressed. “I can’t figure you new guys out,” he bellowed. “Back in my day we knew what to do with drunks this smelly. We’d dump them off near another police station.” The glint in his eye and an ever so slight turn of the edges of his mouth told us he probably knew more… but we dared not ask. “Now get in there and clean him up.”