Sometimes when working as a police officer, training and skill have nothing to do with surviving a tour. It's not what you know, it's how lucky you are -- as every job that you respond to can be your last.
Working most 4:00 - midnight tours in Harlem is pretty busy. The worst of all possible tours would be with a full moon, a warm summer night, and to top it off, a Friday night. We would get an average of twenty to thirty jobs. Most of the time it would be some sort of family dispute where the victim was just as dangerous as the culprit. Many of the guys got the frying pan treatment from the wives. Just try arresting someone's husband after she realizes that your job is to actually make the arrest rather than just telling him to go out for a few hours.
So what do you do? Take both of them down so that they remain together in happiness?
My first job on this busy Friday night came from Central as a possible dispute at a house party. All I could think of was the past and how parties were just that: parties. These days, they are the playground for full scale drug use and a gun in every pocket. A modern version of the OK Corral.
This call was responded to by two units: "David" and "Charlie." We got to the third floor apartment where the music was vibrating the whole building. There were people hanging out on every landing, including the roof. If something broke we would be screwed. Just imagine calling for back-up with music blasting to the point where it made it impossible to radio for help. This was a situation where you had to overlook minor infractions so that a riot does not happen.
We got to the apartment looking for the caller, a woman named Carmen. She finally came to the door and was very nervous. She said her boyfriend, Nelson, just left the party very upset because she was dancing with another guy. Frantically, she explained that he had a gun at home and was coming back to kill her and her new boyfriend. He had had a lot to drink and it made him crazy. He also just got laid off from his job because of his short temper.
So we got alcohol, jealousy, unemployment and a weapon. Four bad things on a Friday night. I wished I had called in sick because I knew this night was not going to be entertaining. She went on and gave us his address which was one block away. We set out for Nelson's house before he could cause a scene at the party. As far as we were concerned, the sooner we did this, the better. We found out that he lived on the first floor apartment facing Broadway.
As usual, I was the first person into the building. The lobby was completely covered in white tile. This was our worst fear. In a possible shootout, bullets would act like a pinball and ricochet in every direction. Just to take precaution, we called for another unit for back-up. Now with three units on the scene, we knocked on the door. Everyone was nervous because we did not know what to expect. He could be high on crack. He could have more than one weapon.
I knocked on the door very cautiously but with force.
"This is the police! Open the door...Nelson, open the door, we can straighten this whole thing out."
"I ain't comin' out bro!"
My partner and I decided to call for more back-up. We called ESU (Emergency Service Unit). You know that funny feeling you get when things are going to get worse? Well, that's how I felt. My intuition was on overdrive and I was glad I wore my vest.
We ran out toward Broadway and people started to scatter. In Harlem, when you see cops running you get off the streets. Shit is about to happen. I turned right, looking south on Broadway when I heard the sound of the ESU truck coming north. They carry the heavier equipment like shotguns and bulletproof shields. I made my way up the fire escape to the first floor window. I took my hat off so I would not be an easy target if this guy decided to shoot me.
There were two windows on the landing with a view of the living area and entrance. I did not see Nelson. People started to gather below as if we were making a movie. I crawled to the next window expecting to see Nelson but did not see him at first. Then I noticed he was in the closet with his back to me. He had what appeared to be a 9mm on the bed. He suddenly pulled out this large gray suitcase and placed it on the bed in a hurry.
"What the hell is that?" I said to my partner.
"This is not good," he said, "What do we do, shoot the guy or what?"
"I don't know. Let's watch him first."
I put over a description and brief scenario on my two-way. At that point, he went into the suitcase and pulled out a machine gun of some sort. I never saw a model like that before. It looked like a homemade modification of a German machine gun with a long banana clip. He emptied the suitcase on the bed which contained a bunch of loose bullets. To my dismay, he detached the clip and started loading it.
I knew this guy was sick. It was either him or us. If he loads up and starts shooting, we're all going.
Bullets from a machine gun go through the standard vest like butter. We had to act immediately or run. Just as I put it over on the radio, I saw him bang the clip on the post of the bed. He looked frustrated. I did not realize what had happened but he took the clip and walked into the living area as if he were looking for something. This was the break we needed.
I opened the window to the bedroom -- luckily it was cracked -- jumped through it like Superman with my partner right behind me, and grabbed the 9mm and machine gun. Nelson heard the noise and bolted back into the room. We had two guns pointed right at him.
"Nelson, you're under arrest and if you even twitch I'll blow your head off you piece of shit."
I was so angry at this guy that I wanted to slap him about ten times. My heart was racing as I called it over that we had "one under" at the location, and to slow it down for any other units responding. We had had enough excitement for one night. I just wanted to go home.
I opened the door and let the troops in. It turned out that Nelson, due to his stupidity, tried to stick a slightly larger round into the clip and it jammed. He went into the living room to find a screwdriver to get it out.
Lucky for us.