The first time I got punched in the face—punched, not slapped or shoved or struck or thumped by a flying elbow gone astray, but punched as in a fist landing squarely on the lower quadrant of my right cheek—it was delivered just after midnight in an apartment parking lot off Airline Highway in south Baton Rouge by a man at least 5 inches taller and a good 70 pounds heavier than I was. I was not his intended target. He intended to hit his wife. She ducked. I didn’t.
A heavy throbbing spread quickly out from the point of contact midway between cheekbone and jawbone; my jaw buzzed with bees, all armed with tiny hammers. My ear whooshed like some huge underground river.
For several seconds, the three of us shared a common emotion, shock—shock that he’d gone and hit a cop. We all froze. His wife, a tired-looking girl of maybe 23, with a mass of dark curls, crouched at my feet. His face went slack, mouth dropping open to reveal crooked lower teeth, eyes both expanding and softening above drooping pockets of flesh. I have no idea what I looked like; I was still processing the fact that she’d ducked, and he’d hit me. My face felt like an overripe watermelon on fire. For the briefest moment, I was tempted to giggle: It was so ludicrous, him standing there, appalled, knowing what was to come, unable to turn back time. What a friggin’ idiot, I thought, with a glee that quickly turned to righteous anger.
He back-pedaled, hands crossed in front of his face, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as I cleared the huddle that was his wife and went after him. He provided little resistance when I body-butted him up against the hood of my police unit, turned him around, cuffed him, frisked him, placed him in the back seat, then spoke my first words since his fist had landed. “You’re under arrest, mister.” It hurt to talk.
My back-up, Carolyn, a stocky, ineffectual woman, of whom I now thought even less, didn’t realize anything had happened until she heard the slam of my unit door. She’d been talking to neighbors, her back turned to the scene. She hustled over, ready for a tussle, about two minutes too late.
“Damn, you got popped,” Carolyn said. “What happened?”
I waved her off with my left hand, the other hand gently probing my jaw for altered topography. “Just what it looks like,” I said.
“Yeah, thanks.” I turned to the wife. “Are you okay?”
“Fine, fine, fine,” his wife said; he hadn’t laid a hand on her. She stood with her hands clenched in front of her, working her wedding ring round and round below an enlarged knuckle, begging me not to arrest him, saying he hadn’t intended to hit me.
“Oh, I know that,” I said. “He was aiming for you.”
“But he didn’t hit me,” she said. “We was just arguing. The neighbors shouldn’t have called. It was just an argument.”
“Well he hit me, lady. You can’t hit a cop and not take the fall for it.”
“But you got in the way,” she said.
No arguing that one; it was my job to get in the way.
After I’d processed him at downtown booking—fingerprints, mug shot, inventory of his belongings—and put up with the ribbing from the guys doing jailer duty, I headed over to Our Lady of the Lake to get my face checked. It throbbed as if a hip-hop band had taken up permanent residence in my bone marrow.
“Yowzer, girl,” said Miceli, the wiry Italian doctor I knew from several months of working extra duty at the Lake’s emergency room every Friday, midnight to 6 a.m. “What’s the other guy look like?”
“Wearing orange,” I replied, referring to the East Baton Rouge Parish prison garb. “Not a scratch on him.”
“Miceli, I don’t hit people unless I have to.”
He nodded slowly, carefully processing the concept of a cop not hitting people unless she had to. After an X ray determined I had no broken bones, he sent me home with an ice pack and a prescription.
I’d been a cop since 1979, almost three years by that time—two years as a plainclothes officer with the Crime Prevention Unit at Louisiana State University and nearly a year as a uniformed officer with the Baton Rouge City Police Department, working out of Broadmoor Precinct, a mostly white, mostly middle- to upper-class area.
In all that time, I’d never had a reason to hit anyone. Get physical, yes—it’s nearly impossible to arrest someone without shoving, pulling, turning or frisking them. I’d even had to tackle some, all men, of course, but there was never any need to hit with my fist or nightstick.
Certainly I’d worried about getting hurt, but hurt in the sense of shot or stabbed. I’d worried about being overpowered, but more in terms of having my gun taken from me—I was barely 5 feet 6 inches and fluctuated between 122 and 128 pounds. I was 23 years old. And I was female.
I had no illusions about my physical abilities up against the average male, so I’d pushed myself hard in the City Police Training Academy during the two hours of PT, in a gym with no air-conditioning, every afternoon for 20 weeks in the dead of a muggy Louisiana summer. I lifted weights. I practiced take-down holds relentlessly. I was triumphant when I did 20 push-ups properly (not the knees-on-floor version). I could handle Lt. Martello’s full weight on my stomach for five seconds during leg lifts. I even conquered the damn rope climb.
Out of a class of 47, I graduated second in academics and second on the firing range, which earned me an expert-marksman badge. I ranked in the bottom half, physically—I’d failed to make the six-minute mile by 48 seconds, and I could do only 14 chin-ups instead of the required 20. But I passed all the other physical agility tests and graduated in superb physical shape.
Three months out of the academy, I took up White Crane Kung Fu. My younger brothers, both over 6 feet tall, had been training for several years, and I was impressed with what they were learning, despite the cultist feel I’d picked up from their conversations—they practiced the forms obsessively and seemed to view their sifu, or master, as some minor deity. I wasn’t looking to become anyone’s Little Grasshopper. But I couldn’t deny they were good at sparring. I couldn’t deny that either of them most likely could whip my butt if so inclined.
So one day I drove over to Sifu Illar’s studio on the corner of Choctaw and Flannery, a tiny industrial section of mostly machine shops, used-tire stores and construction-material outlets. Illar was a short, slender man with dark hair and a wisp of a mustache, who seemed to be more of a talker than a listener, nodding constantly and barely letting me finish my sentences. He let me know, several times, that he had a deal in the works with Chuck Norris to write a movie script. Although no script ever materialized that I was aware of, he did eventually have a walk-on part in a Norris film.
Illar assured me that the practice was primarily defensive, but he’d work with me on take-down holds, arrest techniques, reading body language, taking weapons away, and more effective ways to use my nightstick. He also mentioned the practice would improve my physical agility and strength, and that eventually I could move into sparring and tournament fighting.
“No tournaments, no fighting,” I said. “If you can help me improve my street skills, fine, but that’s—”
“No pressure,” Illar said. “Work at your own pace. Come try out a class this week.”
I walked into that first class fairly confident. We started with floor stretches, which I’d always enjoyed. Everyone but the newcomers wore baggy, black trousers with white stripes up the side, black or white T-shirts and black Chinese slippers or black tennis shoes. Many wore white sashes, some green, a few black, and several had no sashes at all. We ranged in age from 10 to 60. Two students with spina bifida worked in their wheelchairs. Sifu Illar roamed the room, grinning a lot despite his intensity, correcting posture, and occasionally telling someone to try harder.
My partner for the wall stretches was a green belt, a tall woman about my age who’d been doing this for three years. It took all my strength to get her leg up over her head to touch the wall behind her. “More,” she kept saying in between deep breaths, and I’d brace my hands farther down her thigh, move my feet back some, and push harder.
Then it was my turn. My foot never got past my shoulder. “That’s enough,” I’d squeak, and she’d say, “Breathe,” and then push some more, until I thought my groin muscles would ignite.
Next came the stationary forms. Five minutes into a squat position, the Horse, fire ants took up residence in my thighs, and every muscle below my waist trembled. Our fists rested on our hips, fingers curled upward. Despite years of horseback riding and tennis, and what I considered to be pretty darn good thigh-muscle tone, I couldn’t hold the position for the full 10 minutes. I was somewhat reassured to see that neither could the other newcomers.
After another 20 minutes of stationary forms, we moved on to defensive maneuvers. I quickly picked up the response to both a left and right jab, stepping into the oncoming punch and twisting the wrist back and down as I applied pressure between the thumb and forefinger. I was gratified to bring a green sash to his knees with one of the take-down holds.
I went home that night, took a hot bath, and applied ice to both wrists. The next morning, I could barely walk, and lifting my arms was agony. Even on my roughest days in the academy, I’d never felt that sore.
I began attending classes two or three times a week. By the time I got punched in the face on Airline Highway, I’d been taking classes for seven months, had become adept at holding the Horse for the full 10 minutes. My foot touched the wall in stretches. I’d mastered the finer points of kicks and achieved fluency in the basic forms—Box Hand, Box Foot, Lo Han, Fu Hak, Tom Toi—and I was ready to take the test for my white belt, a test that involved, in part, snapping out a candle flame, without touching the candle or the flame, with my fists and feet: 10 times each of right- and left-hand punches, right- and left-foot front kicks, right- and left-foot side kicks.
But obviously this wasn’t enough. I’d been lucky that the angry husband had frozen along with me, that he hadn’t immediately followed up with several more punches. The problem was, as I saw it that morning after, as I stared at my swollen cheek turning more eggplant-colored by the hour, I didn’t know diddly about being hit in the face. And I needed to learn before the next time came around.
I had been in only two fights before I became a cop, both times with girls. I don’t count tussling with my younger brothers, which mostly involved holding each other down and tickling until the victim peed, or the afternoon I punched my fist through my bedroom window when I was 16.
The first time I took a swing at someone, I was 9. Eve Trow was the yin to my yang: She was shy, agreeable, studious, smart, an only child raised by sheltering older parents, who thought I was a bad influence on her. I was talkative, rebellious, bossy, an often-perplexing child to my fairly conservative parents, who thought Eve was a good influence on me. (“I’ll bet you do your chores when your parents ask you to, don’t you,” my mother would say to her.) But Eve and I shared a love of books, words, learning and imaginary games, and so, between the third grade and graduating from high school, we were close friends, despite the occasional disagreement and one full-blown fight.
I have no recollection what or who started it. First we were yelling and then screaming and then one of us hit the other and the other hit back and next we were rolling around on the recess blacktop, scratching and smacking, with Miss Thorburn, our fourth-grade teacher, who wasn’t much taller than either of us, stamping her foot and, in her thick Scottish brogue, ordering us to stop. That earned each of us five demerits (six and you were suspended; 10 earned you expulsion), lots of Mercurochrome, and in my case, my mother’s accusing silence for several days.
Five years later, Allison Mitchell and I faced off. Allison and her sister, Sallie, were my best friends and lived across the cul-de-sac where I grew up in Northern Virginia. Sallie was my age, Allison two years older. Their younger brother, Tad, was my brother Finlay’s age, 11. We all played together regularly, along with a gang of three to eight other kids, depending on who was around. But the five of us comprised the core group. Within 12 years, Allison and Tad would be dead—Allison from an overdose, Tad from suicide—Sallie would be divorced with two children, Finlay would be clean from the drugs that briefly wrecked his life, and I would be working Plank Road Precinct on the dog shift.
But on that day, our only concern was some petty, perceived injustice. Sallie, Allison and Tad ganged up on Finlay. Finlay was often the agitator, but in this instance, he was the target, and he wasn’t handling it well. So I stepped in.
A shoving match between Allison and me ensued, and soon we were slapping each other and pulling hair, pulling hard. When our scuffle turned into body slams against the walls and over furniture, we stopped—partly in terror over our ferociousness, partly from exhaustion.
So we started calling each other names until Finlay yelled, “Stop it! I don’t need you to protect me.”
Overwhelmed by his rejection of my savior role and still panicked by the heat of the fight, I burst into tears and ran home.
My mother found me in my bedroom, huddled on my bed, sobbing. As she stroked my head, gobs of blond hair came out in her hands. I don’t know which was more unsettling: seeing the physical result of my fight with Allison or the glorious adrenaline kick I’d gotten from whaling away at her, just letting go.
I discovered early on in my career that I excelled at talking, specifically negotiating, a skill not particularly needed during my time as a plainclothes officer with LSU. Most of my work with the Crime Prevention Unit involved blending in, doing stake-outs, and wandering the campus from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night. I looked like a coed, was the right age for a coed, could talk and act like a coed; I just happened to carry a gun and handcuffs clipped to my blue jeans or shorts under my baggy T-shirt.
But once I became a uniformed cop for the city, the myriad calls— family fights, bar fights, disturbances, man-with-a-gun calls, heated confrontations between drunken motorists, barking dogs, suspicious persons, attempted suicides in progress, kids who played their drums too loudly for the neighbors’ tastes—required a level of finesse with words, especially if I wanted to avoid raising the threat level or getting hurt.
By nature, I was a pacifier, not an agitator. Although I went through a brief John Wayne phase, like most rookie cops, I preferred finding solutions that didn’t involve jail or a misdemeanor summons. I dumped small amounts of marijuana out on the ground, drove the juvenile home, negotiated between angry neighbors, made referrals to counseling centers and psychiatric institutions, sent the upset husband to a friend’s house, as long as he hadn’t touched his wife—if they were viable alternatives to jail. I prided myself on my restraint, compassion, professionalism.
One of my riding partners, Marian McLin, who teamed up with me for nearly two years out of Highland Precinct near the end of my career as a police officer, used to tell me I talked too much on calls, did too much counseling.
“Sometimes,” she’d say, “you just gotta arrest their ass, Laurie.”
I eventually decided David Wallace could teach me how to get punched in the face and not freeze. Wallace was a motorman out of the Traffic Division, who taught self-defense and take-down holds at the training academy, a black belt in karate who’d won some boxing tournaments when he was younger. A good-looking man with a wide-open face, strawberry-blond hair, sharp blue eyes, he was confident in his abilities, looks, maleness.
Here’s my favorite David Wallace story: One cold-for-Baton Rouge winter morning, a drunk driver hit his motorcycle. David was cut up pretty good, and, as, it turned out, he had three broken ribs. His face all twisted up in a grimace, he refused to go to the hospital. Not until a supervisor ordered him into the ambulance did he confess the reason for his reluctance: He wore pantyhose under his uniform pants to stave off the cold. His mortification at being found out—both by fellow officers and the nurses at the hospital—made a great story at roll call for days.
But this event hadn’t happened yet when he approached me while I was still a cadet.
An urgent whisper next to my ear, during a lecture on what constituted reasonable suspicion and probable cause, startled me. “You’re Drummond?”
I nodded to the perspiring officer crouched by my side.
“Step out to the hallway,” he said.
Intrigued to have such a handsome man seeking me out and simultaneously panicked over what I might have done wrong (my inspection sticker wasn’t expired again, was it?), I followed him out into the hallway.
He stuck out his hand and introduced himself. ‘I’m Wallace. You’re the one writing that proposal for mounted patrols?”
I nodded and shook his hand.
His face went momentarily slack, and then he grinned. “Give me your hand again,” he said.
I obliged and shook his hand once more.
“Amazing. You shake like a man. Great grip. You ride horses? I want a copy of your proposal when it’s done. Bunch of us are going to the Chief in the next couple of months about starting a mounted unit. Gotta get back out on the road. I’ll be back in touch.”
When David came to the academy several weeks later to work with us on basic self-defense maneuvers, he had several officers shake my hand. “Can you believe the muscles in her hand?” he’d ask. Then he’d put me on the mat—hard—with a quick flip of his wrist. “Anchor your body weight in your gut and go with the motion,” he’d say.
I figured any man who appreciated both my grip and my proposal—which did eventually lead to the formation of a mounted patrol in Baton Rouge—would probably be willing to give me a few pointers about boxing.
I was right. David quickly agreed, and we set up a time to meet at the training-academy gym the following week.
At that time, I lived in a sprawling four-bedroom ranch house off Sharp Lane with two women who’d graduated from the academy class after mine. I cajoled Pat into joining me for a boxing lesson, using my now nearly healed face as evidence as to why we needed tips on taking and giving punches.
Our first lesson took place on a wet winter morning. An amazing number of officers—all men—were using the gym or hanging around the hallways.
“Boxing, huh?” Sergeant Jackson said as I walked by.
Clearly, David had been talking. This was years before kick-boxing became the yuppie rage and Muhammad Ali’s daughter slipped on gloves. In 1982, female boxers, even female cops, were out of the ordinary.
What struck me first was how big those gloves were, how intricate they were to strap on—first the wrappings, then the tugging for a snug fit, then tying them off—and how powerful it felt to see my hands quadruple in size. The mouthpiece reminded me of years with a torturous orthodontist who made innumerable casts of my “too-big teeth for too small a mouth.” I wondered how well the piece had been sterilized, who had used it last.
David started us out on the bag. He explained the rhythm of working the bag, how to hold our hands and arms—wrists straight, fists clenched, elbows slightly flexed—the bent knees, what part of the glove we should be striking with—thumb down and square on the bag.
“Turn with your shoulders,” he’d say. “Push with your hips and toes.”
By the time Pat and I faced off, I was sweating and breathing hard, but it was a clean, wide-open feeling. I felt in my body a fluid flow of energy, much the same as when I did forms in kung fu or was in the zone on the tennis court, even though the energy required here felt denser.
The next several lessons focused heavily on technique: how to stand, body position, the jab, straight-right, hook, uppercut. Foot placement felt awkward and unnatural, as if I were some sort of prehistoric bird learning to walk. Pat and I danced around each other, throwing jabs, working on combinations, looking serious, trying to remember the multitude of instructions. Too focused on technique, our punches lacked much power.
“Move your left foot toward your right foot, so that your left toes meet your right toes at an angle,” David told us. “Keep your hips forward.”
I tended to let my shoulders lead, and my feet continually fumbled for the correct stance as I tried to sort out left foot from right foot and keep my weight anchored.
One day, Pat didn’t show up for our lesson. David shrugged and said, “I’ll put on gloves.”
We squared off on the mat. David’s jabs came much quicker than Pat’s and with more force. Pat was several inches shorter than I was, while David was nearly 6 feet tall, so I had to adjust my punches upward and keep my left hand higher to protect my face.
“Step into me. Don’t look at your feet. Don’t bounce around so much,” he said, commands similar to those I’d heard over the years on the tennis court from my father and coaches: Step into the swing. Watch the ball. Don’t bounce around so much.
I landed a few blows, but they were mostly ineffectual; David had an uncanny ability to bend out of the way. I swung my arms too wide, easy for David to read and counter with a straight punch. And I kept stepping off the mat, partly from trying to avoid David’s nonstop punches, partly as a result of the weight of his blows. I felt like one enormous bull’s-eye, which, come to think of it, was exactly what I’d asked for: Teach me how to be hit and not freeze.
He grinned. “A little different than boxing with a woman, huh?” he said as he deflected one of my punches and landed a solid thunk on my left collarbone. “Keep your shoulders back.”
I nodded, feeling resolve tighten in my gut.
“Watch my hands and eyes,” he said. “Come at me with all you’ve got.”
Whap. My left hand dropped, and David’s punch caught me on the chin. My eyes watered and my chin stung, but I didn’t back down, and I didn’t freeze. I got pissed. And in that moment, I realized that I could combine what I knew about kung fu with what I was learning about boxing. Who said fighting had to be by the rules?
I moved back into stance, bent my right knee, dropped my right shoulder, and kept my arms tight to my face and body. I let David move, shifting my feet only slightly to keep my right foot back and anchored on the ball of the foot. When I saw an opening, I rotated my hips forward with the motion of my right hand and landed a solid uppercut on David’s chest; his upper body fell forward slightly, and I followed with a quick uppercut to his chin. An exquisite whammy of a punch that sent him back several steps. Without even thinking, I followed him, kicked out straight into his stomach, dropped down to my right foot, spun around backward and brought my left foot up in a sweeping side kick that landed—beautifully, powerfully— on the left side of his face.
He went down. On his ass. Mouth open, legs splayed, hand to jaw. Several other officers in the room yelled and hooted, moved in closer.
“Jesus.” He rose carefully to his feet. “Where’d you learn those moves?”
I smiled widely, my gloves resting on my hips. “Good teacher.”
“I’ve been doing some kung fu.”
“Kung fu.” The words came slowly out of his mouth. He settled back into a stance. “All right. Again.”
I don’t remember seeing David’s punch pass by my hands, or feeling it land on the right side of my head just beside my eye, or even crumpling dizzily to the mat. I was only conscious of my brain, the eerie sensation of it bumping against the inside of my skull, first the right side—tap—then the left side—tap—a slow, gentle wave of fluid carrying it like a swing suddenly abandoned on the playground. For several seconds, I was my brain and nothing more.
Then I passed out.
The next few days after David’s punch, I felt woozy, wobbly, had the sense that I wasn’t quite in control of my body. Stupidly, I never went to the hospital. I was exceedingly fortunate my injury was so minimal, something I didn’t truly appreciate until all the possibilities were spelled out for me many years later by Dr. Terry Smith from the Head Protection Research Laboratory in Los Angeles.
Put an ice cube in a glass of water. Put the glass on a table; hold onto it and slide it away from you very quickly and then stop it abruptly. The ice cube will bang off the near side; immediately after you stop the glass, it will hit the far side—a simple illustration of what I came to call my “brain bump.” The clinical term is contre-coup (French for “opposite side”) injury.
The brain is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, which protects the brain by keeping it suspended and prevents direct contact between brain and bone. The only problem with this ingenious type of physiological engineering is that brain motion tends to lag behind skull motion. When David’s fist landed, my skull suddenly accelerated, moving quickly away from his fist. The skull motion rapidly reduced the distance between my skull and brain, and consequently my skull banged into my brain, causing a contusion at the impact site. This same phenomenon happened when my skull stopped at the end of its motion; my brain, still moving in the CSF, bumped my skull opposite the point of initial impact.
If the forces are high enough or hard enough, one of the parasaggital bridging veins, or the middle meningeal artery, which passes from the skull through the CSF to the brain, can rupture, and an acute subdural hematoma may occur, in which case, death arrives within 30 minutes.
The brain can also sustain injury if it is rotated. Nod your head vigorously up and down, and you are, in fact, also rotating your brain. Get in a high-speed, head-on collision in a car without airbags and your head will rotate forward at a rapid rate.
Most likely, my brain did rotate some when David’s punch landed. This type of head motion is actually the most deadly in terms of brain injury because the axons, nerve cells responsible for transmitting information around the brain and up and down the spinal cord, are stretched. When they stretch too far, the body of the axon snaps like a fishing line, and there is cessation of nerve transmission.
Stretch or damage several axons and the brain has enough collateral ability that you won’t detect the difference. Damage a few more and you might notice a change in mood or memory, perhaps some vestibular or balance problems. Damage several more and the system starts to break down dramatically: You have problems remembering and walking, problems with stimuli like loud noises or bright lights; you may have significant motor problems.
Damage a number of axons and you experience what is known as DAI, or diffuse axonal injury. The clinical symptoms are usually long-term coma or death.
David’s punch ended my enthusiasm for boxing; I had no interest in experiencing a brain bump again. I’d learned what I’d wanted to learn: I could take a punch and not freeze. I’d also learned more than I’d bargained for: Some punches you just don’t get back up from.
But the most valuable lesson was more subtle, a realization of something I’d already known instinctively: Mental conditioning is paramount. Officer-performance theory holds that strong mental conditioning accounts for 75 percent of an officer’s survival, whereas physical conditioning accounts for only 5 percent (technical skill is 15 percent, and sweet Lady Luck is 5 percent). Mental conditioning isn’t simply courage—courage can get you killed just as quickly as stupidity if you aren’t using good judgement. And it’s not simply believing in your capabilities. What you believe can kill you. There’s a story still told in the training academy about a California trooper who died after receiving a nonlethal gunshot wound to the arm. He died from shock, because he believed he would die if ever shot.
Mental conditioning comes from being alert and ready for danger; not making assumptions; not becoming lax; not letting anger win out over calm, good judgement; suspecting everyone; and mastering survival skills in a variety of situations. Research has shown that in a crisis, officers resort to the shooting stance they practice most often. If they practice only at the range, standing up, out in the open, in daylight, 100 yards from a target that does not return fire, when they encounter a nighttime shooting situation that calls for running, rolling and using available cover, and they’re only 14 yards from a person who’s shooting back, their chances of survival diminish significantly.
I refocused my efforts on the mental and technical aspects of police work. Although I continued kung fu, I began attending Street Survival Training seminars and Combat Shooting sessions at the pistol range and helped conduct monthly Shoot/Don’t Shoot training sessions. I wore my bulletproof vest every shift, no matter how hot or humid the weather. And I started wearing a St. Michael s medallion, the patron saint of police officers. I figured I had most of the bases covered, most being the operative word.
Seven months after my brain bump, I was dispatched to a family fight on North 15th Street, in the projects behind Memorial Stadium and the State Capitol.
I’d been transferred to the Plank Road Precinct several months earlier, the high-crime, high-poverty section of town. Murders, armed robberies, burglaries, drug dealers, junkies, prostitutes, children living in roach-infested, urine-soaked rooms. My exposure to the underbelly of the city had tripled almost overnight. Officers rarely went out on a call without back-up, even during daylight.
But on this late spring morning, no units were available to back me up. I pulled up in front of a rickety, brown shotgun house squashed up against other rickety shotgun houses. I grabbed my six-cell flashlight and slid the portable radio into its holder. I debated only a minute about my hat, then put it on, even though I despised that hat with a passion. It gave me headaches, created an ugly red band on my forehead and messed up my hair, but the brass loved hats, and my lieutenant had a propensity for writing up officers who neglected to wear them.
A heavy-set woman the color of nutmeg met me halfway up the sidewalk. “She be beatin’ my head in,” the woman screamed, every fat cell in her body jiggling in her agitation. I saw no immediate signs of injury.
“Who is?” I said.
“Sharleen. She used dat phone beatin’ me. I want her ass in jail.”
“And you are?”
“Anyone else in the house, Jasmine? Any children?”
A woman slender as a rifle, with a tight cap of curls, stepped out onto the porch, yelled several epithets, then disappeared inside.
“You better run, girl,” Jasmine screamed.
“Any guns in the house?” I asked.
“There ain’t no guns up in there, jist Sharleen. Git her ass outta my house.”
“You own this house?”
“Yeah. She moving out. But then she start beatin’ on me, thumped me upside my head.” The woman leaned down and revealed a bruised lump on her skull.
I learned that they were breaking up, that Sharleen was in the process of moving out, that the fight had started over who owned what property.
“Well, let’s go inside and see if we can straighten this out.”
“Ain’t no straightenin’ out about it. Arrest her,” Jasmine said.
We could hear Sharleen in the back bedroom throwing things, muttering in a high, screechy voice. I did a visual of the living room, kitchen, bathroom, carefully working my way back to the bedroom, making sure there were no weapons, no other humans.
Sharleen stood in a room filled with half-packed boxes, clothes slung on the unmade bed, an overturned lamp, glass shards on the floor, and at her feet, a phone that had been ripped out of the wall. Her hands were empty. She was tall and skinny—long arms, legs and face, interrupted only by the bumps of elbows and knees and one sharp chin that seemed to precede every movement she made. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds.
I attempted to negotiate. They screamed at each other over every sentence I spoke. No, Sharleen couldn’t just get her things and leave with me watching; Jasmine wanted her thrown in jail. Sharleen was a bitch; Jasmine was a crack head. No, Sharleen couldn’t return tomorrow to collect her belongings with an officer present; Jasmine wanted her arrested, and Sharleen wasn’t leaving without her stuff.
Sometimes, you do just have to arrest their ass.
I said, “Okay, that’s it. You’re going downtown for battery.”
I reached for Sharleen’s shoulder and turned her suddenly complacent body against the wall as I Mirandized her and patted her down, keeping half an eye on Jasmine. Sharleen started crying, her body seemingly devoid of all bone now, as I reached back with my left hand to unsnap the keeper holding my handcuffs, my right hand firm against the small of her back.
“Baby, don’t do this to me,” Sharleen sobbed.
Just as I started to slip the first cuff on Sharleen’s wrist, a huge weight hit my back. My hat flew off and my knees hit the hardwood floor with a painful crack.
Jasmine had jumped me.
“Don’t you take her, don’t, don’t,” Jasmine wailed in my ear.
We rolled end over end, me trying to shake Jasmine free—one hand protecting my gun, still snug and snapped in its holster— Jasmine holding on like a koala bear as we wedged up against the bed.
Sharleen smiled. I remember that clearly. She smiled as she picked up the phone receiver and walked over to me. I struggled to sit up, Jasmine heavy on my shoulders, came to my knees, braced hard against the floor with my left hand. Sharleen raised her arm and swung.
Just one gentle bump of skull kissing brain this time, although a second might have occurred as my skull stopped and my brain kept moving, but I didn’t feel it. For even as I was registering “I’ll be damned, brain bump again,” my body took over and, fueled by terror and the instinct to survive, triggered massive amounts of adrenaline.
I staggered to my feet, Jasmine still clinging to one of my legs. I kicked out with the other leg, catching the back of her locked elbow, heard it snap and her yelp as I shifted my hand to the portable radio, yelled “1D-79, Signal 65,” before Sharleen came at me again, a snarl replacing her smile. I managed one finely placed punch on her jaw— it hurt much more without gloves—which drove her back only a few steps, and then she came at me again. A pressure-point take-down hold flipped her to her back, but she slithered between my legs and bit down hard on my calf.
In the midst of this, I vaguely heard an “En route” to my Signal 65.
I’d chosen my call for help carefully, even in the panic of the moment: not Signal 63, which meant, “Drop everything; officer’s life in danger” or a simple, “Headquarters, I need back-up,” but the in-between call for help, Signal 65, which meant, “Come as quickly as you can; things are getting really fucked up.”
I don’t remember much of the next five minutes or so that Sharleen and I grappled—no punching, no perfectly executed kicks, just simple grappling—except Jasmine stayed huddled on the floor, crying, and Sharleen was hard to get a good grip on. Unlike men I’d tackled, she bit, slapped, scratched, pulled hair, and screeched the whole time, like an angry cat. She slipped out of, wiggled free from, bounced back up from every take-down hold I used on her. I figured she had to be on some powerful drugs to keep going like that, but blood tests later revealed no traces of illegal—or legal—substances in her system.
By the time Andy Crause ran through the front door, we’d careened into the living room and knocked over two tables, and I had trapped Sharleen on the floor against a wall, my knees on her back, trying to get one of her sweaty, undulating arms back so I could cuff it.
Andy is a big man, over 6 feet and over 200 pounds, but it took us another five minutes to get the cuffs on Sharleen. We bounced and rolled all over that room. Finally, we pinned her. He sat on her, dug his boot into the flesh of her upper arm while I clamped my knees around her head and reached over to put one cuff on. Andy shifted, and we brought her right hand down and secured it with the other cuff.
I put out a Code 4—everything under control, no further assistance needed. Then we sat there, on Sharleen, now suddenly quiet and sobbing again, and looked at each other, breathing hard, half smiling. Both of us bled in various places from Sharleen’s teeth and nails, from the struggle with the cuffs. My face hurt. I was tempted to tell Andy about my triumph, about not freezing after getting walloped with the phone, but figured some things are better left unsaid. Start bragging to fellow officers that you held your own, and they’ll start worrying whether you can hold your own. Cop machismo is a fine art.
“Damn,” Andy said. “She’s a wild one.”
“Glad to see you,” I said.
“You look like you got popped.”
I nodded gingerly, wondering if the side of my head looked as bad as it felt, wondering if Miceli, at the Lake, would once again ask me what the other guy looked like. Sharleen didn’t appear to have a scratch on her.
I laughed. “Just a bunch of girl-fighting.”
By the time I placed Sharleen in the back of my unit, she’d regained her spunk. She hissed, cursed, screamed and screeched. She repeatedly kicked the back of my seat and the wire screen behind my head as I drove down North Boulevard to Central Booking.
I ached. I hurt. The adrenaline wore off, and fear over what might have happened swept in—except I wasn’t wise enough then to recognize it as fear masked in anger. I made a rookie mistake: I let anger win. I talked back—yelled, was more like it. I escalated the situation, and I should have known better. I deserved what I got. She didn’t.
When she spit, a huge wad of phlegm hit the back of my head. Then she kicked hard, jolting me forward, my chest hitting the steering wheel. I didn’t hesitate. I checked my rear view mirror—no traffic behind me—and pulled what I’d seen other officers do but until this moment had never done myself—what cops call the “dog swerve.” Oops, there’s a dog in the road, swerve and hit the brakes hard. When someone sits in the back seat of a unit with their hands cuffed behind them, they have no way to brace themselves. Sharleen flew forward, and her face hit the wire screen with a loud thud.
Blood gushed from her nose. She gasped and choked. White foam oozed over her lips and down her chin.
My first reaction was to get her out on the pavement. All that blood and vomit in the back of my unit. I grabbed paper towels and jammed them under her nose, tilted her head back.
My second reaction was terror. Terror, quite simply, of what I was capable of doing to another human being. Terror at the sight of that white foam, which could only mean I’d injured her much more than a bloody nose—and the bloody nose was terrifying enough. I hadn’t wanted to hurt her; I’d only wanted her to shut up.
I held her forehead as she spit and cleared her mouth. Then I helped her back into the unit, wiped her mouth and nose, leaned her head against the back seat. The bleeding stopped.
“I’m pregnant,” Sharleen sobbed.
“Pregnant?” I said, thinking of her and Jasmine, the possibility of a pregnancy not computing.
“That’s what me and her were fighting about.”
“Oh.” I briefly considered uncuffing her, but the thought of Sharleen loose and wild again was too much to bear.
“My nose hurts.”
“Yes.” I probed it with my fingers. “It doesn’t feel broken. We’ll get it checked out at the jail.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said.
I nodded. “Will you sit there quietly? No more of this nonsense?”
And she was quiet, docile even, all the way to Central Booking, while I fingerprinted her and took her mug shots, listed her charges as Simple Battery, Resisting Arrest, and Battery on an Officer. While I explained to the guys on duty that she’d put up a fight and needed her nose checked, that she might be pregnant. She just looked at me, eyes big and expressionless.
She looked at me the same way all through the trial, as I testified to Jasmine’s injuries, Sharleen’s hitting me with the phone, how long it took Andy and me to get the cuffs on her, my brain bump. Her lawyer mostly tried to trip me up on procedure: whether I’d Mirandized her, whether I’d given her a chance to leave the house, whether I’d instigated a fight before she swung the phone. I answered all his questions honestly.
And Sharleen? She was not pregnant; her nose was not broken. She received six months in jail. I never saw her again. As far as I know, she never told anyone what happened on our ride to Central Booking. Until this moment, I have never spoken of it either.
And me? Miceli was not working the ER when I went to get my head checked; no one asked me what the other guy looked like. The attending doctor was kind; his gentle fingers smelled of vanilla lotion and antiseptic. He signed a slip of paper that excused me from work for the next two days. I suffered only a mild concussion and a three-day headache. Plus 18 years of tight, hot shame.