Shedding Light on the Crime; not a bedtime story.
Abysmal was the only word to describe this moonless overcast autumn night. The neighbourhood had been forgotten by society, polite society that is. The street lights were old and outdated. New lights found in the up-scale areas would never see this neighbourhood, not even when they were felt to be out of style. The lights would be sold to smaller municipalities; never to be installed here. Many of the lights were out, shot out by pellet guns making the darkness here purposeful and with an intent repulsive to gentler folk. This the city planners called “Urban Blight”, however in more knowledgeable circles where actual “doing” was the norm was whispered a different term. “Ghettoization of the Poor” was the term bantered around, a purposeful concentration of those less fortunate to serve as fodder, victims if you will, to the criminal element. After all as long as you can ignore an area in decline thereby creating a hunting ground for the wolves of society the chances are less likely that they will ply their trade in the white bread world of “up-town”. This is nothing new and every city has their Cedar Street, corner of St. Ledger and Young and “Shooters Lane”. This will never change as high speed commuter train systems are more important than the welfare of our fellow man. It truly is still a Dickensian world.
Along with the blinded street lights very little other light was visible short of the odd window through which an eerie sporadic pulsating glow emitted from a television set. One or two upstairs windows were lit up and there existed hope that in the room was a small desk with a young child who was pouring over his or her lessons with the slight hope of earning their way out of this cess pool. Experience, however, told a different likelihood. That of a single mattress thrown on the floor where a lady of the evening carried on her so-called trade in order to earn just enough for the next hit of crack, smoked using a crushed soda can as a pipe and a butane cigarette lighter as the ignition source. She was old before her time, even though she was barely out of her teens, just more collateral damage in the political gaming circles.
The house in question had long past being described as run down and old. It was an ancient pile or half rotten timbers and broken window panes awaiting the caress of the arson’s touch. A sure fate when the property became more valuable than the rent squeezed by the slumlord from these poor retches. Still it was someone’s home and castle, their refuge from the greater decay looming all around in the darkness. Paint had long since given up trying to make a home on the building’s exterior and what did still reside there was in flakes peeling off as if it too were trying to follow after its comrades to a better existence. The front steps had long since given up being even close to horizontal and the wooden treads were bowed downwards as if the stress of thousands of desperate souls treading on them had been too depressing for them and they now just existed without the will to live. Under the porch could be heard a rustling scurrying sound of creatures best left unseen and unmolested least their unwanted attentions be turned loose on the inquisitive interloper. On the corner of the porch next to a very narrow unpaved driveway, was a square-based tapering pillar holding up the porch roof with the house number 23 affixed to it. The letters had been of good quality at one time, enameled white letters on a metal base. Now they were missing much of the enameling with what was left being stained yellow by the rusting medal. Under the letters was nailed a board with little to no regard to right angles or even an attempt to be slightly horizontal. On the board was scrawled the words, “23½ ROUND BACK!” by someone obviously sick and tired of being inconvenienced to give out directions to 23½.
“Why is it always ‘round back?”
The driveway was put in long after the house had been built, before Henry Ford’s creations, constructed to accommodate the Model T or Model A automobiles of the day. It had gone unused due to its lack of width through the craze for super sized automobiles and the muscle cars. A Smart Car would now fit but that would never be seen in this neighbourhood. The driveway was equally dark and uninviting ending with a dilapidated garage, more than a mate for the ailing house. The sill had long ago rotted away and the vertical wood siding was now all that held the structure erect. The sides themselves bowed out leaving the structure resembling a circus tent more than an accessory building.
The sound of a dog barking in the distance could be heard but it sounded to be a few doors over. No barking came from this property in response to the other dog’s challenge so that may not be an issue here.
“At least it’s not the end of the shift.”
There was a superstition among the officers in the division that if all went well for your whole shift then the last call was likely going to be the most dangerous. If you were going to “buy it” then that was when it would happen. This caution was probably started to keep the new officers on their toes. As the biggest factor in any officer’s injury or death is quite often complacency.
Taking a deep breath the summons firmly in the officer’s leather encased Kevlar gloved left hand, he drew his right hand back past the Asp (extendable baton), undoing the dome on his 9 mil. holster and finally coming to resting on his three-cell Mag-Lite. He preferred the Mag over the stronger beam of the mini flashlights carried by some of the younger officers. The reason was simple, deadly simple. A Mag might not be able to blind a charging rhino or fry ants at fifty feet such as the young officers bragged about their mini lights, but it gave sufficient light and could serve, as it had on several occasions, as a defensive “weapon of opportunity”. Here is the simple logic. When something “goes down” you have 1.5 seconds to react. So, 1.5 seconds to drop your mini flashlight, un-holster your 9 mill (did you remember to unfasten it earlier?), snap off the safety, point it at the assailant and come up with a memorable line out of a Dirty Harry or Rambo movie and save your butt. All in 1.5 seconds...won’t happen sweetheart! At least with the Mag-Lite in hand you have something, well, at hand, what you do in the next 1.5 seconds is up to you.
“Thank God for my Mag-Lite”
The officer had seen just about every kind of trap and trip fall over the years. From boards with nails protruding waiting like some spiny sea urchin in the dark waters of night, to impale any unwary pedestrian venturing into their domain, to trip wires set across the top of exterior basement access stairways. The lights at the bottom of these egress wells were always “conveniently” out of order. The one that always stuck in his mind was one basement apartment access stairs, as usual in complete darkness, that had a row of soda cans sitting along the front edge of one of the treads, about one half way down the stair case. Stepping on top one or two of these cans would send you down the stairs on your backside in a flash. The worst were concrete stair cases. Then there were the “screamers”. Battery powered alarms that emitted a sharp whine so loud as to nearly split an ear drum and the fright enough to bring on a heart attack, or at least it seemed so. These were attached to one side of the stair case, a monofilament line stretched across the stair way. These were activated similar to a hand grenade with a pin being pulled out when someone tripped the line. If there was one thing in abundance in this neighbourhood it was human ingenuity, whether protective or malicious.
Reaching the back corner of the main house there was a smaller structure attached, probably a former kitchen with accommodation for the “help” dating back to more affluent times. The porch light was off but the window beside the door was lit up. As he scanned the property and especially the path to the door he noticed that the only potential traps were those of children’s toys reluctantly left when “time for bed” was announced. He could imagine the protests of the young adventurers as their mother put an end to their conquests of the imagined castle or the slaying of the evil dragon. Some things common to children everywhere is their ability to ignore brutal reality in favour of their own worlds of make believe. This made him smile slightly.
Reaching the entrance the officer opened the screen door and knocked on the old paint cracked wooden slab. He actually lightly kicked the door with the toe of his shoe but it was still a knock. Immediately the light was turned off that had illuminated the window and the porch light was snapped on. The officer instinctively shut the screen door which he braced closed with his foot; toe on the door and heel firmly against the decking of the porch. This was the moment of truth, the seconds before the bull charges the matador or the moment before when all is revealed, the expected raging bull or a peaceful member of the heard.
A woman opened the door; it was hard to tell her age due to the lack of light as she stayed in the shadows afforded by the frame of the screen door. It didn’t matter at this time as the officer could see that she held nothing in her hands and shining the flashlight’s beam in her face would only serve to annoy more than identify..at least for the time being.
“Is Mr. Larry Oatman living at this address?”
“Yes, I’m his wife”, she offered without hesitation and offered her full name and date of birth following the officer’s request.
“Please give this to him” the officer calmly said in a helpful tone of voice practised to garner cooperation.
“What is this?” She queried as she instinctively reached out and took the document. This happens more than not when serving a summons which is helpful though in Canada there is no need to actually touch the person with the summons to complete service.
“It’s a Summons for Mr. Oatman to appear in court”
She accepted this with a look of someone familiar with the term recidivism; the cycle of conviction followed by incarceration, release and another crime leading to arrest and conviction. This time all went down smoothly and peacefully. It is not always so, but one needs to be thankful for small favours and not dwell on the times when you’re met with violence.
Back in the patrol car the officer couldn’t help but think that this cycle of crime, incarceration, release then crime was like the instructions, wash, rinse, and repeat on the label on a shampoo bottle being applied to life. He also couldn’t help but wonder if this was always going to be the case for many in this part of the city. Deep down he knew the answer to his own question.
This is a scenario played out over and over day after day year after year all over the country. In most cases there is no need for a firearm, the asp is not drawn or the pepper spay not released into an assailant’s eyes. However it’s the trusty old flashlight that is employed repeatedly. So it has been since the days of the watchmen with their burning brands, or torches, the candle lit lamps followed in time by oil fueled and then to battery powered lights, shedding light on crime and making it safer for officers to carry out their duties.
For quite some time now my good friend and fellow GMIC member, Mervyn Mitton and I have been discussing a collaboration of sorts to expand one of his earlier posts, regarding early police lanterns. This will involve specimens from both of our collections and a detailed description along with photos of the different specimens. I anticipate this taking some time as between the two of us we possess quite a good number of examples. In addition to this blog I will kick the project off with a “What do they have in common?” question. Sorry, no prize for the correct answer or even the wittiest response; just bragging rights. Which I suppose could be considered “priceless”.
Watch for the knowledge testing question coming to the appropriate section of your form shortly. Then tune into the police section to follow our post on police lanterns.
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and I hope that you found it entertaining and will check out our Police Lantern post in the Police Section under the title “What did they do in the dark...”.