Graswich Unleashed: Cop Talk

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A good day’s work for a Sacramento patrol cop is a vehicle stop on Florin Road. There are four people in the car, a gun tucked beneath the seat and 12 pounds of marijuana in the trunk. Backup arrives, the car gets searched, the gun and dope are discovered and the suspects surrender peacefully. The trip to jail and paperwork create four hours of overtime. The cop goes home healthy and happy.

That’s what cops live for, taking guns and drugs and bad guys off the street, working a little overtime, all wrapped up with a thin blue ribbon.

Many people around Sacramento spent time this summer talking about police, inspired by a proposed gang tax initiative. The first proposal collapsed without consideration by the County Board of Supervisors. The second was killed by the City Council. The talkers—most of them, at least—had no clue what they were talking about. They were guessing, dreaming. The gang tax would not have stopped gangs. It deserved to die.

Those politicians have not been in squad cars and don’t understand the adrenaline that hits a cop when she sees a car blow a stop sign at midnight. They don’t know the choices the cop makes when she lights up the offender and tells Dispatch, “I’ll be out on a vehicle stop with four in the car.”

It’s a tough moment for a cop, who has only a vague notion as to what she’s walking into. A lot of cops would pretend they didn’t see anything. They don’t need trouble. But not a good cop.

The talk this summer was all about street gangs and prevention, about raising taxes to throw more money at gangs, about expanding a bureaucracy of youth services to provide after-school programs, family counseling, resource officers and detectives. The November mayor’s race and jockeying for state Assembly jobs in 2010 hung in the summer air. The talk died while the problems remained.

I was talking to Rick Braziel, the Sacramento police chief, about eliminating street gangs. Rick is an old cop and a new-age chief. He has a gentle handshake and an academic way of explaining things. He can describe a dozen youth programs offered by his agency, from efforts to work with pre-teen girls on conflict resolution to literacy strategies and a program that shows middle school kids why packing a gun is a bad idea.

I asked Rick if Sacramento can eliminate street gangs and he said, “Completely? No.”

Street gangs have history on their side. They were familiar to Julius Caesar and Henry VIII. Small in number, they soak up vast amounts of resources. They are attractive to young people. To eliminate them, we collectively would have to stop buying illicit goods and services and dedicate ourselves to our children. Can we do that? Completely, no.

So good cops go out and watch for cars to blow stop signs, without knowing the racial profiles of the occupants. Good cops question kids at light rail stations and brace teenagers on the K Street Mall, hoping one will take off running.

That’s the strange thing about patrol cops: They love the action, the pursuit, the snap of the handcuffs, the overtime. But they know real success is measured in the zero number. It’s good to take guns and drugs off the street, to stop kids of all colors from hurting each other, but the best day for a cop is when we all behave and absolutely nothing happens.

R.E. Graswich co-hosts the afternoon news with Kitty O’Neal weekdays on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK AM radio and reports nightly for CBS 13.