THE young man ran out of the alley and onto Frederick Road with his arms pumping and his head thrown back. The gold chain around his neck flapped wildly, and every time it banged against his chest I could hear it in my cab only a short distance away.
A police car slammed past me and skidded to a stop. An officer jumped out and ran toward the quarry, who hesitated. Three more police cars converged. The young runner turned one way, then another. A cop grabbed him. The runner grabbed at the cop. A second cop joined in. A nightstick came out. Arms and legs flew in a tangle impossible to decipher in the yellow streetlights.
This was real life, not a movie, but the scene had an audience. Although the scuffle lasted less than two minutes, by the time the suspect was subdued, over 50 silent onlookers were leaning on cars or standing on nearby sidewalks. Most of them looked as if they were no older than 16, even though it was after 2 a.m.
The police -- it was four white officers against one black suspect -- certainly did some aggressive hitting. I saw nightsticks come down hard at least four times. Was this police brutality? I saw the cops take a few licks, too. And the suspect was able to stand once they had the cuffs on him. He left the scene in a paddy wagon, not an ambulance.
If I had carried a video camera and had taped the arrest, you would have seen the nightsticks coming down and at least one foot wearing a shiny black shoe slamming into a sweatsuited thigh. You would have seen an act of white-on-black violence. I don't think the suspect's hand groping for the officers' guns would have come through on videotape. The kicks aimed at the officers' groins would have been obscured in the dim light; at the corner of Frederick and Mount, the streetlights are a dim yellow, not a bright blue-white.
Little incidents like this take place every night in every American city. Most of the arrests are not major in today's context. They are for minor crimes like drug dealing and carrying illegal weapons, not murder or rape. In these brief, violent struggles it's often a tossup between whether the suspect or the officer is the one who will get hurt. It's an adrenalin situation for everyone involved. There are no ACLU lawyers or law enforcement theorists on the scene to offer advice.
In the courtroom, in the light of day, a canny defense lawyer may bring up the amount of force used to subdue this one suspect, and look sneeringly at the cops, who had his poor client outnumbered four to one. What won't show in the courtroom is that the cops were trying to subdue the suspect without hurting him any more than necessary, while the suspect was trying to damage them in any way he could. It will look different when everyone -- including the defendant -- is wearing clean clothes and sitting in an air-conditioned building, carrying on a measured discussion. At night, on the street, the actual arrest took less time than it takes a defense attorney to open his briefcase and set a case file on a courtroom table, and there was no judge to control the proceedings and keep all parties on their best behavior.
The onlookers didn't shout anything at the cops. They didn't protest the suspect's treatment. Their faces didn't show anger, or hatred, or disgust. The prevailing mood seemed to be boredom. Most of them had seen similar events before, and most will see the same thing happen again. Some may have known the feel of a nightstick's blow first-hand. Others, like the two pre-teen girls who ran past me as they went to look, just wanted to see who was getting it this time. No one said anything about police brutality. And why should they? In this neighborhood, drug dealers shoot at each other almost every night. When gunplay is routine, how bad are a few kicks and nightstick thumps?
As the panting suspect was loaded in the paddy wagon for transportation to the lockup, I asked one of the cops what he had been arrested for. "Distribution of narcotics," he said. "But it'll be knocked down to possession. At least he was 20, and not a juvenile, so he'll be out of circulation for a few weeks, instead of getting out tomorrow."
I looked at the cop, whose white shirt was stained with a mixture of sweat and street dirt, and I marveled at his calm. Only minutes earlier, he had been rolling around in the middle of the street with a man who was trying to hurt him. And I thought, as I watched him fill out his report, how much restraint he had shown, and how easily this everyday arrest could have turned into a brutality situation.
I realized I could never be a police officer. If the suspect had tried to kick me in the crotch while trying to take away my gun, I would have shot him.
Robin Miller drives a cab in Baltimore.