Rookie Baltimore police officer: Proud, poised, sometimes scared

May 16, 1993|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Staff Writer

The call crackles on the police radio: "Man with a machin gun near Biddle and Forrest streets."

Officer Sung Yi, a rookie police officer on just his second day of duty, hears the call and speeds to the area. Once there, the officer jumps from the car and joins about 30 other officers who have surrounded a house in the 1100 block of Greenmount Ave.

A police helicopter circles above, and a crowd watches from nearby.

For the first time as a police officer in an emergency situation, Officer Yi draws his 9mm service handgun and runs with it. The incident ends within minutes when police enter the house and arrest a suspect. No shots are fired and police recover a .38-caliber handgun -- not a machine gun.

Officer Yi holsters his weapon.

This is the life the rookie officer imagined as a child watching episodes of the old "CHiPS" police show on television. Sung Yi wanted to perform police work because it's fast-paced and he likes the notion of never having a "routine day."

Now, less than a week after graduating from the Baltimore Police Education and Training Division, Officer Yi is living his dream on the streets of East Baltimore.

"It's what I expected so far. It's basic instinct to pull the gun when you get a call like that," Officer Yi said. "I don't want to use it, but to protect myself and others I have no problems using deadly force."

Sung Yi feels most comfortable on the streets of Southeast Baltimore where he grew up. It is an area made up of tidy communities of rowhouses with marble steps. As he walks these familiar sidewalks, he shakes hands with friends who know him as "Jimmy."

Here, there are no strange looks, no hoots, no enemies -- and no threat of being anything other than the kid who graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1992 and helps his parents run a grocery store.

But his life changes when he dons his police uniform and ventures into the crime-plagued areas of East Baltimore as a 24-year-old rookie cop. As Jimmy Yi patrols this often tense part of the city, he symbolizes the law and he's called "Five-0," the street slang for police officer.

Officer Yi is one of only seven sworn Korean-American police officers on a city police force of more than 2,800 sworn officers. "I've thought about that for a long time," Officer Yi said recently on his first week of duty as he drove his police cruiser past clusters of men in the Barclay section of East Baltimore.

"Before I finished the police academy and even right before I started, I wondered how it was going to be for me being Korean being out there. And I really can't worry about it."

As a rookie, Officer Yi has much to be concerned about. He must learn the hot spots of his patrol sector near Greenmount and North avenues, an area known for drug trafficking and violence. He also must learn to solve disputes and to recognize the situations that warrant the use of deadly force.

On Greenmount Avenue

Then there are the routine incidents. As he drives in the 1600 block of Guilford Ave., he is flagged down by a man who excitedly tells him that he has just been robbed of his wallet at gunpoint at Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street.

The man, in his early 30s and dressed in an orange denim shirt and shorts suit, tells Officer Yi a man poked a handgun into his back and said, "You know what this is."

The rookie asks the man for identification and details about the incident. The officer nervously fumbles with his nearly clean note pad as he takes the information.

"Do you know how much was in the wallet, sir?" Officer Yi asks.

About $18 and credit cards, the man replies.

"And what kind of gun did he have, sir?"

"It was a .32 caliber. I was in the military, so I know guns," the man says.

Officer Yi asks more questions and takes precise notes. He unfailingly calls the man "sir" after each query and sincerely thanks him for the information.

He then radioes in a description of the red Ford Escort in which the robber was said to have fled, and in a few minutes the car's description is broadcast to police citywide.

The rookie smiles.

"I was kind of nervous," he says later. "My personality is that I'm too polite sometimes. You have to be more aggressive, but it'll come with time. I hope it does."

Minutes later, and after the complainant has gone, Officer Yi realizes that he encountered the man about a half-mile from where he claimed to have been robbed. He wonders why the man wandered so far from the robbery scene.

"Maybe I should have asked him that," he says softly to himself.

At the police academy graduation on May 7, Sung Yi was valedictorian of a class of 33 men and six women -- including two Korean-American officers -- who endured six months of police training at the department's Owings Mills police training facility.

The rookie officers were sent to the department's nine district stations and hit the streets for salaries near $23,000.

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