In some neighborhoods in Los Angeles a peculiar communications system goes into action when someone is shot. People walk or drive by the crime scene and see the car the victim was in, and they think it might belong to some relative or friend or neighbor, and they get on their cell phones and start making the calls. “Doesn’t your cousin drive a blue Toyota? They’re working on some guy who got shot down here, and he’s in a blue Toyota . . .”
Most often they learn that their relative or friend or neighbor is safe, but as the chain of calls expands, everyone who knows anyone with a blue Toyota shows up at the crime scene, parking wherever they can — in the middle of the street, sometimes — and making their way to the yellow tape for a better look. Most of these people will leave satisfied that this blue Toyota, the one with the windows shot out and the blood all over the inside, this one is a Celica while their cousin’s is a Corolla. And they get on their cell phones and start calling people to tell them no, it is not their cousin’s car, and yeah, it’s too bad somebody got shot but at least it’s nobody we know.
But then a young woman arrives, a young woman whose brother drives blue Celica, and he’s not answering his cell phone and he left work an hour ago and he’s not home yet and nobody knows where he is . . . and she looks at the car from a half-bock away because that’s as close as the cops will allow her, and she thinks she recognizes something about it, a sticker in the window, maybe, or something hanging from the mirror . . . and the awful truth hits her like she has been shot herself.
The cop standing nearby sees the look on her face, a look he has seen many, many times before, and he waits for the questions. Only minutes ago the cop heard from the hospital that the shooting victim had died. He wasn’t surprised by this news; over the years he has seen enough people shot to be able to guess with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make it and which ones will not. This one, the guy in the blue Celica, never had a chance.
“Do you know who it is?” the woman asks weakly.
The cop only knows who the Celica’s registered owner is, not who was driving it. The owner might have loaned the car to someone else. “I’m sorry,” the cop says, “I don’t.”
The cop hopes the questions will end there but knows they won’t. The woman holds her hands over her mouth and asks, even more weakly now, “Is he all right?”
To this there can be no evasion. “I’m afraid not,” the cop says. “They took him to the hospital, they did everything they could, but they couldn’t save him. I’m sorry.”
With that the young woman dissolves into tears. And though she is surrounded by onlookers, not one of them extends a consoling hand or makes any to comfort her. Most of them can’t even bring themselves to look at her, casting their eyes in every direction but hers. It is the cop, finally, who offers her a shoulder to cry on.
And cry she does, her tears streaking down the blue wool of the cop’s uniform. The cop feels awkward — people are looking now — but it is the only right thing to do. But then more cars arrive, parking haphazardly and producing more friends and relatives, people who could not have imagined what news awaited them when their cell phones started ringing a few minutes earlier.
One of them comes over and takes the woman from the cop, who must now face these newcomers and try to answer their questions: Who did it? . . . Did you catch them? . . . How did it happen? Then comes the tough one: Did he suffer? The cop has no way of knowing the answer, but he knows what they need to hear. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I think it was quick.” And soon these people too are crying.
“This is crazy!” one of them shouts through her tears. She is young, like the first woman. “My brother wasn’t a gang-banger!”
And maybe he wasn’t. But whoever killed him may have thought he was, either for something he said or something he wore, or maybe because of a look he gave, some subtle sign of disrespect to a guy who happened to have a gun, and who used it with no more thought than he might give to stepping on a bug. It doesn’t take much to get yourself killed around here, the cop thinks. He recalls a murder that happened some years back about a mile away. Two men in a laundromat argued over the use of a laundry cart. One of them pulled a gun and shot the other one dead, just like that.
As the night wears on the crowd of onlookers melts away. The merely curious depart and leave the scene to the victim’s family and friends. Among them stands an older man who looks over at the car and at the detectives as they make their notes and take their measurements. The dead man is his son, the cop learns. The cop can’t recall too many times when a father showed up at a crime scene like this. Lots and lots of mothers, sure, but not many fathers. The cruel irony of course is that if there were more fathers in this neighborhood there wouldn’t be as many crime scenes.
But that is not this father’s concern right now. Tonight he can only think of the baby boy he held for the first time 20 years ago and worried about every single day since, only to see him come to this.
The following night the cop drives by the same corner and finds a candlelight vigil in progress. Fifty or so people are praying at the spot where the young man was killed. The cop parks his car and prepares to walk over and pay his respects, especially to the young woman who cried on his uniform. But before he can open his door the routine chatter over the police radio is interrupted by an emergency call: someone has been shot about two miles away. There is work to be done. The cop drives off.
Thirteen people were murdered in Los Angeles over the Labor Day Weekend, bringing the city’s total to about 340 for the year. By the time you read this the number will surely be higher; some of those killings will have been avenged by still others.
This is crazy, but will it ever stop?
– Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.