Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

A Late-Night Ride in a D.C. Police Van

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge, Mass., brought to mind this experience with the District of Columbia police as a young reporter in the early 1970s. This is the unedited version of an editorial-page piece that ran on May 29, 1972, in the Washington Post.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., is loaded into a police van after being arrested in April by U.S. Secret Service agents in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., while demonstrating against the genocide in Darfur.

"Look at This, This Newspaper Reporter Wrote Down Everything You Said, Johnson"

I'm one of those who propagandize Washington as an enjoyable place to live. I enjoy the conventions and the diversity of city living, and I would always scoff at those who viewed the District of Columbia in terms of its "crime problem." 

I was the unexpected beneficiary of the city's solution to the "crime problem" last Thursday night, the increase in a police force that now polices the nation's capital with greater intensity than any in other American city.

My fortune started shortly after four friends and I, from the Washington Post, Star and News, all of us black, started out at 3 a.m. Friday looking for an early morning eating place.

We'd just come from the Post building, at 15th and L Streets NW, to pick up a friend who worked until 3.

We turned a corner in front of 1022 Vermont Ave., when suddenly in the rear view mirror I spotted the flashing red lights of a police van. "Oh, no!" one of us said resignedly. "What are they stopping us for?" asked another.

The policeman came to the car door. "Yes, sir," I responded, and he asked to see my driver's license and registration. I told him, directly but a little chagrined, that I had left it at home and couldn't produce it. He asked me if I knew why I had been stopped, and told me it was because I had gone through a flashing red light. But that was the last I heard of that charge until the end of the hour-and-a-half odyssey. The issue was now my driver's license.

The officer asked me to step outside, and he and his partner began to search me. I was told to put my hands up beside the car. There were two officers, one white, Officer J.H. Franklin, and one black, Officer D.A. Hunter, and both were under 30.

Officer Franklin discovered something in my pocket. "What's that?" he said to his partner. He pulled it out and discovered a blue pen inscribed in white letters with "The Washington Post."

I told the officer I had just returned from the Post building, and that I and others in the car worked there and would be glad to confirm that I worked for a company heretofore not well-known for employing car thieves and joyriders. But no attempt was made to ask them or to call the Post.

There was some discussion as to whether I could go home to produce the license, or whether someone else could get the license for me, but this idea was also rejected by the officers. They said I would have to come to the Third District-First Substation to be booked. Someone else would have to drive the car there, following the van, Officer Franklin said.

I was then told to step into the back of the police van as my friends were to follow us. I had never been inside one of these, and certainly not alone or in custody.

"That's where all the customers sit" 

With a little apprehension, I asked whether I could sit in the cab of the van rather in the back. "That's where all the customers sit," Franklin noted cheerfully.

I had no choice but to step in the van and hear the door lock. I had started for the canvas Army surplus bag I usually carry containing notebooks and other paraphernalia, but I rejected the idea to minimize the policemen's apprehensions. I soon regretted it.

The ceiling in the van was low, and there is no ornamentation save for two long steel benches attached to the inside. I sit on one of the benches, and begin to slide down the bench as the police van takes off. The van isn't very big, and when there is no company save the mesh wire door and bare steel, the sensation is literally one of being trapped in a fast-moving, uncomfortable cage.

I looked and thought of diversions but there are none as the car speeds along bumpy streets.

Nothing but the wonder of when the ride will end, hoping it will be soon and wondering how long one can resist the temptation to declare oneself out of control. But you realize that would solve nothing, so you hold on.

The police van suddenly sped up, I don't know how many blocks - it seemed like an eternity - from 1022 Vermont, and I noticed the flashing light was on. I couldn't tell how long the light had been on or whether the flashing was standard procedure. I had no conception of where we were, since my only view of the outside world was through the mesh wire in the door. The wagon sides, of course, have no windows, and the van was moving so fast there was no time to steal an outside look, lest you fall to the floor when the van makes another turn.

Pretty soon we were on a major street, 14th Street, I guessed, and the van stopped there. (I later discovered it was 8th Street and New York Avenue NW.) I could see a multitude of police cars with flashing lights and wailing sirens.

We were in the middle of something, and the officer-drivers, whom I could see through a small window, wire mesh, again, opposite the door, left.

There was a good deal of commotion outside as police, I surmised, tried to bring a suspect into the van. The suspect was apparently resisting, and he had been handcuffed.

I panicked at the thought that they would be taking the suspect into the van with me, this man who had done I don't know what. And I wasn't even really sure he was handcuffed.

A feeling of absolute, total entrapment

Surely they would separate us, as I could not stand the rush of events that quickly. As it was, I had to use all my wits to think of diversions - any diversion - to escape the feeling of absolute and total entrapment.

I had used up all of my mental energy on that, and there was nothing to read or write upon; no one to converse with. I made do with chain-smoking, and then I had to worry about when my two remaining matches would run out.

I had to get out.

I asked Officer Franklin, as he opened the gate ("Someone in there from The Washington Post," he had told another officer) to let me get to the station in a police car. "Will you move back," said the officer. "We're going to the Third District. There's nothing to worry about."

The door was locked, and this young black dude was squirming in pain, with his head bowed at the other end of the van, seated, handcuffs keeping his hands behind him.

"How did this happen?" he asked me, "I wasn't doing nothin', I have asthma, you know, and I was just taking a walk and they hit me over the head.

"They got to do this to the brother, them honkies," he said, as he squirmed back and forth, handcuffs still behind him, shirt torn. "You know, I got to work every day, I buy cheap clothes, I don't do nothin' to nobody," he said.

I was so glad to be able to talk to him. Kools and diversions had run their course. I asked him what had happened and asked him to calm down, because the fervor of his excitement was getting contagious in what was becoming a mad, mad nightmare.

"They hit me over the head. Look at this cut. Can you see, man? You see my face? It had a swelling and what looked like a cut, as it was dark.

"What do you remember last?" "Man, I don't remember nothing. All I feel is pain," he said. "You know?"

This part of the ride, too, was interminable. I advised my comrade to stick to the corner seat, as the police van shifted so much he was liable to be whiplashed to the other side of the van. At one point, the ride had thrown my glasses from my eyes to the steel floor.

"Man, I ain't never been to jail, or nothin'" the suspect was saying. "I was just walking along. Why they got to do this to the brothers? You tell me, man," he said.

Finally, the ride was over, and the door was unlocked. I advised the man to be cool, and he advised me to be careful. I returned to the fresh air, and saw my friends again. I raised my hands in a victory sign more for my benefit than theirs, for it was a great relief to see again some relation to reality.

Taken to the backroom

I was taken inside the backroom of the Third District headquarters, First Substation, on 5th Street and New York Avenue NW.

Would I sit down, asked Johnson, white, who was sitting at a long table next to the wall in the 9x12 foot room, next to a black New York woman who was waiting for the officer to dial a telephone number for her.

"I'd rather stand, as I've been sitting for quite a while," I said, mumbling. He asked that I repeat that statement, and I did.

"Well, I'd rather you sat down," he said.

The New York woman lent me a match so I could smoke another cigarette. I had run out of matches in my chain-smoking in the van.

I began writing down notes on the back of an abandoned prosecution report, designed for six copies, which was lying on the table. Putting down as much as I could remember was one way of escaping the whole experience and at the same time remembering it.

This wait, too, seemed interminable, as the two officers went on to other things.

Occasionally, Johnson or Franklin would remind me to sit in the chair, where I could stare at a Coke machine, and not to stand up.

I thought about all the stories I had read about confinement, and prisons, and police departments, and this police department.

Officer Franklin finally arrived to make out the ticket, for going through a flashing red light, he had told me.

He asked my address and if I had any identification. I reminded him that my wallet was at home, but that I had some identification in my canvas bag, in the car, and he permitted me to get it.

"You got a gun in there?" he asked me as I reached in the bag, looking for anything with my name on it. By this time, I was prepared to tell him I didn't consider the remark funny. I found a notebook.

"What you got there?" he said, as he noticed - and took - the notes I had written. "You can't keep that; this is police department property. You could be charged with larceny from the D.C. government," the blond-haired officer told me. "That's a $500 fine, and you wouldn't want that, would you?"

Returning to the subject, the officer allowed as how "you press people never drive with your licenses, do you?"

I volunteered that I had offered to get the license, but the officer noted that the police department could not seriously be expected to drive the 12 blocks from the scene to my home.

He took the identification and we returned to the station house. There was another long absence while he filled out the ticket and checked my license registration over the Washington Area Law Enforcement System, a teletype network known as WALES.

"I thought he worked for the Black Digest or something"

Meanwhile, Officer Franklin had given his partner, Officer Hunter, my notes, and Hunter read them with interest.

"He's a newspaper reporter," said Franklin as he left the backroom.

"Oh, good, I like newspaper reporters," said Hunter.

"Look at this, this newspaper reporter wrote down everything you said, Johnson; you're going to be in the newspapers," said Hunter.

Johnson laughed.

Another officer came in, a black officer, who asked who was this older man who had just been brought in. "Robbery suspect?" he asked.


"And who's this?"

"A newspaper reporter for the Washington Post."

"Oh, I thought he worked for the Black Digest or something," said the officer as he walked out.

"This is really blowing my mind," said Officer Hunter as he continued his reading of the notes. "Here, I can't make all this out." He gave them back to me.

I decided to see whether I could view my friends in the waiting room outside, to avoid sitting in the chair any longer and walking in circles around the room. I checked the time, and it was about 3:45.

I tiptoed outside and chatted for a quick minute as Officer Franklin spotted me. "You better get back on that chair, or I'll throw you in the cell block." I returned promptly to the backroom.

After another wait, Franklin finished the WALES check. He spotted the notes in my hand, and said, "You better let me have those. " Although Hunter had returned them to me, that was of no apparent consequence. "I'll take those," was his response, and he paused to read them.

That done, Franklin made out one ticket for driving without registration and another one for driving without carrying a license.

In a burst of understatement, Franklin allowed as how, "you see how inconvenient it is to be driving without your license?'

It was 4:30 by then, and I finally was allowed to leave.

Crime is down.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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