Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Stakeout!

In our city, we have a few trouble parks, those dark expanses of grass and secluded tree-shrouded corners where mischief usually happens. I suppose parks in most cities experience this same thing, but a few in our city has reached a level of unpleasantness (graffiti, vandalism, etc.) that the director of our Parks and Rec department decided to increase the patrols to those parks and initiate a series of stakeouts to watch the parks for extended periods of time.

It sounded interesting to me, a definite break from the normal park patrols I go on every week (though I haven’t been in a while, not since I’d lost my partner), so I volunteered to spearhead the first stakeout at a little square-block of park hidden in an old part of town, a place surrounded by those little houses typical of the late 1940s urban sprawl but unfortunately have fallen into the hands of people who really don’t take good care of them. From that spawns the kind of people that find a certain kind of joy in defacing public property… like a dog marking a tree.

This is where I come in. My name’s not Friday. I don’t carry a badge. My partner’s not Harry Morgan, but my friend Brian, whom I coerced to come along with me on my first stakeout at this particular park, let’s call it Victory Park for the sake of giving it an identity.

A few days ago, I received an email briefing me of the situation at Victory Park, letting me know that there has been a considerable increase of graffiti on the handball wall, the exterior of the small recreation center in the park and whatever other surface they could find to mark up. In a period of nine days, the anti-graffiti crews had to repaint everything three times.

Brian and I met the Senior Park Ranger at city hall last night around 6pm to get some more specifics of the park and the best location to observe from. With satellite views, he showed us a couple of good spots to park so we would attract the least attention, which was most important to me, as the last thing I wanted was people coming up to me wondering why we’re sitting out in front of their house.

We were assigned an undercover car, rather a Toyota pickup truck leftover from the fire department’s fleet of foreign cars they were fazing out (the city only buys American-made equipment now). It had 150,000 miles on it and definitely screamed out every one of those miles when I started it... a very loose belt, and the power steering gear sounded like it lacked all fluids. The ranger said, “You shouldn’t leave the lights on without it running, otherwise it might not start again.”

I called into the police dispatch to let them know that we were “Code 5,” which is fancy police jargon for undercover surveillance, and I let her know that if they needed us for any reason, to call us on the radio. We had our own radio and we use a particular call name to identify us if we needed to use it.

We drove the POS undercover car to Victory Park and found a nice dark corner across the street from the park and settled in for the night. In true stakeout form, Brian and I stopped to buy some doughnuts to eat while we watched for perps and listened to the goings on in our town on the police radio. That was the interesting part. The helicopter was up and flying around, the gang units were out in force and there were several interesting calls: domestic abuse, a home break in, a car accident, someone with a shotgun, the usual crazies.

One thing about the doughnut shop. The guy behind the counter looked as though it was going to kill the next person to walk in the door and no matter how many stupid things I said, meaning to be funny, the guy wouldn’t crack so much as a smile. What kind of drudgery can a job making doughnuts be that you can’t occasionally smile? Brian and I surmised that he was the owner and sole employee, resenting the fact that he spent so much money on a “Open 24 Hours” sign and that the only thing he wants to do is go to sleep.

I had every intention of only buying six doughnuts, four for me and two to bring home to Kara (well, one for me to eat in the morning), and Brian picked out a modest two for a total of eight. The doughnut guy told us in a flat, hushed, monotone voice that if we bought a dozen, it would be cheaper. What? How is that possible? First of all, from that statement, there’s no way he’s the owner, because why would he be willing to lose profits on at least four doughnuts; and second of all, why is it that a dozen doughnuts comes to $5.99, whereas eight doughnuts, a full four fewer, would cost more? I understand economics, rates of return and all of that, but I just never thought doughnuts could be affected like that. I guess, what had happened, is that we found the sweet spot within the dozen-doughnut range that pushed us, economically speaking, to the other side of the curve. I’ve just never seen the curve so blatant and obvious before.

Brian and I settled into our stakeout, and right away we were surprised that there was so many people walking around. It was around 7pm and there was no shortage of people milling about, as it seemed that was the perfect time to walk down to the market and get whatever it is people in that neighborhood get from the market. In the park, as I had seen many times patrolling this park before, was a group of old men at the picnic tables playing cards. It reminded me of the scenes in New York that shows a bunch of old men playing chess; same thing, only cards, and when I asked the ranger why they just didn’t ask those guys who was spraying graffiti in the park, he said that they wouldn’t tell him. Typical. Don’t tell the man anything. Live in squalor. Trash your own neighborhood by negligence. Old bums.

The problem with a stakeout is that everyone we saw was a perp, everyone in our eyes had the potential to commit a crime right in front of us. I don’t know how many times I reached for the radio, ready to call in a description in the anticipation that the suspect was about to do something dastardly, only to be rebuffed and somewhat disappointed. A kid on a bicycle riding through the park looked like, at any moment, he was going to break out a spray can and go to work on the walls. Two kids walked by with backpacks like they had just gotten out of school, and we sat there waiting for them to start defacing something. The funny thing is that I was wishing they would have for a couple of reasons: 1) It would have been exciting to bust somebody, which is a sure break from the boredom of watching an otherwise empty park; and 2) It would have proved the stakeout program effective and worthy of our time.

In the end, nothing happened. The main focus of our stakeout, a big white handball wall, stayed white, barren of graffiti, which begs for the moral of this story: Kids are unreliable. As it turns out, Wednesday was a minimum day for the schools, and the ranger said, as a result, it was quite a busy afternoon. Perhaps all the little delinquents got tuckered out and went home for a little nap before dinner.

I went home a little disappointed, as I always get a secret joy out of calling in the cavalry on the indigenous peoples. However, a highlight of the evening was surprising a couple taking care of a little backseat business in a dark parking lot at another park. We drove in, saw the red reflectors shine in the dark, and I knew exactly what we had come up on. The windows were completely fogged up, so I shined the big spotlight on the car for about a minute until they finally moved. We saw the silhouette of the woman putting her shirt back on, and Brian and I took bets to see whether the guy would get out of the car to get in the front seat or if he would remain anonymous and climb over. When he got out, he looked about 6-foot-4, so there was no way he was going to climb over, but the woman stayed in the back.

The funny part was the look of total dejection on his face. He didn’t look angry and he didn’t glare up at us as I expected him to, but I could tell that we completely ruined his night. I’m guessing it is a major mood killer to have a spotlight shined on you when you’re—ahem—sharing a moment. I felt a little guilty at first—it’s just sex—but then again, there’s a time and place for everything and the park in the middle of the night is not it.

Plus, judging by the guy’s age (he looked about 35), he probably should go home to his wife.

Which is what I did. My first stakeout was not successful, but it was nice to have some company…thanks Brian. I’ll call you for the next one.

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