The Night Patrolman

Community Policing Informed by a Troubled Past

The boy waits for the screams to start. He and his brothers go to sleep early each night, lying five in a bed, hoping to evade the sounds that haunt their home and suffocate their ears. The boy can never close his eyes. He lies there listening, tense.

The boy lives with his Dominican mother in the South Bronx, in a house where a block of welfare cheese and a carton of milk are the only fixtures in the refrigerator, and dinner most nights is bread and pancake syrup. He walks to school kicking needles on the sidewalk and comes home with bloody knuckles because if you aren’t Puerto Rican or black, you’re fighting everyday.

The boy has a step-father named George, who wakes up smelling like cheap rum and comes home at night with the devil in his eye and anger in his fists, slurring out the crooning melodies of Julio Iglesias as he wraps towels around the hands of the boy and his brothers. He forces them to box each other until someone gets knocked out. If they don’t punch hard enough, he takes a metal coat hanger out of the closet, twists it up, and beats them.

But George’s favorite target is Maria, the boy’s mother. It is her screams that keep the boy awake at night, so that at the age of nine he already has dark bags under his eyes. He knows that he cannot fall asleep, because he is his mother’s protector, her watcher, her guardian angel.  

As he waits for George, he whispers his prayers: As he waits for George, he whispers his prayers: Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name; Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven…deliver us from evil. Please, let us get away, I don’t want him here no more, don’t let my mother get hit no more, I don’t want to see her suffering, please don’t let him kill us, please Father… and on and on, until the front door creaks open and he knows that George has come home.

When the sounds of crashing plates and Maria’s screams become unbearable, the boy slips out of bed and climbs through the first floor fire escape window. He jumps ten feet onto the cool pavement below, running barefoot in his underwear for two blocks to the emergency fire alarm. He runs in all weather, through thunderstorms and snow, never even feels the cold on his feet or the rain on his face because he is so terrified of what is happening back home. He becomes his mother’s legs, his only thought to pull the alarm lever and then race back, listening as the screeching sirens fill the Bronx night and force George to leave the apartment before the police and fire trucks arrive. The boy becomes obsessed with the superhero-like power of the police, the only people that can make George stop, if for an evening. The nightly trip down the fire escape becomes a ritual.

The instinct to protect and the obsession with stopping violence never leaves the boy: today, Jimmy Gutierrez carries the memories of his childhood with him as he works the mid-shift night patrol in South Providence, one of the toughest assignments in the city. Unlike most officers on the force, he covers two districts, starting at eight in the evening and going until three in the morning. He’s still considered a rookie as part of the graduating class of 2014 Police Academy, but he works District Two and Three, two of the neighborhoods highest in crime.

In a post-Ferguson world where the word “police” has become synonymous in the media with racism, brutality, and structural oppression, the job of a community police officer has become tougher than ever. For police officers like Gutierrez, who insist that they operate differently from the prejudiced cops and institutions in the news, community policing represents a set of ideals put into practice on a nightly basis. For Gutierrez, these ideals—an obligation to keep a neighborhood safe, to help people deal with difficult or harrowing circumstances in their lives—are rooted profoundly in the trauma of his own past.

Gutierrez is a tall, half-Dominican man, with a rough voice and a physique that made him a star football player in the New York semi-pro leagues. The Eye of Ra, the Egyptian symbol of protection, is tattooed onto his spine. He knows how to look after himself: for eight years, he worked as a correctional officer at Donald W. Wyatt Maximum Security Prison in Central Falls, which he hated. However, he has a relentless conviction and emanating energy for his new job; he loves taking “hot” calls.

There is a constant tension underlying the work of community policing: a run-of-the-mill dispatch could turn deadly at any moment and a seemingly difficult one could be, and very often is, a non-issue. An officer like Gutierrez never knows what exactly he is going to find when he arrives at a call.

On a cold winter night in March, Gutierrez receives a dispatch for a domestic abuse case in a downtown parking lot. Along with another officer, he arrives to handle the situation.

A woman steps out of a silver Nissan, shaking her head back and forth, her hoop earrings swinging. She seems annoyed, her arms folded into her oversized sweater. Cuts run up and down her throat.

“I scratch myself in the shower,” she says when they question her, miming the motions with her hand swiping sideways. “I have eczema.”

As the woman continues to protest, her boyfriend, a large man with a skullcap and ponytail, sits mutely in the shotgun seat smoking a cigarette. A male friend comes over and tells the officers that nothing happened.

But Gutierrez runs the boyfriend’s name through their computer system and learn that the girlfriend has a permanent restraining order against him. They remove the man from the car and clasp the handcuffs on.

“You fucking serious,” the friend cries out, shaking his head. The boyfriend remains silent as he is placed in the back seat of Gutierrez’s car.

“You just signed my death warrant,” she whispers, nearly hysterical.

On the way to the station, the boyfriend calmly asks about the restraining order. She was supposed to have cleared it with the Attorney General’s office a couple months ago, he says. Why is it still showing up?

The request probably got stuck in the system, Gutierrez says. If you guys want to be together, you should take care of that, he advises.

The boyfriend shakes his head. He will spend the night in jail and then be sent to the ACI, awaiting the pending charges; he’ll likely spend six months in jail.

After Gutierrez drops the man off at the station, he sighs. The woman had never removed the restraining order, he had checked multiple times. Besides, these requests never get stuck in the system — they are updated instantly.

“She’s scared of him,” he says, in the privacy of the cruiser. “Back there, that was a show. She was protecting herself. The boyfriend knew what happened. But he didn’t need to make up some defense. He let her do that.”

The front dashboard of the car, he adds, had been covered in drops of blood—the boyfriend’s phone was soaked in it. The woman had been wiping it off her neck and face when Gutierrez told her to step out of the car.

“I try to really give 100 percent with those domestic calls,” Gutierrez says. “Because they are likely dealing with a lot of distress. So if I can make a difference and make them feel safe—even for one night—that will probably mean the world to them, because it did to me when I was younger.”

An officer must have an intimate relationship with his or her beat, the urban area in which they regularly patrol. They must know every side street a suspect might turn onto, every shop owner, homeless person, and prostitute, all the people who through the interconnection of their lives form the lifeblood of the community.

“The community should embrace and show the gratitude and love for the police,” Gutierrez says. “But at the same time, vice versa: police officers should have the same compassion and love, and show this through the caring nature of their policing. It’s vital and critical for community to know that its police officers are there for them.”

He believes firmly in the importance of being proactive. He’ll sidle his car up to  transvestite prostitutes walking down Cranston Street, asking about their day and reminding them, gently, to keep moving; he calls out greetings to the old men standing on corners holding paper bags of liquor, and smiles at the store managers, almost all of whom shake their heads when Gutierrez tries to pay for his food. He responds to calls to translate in Spanish as detectives tell people their family members have passed away, takes reports on break-ins and suicide attempts, complaints of loud music and of disorderly neighbors, calls about children left alone and fights in parks and firecrackers in the street.

The entrance to District Two, where Gutierrez primarily works, is sandwiched between two streets — Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue— that diverge from the gothic Grace Church Cemetery. The blocks are lined with the grungy facade of mom and pop businesses that represent a microcosm of the neighborhood demographics: neon and painted signs illuminate places like Joselito’s Barbershop, Trinity United Methodist Church (the largest Liberian church in Rhode Island), Mi Sueño restaurant (doubling on weekends as a disco club), and the Cranston Street Market (“We accept food stamps”).  

Although the shootings and stabbings are certainly the most sensational calls for Gutierrez, a larger part of his job is simply talking with people and listening to their stories. Over a series of nights, for the majority of his calls, that is exactly what Gutierrez does.  Communication, he says, is the most important tool for an officer.

One night, dispatch assigns him to a “Person Annoyed” call, which came with the request for a Spanish-speaking officer. Although the Providence latino population — which has doubled since 1970 — makes up nearly 28 percent of the Providence population, as of last year there were only 50 hispanic officers in the Providence Police Department out of 407. As a result, Gutierrez is often called to translate for his colleagues.

An annoyed person can hardly seem worthy of a 911 dispatch, but Gutierrez says these can sometimes be the most important calls — they can help diffuse a situation before it becomes more drastic.

The man, a young Nicaraguan immigrant in a baseball cap, meets Gutierrez’s cruiser on the street. Wary of a set-up, Gutierrez pats the man down and parks in a driveway.

The man begins speaking rapidly in Spanish, telling Gutierrez about how the mother of his child is refusing to let him see his daughter. While he attempts to offer advice, after thirty minutes all Gutierrez can do is suggest that the man consult with a lawyer about the custody process.  

“He just needed someone to vent to,” Gutierrez says after he leaves. “He wanted me to give him a better response I think, but you have to go to Family Court for that.”

In many ways, being a cop is a lot like being a counselor or a social worker. Gutierrez often deals with people like the Nicaraguan man, who, struggling to navigate the intricacies of the legal system, expect the police to be able to solve their problems.

Yet Gutierrez frequently encounters the opposite problem — one of distrust, the fundamental divide between the intentions of the police force and the community it interacts with.

Yet Gutierrez frequently encounters the opposite problem — one of distrust, the fundamental divide between the intentions of the police force and the community it interacts with.

One day, Gutierrez comes across two black kids playing baseball near the street.

“Hey there,” Gutierrez called. “What are you guys playing?”

“Baseball,” said the bigger of the two, holding his glove and offering a gap-toothed smile. Then, the kid asked: “If you get written up, does it stay on your record forever?”

Gutierrez was surprised. “Why you worrying about that? How old are you guys anyway?” Seven and eleven, as it turned out.

“You don’t got to worry about any of that for a long time,” he told them.

The kid nodded, sheepishly.

“Take care,” Gutierrez said.

“You too, Mr. PoPo.”

The interaction soured Gutierrez’s mood slightly.

“Parents use us to scare their kids,” he said, steering the car out of the parking lot. “They say, ‘I’ma tell the cops on you.’ That’s where it starts, the fear that they instill in them: ‘Don’t talk to the cops, don’t communicate with them,’ instead of telling them that we are good, that we can help them.”

“I tell my own kids when I see the cops: ‘Look, these are the good guys, making us safe, there’s no reason to be scared!’”

But for South Providence residents — a majority minority neighborhood — there appears fair reason to be hesitant about interacting with the police: African Americans, for instance, are arrested here at a disproportionately higher rate than whites, even more so than in Ferguson.

Gutierrez shakes his head. He gets defensive when the police force, as an institution, comes under attack, choosing to blame the media for the negative reputation of police.

For better or worse, gone is the super-hero image of the cops that Gutierrez grew up with.

Part Two can be found here.