FIRESTONE COPS AND KIDS
By Duane Preimsberger
Back in the early 1960’s when some say that dinosaurs still roamed the earth I was assigned to Firestone Station in south central Los Angeles. One of those years in late May I was working a unit known as Eleven-Mary. I came in at 7:00 AM and climbed on a three wheeled Harley Davidson motorcycle and rode through the area writing parking tickets to those who had left their cars parked in front of the street sweepers who cleaned up the leaves and trash. Often, it was a race between me, the street sweeper and a car owner, who was often in hair curlers, a bathrobe and floppy pink slippers, they’d come charging out of the front door of their home in an effort to move the car before the sweeper arrived. If the street sweeper won, the car owner got a parking ticket otherwise they got an opportunity to move it and a pass on the citation. I was usually finished well before 10:00 AM and that gave me the rest of the day to walk a footbeat through the business district and listen to tall tales and swap stories with the merchants and those who were walking the sidewalks.
I was also the guy who got called to do the extra jobs that can confront the law enforcement officers in any community. I made safety and security inspections of homes and businesses, I was dispatched to talk to residents who complained about lack of service or to meet with people or groups who had an on going problem that required a focused, long term solution. And sometimes I was sent to local elementary schools to put on safety programs.
Generally, I was fortunate enough to go the schools with a lady Deputy Sheriff by the name of Janet Parker. Janet was a feisty, energetic, woman in her late 30’s who ran a day care center for working families in addition to her cop job. I liked Janet, we’d worked together inside the station at the complaint desk where we fielded telephone calls for service from the community and dealt with those who came to us for assistance. Her experience and knowledge far surpassed mine and I learned a lot from our assignment together. Janet loved kids and was really good with them, additionally, most of our clientele was African-American and so was Janet. I would tag along to the schools with her and she would assume the role as the spokesperson for us. She did just a great job with the kids and the school staff and it was always a pleasure to watch her work.
Janet could be as serious as heart attack when she needed to be but she also had a wonderful sense of humor and could flash a smile that could light up a room or make the recipient just happy to be there. Her personality, bearing, intelligence and caring made her a perfect choice for conducting community-oriented programs and she liked doing them.
We’d end up with a first, second or third grade class often outside on the playground or in a gymnasium or conference area with a group of little kids standing or sitting on the ground around us.
Janet would go through a little warm up routine introducing the two of us and then asking some easy safety oriented questions that would result in a flurry of raised hands and plaintive cries of, “Me, Me:” as the kids vied to answer. After that we’d team teach for perhaps a half an hour or so and cover the basics of traffic safety, personal safety, safe havens, home security and any area that the school staff had suggested to us. We’d always bring a black and white patrol car with us and the last fifteen minutes of our program would be an explanation of the car and it’s red lights and siren. Janet usually brought a camera and was very willing to take pictures of the kids as they inspected the patrol car and sat behind the wheel peering out the window with my uniform cap perched upon their heads. Each of them had the opportunity to depress the horn ring on the steering wheel that activated the siren and it was fun to watch the huge grins break out on their faces as they did that.
This was also their opportunity to inspect us, to ask us questions or to tell us things they wanted us to hear. I don’t know why but it seemed that each class of first graders always had a future Louie Armstrong that came as issued first grade staffing. This was the kid who would craftily sneak up behind me and then put a lip grip on my police whistle that was hanging from my gun belt, that lip grip would be the envy of a Moray eel. Then, he or she would blow on that whistle endlessly. No matter how hard I tried to gently remove them, they wouldn’t come loose. Janet was my salvation; it was she who found out that if you tickle a whistle blower they have to stop. As soon as there was a pause I’d unsnap the whistle from its holder, pluck it from the offending mouth and stick it in my pocket. It became part of our routine.
First through third graders also have a depth perception deficit that makes it absolutely impossible for them to have a discussion with anyone in an uniform unless they stand on your freshly polished shoes. I am convinced that this problem is corrected by age and when they become ten years old it simply disappears. Until then kiss your shoeshine goodbye, it will not last in any group contact with little kids.
The last moments of our time together invariably brought up some questions or statements from the kids that were real mind benders.
“How many people have you shot?”
“When my daddy hits my mommy why do you always take him to jail? She starts it.”
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers because they’ll try to give you drugs.”
“My sister thinks the cop who drives by our house is real cute.”
“Mr. Policeman are you allowed to have a wife and children?”
“Is Superman a policeman?”
“Daddy says all you guys do is eat donuts and write bad tickets, is that true?”
“I’m going to be the police when I grow up.”
“Mommy says if I’m ever in trouble you’ll come to help me, that makes me happy.”
“Are you still looking for the guy who wrote the bad words on the school building? It was Joey.”
The first few times I went to one of the school programs with Janet I thought that it had been enjoyable but it took me weeks and months before I began to see and feel the real result of my visits. As time went on, after handling a disturbance or taking a crime report I’d be met on the sidewalk by a kid who’d look up and say something to me that would brighten my day. “Hi Mr. Policeman, remember me, I’m Clarissa, you came to my school and told us about safety and let us make the siren work, that was so neat…”
Years later, Janet and I left Firestone Station, I went to the Emergency Services Detail and helped form a tactical rescue unit and Janet went to a full time community relations assignment at the Sheriff’s Department’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. She did an excellent job and was often commended for her efforts by her supervisors and the community. Time and our paths crossed through the years and although Janet passed on at an early age from complications due to asthma, I still think of her with great fondness on those occasions when I see or hear a little kid blow a whistle. Janet appears then, smiling and then tickling a kid into giving it up.
Tom Loney and Rudy Silvas were partners working unit 401 the Firestone Station night detective car. Both had been patrol Deputies at the Station and had shown promise as investigators so after a little training they found themselves working a plum assignment as plainclothes, immediate follow-up investigators on felony cases occurring on the evening watch.
They were a top notch, solving crimes, making a sizeable number of arrests and recovering lots of stolen property.
One early evening when I was working car 15 with Doug Travis we’d stopped at the Hot Spot, a local walkup fast food stand on the east side of Wilmington Ave. south of Imperial Highway that specialized in hot-link sandwiches. Tom and Rudy had stopped there as well and after ordering and getting our food we stood around the front end of our patrol car using it’s hood as a dining table while we talked.
After polishing off our sandwiches we were a little bit surprised to see Tom Loney return to the window where he ordered another sandwich, some fries and a drink to go. Tom wasn’t a really big man and we wondered aloud where he was going to put the second helping he’d ordered. Off in the shadows, just north of the stand was a boy of 13 or 14. Neither Rudy, Doug nor I paid him much attention as far as we knew; he was waiting for a bus.
After Tom got his bag of food, he walked quickly past us until he reached the kid and then he gave him the bag and the drink. The two of them talked briefly and then the kid walked away. When Tom returned, Doug asked him what that was all about and Tom simply replied that he’d seen the kid there earlier and knew that he was hungry. “A long time ago, I was that hungry and was standing around a place like this watching people eat when a cop bought me a sandwich. Every once in a while I do the same thing. Come on Rudy, let’s go.”
Doug and I stood there looking at one another after the Detectives had left until Doug said, “we just saw a genuine act of kindness,” and he was right.
Janet, Tom and many others with whom I worked with at Firestone were great teachers, mentors and role models and they taught me much that helped me immeasurably during the forty years I spent in Law Enforcement. It’s always pleasant to look back and remember their generosity and support.
Firestone Cops and Kids had a special relationship, especially the littler kids and it always perked up the day to drive past a six year old who had run to the curb to wave at the patrol car as it drove by. “Hi Mr. Policeman!” In the moments that followed, after smiling and waving back I could remember and reflect on why we were there in ours black and white cars, wearing six pointed stars on our tan and green uniforms.
“Hi kid, everything O.K.?”