Every cop who's been on the job for a while can tell you about the call.
That one call over Police Radio, that if he had to do it all over again, there's no way in the world he'd answer it. Maybe he'd pretend his radio was turned off, or its battery was dead. As a last resort, he might try to leave work early Hey, Sarge, I don't feel so good, I've been throwing up, I really think I should go home right away.
It might be an innocent-sounding call, part of the daily routine. Or one that hints of danger, the dispatcher's voice suddenly tense, just slightly higher pitched. A call out of nowhere, out of the air, a voice that breaks the silence as the patrol car cruises through the familiar streets. The cop doesn't know it yet, has no way of knowing, but it's the call. And once he answers it, it changes his life forever.
For me, it came late one night, near the end of my shift. I was already making plans, thinking about seeing Michelle and having that first cold beer.
20-C-Charlie, we have a request for a supervisor.
No big deal, I thought. It just meant one of my cops needed me, probably for something minor, maybe even idiotic. Uh, Sarge, we just broke up a fight between like eight dogs do we got to do paperwork on it?
This time, it was Mutt and Roy who wanted me. Mutt had radioed in, asking for a supervisor at 43rd and Market. The dispatcher, knowing I was the only 20th District sergeant on the street that night, relayed the request to me.
I headed down Market toward 43rd, past the darkened, run-down stores, the Chinese take-outs, the grim bars we were always going into to break up fights. The bars always seemed to have two or three black guys standing out front, hands in their pockets, doing nothing. I never understood that. Why would you want to be outside the bar, rather than inside?
There was no one at 43rd and Market, the intersection was clear. But then I saw, halfway down 43rd, Mutt and Roy's patrol car, overhead lights flashing, pulled up behind another vehicle. It looked like a routine car-stop.
I knew this block of 43rd pretty well, it was a real dead zone. On one side was a long stretch of empty lots, with an abandoned rowhouse here and there, like some homeless guy with just a couple of teeth left. On the other side of the street was a fenced-in, ramshackle used-car lot with bright plastic triangle-flags strung from pole to pole. As if in this neighborhood, all you needed was a little optimism.
I stopped my car behind Mutt and Roy's. Through the hazy darkness I could see them standing with a man next to his car, a black man in a suit and tie. I got out, and walked up to them, and saw that the man had a bald, round head, and a graying beard. And that he was covered with blood.
It was everywhere, over his tailored brown suit, his white shirt, soaking the handkerchief that he was holding to his face.
He seemed filled with relief when he saw me, saw my stripes.
"Thank God someone's here," he said. He looked dazed, not quite sure where he was. He was leaning against his car for support.
Mutt and Roy glanced at me with worried looks.
"What's going on?" I asked them.
Mutt shook his head. "You tell us, Sarge."
"Get them away from me," the man said.
"Who?" I asked.
He seemed baffled at the question. "Who?" he repeated. His eyes flicked from Mutt to Roy, then back, as if he were expecting a punch at any moment.
He coughed and winced, grabbing his left side. Something was wrong with his ribs.
Mutt turned to me, half in panic. "We didn't touch him, Sarge. We found him like this."
The man seemed familiar, I had the feeling I knew who he was. But he still had the handkerchief to his face, and the street was full of shadows.
He looked at me and said in a calm voice, "They think they can get away with this."
He took the handkerchief away, and I could see bloody cuts on top of his smooth head, and over his eyes, on his swollen lip.
And in the dim light, I recognized him.
I clicked the shoulder mike for my radio, and tilted my head down to talk.
"This is 20-C-Charlie, we need Rescue at this location."
"Councilman," I said, trying to keep my voice steady, "what happened here?"
Mutt and Roy jerked their heads at me, then back at the black man in the suit and tie.
"Oh, shit," said Roy. "This is Sonny Knight."
The man glanced at Roy, then turned to me. "Sergeant, get them away from me. Please."
I motioned for Mutt and Roy to step back.
"Sarge," said Mutt, "I hope you don't think…"
"Just move back," I said, motioning again with my hand.
"Sir," I said. "Tell me what happened."
He wiped his face again. The bleeding had mostly stopped, but a few cuts were still leaking.
"Those two attacked me," he said, pointing at Mutt and Roy. "I thought they were going to kill me."
"Huh?" said Mutt. "What're you talking about?"
Knight kept his eyes on me. "I want them placed under arrest. Right now."
He rose to his full height. More confident, now that I was there.
I tried to think clearly. Mutt and Roy couldn't have just beaten the shit out of Councilman Sonny Knight. They couldn't have.
Take it slowly, I told myself. One step at a time.
"Tell me what happened," I said again.
Knight looked at me, I could see he was thinking, deciding on the words he was going to use. I didn't want to hear them. I didn't want to hear what he was about to say. Not if it was about Mutt and Roy. They were good cops, both of them.
But this was Sonny Knight. The most powerful black man in Philadelphia. The one who decided which other blacks got to be Congressmen, state senators, even police commissioners. Such as the man who was now my boss. Supposedly they were best friends.
"I was driving down the street here, I saw lights flashing in my rear-view mirror. A police car. My first thought was, did I run the light? I didn't think I did. But of course, I pulled over."
His voice was growing stronger, more self-assured.
"They came up to my car, side by side. I said, 'Hello officers, is there a problem?' I was very polite. I respect the job that police officers do for this city, I always have." Knight paused, to make sure I understood this.
"Then one of them said, 'Step out of the car.' I asked why, and the other one said, 'Hey, a black man driving an expensive car like this, maybe it's stolen.'"
"No way," said Roy, sputtering. "This isn't…I don't believe this."
He and Mutt were staring at Knight, their mouths half open. I looked at them, and I could feel my heart pounding. What had they done?
"I didn't get out of my car," Knight said. "Why should I? I didn't like that kind of accusation."
Anger was creeping into his face, for the first time. Telling his story was clearing away the confusion, making room for the anger.
He wiped some more blood away, and gave a bitter smile.
"They got me out, anyway. They yanked opened the door and just grabbed me and pulled me right out of the car. The next thing I know, I'm getting punched, hit, then I'm on the ground. They're kicking me, in the ribs, in the head. Yelling things like, 'We're gonna teach you to respect the police.'"
"It's bullshit," said Mutt. "Everything he's saying is total bullshit."
"Guys," I said. "Just hold on for a second."
"I've lived in this city my whole life," said Knight. "For something like this to happen…"
He stared off into the night, as if he still could not imagine it.
Knight was a broad-shouldered man, but his shoulders looked tired, like he was used to carrying some kind of heavy load. It wasn't just his injuries. I had seen black leaders with that weight before, church leaders, community leaders.
"Thank God you showed up," he said. "That was lucky."
"Sir, these officers called for me."
He seemed puzzled by this. "They called for you? Well, it doesn't matter. You can be the one to arrest them."
He took a couple of steps toward Mutt and Roy. What was he going to do, try to lock them up himself? But he stopped short and focused on Mutt's silver nameplate.
"Officer…Hope," he said, like he was announcing the name at a banquet. "And Officer…" He turned to Roy. "Knopfler."
He looked up at Roy. "Half the people in the Police Department have that name."
Which was almost true. Everywhere you went, there was a Knopfler, and they were all related brothers, cousins, uncles, sisters. There were so many of them, they practically could have had their own district.
Knight looked back at me. Still waiting.
Ever since I'd pulled up, I had been aware of dogs barking. But the sound seemed louder now, and I realized the dogs were right next to us. I looked over at the used-car lot. Behind the 10-foot chain-link fence, two smallish German shepherds were jumping up on the hoods of cars and barking, then jumping back down again. Taking turns, first one, then the other, barking, barking, barking.
"Shut up!" I yelled at them, but that only made them louder and even more frantic.
I was trying not to feel the same way. I looked back at Knight. He stood waiting. As if he expected me to slap the cuffs on Mutt and Roy and march them off.
"Sir," I said, "I can't arrest these officers. There has to be an investigation."
"You don't believe them, do you?"
He shook his head, like I was a waiter who somehow couldn't get the food order right.
"I've given you the information you need," he said.
"Mr. Knight, first of all, it's not up to me. And second, to be honest with you, at this point I don't know what to believe."
He nodded, as if this was what he had expected all along.
"The thin blue line, right?" he said. Now it was my nameplate he was looking at. "Alright, Sergeant North. If that's the way it's going to be."
The way what was going to be?
I didn't get a chance to ask him he stepped back over to his car, reached in, and retrieved a cell phone from the dashboard. Who was he going to call, his friend the commissioner? He started to push some buttons on his phone, but then saw us watching and walked a little way up the street, out of earshot. Still wiping his head and face with the bloody handkerchief.
This was not good. I got back on the radio and tried to raise the lieutenant. He wasn't answering, which didn't surprise me. Lately about this time of night, it had been tough to reach him. We had all heard the rumors, about a girlfriend who lived in the district. Possibly a Penn grad student. Whatever. All I knew was that I was on my own.
Mutt and Roy came over to me.
"This whole thing is fucked up," Mutt said.
"You got to believe us, Sarge," said Roy. "We found him like that. We didn't even know it was Sonny Knight."
"If he's calling the commissioner," I said, "and I think there's a very good chance he is, then this place is about to become a fucking zoo. I need to know exactly what happened here, right now."
The dogs had been quiet for a while, watching the street scene. I thought they might start up again when we walked over, but they didn't, they just looked at us, like they were interested in what we were going to say.
"We wouldn't do nothing like this, Sarge," said Mutt. "C'mon, you know us."
Mutt was a big, barrel-chested guy who just seemed to fill whatever space he was in. With his crewcut and huge forearms, some people found him intimidating. To me, though, he was just a friendly corner-boy from Frankford.
Sergeants were supposed to maintain a professional distance from their cops. But a lot of them, like me, had friends on the squad, guys they went out drinking with after work, or over to their houses for barbecues. The core group that worked hard and watched out for each other. We all hung together. Mutt and Roy were part of that. I liked them both. They were good, solid, aggressive cops. Like Mutt said, I did know them.
"I need to know what happened," I said again.
"Nothing happened," said Mutt. "Nothing at all."
"Fine," I said. "Then start from the beginning of nothing happening."
"OK," he said, "we're driving around the east end, you know, checking the corners. We turn down here from Market, see this silver BMW in the middle of the street. We get closer, there's a black male lying by the side of the car."
"On the ground?" I asked.
"No, kind of propped up against the back tire. With his eyes closed."
"What, was he unconscious?" I asked.
Mutt shrugged. "Who knows, maybe he was sleeping. We came up to him, we saw all the blood, we said, 'Hey, pal, you all right?' He jumped up and started acting strange."
"What do you mean, strange?"
"Like he was afraid of us, or something. It was weird. Like I said, we had no idea that was Sonny Knight."
Even without all the blood, that wouldn't have been surprising. Knight's council district was in Germantown, on the other side of the city. As far as I knew, he was never down here in West Philadelphia, not at community meetings, or events, or anything else.
"It's not like I never tuned nobody up before," said Mutt. "You know, when they deserved it. But not this time. We did not lay a finger on that man."
I looked at Roy, wondering whether I could see in his pale blue eyes whether this was the truth.
If Mutt sort of spread himself over the world, Roy was just the opposite: compact, self-contained, intense. Like Mutt, he was in his 20s, but he looked a lot younger, you almost expected him to have freckles. I'd never met anyone who was so excited about being a cop. He even loved coming into work, whether it was the day shift, or four to midnight. He couldn't wait to get out on the street. He'd be standing there at roll call, next to Mutt, and you could see him looking out the window, dying to get going.
"Think about it," Roy said. "If we really beat him up, would we call for a supervisor?"
That was a good point. And there was something else bothering me. Knight had said Mutt and Roy approached the car side by side. But I had seen them make car-stops, and they always did it the right way one guy goes along the driver's side, his partner goes along the passenger side. That way, he can look in the window and see if the driver is reaching for a weapon. It's the only safe way to do it.
What I needed was evidence. It would have been nice to have a witness. But there was no one else around, not even the usual kid on a bike or slobbery alcoholic wandering the streets. And the houses, if you could still call them that, were all boarded up. I didn't even have the hope of finding some crackhead to talk to.
There weren't going to be any witnesses, I knew it then. In fact, this was probably the one block in the neighborhood where there would almost never be witnesses. The perfect place to make a car-stop, if what you were planning on doing, you didn't want anybody to see.
I glanced down at Mutt's and Roy's hands. Even in the shadowy light, I could see that their knuckles weren't raw, the way they would have been if they had been wailing on somebody's face. Their blue police shirts were neat, not in disarray. No spatters of blood. Their faces didn't look sweaty, or flushed.
And yet City Councilman Sonny Knight was standing there, beat to shit. And he had clearly identified Mutt and Roy as his assailants.
Sonny Knight, who was as pro-cop as anyone on City Council. We all knew he had gotten us more funding, new radios, the latest generation of vests. Which we were wearing right now.
"Why would he lie?" I asked Mutt and Roy.
They both shrugged.
"Maybe it was one of those gay things," said Mutt. "You know, maybe he picked up a male prostitute or something, and didn't pay."
"Yeah, but then why would he blame you guys?" I asked. "Why wouldn't he just say somebody tried to rob him, or carjack him, and he resisted? That'd be a lot simpler."
They shrugged again.
Knight had finished his phone call, but now he was pushing buttons again, and talking to someone else. Who was it this time, the mayor? The president?
The dogs were still watching us. Above them, along the top of the fence, were strands of rusted and sagging barbed wire, interwoven with strings of some of the red and blue and yellow triangle-flags. But the way the flags flapped in the darkness, sending shadows dancing at our feet, they looked like they had been snared in some kind of trap, and were flailing around, trying to escape.
I looked back at the dogs. Hell, they saw what happened, maybe I should ask them.
What did you see?
Really? You willing to testify to that?
With some juries in Philadelphia, that might be enough to reach a verdict.
Knight was slowly heading back toward us, still on the phone.
"Are you leaving now?" he said. "Good. I need you here, Carl."
Mutt turned to me. "Carl?"
I shrugged. Knight was talking in a low voice, and we strained to make out his words.
"I haven't talked to her yet. I don't want her to worry. Yes, I'm sure I'm OK."
We missed the next sentence or two, but then heard Knight say, "No, that's not a good idea. The media does not need to be here."
Knight glanced up and we looked away, pretending we couldn't hear.
"No, you don't need to call Channel 7. Carl. Are you listening to me, Carl?"
Mutt let out a breath. "We're screwed."
"Yeah," I said. "We probably are."
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