Archive for December, 2014


Protests continue against police killing unarmed black men. Now we’re faced with the murders of police officers—two in Brooklyn and one in Tarpon Springs, Florida. We hear a lot about those killed by police. And we should. But what is it like to be a police officer? I spoke with a member of the San Francisco Police Department.

I’ll call the officer Morgan. The officer can speak more freely if anonymous. Why did Morgan become a police officer in the first place? Morgan’s life had a strong moral/ethical base, so police work seemed a good fit. There are bad people out there. This wasn’t a whim. Morgan had a good bit of life experience before joining the force, unlike young officers going into police work out of college. That was an advantage. Young people find the pay and benefits a big draw. However, Morgan says, “They soon realize that this is scary stuff and they’re not emotionally or even socially equipped to deal with the stress, deal with strangers, take command of a difficult situation.”

Morgan’s career started at the police academy. “Everything is staged and thus safe,” says Morgan. “If you make a mistake, you don’t get physically harmed. On the street, any mistake can be your last.” Sixteen weeks with three different training officers followed. There’s a huge learning curve. “The goal is to make mistakes early so that you learn from them.”

Is there a police mentality? Morgan jokes about putting on the uniform and a little switch turning on. “I become hyper-aware of my surroundings.” The most dangerous situations? Traffic stops. Depending on the time of day and location, Morgan doesn’t know who or what the driver and/or passengers might be. Morgan makes sure the vehicle stops just where Morgan wants it. Then Morgan checks the back seat. If the vehicle holds more than one person, Morgan calls for backup to maintain focus on the driver and write out the ticket. “I’ve had some difficult encounters,” says Morgan. “People refuse to sign the ticket, want to argue. By California law, if you refuse to sign you’re placed under arrest. When they sign, they’re free to go.”

Morgan has never used a weapon but has drawn a weapon countless times. “We’re trained to pull out weapons in building searches, searching for suspects and felony car stops.” Morgan has arrested many violent people. Morgan always calls for backup first. “Luckily in San Francisco, officers are seconds away.” Morgan wants to get that person in handcuffs and under control quickly. Suspects don’t always cooperate. Some “turtle up,” tucking their arms into their bodies and becoming rigid. “Some run and have to be chased down.” Morgan notes that here male officers use force more than female officers, who try to talk people into handcuffs.

Morgan occasionally runs into hostility from bystanders. Some may have a history with law enforcement. Events in Ferguson and other cities haven’t been helpful. “People don’t see the person but the uniform.” Policing can be a thankless job. “People love fire fighters but hate police, because we’re people’s conscience. We also see people at their worst.”

What roles do danger and stress play in a police officer’s life? Morgan reveals that next week.

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Last Saturday, a ruckus took place on Fillmore Street. Emerging from a café with friends, I heard screaming on the east side of Fillmore near California. Crossing the street, I saw two or three police officers attempting to restrain a young man. He was black.

The man was on the ground screaming and cursing. He directed his invectives, mostly to the tune of “fuck you,” not only at the police but also at bystanders, several taking videos, perhaps as a restraint against police overreaction. After several minutes, the police—as many as eight had gathered—cuffed the man. Then they placed him in a patrol car. No weapon was brandished, no baton wielded, no chokehold applied.

As I heard it, the man had entered the nearby Wells Fargo Bank screaming. Such behavior tends to frighten employees and customers. Was he mentally disturbed? Off his meds? Did he have a knife or gun? I don’t know. I’m sure no one in the bank did either when he entered and went off. The security guard called the police. The man left and was identified to police answering the call. I only know how he reacted. And how I’ve reacted in the past.

Police have stopped me twice. The first time, a New York State highway patrolman pulled over several fraternity brothers and me as we drove back to college after spring vacation. We weren’t speeding. He checked the trunk. For alcohol? Drugs? I have no idea. The search may well have been illegal. Motivated by what? Beats me. He was less than pleasant and not at all apologetic when he let us continue on our way. If any of us were black, might there have been a violent confrontation? I can’t say. State trooper stops four Jewish guys? You never know. But none of us was about to provide him an opportunity to escalate the stop into an arrest or worse.

The second time, I was living in San Antonio. I went out for a late-night walk. A policeman stopped his patrol car and asked for my identification. Yes, people have a right to walk in their own neighborhood. Or someone else’s for that matter. But I wasn’t concerned with protesting a violation of my rights. You have to realize that Texans generally refuse to walk as much as a block to get beer at the corner 7-Eleven. That’s why God gave mankind the pickup truck. The policeman saw something unusual. He investigated. He was polite the whole time. Of course, I’m not black. That could have been another story. Or not. After verifying that I was a local resident, he said thank you and left. Now consider this: I’m glad he stopped me. He was keeping my neighborhood safe.

So yes, we know some police have used weapons or deadly force too quickly. That’s wrong. And no, my appearance doesn’t attract a lot of attention. But police have a job to do, including apprehending those who disturb the peace and keeping an eye on neighborhoods. It’s critical that they do it the right way. It’s also critical that we recognize the difficult and often dangerous nature of police work.

Not every ruckus should turn into a disaster. Then again, not every ruckus should happen in the first place.

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Last Saturday morning I saw a man and a woman lying face down on the sidewalk. My first thought was, “Are they dead?” But I saw no blood. Moreover, they had a pad beneath them. A sleeping bag covered the woman. The man’s leg twitched. Homeless, they perhaps preferred the sidewalk to the damp of nearby Mountain Lake Park. What—if anything—was I supposed to do?

I called the police is what. Not to report a crime but rather to seek help I couldn’t provide. I hoped that the officer(s) who came by after I headed onward would see if the couple needed medical attention and, regardless, direct them to city services.

Ideally, I would have taken the couple home, fed them and given them money. I might have offered them my guestroom for the next month, meals provided. But in the real world, people on the street are unknown quantities. Such acts of charity can at best be challenging, at worst dangerous.

Does this trouble me? Of course. When Abraham, in pain on the third day after his circumcision, sees three “men” approaching his tent, he runs off to greet them and offer hospitality (Genesis 18:2ff). Exodus 22:20–22 commands us—for the first but not last time—to care for the stranger, widow and orphan. The verse also poses a dire penalty if we fail to do so. But Abraham commanded a small army of retainers to safeguard him. And while travelers passed through Israelite dwelling places, local widows and orphans were known.

The musical Fiddler on the Roof offers an interesting perspective. In the opening scene, the orchestra vamps the song “Tradition” as Tevye introduces the key characters in his shtetl town of Anatevka. One is Nachum the beggar. Tevye offers Nachum one kopek. “Last week you gave me two,” says Nachum. “I had a bad week,” Tevye explains. In a brilliant piece of Jewish logic, Nachum responds, “You had a bad week. So why should I suffer?”

Nachum is a known factor, a familiar face. He lives in a society that recognizes him and is thus comfortable assisting him even if it does not do what Maimonides proposes is best—set him up to make a living. (Frankly, not everyone can make a living.) For the people of Anatevka, he is “our” beggar. When a Jewish stranger comes by, he is a known quantity.

Some people do take strangers off the street. Yet sometimes, those offered assistance turn on their hosts. So while it’s easy to love the stranger from a distance, most of us hesitate to deal close up with people we don’t know. That’s why we empower public and private agencies to provide professional assistance.

Obviously, we haven’t solved the problem of homelessness. Some people, like those recently rousted from San Jose’s “Jungle,” prefer living in an encampment or on the street. This enables them to live on their own terms—which may not be ours.

Deuteronomy 15:11 informs us, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…” Yet the commandment to assist the stranger endures. Conflicted, we struggle to make sense of it all.

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How long does it take to write a novel? Flight of the Spumonis, coming out this spring, took 34 years. That includes 30 years of my original manuscript sitting in a box awaiting reworking. The Boy Walker took three years. But the process can go faster. Claudia H. Long, a lawyer in Lafayette, wrote The Duel for Consuelo (2014)—well, the first draft—in 30 days.

Claudia participates in National Novel Writing Month ( each November. NaNoWriMo encourages authors to write without censoring or editing and complete a first draft of at least 50,000 words. Last month, Claudia finished the first draft of a follow-up novel (call it Marcela Unchained) set in 18th-century Mexico. It’s the third in a series that began with Josefina’s Sin (2011). Claudia used the same technique to write The Harlot’s Pen, a novel about prostitution in 1920s San Francisco.

Claudia has been authoring novels for 28 years. A writer of poetry at Harvard and an avid reader—two books a week even in college and law school—she started her first novel after the birth of her daughter Julia. Ten years ago, NaNoWriMo helped Claudia overcome an obstacle. “I enjoyed erotic fiction but was too shy to write it.” Then she heard about NaNoWriMo. She wrote the first draft of an erotic novel and spent a year revising it. Extasy Books published it under a pen name. She still gets royalties. “All my full-length books have been written for NaNoWriMo,” she says.

With the first draft done, Claudia estimates another nine months to complete Marcela Unchained. “What it takes to produce a baby.” Josefina’s Sin took two Novembers and 2-1/2 years total. Writing that first draft requires discipline, especially when you’re a busy attorney. Claudia makes her November work schedule as flexible as possible. Then she writes in the late afternoon and after dinner. “I have the benefit of being an extraordinarily fast typist. And I’m a real plot outliner. I’ve done the research and know what’s going to happen before I start writing.”

Claudia’s biggest challenge? Getting a concept to stick and germinate before making a commitment. I do a lot of walking to think about the book and bring the basics together. Waiting for November isn’t easy, but that’s what I do.”

Marcela Unchained will complete a trilogy—or possibly be followed by a fourth book. Why Mexico? Claudia was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Mexico City then at eleven moved to New York. She found Mexico City a vibrant place as a child. Jewish, bilingual and bicultural, she did her honors thesis at Harvard on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun and inspiring poet. “Women weren’t allowed to read and write then,” Claudia says. “Sor Juana was subversive and brilliant—perfect for an undergraduate.” She plays a key role in Josefina’s Sin.

Have a novel inside you? Take a tip from Claudia Long. Start writing notes on the characters and plot. As for me, I’m working on a short-story collection for publication in 2016. Right after, I’ll start a new novel already outlined. I won’t wait until November. I don’t have another 34 years.

Check up on Claudia at her Amazon author’s page.

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