Detective John Greenlee usually knows where he’s going. He just doesn’t know quite how long he’ll be staying there.
As he pulls out of the parking garage at the Rousseau Centre, Greenlee, a member of the city’s new Gang and Violent Crime Unit, warns his passengers that the work he does isn’t glamorous or usually even fast-paced.
A typical day, we’re doing surveillance. It’s a lot of sitting around watching and waiting.
Greenlee recalls an old saying: Eighty percent of police work is boring and 20 percent is sheer terror.
Sometimes it all pays off, and the Gang and Violent Crime Unit is able to take a violent offender off the streets.
Wednesday isn’t one of those days.
Photographer Michelle Davies and I have arranged to ride along with Greenlee as he goes about his duties. It is snowing, and viciously cold. Like everything else in this part of the country, gang activity has been down during the seemingly endless winter, and though there have been a few shootings, there have been no homicides in the city since the first of the year.
With no gang members likely to be on the streets, Greenlee’s morning will revolve around checking and watching some residences where suspects and fugitives might have shown up.
Greenlee drives by a house on South Monroe Street, looking for signs of a suspect in a beating last November that left a man unconscious. Nothing.
Next, a stop well down the street from a house on South Harrison where the relative of a man who had injured another man in a bar fight lived. No sign of that suspect, either.
Another member of the task force radios Greenlee for backup. He’s spotted what could be a suspect’s car on Oxford Street. Gunning his SUV, Greenlee races toward the scene.
Just as he reaches Oxford, it turns out to be nothing, and he resumes his patrol.
A lot of this is hurry up and wait, Greenlee says. I ask him why they don’t patrol in teams so they have instant backup for such situations. I prefer solo, he says, noting that he had been only three or four minutes away from his fellow officer and, in fact, if it had been a full emergency, non-task force officers might have been able to respond even faster.
For our benefit, Greenlee drives down an alley at Darrow and Calhoun, where letters and symbols litter the backs of garages and other buildings.
LRZ, for La Raza, is spray-painted in several places, along with upside-down crowns – a symbol meant to diss the Latin Kings.
Some of the inverted crowns are crossed out, next to the initials AMLK.
That, Greenlee tells us, stands for Almighty Latin Kings. Countering that graffiti is LKK – Latin King Killers, according to Greenlee – also from LaRaza partisans. Further down the wall is KMLKK. Even Greenlee isn’t sure what that means, so we move on.
It would all seem childish and relatively harmless, except that an exchange of graffiti insults may ultimately lead to an exchange of bullets.
It’s more based on pride and pounding your chest and saying Look at me!’ Greenlee says. Spray-painters – or shooters – may be as young as 16, Greenlee said – maybe as old as 25 or 29.
If they’ve made it through (that age), they’re starting to shake off that lifestyle and see how silly it is.
Greenlee’s radio summons him again. Another detective, Nick Low, is making an arrest. With several empty neighborhood streets between him and his colleague, Greenlee apologizes to his passengers and pushes his SUV to almost 60 mph. With the big vehicle maneuvering around corners and around slower cars, it’s the kind of ride where religious people thank God for the invention of seat belts.
When he arrives, Low already has his man, arrested on some routine charges, handcuffed and ready to get into his police car. We are off again, this time for more surveillance, and soon, things begin to get a little more interesting.
We are parked half a block from the entrance to an apartment where police have been tipped that gang activity had been going on.
That’s another thing we spend a lot of time on, Greenlee says. Finding out what’s valid and what’s not. Sometimes, he says, people call us because they don’t like their neighbors when all it is, is they’re just playing their music too loud.
Soon, Greenlee sees someone come out the front door, get into an auto and drive away.
Half a block behind, Greenlee follows, looking for a reason to stop the car. He failed to signal at the apartment complex’s stop sign, but I try not to use that.
Then he notices that the driver’s passenger doesn’t appear to be wearing a seatbelt.
Greenlee follows the car for several more blocks, looking for the right spot to pull it over. The driver takes two quick turns, and we wonder whether the driver has spotted us and knows he’s being tailed.
Near Rudisill and Clinton, Greenlee turns on his lights, and the car pulls to the side of the road.
Greenlee gets out, moving cautiously toward the vehicle, then helps the driver, who can’t roll down his window, open his door.
The young man, dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, first tells Greenlee he’s forgotten his driver’s license. Soon, though, he admits that his license has expired.
His fianceé, in the passenger’s seat, has no driver’s license, either, though she hands Greenlee an Indiana ID card. (It turns out that she was wearing her seat belt, but he wasn’t.) In the back seat, nestled safely into a car seat, is their baby.
Greenlee faces a choice. If he were a patrolman on regular traffic duty, he says, he would have the man make arrangements for someone to pick up his family then take the man down to the station and have his car towed.
But Greenlee and his unit are not about traffic violations. After his initial misstatement about his license, the 26-year-old driver has been polite and cooperative, and it turns out he lives across the hall from the apartment the unit was tipped about. It seems clear to Greenlee that the couple he’s dealing with are not part of the gangs-and-violence world.
Back in his vehicle, he radios headquarters to request checks on both of them. They come back clean, with confirmation that the man’s license has merely expired.
Greenlee has let the man call a friend to come to the scene. Now he tells the young man that he can leave his car in a nearby parking lot and go home with his family. He also asks the man about his neighbors; the man says he hasn’t seen anything unusual going on.
I’m making a deposit in the police/citizens’ bank, Greenlee says. But we’re still going to handle it responsibly.
The young man knows he’s been given a break. He smiles and shakes Greenlee’s hand.
We head back to the station. In the afternoon, the gang members the unit seeks will still be out there. But so will Greenlee.