This is Vice. They deal in…well…pick your poison.
And here’s ‘Johnny’. His real name is protected because he’s undercover. I’ve always wanted to say that. But when it comes to the people who work Vice, it’s actually completely necessary. Their job is to stop ‘moral crimes’, like prostitution, gambling, drugs, etc., and to get right up into other people’s unethical business you have to be clandestine. Your life depends on it. Vice has the displeasure of using these ‘cloak-and-dagger’ techniques to infiltrate the most nefarious subcultures, in sordid neighborhoods with immoral people. And for one night, I got to be a fly on this most dirty of walls…
I get in the unmarked car, expecting that we’re going somewhere to find some ‘action’, because parked here on the street, it looks like nothing particularly vicey is happening.
I buckle up. Ready… SET… “Do you want something to drink” Officer Johnny asks. Hmmm. Where’s the sirens? No screeching tyres? Johnny’s comfortably perched in his seat and gnawing on peanuts.
Every time he leans to the right I think he’s going to put the car in gear. He doesn’t. We sit. We wait. And wait. I parked nearby and I’m concerned that my car isn’t safe in this seedy neighborhood. He assures me there’s no safer place than right here with all these cops around. The only cop I see is him, and he doesn’t even look like a cop. He points them all out and I feel like we’ve just mastered a game of Where’s Waldo. So many Waldos. It turns out this, right here, IS the action.
Suddenly, I realize Dorothy is not in Kansas, or Calabasas, anymore, where the only reason I ever anticipate calling 911 is if I’m getting attacked by a woodland creature when I take out the garbage at night. To me, this spot in South Central looks like a typical street in LA with people doing typical things. Guys working on their cars. Couples walking down the sidewalk. A woman pushing a stroller. A guy on a bike. Two old ladies speaking Spanish and probably talking about great recipes for sopas. Scantily clad women. Bums wandering the streets aimlessly.
Classic characters of the California night, all of them; but some of the cast before me are the ‘realest’ actors in LA.
As we sit and watch the scene unfold before us, Johnny explains to me what’s happening in this particular operation, the details of which shall remain secret, because otherwise this story would change from ‘Undercover’ be ‘Overt’.
After what feels like decades of nervous waiting, it’s time for a 5 minute break. Officer Johnny asks, “Are you hungry? We have McDonald’s or Burger King.” I haven’t eaten since breakfast the previous day, and what’s more, I realize I haven’t even touched these fast food joints since ’99. But when fighting crime in Rome, or South Central, as it were, you don’t think about non-GMO organic anything, so we opt for McDonald’s.
Then we’re back to the wait. 4 hours in. So far not much has happened. I’ve learned some cool cop-lingo. I’ve learned I love these damn fries. I’ve learned that spotting vice cops is a lot like looking for deer in a tree line. As the boredom starts to set in, I mention to Officer Johnny that I’m probably about ready to leave. Within seconds of that notion, two shady characters cross in front of our vehicle and something just doesn’t jibe.
I can almost feel the sinister change in the air. Intuition is a mutha, so I decide to hang tight. At this point all hell breaks loose. In an instant my night goes from boredom and fries to the craziest night of my entire life. Zero to 100 in a millisecond.
Since I can’t disclose exactly what transpired. I’m going to sum up a few things I witnessed right before my eyes…
[Spoken in the voice of Ice-T via Law & Order: SVU]
Officer punched in the face.
Lani screams and hyperventilates.
Officer’s gun stolen.
Villains run, as this is the nature of villains.
Lani’s adrenalin and heart rate shoots through roof.
Gas pedal = full throttle.
Hero officer jumps out of our vehicle to tackle Villain #1.
Lani nearly has a heart attack.
Four ninja officers fall from the sky to subdue Villain #1.
Villain #2 on the loose.
Perimeter established with what looks like a million police vehicles.
Sky lights up in red and blue.
Clicking sound of shotguns, locked and loaded.
Tactical units pour into the streets in groups of 5.
Three police helicopters shining like the sun.
Release the K9s.
And everyone lives happily ever after… even if it is in a cold place with steel bars.
It’s a typical night in South Central LA, but a first for me on so many fronts. First time I’ve had Mickey D’s in 15 years. First time my heart rate probably hit 250 bpm. First time seeing someone get smashed in the head.
Not just hit, punched or slapped but really clocked. I’ve seen it a million times in the movies, but there’s something about witnessing it in the flesh that makes it visceral and painfully palpable.
This isn’t some bar fight of drunken stupor. It’s not some UFC fight where two people want to tangle. This is an egregious, heinous act, with really horrific intent and utter disregard for human life.
The one night I spent Undercover gave me new perspective. There’s so much nobility and courage here, where these officers put their lives on the line daily.
That’s not a figure of speech. In areas like this, these men and women literally and selflessly truly do put their lives on the line. They would die for your safety. And sadly, they sometimes do.
I’ve gained a certain degree of intolerance for people talking in absolutes about police brutality in these precarious areas. [Disclaimer: Ferguson, Missouri excluded.] Until you see exactly what these officers go through in the lead up to these incidents, you have no idea. I came away feeling like some people really do deserve to get their ass whooped. Such is the case when you strike a cop in the head so violently they fall to the ground. While, when you see it for yourself, you can’t help but feel that these punks deserve a beating, it didn’t happen tonight.
The whole incident made the morning news as just a blip on the radar. A tiny moment in time. The craziest, most exciting night of my whole life was reduced to a brief 22 second soundbite to the rest of the world. If you let me tell the story to the cameras it would have been a 4 hour special of “Holy shit, you-won’t-believe-this, breaking news!”
Just 40 minutes from where I live, and yet worlds apart. To the men and women in blue and plainclothes too; I salute you.