From the moment I enter his patrol car (front seat, happily) it's immediately clear that LAPD Southwest Division Sergeant Carlton Brown has a lot of fun on the job.
Maybe that's because he's so laid-back. It's Tuesday night and I'm on a ride-along with Sgt. Brown, who refers to the paperwork waiting for him back at the station as "crap" and establishes pretty early on that, even as a sergeant, he likes being in the field better than anything else.
So I ask him the question that almost always comes to mind every time I'm talking to a cop: "Have you ever used your gun?"
At first, he gives the answer you could expect from a veteran officer who will celebrate 25 years on the force next January: "When I've got to qualify every month," he says, referring to the regular re-qualification process police officers undergo to be allowed to carry a sidearm.
And then he tells me a story.
Sgt. Brown joined the LAPD in 1988 – and was assigned to the Southwest precinct. After about 10 months on the job, he became what's called a phase-three officer, where a cop isn't "under the tutelage of a training officer," as he described it.
"This particular day, I was assigned to the task of writing tickets," Brown explained. "I'm sitting near a four-way stop sign. This truck that has a camper shell comes up, and on the back of the camper shell there was a white sheet where a door would normally be. That should have been red flag number one." But it wasn't, he said, since he had so little experience in police-work.
Brown watched as this truck rolled right through the stop sign – in plain sight of him, a police officer.
"I go, this guy can't be serious," he said. "He had to have seen me sitting there. I thought well, let me go educate this guy and give him a ticket. That's my mindset with 10 months on. With more time, it would have registered with me that's not normal conduct." But it didn't, so Brown flipped on his lights and siren and began to pursue him to write him up.
"First of all, I'm pissed that he did this in front of me," recalled Brown, smiling. "He's not respecting this police car. That's the wrong mindset. I follow this guy and he speeds up. That's the second warning. I said, the nerve of this guy!" Brown explained that what he should have done was run the car's license plates, get backup and then put his lights on and pursue. Instead, as he put it, he dove in "headfirst."
While in pursuit, he looked down to his in-car computer system and began the process of sending an inquiry on the car's plates. What he should have done, Brown explained, was radio it in, instead of try to do it himself.
"I remember it as if it were yesterday," he said. "I remember going to push the button [that would submit the plate request] – and at the same time I hear gunfire." Brown imitated gunfire, which he would later learn came from an AK-47. "I look up. Oh–" – he said a bad word here – "–I'm being shot!"
"They tell you these stories about the white light, about coming outside your body – that happened to me, man!" he exclaimed, half laughing. "I'm seeing my windows open up; I'm seeing bullets come through my windshields. I'm thinking–" – another bad word – "–I'm being shot! Excuse my French."
Brown was in shock after being shot at, but said all he felt at the time was anger. When he reached for his radio to call for help, he saw that his hand was covered in blood – and when he reached to check his head, he saw that it was also covered in blood.
He was rushed to the hospital, where he went into shock and passed out. He woke up, where the doctor told him, "You're fortunate to be alive. You should be dead." Brown learned the angle his head had been at when he'd been fired at had saved his life.
He looks at me and points to my headrest. "If you'd been sitting there, guess where you'd have taken the bullet?" Unsettled, I guess my face.
He nods grimly. "Right in your face."
Brown said he got into police work at the age of 30 out of necessity – necessity which manifested itself in the form of two kids.
"I didn't necessarily want to be a police officer, but at that time, I had a girlfriend and we had a child," he said laughing. "And then we had another child. So I said, 'OK, I've got to get a job.'" So he applied. But before that he'd worked at Penny's, the post office, Ward's – and was even a DJ for a while. ("Rick James, that kind of stuff.")
And he loves it now. "It wasn't something I had planned to do," he said. "It's just something that at the time was a necessity. It was the right move at the time."
Over the near two-and-a-half decades he's been in LAPD, one thing he's noticed is the level of experience in the department.
"More experienced guys are leaving the department," he said. "The younger guys are coming on and – I don't want to say they're not being properly trained, but there are not enough good training officers around to adequately train these officers and prepare them for the work ahead."
Brown said that training officers with five or six years of experience is now the norm for LAPD, and he just doesn't think that's enough. Training officers, he said, ought to have between 12 and 15 years of experience under their utility belts.
"That's the main difference," he said. "The department is transitioning to a younger department. Right now, with 25 years I barely recognize anybody in the department."
And because the department's getting younger, Brown said, maybe a few changes should be made – changes like replacing the current standard Crown Victoria police cruiser with one of the latest models of the Chevy Camaro.
"Everything around the department has changed, and unfortunately the department's not changing fast enough to keep up with the automation of civilization," he said, pointing to my iPhone. "I think the Camaro would go a long way in bringing the department up-to-date, as far as the community's expectations. This boxcar we're driving right now? This was fine back in the '50s and '60s. But we're still caught in that era – we need to move up to modern times. Put us in the Chargers or Camaros."
And the uniforms?
"This uniform has been here forever," he said without missing a beat. "Not that it's not a nice uniform – but it doesn't keep up with the times. If you look at all of these sci-fi movies like RoboCop – if you look at that style of uniform, it's like a one-piece, and you change the material where it makes the officer cool. It's like the modern, tapered, fit-the-body, up-to-date style."
Brown said LAPD was stuck in the era of Bernard Parks, a former police chief and current city councilman. "Charlie Beck, he's an outstanding chief, but he's from the Bernard Parks era too," he said. "He still thinks that way [old-school], and the department still thinks that way. You can tell by this boxcar we've got – it's a Ford Crown Vic, and it's nice, but it's not what the community, in my opinion, wants." He said the younger officers coming in the department want sportier cars, jazzier uniforms and even a little relaxation of the grooming regulations.
"I would change the department with the cars, with the uniforms," he said. "And you've got a lot of old-school guys who won't go for that. I don't care. That's just my personal opinion."
On our ride-along, Brown's storytelling doesn't stop. He talks about his proudest moment – working in South Bureau Homicide from '95-'97 and solving 14 out of 16 cases assigned to him.
"To take the life of a human being – to maliciously, methodically prey on an individual, lay and in and take their life – and to think you got away with it?" he asked incredulously. He told me about one case where one gangster – he generally refers to gang members as "knuckleheads" – had killed his girlfriend, who was the mother of two of his children and who had just filed a restraining order on him, the day before they had a court hearing to sort out custody. His key witness ended up being a prostitute who had been, as Brown put it, "doing her deeds" in a car across across the way, who made a strong testimony in court against the suspect.
"We step in the shoes of the deceased," he said. "We're their voice. We have to investigate and bring the people who are responsible to justice."
There were also the 1992 riots in South Central. "From the time you got to work, you were moving because the city was ablaze," said Brown, who said it was "harrowing." But one incident in particular made him laugh. There were about 50 people raiding a Sam Goody's store, he said.
"I told my partner, here's what we're going to do," he recounted. "The last idiot out of there, that's who we're going to take down. Sure enough, this big guy, over 300 pounds, about 6'3" – he's got a bag full of CDs and all kinds of other crap. He came out, I said, 'Look, man. You're under arrest.'" Brown started laughing. "He started complaining, 'Why you picking on me?' I said 'Because you got caught, man! You're the only one here.'"
I spend a fair amount of the ride-along peppering Brown with questions: Tazed or pepper sprayed?
"Pepper sprayed, baby," he said. "When you get tazed, that affects your motor skills, and those darts go into you, man. Those things hurt."
Most annoying part of his job?
"The most annoying thing to me is the bureacracy of the paperwork we have to do," he said. "When it comes to administrative responsibilities that sergeants are tasked with, I think some of them are useless and counterproductive. We have to do them, but I think they could be handled differently, streamlined a little bit better to keep us in the field. There are not enough supervisors in the field because we're stuck on administrative tasks."
If he could implement one crime reduction measure, effectively immediately?
"More officers. Particularly in Southwest, we have a lot of specialized units because this is what the department feels is necessary to combat some of this crime. I personally don't think so – I think if we took all those officers in specialized units, put them back on patrol, we could flood the problematic areas with officers."
If he had to choose one song to make his ringtone?
"I've made Shaft my ringtone," Brown said. "Everybody kept saying with my hairdo and the way I dress that I reminded them of Shaft. So I made it my ringtone."
The sergeant is telling me about the second of two firearm incidents he's been involved with in his police career.
"Lot of guys go through their whole careers without even firing their weapon, and that's the way you want to go," he said. "A lot of guys fire their weapons multiple times, and that's the way you want to go if you survive them all."
In the mid-nineties, Brown was working a burglary detective table. He and his partner, who outranked him, were out in the field following up on a case when they heard gunshots while stopped at a stoplight.
"I thought, oh, man, that's pretty close," said Brown. "We didn't think anything of it; the guys in uniform, they'll handle it." Then they heard shots again at the next light. Brown looked to his left and saw the perpetrator.
"Here comes idiot shooting his gun up in the air," said Brown, shaking his head. Later, he'd find out the man was drunk.
Brown and his partner took cover behind a telephone pole and confronted the man.
"I said, 'Drop the weapon!'" said Brown. "He's not listening. I said 'Manos arribas!' Drop the dang weapon! He's not listening. I said OK, cool, I'm going to take this guy out.
"I've got him in my sights – it's slow motion, I can see my hammer coming back," continued Brown excitedly. "I'm going to drop this guy. All of a sudden I hear boom, boom, boom! My partner had already fired. But I'm looking at the guy – he's still standing upright, he's not falling. I said, What's going on? I'm going to take this guy out. All of a sudden he drops his weapon." So Brown didn't shoot.
The man was taken into custody and upon further inspection of the brick wall that had been behind the suspect, Brown realized his partner had missed all three shots. He didn't like that.
"The guy missed all three times!" he said. "I'm looking at this – 'I can't take you anywhere! We get in a shoot-out, you're going to miss the guy!' I wouldnt have missed. I had him in my sights."
And that's the closest Brown's come to using his gun.
"Police officers' lives are on the line every day they put this uniform on," he said. "They go out here and they may never come home. You never know. But because we are the best trained in the world, the odds of survival are good because you train pretty well."
And if you ask NYPD or Chicago's police department if Los Angeles' police force is the best in the world? What would they say?
Brown chuckles. "NYPD would probably say you guys are not the world's finest police department – which is what we boast that we are," he said. "That's how all the agencies view us."
But even while acknowledging the prowess of New York's law enforcement, Brown doesn't budge.
"Because I'm LAPD, I'm partial and biased to LAPD," he said. "I say we're the best."