72 WOODWARD HEIGHTS
IT FELT HOTTER THAN IT REALLY WAS the morning of July 14th in 1985. At around eleven o'clock that morning. I was the only uniformed police officer on duty for the City of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan. I was parked in a strategic sport near the downtown area where I could watch the heavy traffic stop and go along the .9 miles of Woodward Avenue that passes through Pleasant Ridge. The temperature was only in the mid-seventies, but it was one of those rare days when the sky was clear overhead but at ground level the humidity was high. That can make the day feel plenty hot. And on this Sunday morning, it did.
The traffic along Woodward Avenue was typical for a late Sunday morning, everyone being courteous and getting safely to where they needed to go. A lot of people were out and about and no one seemed too bothered by the steamy, high-humidity kind of heat that Michigan can be famous for. The summer of 1985 would go in the books as one of the wettest on record. It was noted in the local news that by the second week of the month, we already had rain three times above normal for the whole month. But in the late morning hours of July 14th, it wasn't a bad time to be outside.
It was about then when I heard over the radio the familiar
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voice of Phyllis Hutson, our dispatcher. Phyllis was one of the bright spots of the Pleasant Ridge Police Department. She was a good person to have at the home fort; smart, competent, goodnatured, and always a reliable team member. What she had to report to me this time was also very familiar; a domestic disturbance.
It's a sad fact of life, but reports of domestic disturbances take up a lot of time and effort of police work, a fact that I, Phyllis, and all of the other eight police officers of our city know about pretty well. I've heard Phyllis's voice say "domestic disturbance" too many times before. And it's also another sad fact of life that domestic disturbances hold a certain dread for police officers. There's something particularly vicious about crimes that occur among people who life together. There's a certain meanness, when people can get really malicious--and then, sometimes, deadly. Here I go again, I thought. But this time the address she gave me was for 72 Woodward Heights. That's an address I know quite well; it's next door to the house I grew up in.
Woodward Heights may sound like the name of a small town or a subdivision, but many of our street signs in Pleasant Ridge don't say Street after the names, so I suppose that technically it could be called Woodward Heights Boulevard, but it's never called that. It runs east and west, and the alley that runs behind the homes on the south side of the boulevard is the border between Pleasant Ridge and Ferndale, a city that also borders us on the east.
I was thinking about how my parents still lived in the house next door to number 72. But I'm serious about doing my job, and as much as I've grown to hate some things about it, I'm always going to do my very best. That goes for everything from writing
L. Ken Rogers
parking tickets to handling the darkest sides of human behavior. And domestic disturbances can sometimes be a terrifying example of the latter. It's particularly tough to witness up close the things that can happen when a family's love is betrayed some way or another. I started heading to 72 Woodward Heights hoping that nothing other than the weather was going to heat up soon.
The day's high would top at around eighty-six degrees by six that evening, and the humidity never let up. All nine of us officers have seen a lot of Woodward Heights at one time or another, but that was usually for weekend nights when the parties got too loud or when we had to handle a few alcohol fueled fights. Sundays are usually quiet, even with the heat and humidity. It was also a rather unusual time for a domestic disturbance call. Most of those happen usually in the late afternoon or early evening.
There used to be tall elm trees along Woodward Heights, and when I was a young boy my best friend Dave Willans lived at number 72. But the elm trees were gone and so was Dave. And the current residents of number 72 were one of those changes for the worse. I braced myself for the worst as I raced quickly but carefully through my hometown of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan.
As I approached the all too familiar neighborhood, Phyllis gave me the worst; there's a man with a gun inside of 72 Woodward Heights. That's a very big step up from domestic disturbance. And this man with a gun wasn't a current resident either. His wife and child were, but he was supposed to be a current resident of the Michigan State Prison in Jackson, about eighty miles west of here. But for now, he was inside 72 Woodward Heights. With a gun.
I can say both literally and figuratively I've been down this road before. As my cruiser nearly drove itself, my thoughts were bombarded
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with a strange mixture of the memories I have along the tree shaded street named Woodward Heights. Everyone has some kind of memories of their childhood neighborhood, maybe some good and maybe some not so good, but not everyone is constantly making new ones as a cop. I remember thinking about a lot of things as I moved the cruiser as quickly as possible through streets I knew so well, but foremost among my thoughts was; Damn! Here I go again. I was starting my twentieth year as a police officer, and some things that had been bothering me for a long time were starting to bother me more.
One of them was from a little over four years earlier when there was another situation that stared off a lot like this one. I ended up having to shoot a man. He didn't die, thank God, but the wound I caused him has bothered me without let up ever since. Yes, I know I had to shoot, and yes, I know I did my job, and yes, many people say, "You did what you had to do." Yes I know all that. But one piece of knowledge that I was left alone with is how sorry I was to have delivered such pain and damage to another human being. And that was just one of a long list of memories that were growing in me like a mold, and it was taking its toll.
I had turned onto Woodward Heights and was getting close to number 72 as Phyllis was bringing me up to date on the situation, telling me that the suspect's wife and child had gotten out of the house and were at a neighbor's. That helped.
I radioed back and asked her to immediately contact our chief. I wanted a backup from my department. I also made another request that I had to do often; get backup from other police departments in nearby cities. Pleasant Ridge is a small community
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that lies tightly surrounded by three other Metro Detroit/Northern Suburbs cities. Collectively, we lie along the north side of Eight Mile Road, a two-time border between the north edge of the City of Detroit and the south edge of the suburbs, which is also the border for Wayne County to the south and Oakland County to the north. So all too often we go through periods when we need a police force disproportionate to our population. But we share our frequency with seven other municipalities near us and we all back each other up. And in southern Oakland County, everybody is near everybody. That's why I emphasized my into the microphone as I drove at a cop's-crawl down Woodward Heights. My third and last request was one I didn't make as often; be sure the backup are equipped with rifles.
I pulled to a complete stop two doors down from number 72. As I was getting out of my patrol car, another familiar character who lived next door, came out of his house and walked over to me. This guy was one of those "new memories" of the old neighborhood who's had a few run-ins of his own with the law. Nothing too serious, but he could be a pain in the ass. And he was staring to be one now; he insisted on helping—whether I wanted him to or not.
It was "no I don't need your help," but he was a neighborhood acquaintance of the prison escapee before that prison escapee became a prisoner and shared his life as a family man at 72 Woodward Heights. Like that guy at number 16—at a different time and a different place. It wasn't even noon yet, but the old friend from next door looked like he may have already had a beer or two, and was certain he was the right man to handle the situation. I kept cool (it wasn't easy) and politely thanked him and advised
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him, like I meant it, that I would not need him at this time. He apparently mistook my professional courtesy for something only he could think up and continued to stick around and walk back and forth on the hot sidewalk. But his safety is my job, and that was just the excuse I needed to make myself very clear; leave or be arrested. He returned to the front yard of his own house.
About ten minutes later and still alone at the scene, I could feel a pressure begin to build inside of me. I don't ever want to shoot anybody again. Dear God, never! That neighbor pissed me off. He wasn't the real reason that I was starting to feel my guts turn, but it's still a sad commentary that there are some people you just have to get angry at if a cop is going to get some civic cooperation. But that was just a small part of the reason for the pressure. A much bigger part was I didn't know what the gunman was up to. What I did know was; I didn't want anybody to get shot. Not anybody! That goes for passersby, neighbors, police officers, parents next door, and barricaded gunmen. Not anybody. That's my unyielding standard. And so far it was hold out all right—so far. Approximately another twenty minutes later the officers from nearby cities began to arrive. But by then it had been almost forty-five minutes since I asked for a supervisor from my own department, and he was still a no-show.
But I had to get moving and take control. I place one rifleman in the alley behind the home and one other across the street and told everybody to stand by. The other officers deterred traffic and onlookers. I was very glad for that.
From time to time I saw my mother look out the front door to see what was going on. I was raised in that house. I had friends that used to live in the home the gunman is in. My parents had....