I was home Saturday night hanging out with a friend, minding my own business. And when somebody starts a story with the old "minding my own business" routine — you know that other people are going to be minding his business, too, before it's all over.
It was around 8:30; it had just gotten dark. And, seemingly out of nowhere, a fleet of police cruisers materialized en masse up and down the two streets in front of my little house on the corner. Cars were parked sideways across the streets to block all traffic and a bunch of cops fanned out on foot to form a perimeter around the block next to mine.
It got real weird real fast. Cruisers continued to come and go, lights flashing. An officer was placed on guard at every corner to prevent anyone getting in or out. The police started swarming all over the place, charging down driveways, peering over fences, under cars and even into those big green trash cans.
OK, so we got a little curious. My friend and I gathered with a couple of other neighbors on my corner, just outside the police perimeter. We asked the uniformed officer posted in front of my house what was going on but he ignored us. Just then, a big, beefy guy walking toward us barked: "Get back in your houses."
He forgot to say please. He kept his distance, stopped, fixed a stare on us and added: "Now!"
I was standing in my own yard. I suppose I could have protested. But I've been in this town long enough to know that the only thing you learn when you challenge the cops' authority around here is whether they're serving cheese grits or bologna sandwiches for breakfast down at Central Lockup the next morning.
So we retreated to my front stoop, half in my doorway, half out, watching the scene unfold. About 12 plainclothes guys showed up next, posse-style, with big sidearms strapped on their hips. The officers on the scene up to that point seemed to cede authority to these guys and they took over where the others had been, burrowing into shrubbery, inspecting garages, looking for ... who knows?
The K-9 unit finally showed up. All around the block, they sniffed and searched. I called a couple of neighbors to see what they knew and one of them answered his phone to tell me there was a cop on his roof, scanning the yard below with a flashlight.
"What did they tell you?" I asked. "They told me to get inside my house and stay there," he said.
This went on for about 90 minutes, maybe two hours. A resident halfway up the block tried to leave his house at one point — he was headed on foot to the streetcar line — but he was sent back inside. If any of us were in danger, nobody was saying so. Nobody was saying anything, for that matter. And then ...
And then, as fast as it had begun, it was over. The cops blocking the streets started their engines and drove away. The plainclothes guys and the German shepherds wandered off and away. The only remaining indications that something had just gone down here were all the dogs in the neighborhood venting their agitation.
The sudden arrival and swift disappearance of the cops, coupled with their menacing treatment of the neighbors, gave the whole affair the creepy, surrealistic sensation of secret police operations in Eastern European countries in the not-so-distant past.
It felt like nothing more than Us vs. Them.
And we were all left wondering: What just happened? Is it over? Are they coming back? And, again: Are we in danger?
Now, here's the Teaching Moment: You might think, given the current apprehensive and distrustful relationship between the police and the populace, you might think someone would have been assigned to deal with the residents in some way other than talking to us like we were misbehaving second-graders and then putting us on lockdown. We were grounded!
You might think someone would explain to us what was happening, maybe even thank us for our cooperation and maybe even apologize for the inconvenience. And the rough treatment.
You might think.
But it was not forthcoming. Whatever happened was over and we were forced to try and piece it together ourselves, which we did over the next 24 hours, gathering observations and accounts from folks who were in strategic locations during the incident.
Turns out some guy had smashed into a parked car around the corner. The guy got out of his car and ran. Word was he was drunk. Word was the car was stolen. And word was he had just robbed a fast food restaurant.
Other than that, who knows? And anyway, the details of the crime itself are kind of moot now; in my neighborhood, we're stewing over the way the police were acting toward us. It's like the attitudes of the mayor and police chief are trickling down into every department of the city, where detachment and disinterest are the operating procedures.
There's a sign on most of the police cars that were here Saturday night that says "To Protect and To Serve," and sometimes you have to wonder: Who's serving who?
A police department that loses the trust and respect of its citizens is a lost and toxic entity. Us vs. Them has got to stop.
Somebody needs to tell the chief and the brass: We are not the enemy.