Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Citizen's Arrest!

I was carrying the recycling down to the street just as dusk was settling in this evening when I heard a loud explosion down the street. All the lights in the neighborhood flickered for a few seconds so I thought a transformer must have blown. But almost immediately the lights came back on and I realized the crash had actually been several distinct noises. I thought maybe a car had been hit by the train at the crossing two blocks away. I immediately hopped in my car to see what was up.

What I found down by the tracks was a car flipped onto its side, leaning against a brick wall bordering a yard, with limbs all around it from a tree it had obviously smashed into. 5 or 6 people were milling around on the other side of the street. I hopped out and started approaching the car, first checking for any live electrical wires. I was afraid to look into the car because of what any occupants inside must look like, but I was prepared to do so if I could just figure out how to shinny up something far enough to somehow look into the passenger window facing the sky.

One of the bystanders told me the driver was already out of the car and walking down the road. Another person said "he isn't right", so I jogged up to the man they were pointing to. He was in his 20's, African American and didn't seem to have a scratch on him. He was even wearing a baseball cap, which seemed strange for someone in such a major accident.

I stopped him and asked if he was all right. I could smell immediately that he had been drinking a good bit. He said he needed to call his mother and kept walking. I immediately thought he was in shock and tried to gently guide him back to the car but he kept walking away from the scene. I kept trying to talk gently but firmly with him that he needed to stay or at least sit down until an ambulance came to look him over but he kept talking on the phone and walking.

I very quickly had the sense that his main interest was getting away from the accident site, so I kept my hand on his shoulder and asked him if the car was his. I guess in retrospect I don't expect that a real bad guy would answer honestly in such a situation but I mainly wanted to slow him down because I figured by this time the cops must be only seconds away.

Thankfully at this very moment one of my neighbors pulled up in his personal car on his way home from his job as a City of Decatur police officer. I motioned that I needed help and he got out of his car and took the suspect by the other arm and shoulder and together we held him in place. The situation immediately escalated and the guy started struggling and yelling into his phone that he was being harassed by a "black police officer and an old white man". When it became clear he was trying to wrest his arms away my friend started to take him down to the ground so I did what I could to help by keeping his other arm pinned, grabbing him from behind in a bear hug and sweeping out one of his feet. Down we went to the grass. Even then I was cautious not to use any more force than necessary in case he was injured anywhere that wasn't evident. What I quickly learned was that he should wear a belt because his pants came down in the fall.

My friend had gotten out of his car without any police gear (he was off-duty, remember?) and when another neighbor walked up he asked him to look in his car for his handcuffs and bring them out. All this time the suspect was yelling that he couldn't breathe (he actually yelled this loudly several times, which pretty effectively disproved his allegation). I realized that his cell phone was still on so I turned it off. Moments later a patrol car came wheeling up and I got out of the way while the big boys took over.

I mingled with the rest of the neighborhood a good while after what, was patted on the back a few times, gave my statement to the police and that was that. I met a person who had been driving the other way when the accident took place. She said his car came flying over the railroad tracks and went airborne before crashing. I'm guessing the car was stolen but I may never know.

And the funny thing is that the most significant part of the whole drama for me is....he called me an old white man! Who told him?

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