When I was 20 years old and still in college, I was considering but had not yet committed to a career as a police officer. You could say I was something of a “wannabe cop.” I was stopped at a traffic light about a mile from my home when I heard a scream and some commotion somewhere behind me. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw an elderly woman splayed out on the sidewalk and a boy of about 16 running away from her and across the street just behind my car. He was carrying a purse.
It did not require the deductive powers of a Hercule Poirot to infer what was happening: the boy had knocked the woman down and stolen her purse, and was now making his getaway. And I had a decision to make. Should I take action, or should I mind my own business and continue on my way? And if I took action, of what sort? Should I go and help the woman, or should I chase the robber, perhaps risking a violent or even deadly response if I was to catch him?
The light changed to green, and I drove down the street in the direction the robber had gone. I saw him on the sidewalk, now walking but still carrying the purse. He eyed me warily as I drove past and parked a few houses ahead of him. I got out of my car with the only weapon I had available to me, a large metal flashlight. Seeing this, the robber changed course and ran down a driveway and into the backyard of a small apartment building. I followed, and when I came down the driveway, the robber scaled the back wall and jumped into the adjacent alley. He started running east, the direction he had been heading before I stopped. I too jumped the wall and ran after him.
Unknown to the robber or to me, the alley reached a dead end not far away, bringing us into what could have been an unpleasant confrontation. I mustered up all the bravado I could and told him to stop and lie down on the ground, and to my great relief he did just that. I shouted for someone to call the police, then waited over the robber in the hope they would come quickly. While I waited, the robber made an attempt to get up and flee, but I pushed him back on the ground and threatened to brain him with my flashlight if he tried it again.
In due course a police officer arrived, and I recall well the robber’s reaction on seeing him. “What’s happenin’?” he asked, as though greeting some dear friend. “These handcuffs are what’s happening,” said the officer, and soon the robber was in the backseat of a black-and-white and on his way to the police station. Not his first trip, I would later learn, and most likely not his last.