The silent darkness of the dead of night is interrupted by a rumble so low, it is felt more than heard, so low you ask yourself if you just imagined it. Red and yellow lights blink silently as they draw closer, throwing strange shadows through every window across the front of the house.
It is the paramedics, first in a large fire truck, then an ambulance. One neighbor has an ongoing medical condition and periodically, needs the paramedics. It has happened for so many years, the first responders know the family and the family knows them. This is why they roll in silently, doing their job without fuss, trying to unsettle as few neighbors as possible. My neighbor and her family are so sweet that when we ask afterwards, make sure she is doing alright, they are quick to say, “Oh, I hope the big trucks didn’t bother you.” They are never a bother, but sometimes we’re too busy, too caught up in our own lives and schedules to remember to ask, to acknowledge the pain, and stress, and fear the family has lived under, and I feel monstrous for that.
Our last interaction with our city EMTs was maybe two weeks ago. We were chatting with friends on the sidewalk beside a busy street when a stranger approached us. He said he felt unwell, that his battery had died, and asked if we would be willing to call 911 for him. He was wearing a mask and sensed our anxiety when we instinctively stepped back, stepping back himself and indicated that he would return back across the street, where some companion, whether friend or family I never knew, waited by the bus stop. I called, of course, I called. What else could I do? The 911 operator was calm, and efficient. I started with our location and then explained the situation. The stranger who did not feel well and had asked for a call on his behalf, that I was woefully unqualified to determine whether he needed help but could observe no signs of obvious distress (I don’t think she was looking for a judgement, but simply wanted as much of the critical information as possible so that the EMTs could enter the situation well-prepared). I described him in detail and explained where he would be, gave my name and phone number, and hung up. Within 8 minutes the large trucks, sirens blazing, rolled through the traffic signal to a stop before the bus stop. Masked, gloved EMTs jumped out, spoke with the man and began to attend to him and I know none of the story beyond that.
We used to see the fire truck parked in the lot of the large grocery story down the street, faithfully each week as the firefighters shopped for groceries in t-shirts, their comically large pants held up by suspenders. Once a year, on the 4th of July, another neighbor, a school nurse, would call in a favor from the fire department after faithfully giving every firefighter and EMT a flu shot the fall before, and would have them bring the large hook and ladder truck to cover the streetlamp on our circle with a trashcan or a tarp so that its light did not obscure the fireworks. They always timed it carefully after the taco truck arrived so they could leave with a free taco for their trouble.
Even before that, our preschool class would take a field trip once a year, walking hand-in-hand and riding the bus to tour the fire station, where they would try on yellow helmets and heavy jackets and get shiny stickers proclaiming them honorary fire safety officers to wear home. The lesson was simple. Firefighters are not scary. Firefighters want to help you. Firefighters can be trusted. It was an important lesson for small children to learn as everyone’s fear was that in the moment your house was engulfed in flames, a frightened child would hide from the large, scary shape with the helmet and the mask and the axe, to tragic consequences.
Around the corner, across from the park, several houses have signs in their yard. “Defend, Don’t Defund Police. They are protecting you.” I walk past these signs frequently with our utterly useless-in-a-crisis firedog. I always fight down the urge to plaster sticky notes all over the signs that say, “Protecting us from WHO?”
The police department makes regular efforts at outreach too. Every single December, we will hear the wail of sirens, see the flicker of lights drawing closer, hear an unintelligible and crackling message from a megaphone. Every year, I freeze, my heart in my throat, and shove down the panic as it slowly dawns on me that it is December. The unintelligible message is “Santa Claus is here. Come say hello to Santa Claus.” Sandwiched in the middle of a convoy of a half dozen police vehicles is a large, open wagon, with a friendly bearded figure dressed in red. My children love to visit Police Department Santa, so once we sort out that it’s not the start of World War III, we walk over and they all take their turn. Last year, Santa was a woman and my daughters were so excited that we’d finally broken through the Glass North Pole.
Our other memorable interaction with our local police department came a few years ago as a result of a very harrowing situation. Another neighbor (this one lived across the street from the nurse) intervened when he saw a man harassing and threatening his girlfriend and their baby in a parking lot. The man pulled his gun out and shot our neighbor (and here, like the Grandfather in The Princess Bride, I will tell you, he lived and with time returned to perfect health). His young daughter, who was with him (on a Target trip), immediately ran into the nearest store yelling “CALL 911!! MY FATHER’S BEEN SHOT!” and because she was quick thinking and quick acting, the paramedics were able to get to her father in time and save his life.
A few months later, after the shooter had been apprehended and sent to trial and after our neighbor had mostly recovered, the local police station gave the young lady an honorary citation for her heroism and we were all invited to see the ceremony and tour the local police station with her family. Children were given teddy bears and we took humorous pictures of them in the station holding cells. I think there might have been cake.
Personally, I’ve had only two significant interactions with our local police force in the two decades we’ve lived in this town. One was relatively straightforward. On this particular day someone had robbed the Target (really, it’s a perfectly nice Target. I’ve run into friends there far more times than there has been some kind of crime committed there) and then fled through our neighborhood with the police in pursuit. I came home from dropping kids off at school or picking them up or some typical mom thing to find several cop cars blocking off the street, surrounding our house. A police officer noted that the suspect had run up our driveway, vaulted the fence, and now they wanted to do a sweep to make sure that my house was safe before letting me in. I waited, knowing they would find no one, as the fugitive, like generations of ducklings before him, had made his way up the embankment to the relative safety of the creek on the other side of our yard. Still, when the police were done with their policing, I thanked them and uneventfully entered my home.
My other interaction with our local police is what we, in our family, call the Great Pumpkin Heist. We display pumpkins on our front porch around Halloween. Sometimes we even carve them into jack-o-lanterns. This particular year, we were all home one Saturday afternoon, when we heard the sound of running, the thump of a car door, and the squeal of wheels driving away. Middle child had been at the window. “Someone just stole our pumpkins. They got out of the car, grabbed them, and took off.” “Huh.” I went outside to confirm that, indeed, we no longer had any pumpkins on our porch. As I did, my next-door neighbor scurried out (this is neighbor number four, if you’re still keeping track). “Don’t worry. I’ve called the police. I got about half of the license plate number.” “…” (the stunned silence of someone who is pumpkin-less, not all that distressed about it, but now wondering why this has escalated so quickly).
As my neighbor and I stood outside, going over the details of what she had witnessed and what middle child had witnessed, a police car pulled up not ten minutes later and two officers got out. My neighbor identified herself as the person who called (911? The non-emergency line? I genuinely have no idea) and identified me as the victim of teen-on-pumpkin crime. The officers pulled out a little notebook and took down the details. “Yeah, um, they were pumpkins. About so-high, round, orange. There were two of them? Maybe three? Oh, you mean the teenagers? There were two of them? Maybe three?” My neighbor helpfully repeated the half license plate number.
The officers were polite. “Ma’am, it’s up to you what you would like to do. We can file a formal report in case we apprehend the suspects or we can just do some extra patrols around the neighborhood. Either way, you show know, we’re probably not going to be able to recover your pumpkins.” I laughed. “Extra patrols would be fine.” I was naive back then and thought that having the police sweeping through my neighborhood more frequently would be a nice service for the community.
I am a white (ok, passing-white) woman living in a large house in a quiet residential neighborhood. The amount of privilege I carry into interactions with the police is astounding. When I (or my neighbor) report the extremely minor theft of my property, I am believed and treated with respect. I am not threatened, or profiled, or suspected. The man who shot my neighbor was of African descent, but his girlfriend and baby were too and I never found out if anyone reached out to them, assured their safety, or saw to their physical or mental health needs after my neighbor nearly lost his own life trying to keep them safe, and after the horrific shooting played out right in front of them. The fugitive that ran through my backyard was Hispanic. I know full well that as the police stood on alert outside my home, that they did not feel that I was a threat because I was not that scary combination of male and brown.
Both police and firefighter/EMTs are under threat right now, are stressed right now, are over-extended right now. Without EMTs, without firefighters, people would die. We would see that effect immediately and profoundly. But as the paramedics are charging boldly in whenever they are called, knowing that they will be continually exposed to the virus, risk falling sick with every hour on the job, and still working long hours to overcome the inevitable shortfall, we find ourselves collectively asking “What do the police do? Is it needed? What would our world look like without them or at least with radically fewer?”
While federal agents have fought with protesters in Portland, here in Los Angeles it has been the police that have clashed with those marching. It is the police who railed against dramatic budget cuts that seek to divert funds into other measures that would limit the crime by limiting the need that drives it. Secure housing, mental health, economic opportunity that breaks the cycle of the poor falling into addiction and drug dealing because they have no better options. These would replace armored vehicles, drones, body armor, riot gear. Looking at that list, we see the police in our city, in our country, preparing for battle. Who are they fighting? Is it needed?
There is not a flag to show support for our firefighters and EMTs. Those who have worked such jobs do not speak of the brotherhood that is formed from duty, though some have spoken out about the high burn-out rate, of a trauma that breaks you as it asks you again and again to face horrors and risk your life to serve, to save. The career of a firefighter, of a paramedic, is short and brutal and there is always a need for more people to step into this fairly thankless task. I hope they get incredible satisfaction from spending each day saving lives.
The firetruck and the ambulance in our circle are gone now, with little more than the safety beep of the backing truck as it pivoted around to announce its departure in the pre-dawn quiet. I don’t know if they carried my neighbor away for long and scary hours in the hospital. I am, once again, impressed with their quiet professionalism, the responsibility they feel towards both those who need their help and those around who they hope never will.
As the sun starts to rise, it suddenly occurs to me that universal healthcare, affordable housing, a well-established network of social workers, and other parts of the broad social net we are pushing for will make their jobs significantly easier and safer too. It might just be the most sincere thank you we can give them.