It was my sixth year with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department in Detroit, and I was assigned to uniformed motorized patrol at the Patrol and Investigation Division in western Wayne County. Six years on the force meant I no longer had to work nights, afternoons, or the shift that was toughest on the social life: seven at night to three in the morning. The best part of days was that if I had to go to court, I could do it while I was working—no more having to lose sleep. And I could go to college in the evening without any scheduling hassles.
The only trade-off was that I worked without a partner. But that wasn’t much of a problem, because day shift was usually quiet, and I could often work at my own pace, according to however I felt that day.
Friday, May 14, 1976, was overcast and seventy-three degrees when I pulled out of the station at 8:15 a.m. I made my usual drive to Wayne County General Hospital to pick up meals for prisoners in lockup back at our station. After that, I was free to go. I worked an overlap day shift that started one hour earlier, at 6:45 a.m., so we would always have a few scout cars out at shift change to cover emergencies.
I alternated daily between north and south Wayne County, and this Friday I worked south. Everything was quiet as I drove out of the station the second time and headed for my first stop: Amy Joy Donuts on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn. The owner of the shop, Joe Porcarelli, liked cops and would never accept our money for his doughnuts and drinks. Joe had served with the Eighty-second Airborne Division in World War II and saw action in Normandy and the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden. I got my usual orange juice and cream-filled powdered doughnut as other cops from Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Inkster pulled in and out.
I had my portable radio and enjoyed sharing news and mutual grumblings with fellow officers. A half hour later, it was time to get to work, so I headed east to Dearborn’s Nineteenth District Court for a contested traffic ticket I had written. But before I got there, I wrote two tickets: one for speeding and another for excessive noise from a defective muffler. So when I arrived, I was late and my ticket had been dismissed. Can’t win ’em all, I thought as I headed south. I wrote two more tickets. Then a drunk driver made himself obvious, so I stopped and arrested and cuffed him, then put him in the backseat of my scout car, behind the protective metal screen, while I searched his car for drugs and weapons so it could be impounded.
Because I worked a large area, I had to go some distance to return to the station’s lockup. So after his car was towed, we headed north on Telegraph Road as all the day-shift cars were pulling back into the station. Drunks are bad news, not just on the road but also for the arresting officer because most of them never stop talking, and this guy was one of those.
Then, just as I approached the Taylor city limits, my radio blared, “Officer in trouble! Officer in trouble! Wayne, north of Eureka! Wayne, north of Eureka!”
I needed to visualize the route I had to take, but my prisoner kept babbling, so I yelled, “Shut up, you stupid fuck!” Then I grabbed the microphone off the dash and replied, “Car thirty-four en route, Telegraph and Pennsylvania.” The station knew I had a prisoner, but in such emergencies a prisoner has no choice but to go along for the ride.
Officer Ed Swamba was last heard responding to our station, acknowledging that the driver he had stopped had an outstanding felony warrant. So it was obvious something had happened while he was attempting to make the arrest. His exact location was in Romulus, nine miles west of me, on the far side of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. I knew that every second counted, and I knew it was Swamba, because he worked our Romulus overlap car. So other than our north car, there was no one else who could respond—all our day- and afternoon-shift cars were now at the station. I had to get there fast and hoped Taylor PD or the state police might have a closer car.
Officer-in-trouble runs get the same treatment as a child who has stopped breathing or a person trapped in a car fire. You have to push every limit, and the rush of adrenaline makes your heart race, your respiration increase, your body sweat, and your mind focus. I knew that at sixty miles an hour it would take nine minutes to get to Swamba, and that wasn’t fast enough—he could be dead and another cop killer loose on the streets.
I turned on my blue emergency overheads, siren, and headlights; put my helmet on; and swung my two-and-a-half-ton ’76 Mercury Grand Marquis black-and-white with its 460-cubic-inch four-barrel west onto Pennsylvania Road and cranked it up to a hundred miles an hour. It was a semirural area without much traffic, so I kept pushing.
No one wore seat belts back then, and my prisoner had his arms cuffed behind him as I shot past cars and trucks, weaving between lanes and switching my siren through yelp, wail, and alert so drivers would hear the different frequencies. At the same time, I pointed my spotlight at vehicles approaching intersections and braked and swerved constantly. My prisoner screamed, kicked, and bounced back and forth in his seat till he finally shut up out of sheer terror.
I wasn’t worried about him, anyway. I was worried about Ed Swamba, a man who always had a smile on his face and was a gentleman to work with. As I tore along, I could hear the engine roaring, my radio chattering, my shotgun rattling in its rack, the whine of the motors spinning my overhead lights, and the never-ending scream of my siren. But going a hundred miles an hour while constantly braking and accelerating brings its own risks. For one thing, the brakes gradually quit working because the brake pads, front disks, and rear rotors get so hot, their surface areas start behaving like a liquid, just as if someone had sprayed water or oil onto them. I could smell my brakes overheating and feel them giving out, but my adrenaline was up and I was at the point mentally where I was ready to kill or die if that was what it took. In that state, I arrived at the scene and saw Officer Swamba.
He had just been through the worse part of a fight for his life with a big, long-haired motorist he was arresting, when the brute somehow got hold of his revolver. They had been rolling on the ground, with the bad guy shoving the muzzle of the revolver into Swamba’s chest. But the weapon wouldn’t fire, because Swamba managed to keep his finger behind the trigger, stopping the mechanism from working. But Swamba was losing the fight when a motorist stopped, pulled out a golf club, and started swinging, really pounding the bad guy. He saved Swamba’s life, but the bad guy was like a wild animal, jacked up on drugs and feeling little pain. The three of them were standing by then, but Swamba and the “golfer” were managing to restrain the thug as the state police, another deputy, and I arrived.
With no mace or Tasers back then, cops had to rely on brute strength on such occasions. So the other officers and I grabbed the thug by his long hair, arms, ears, and skin to force him to the ground. Then I used my double-soled Corcoran jump boots to keep his shoulders down till we could force his arms behind his back and cuff his wrists and ankles.
After that, we booked the prisoners while Officer Swamba was treated at Wayne County General Hospital for his injuries. Every second Friday was payday, so after finishing my paperwork, I picked up my $422.00 check, then stopped by the hospital to see Swamba. He was shaken up but fine.
Early that evening, I returned to my flat in Detroit and met my ex-wife, Sheila. The two of us had lived together for three years and were married two. We had separated the year before after taking a trip to Europe hoping to save our marriage. She was at the flat to pick up a few remaining things. We had a “friendly” divorce, and this evening we were having a friendly debate over what last household items were hers. This turned into a friendly argument over a Eureka vacuum cleaner that she wanted for her apartment.
I helped her carry some flower pots and things out to her car, where she looked at me and said, “You don’t trust me being around other cops.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I helped you become a cop.”
She had been on the Detroit PD for over a year by now.
“That’s not true! I did it on my own.”
“Odd, huh? Not long ago, the two of us were talking about having kids together.”
“It’s not the same anymore, Bob.”
“It’s not the same anymore, Sheila, because you don’t want it to be the same.”
“What about our vacuum?”
“Our vacuum? You got the divorce you wanted without paying a dime, so suck it up and buy your own fuckin’ vacuum!”
Sheila drove off, and I walked back up the steps into my flat. I was hungry but didn’t feel like making another supper out of beer and potato chips and confronting my worst fear: loneliness. So I drove down the street to my mom’s. And as I stepped in the side door, my mom said, “I was hoping you’d stop by, Bobby. I just made kibbe for you.”
“Kibbe—wow, that’s perfect, Mom! I’m really starving!”
I took a seat in the kitchen, and she handed me a dish of hummus and some Syrian bread and olive oil and asked, “Is everything okay, Bobby?”
My mom could read my every mood, but I knew there was no sense in giving her more to worry about than I already had in my life. So I said, “I’m fine, Mom. Don’t worry.”
When I finished the tasty meal of lamb and bulgur and hummus and bread, I gave her a hug and said, “That was great, Mom—just what I needed!”
“I love you, Bobby,” she replied.
Afterward, I headed to the neighborhood bar, K-Andy. But as I reached Vernor Highway at Sharon, I saw a crowd of about fifty angry, shouting people outside the Total gas station. Some were holding sticks, and in the middle of the mob were two Detroit Police officers. They were struggling to make an arrest amid a brawling group of whites, Mexicans, and Arabs. Whites were pouring out of the First and Last Stop bar across the street as Mexicans from the neighborhood east of us and Arabs from just west filtered in to join their brethren. This had all the makings of a three-way gang fight, with the two cops in the middle looking like fair game for everyone.
I stopped my ’73 Ford and was running out to help the officers when one of the Arabs punched me in the face and, just as suddenly, vanished into the crowd. The officers were getting hit, too, and had drawn their revolvers as agitators yelled, “Kill the pigs!” So I pushed my way forward to help the cops as other scout cars finally responded and officers dispersed the crowd.
There were not enough cops to secure the streets. Instead of beefing up his sixteen precincts, Mayor Coleman Young, in his infinite wisdom, had laid off cops and instituted mini police stations throughout the city. This served only to take even more cops off the street, planting them behind desks in dozens of storefront stations that didn’t even have lockups.
With Vernor Highway at peace for the moment, and my nose bloody but not broken, there was nothing else for me to do but head to the bar or call it a night. I felt as if my world was collapsing, and my city and neighborhood right along with it, so I decided to call it a day and go to bed. That Friday wasn’t the happiest or most eventful day in my life, but I did my job, and several cops, including me, lived to work the next day.