The soldier wobbles, trying to walk a straight line as part of a field sobriety test. A police officer stands in front of me, watching. The soldier, who refuses to get his blood alcohol level tested, is handcuffed and put into the back of a cruiser. I can’t tell just by watching if he is above the legal limit, but I do know that a DUI charge for a soldier almost always means discharge from the military. Dressed in uniform, I can see at least four rows of ribbons across his chest.
“This guy smashed right up into the curb, on the sidewalk,” one officer says to the other one standing next to me. “Saw him plowing through an intersection myself before I got the call about it.”
I’m riding along with a Honolulu Police Officer, and to protect his identity, I cannot recall his specific appearance or even his name. I want to say he resembles Mad Max or Dirty Harry or Judge Dredd, but he honestly just looks like any guy. He doesn’t usually work in Waikiki although I won’t say what neighborhood he hails from.
I will say he drives a Dodge Charger. We’re moving between traffic and red lights on Ala Wai Boulevard, jammed up by a broken water main a few blocks over the bridge, just outside Waikiki.
“I worked ten hours today because of that water break,” he sighs, “So, you’ve got questions?”
I do, but I warn him they’ll be the same ones he always gets. He laughs, nods, tells me to go ahead.
“What’s it like to be a police officer? Do people treat you differently?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “Especially off duty, when friends and family introduce you to other people. They say your name then they say you’re a cop, every time.”
“Is that weird for you?”
“Not anymore. My girlfriend gets tired of it, because people always ask you about the worst, scariest thing you’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, I was getting there. I just wanted to break the ice first.”
He laughs again.
“It makes sense, it just happens a lot.” He thinks. “I’ve seen dead bodies,” he offers.
“Someone who had a heart attack or drowned or something?”
“Jumper. Somebody jumped 20 stories. That was last week,” he says, eyes still on the road.
“Was that the scariest thing you’ve dealt with?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says instantly.
His radio suddenly goes off, and a woman’s voice comes through, garbled and loud. I can’t make out anything she’s saying.
“Ten-four,” the officer says, making the left off McCully Street, facing the split between Kalakaua and Kuhio avenues at the far end of Waikiki.
“You strapped in?” he asks. “This is the fun part.”
He flips a switch above us and his siren comes on. It’s fairly quiet inside the car but I know it’s blasting outside. The outside world reflects blue as the cruiser’s lights come on, and we shoot down Kalakaua. Cars in front of us edge away like shuffling cattle as we approach. A truck bounces up onto the sidewalk.
We zip through wave after wave of cleared streets and red lights. It feels a little like seeing the Millennium Falcon blasting into hyperspace for the first time. Pedestrians halfway through the intersection run and step back as we tear by, intersection through intersection. We arrive near the corner Starbucks by the Honolulu Zoo, where we originally started, in less than three minutes. A second patrol car is already on the scene, lights flashing, another officer waiting for us.
We arrive at a hotel and pass through the bar to get to the lobby near the back. As we walk, tourists and employees shift their attention away from television sets, newspapers or each other, and onto the police. Conversations stop as they stare, their faces all washed with the same unsettled, nervous expression. We take the elevator up with two hotel security guards and the night manager.
In the elevator, the briefing is quick: A man is yelling and trying to climb into a neighboring room with two women. The hotel wants him gone.
We step out onto the floor and the officers enter the room. The hotel manager and security wait in the doorway. They talk to the man, tell him that the hotel wants him to leave, tell him to get dressed.
They warn him that if he refuses, they’ll have to charge him with trespassing, and they’ll take him to jail. He refuses.
They tell him they’re going to arrest him then and to put some clothes on. He refuses.
The police sigh and put on blue rubber gloves. One officer helps the man put on a pair of shorts. The other officer examines an empty bottle of Karkov vodka and an empty coffee mug sitting on a nightstand.
“Sir,” the officer warns. “You can either get these shorts on, or you can go to jail butt naked.”
“This is an outrage!” he yells. “This is going to be the front page of the paper tomorrow!”
“Trust me, this will not make the news,” one cop says. The other glances at me.
The man is still shouting as the officers handcuff him and lead him out of the room. It’s the same few lines: that the police officers are being mean, that he’s been a good boy, a gentleman really, and if the police asked any of his friends, they’d tell the officers what a nice guy he is. A minute later, we’re back in the elevator, next to a thoroughly unhappy and frightened Korean tourist wearing an ‘I Love Hawaii’ T-shirt and slippers.
“Why am I in the corner?” the suspect asks.
“Because I don’t think this gentlemen here wants you next to him,” the officer says. The tourist shifts uncomfortably.
“I have to pee,” the suspect says.
We move back through the lobby and out to the cruisers outside. The other officer places the man in the car and they drive off. We get back into our car and start back toward the station.
“We mostly respond to calls. That’s a lot of the job, really: keeping the peace,” the officer says. “Quiet days are good days. But you never know what you’ll see next. It’s about dealing with problems as they come up, moment by moment.”
While all of us are planning for the future, the police are perpetually facing the immediate here and now.
We pass by a handful of people sleeping on the streets.
“Like, these guys, we’ll only do something if somebody calls us about it,” he says, watching them.
“If they’re making a disturbance or just by being out here?”
“It’s not against the law to be homeless,” the officer says. “Even if it was, we’re living on an island. Where are they gonna go?”
“Yeah,” I say, staring out at them too. “Can I ask what your favorite part about being a police officer is?”
He thinks about it. “Helping people,” he says quietly.
“Victims of crime, or even the person getting arrested. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to get arrested once for them to set their lives straight.”
I mull over the officer’s words. We didn’t seem to run into schemers committing crimes so much as we encountered people just making poor decisions. The full impact of being arrested may not be felt by the suspects I met for years to come. But tonight, by pulling a drunk driver off the road, and a man from a ledge, they’ve saved at least two lives right in front of me. While all of us are planning for the future, the police are perpetually facing the immediate here and now.
“Scariest thing that ever happened to me,” the Honolulu Police Officer says as I’m getting out of the cruiser. “I almost got shot.”
“Yeah. The guy was tweaking, he had a weapon.” The officer thinks about it, bringing the memory back from however many days or years back this happened.
“I have a kid.” He pauses. “Scariest thing, knowing that. I was almost shot.”
I ask what happened. He shrugs.
I close the door and watch him go as he merges into traffic with the rest of Waikiki. I can see his cruiser for a distance until it moves beyond the city lights, back towards the zoo, journeying ahead, and into the dark.