What would you do today if your kid told you they wanted to be a police officer? You might ask them why. What if they said the main reason was because they wanted to “impact a life” and wanted to be a part of “allowing people who live life in fear or who are unable to care for themselves sleep a little better at night”? Officer Jose Soto, who grew up in Whittier, CA told me those were his reasons at 19, after his first year of college.
Jose is my new friend and he has served for 9 years with the LAPD/City of Los Angeles. The last six years have been in Watts, CA. I just met him a couple weeks ago and I thought he’d be perfect for this post, which is meant to give you a “read along” since you likely don’t want a “ride along” through Watts in the Southeast Division. Lucky for me, he was happy to assist!
When Jose graduated the police academy, he remembers looking forward to all the action and excitement of getting criminals off the street. Watts is the third city in the LA area where he has worked. Jose describes it as being “One of the most violent, gang infested areas in the nation…..with approx. 50 gangs in 10 square miles….Hispanic gangs, Crip gangs, and Blood gangs.” He says, “People living here are just trying to get by and have to live their lives in fear.” I asked him if there was anything that made him fearful or apprehensive at the onset of his career. He answered, “I was so young and excited and any of that was pretty much in the back of my mind. I had been trained well, and anything to be afraid of took a back seat to it all. I was always aware of the danger but honestly, the training just seems to become an instinct, second nature, so I never feared. I just acted when I needed to.”
I asked Jose what a typical day is like in Watts. He replied, “Every day is different. It can be slow and it can be no stop. The majority of crimes committed are violent. 90% in the Southeast are gang related. Multiple shootings a day, homicides, foot pursuits in the projects, usually with gang members with guns or narcotics. I usually arrest somebody everyday, and not for small things either. They’re shooting, murder, or robbery suspects. Where I work, that’s common so it doesn’t get much attention. If I was a cop in Irvine, or some neighborhood with money, I’d probably be on the news for making an arrest like that. The stuff that goes on like the homicides are pretty frequent, but you don’t hear it on the news. It’s not news in South LA…..in Watts. It happens so often it’s a part of living and working there.”
When Jose tells me about his best day on the job, he says, “It was the day I completed my probationary period. A whole year of having to be monitored and rated by training officers and supervisors to make sure you’re proficient in all aspects of the job. You can get fired anytime in that first year if you’re not making the cut.”
Then he tells me about another good day he had recently, “I received a radio call of a child endangerment. Mom and Dad had an argument. Dad took off from home and was driving drunk with his two year old in the back seat. My partner and I were able to find the described vehicle a few blocks away with Dad and the child. We conducted a traffic stop and a field sobriety test and dad was arrested for DUI. Fortunately, he didn’t get in an accident or try to evade us. The two year-old little girl was ok. I called Mom to come pick her up. When Mom responded to our location, I got her daughter out of the car seat. The little girl had her arms wrapped super tight around my neck. She was happy. A nice big bear hug. I don’t have kids, but it was actually really nice to be embraced like that by that little girl. Ive never been hugged like that by a baby. Never had that experience in my life and it made me want to have kids of my own.” Jose laughs. (I won’t warn him they turn into teenagers.)
I ask what makes him feel alive. He says, “It’s crazy to say this but I feel alive when I’m probably engaged in some of the most dangerous situations. Chasing gang members with guns, responding to calls with lights and sirens, and that sense of urgency. Someone needs my help and I have to get to them as quickly as possible to, at times, save their lives or to prevent a crime from occurring.”
I think it’s amazing when people can live out what they know is their purpose. Not everyone does that. But Jose does! Jose says, “I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to do when I just don’t feel anything. It’s hard to explain. I see a lot. I see death regularly. I’m exposed to so much negativity but I’m drawn to it. There’s no fear. Ever. I never think about how I can die today. I don’t think I’ll get shot on a search warrant for the man with the gun I’m chasing, or that the guy that wants to fight me will hurt me, or that the gun shots I run towards are dangerous. I just know I have to do this. Someone needs my help. I need to apprehend this suspect. My will to live and go home everyday, to win the fight, is greater than any obstacle or person in my way. If you’re afraid and it’s on your mind, than being a cop is not for you.”
He says, “Some of the difficult things that you deal with is when you see legitimate victims. Not a gang member who gets shot by another gang member, but a true victim. The teen who commits suicide because the things he’s dealing with are just too much that he’d rather be dead than to live another day. I’ve seen it. Families are devastated. I think that’s one of the hardest things when you see a person’s pain when they’ve lost a loved one in a tragic way. They cry in front of you and all you can do is say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ It may be something you could not have prevented, but it’s a crappy feeling. I think police officers take things personal and are affected more when it feels personal. My partner has kids so anything involving kids affects him more. We can all relate to things based on our own life experiences.”
“What surprises me in nine years on the job is that nothing surprised me much these days. I guess it happens to us cops. What may seem unimaginable to everyone else is very imaginable to us. We see it over and over again. We live it. How can someone do this or that? How can a person be so evil? I honestly still believe that the majority of people are still good and kind hearted but the bad are slowly gaining ground on the good. Think of the past decades. Things get worse, violence gets worse. We used to be able to leave our house doors unlocked or our keys in the car. Things change and they’ll continue to. Hopefully, it will get better soon. At this moment, it’s getting worse. We had 135 officers killed in the line of duty in 2016. The number of officers killed by gun fire rose after it had fallen in 2015 by 14%. So many attacks, premeditated attacks on cops last year.”
My last question to him is what he wishes the general public understood about his job. Officer Soto says, “The thing I wish people knew about us is something people should know, but fail to remember, or want to recognize. We are human like everyone else. We have parents, kids, wives, husbands. We like to have fun like everyone else. Watch movies, eat, drink, watch Netflix, you name it we do it. We are from the human race. We have a job with a lot of responsibilities. We are expected to know and do so much. We have to wear many hats. We have to make decisions quickly because it can be life or death. We are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we are around people and conduct enforcement, we are definitely not wanted. When something happens and we aren’t there, people want to know why. We are always there when not wanted and never there when needed in people’s eyes. We react to people’s actions the majority of the time and have to make a decision in a split second.
He adds, “One thing a person should do is put themselves in a scenario. Play my role. You respond to a call where the person calling says an individual has a gun in his jacket pocket. You arrive to the call and locate a possible suspect, to the tee. Same descriptors. Race, height, weight, hair color, jacket color, and pants color. He’s at the corner where they were said to be. You have to believe this is the guy described. Gives you probably cause to detain the individual. You use caution. You advise the individual to keep his hands up where you can see them while you point your gun at him. The individual is refusing to follow orders. He’s reaching for his jacket pocket. Hey, that’s where the caller said the gun is. You tell him to stop. He continues. You’re approximately 20 yards from the individual and it is dark out. You see a black object being removed out of his jack. He begins to lift what appears to be a gun and point it in your direction. You fire. The suspect is hit. You recover the gun and the suspect is in custody. You protect your life and others around. SAME SCENARIO. Suspect is pointing the black object which appears to be a gun in your direction. You fire. It’s a cell phone. Now people say you’re a murderer. I ask this. Shouldn’t any reasonable person follow officers orders when having a gun pointed at them? Shouldn’t they keep their hands up because they don’t want to die? We don’t want to die either. Split seconds. That’s the info we have, and those are our real life scenarios everyday. What would you do? You have children and like all humans, no one wants to die.”
My gratitude for men and women like Officer Jose Soto can in no way be measured.
My deepest condolences will never be enough for the families of those men and women who loved their jobs, and worked to make peoples lives better, but lost their own life in doing so. And that my friends is one reason why I will show up to run on Sunday and why I’ll show up here on the blog for anyone who cares to follow along for the next few days.
Please consider offering some kind words to those working in your communities.
And of course, if you’d like to give to the two funds for which I’ve become passionate about, it would mean so much to me, but more to the recipients of your tax deductible gifts.