Black Shades, White Gloves: The Night ZZ Top Was My Backup


Saturday 2345 hours – It was not at all unusual for the sheriff to schedule us to work the graveyard shift alone, covering the entire county with our nearest backup—a state trooper or a police officer from a nearby city—sometimes 30-45 minutes away, or more.

At first, the thought of covering such a vast amount of real estate was a bit daunting. But we did it without complaint. After all, to question the high sheriff was practically a death sentence. Or, at the very least, a guaranteed trip to the unemployment line.

So this particular Saturday night I did the usual routine of walking to my driveway where I took a seat behind the wheel of my milk-chocolate-brown patrol car. I checked the light bar and wig-wag headlights to be sure they were working properly, and then I used the radio to let dispatch know I was officially at work and ready to begin receiving calls (in our neck of the woods, 10-41 was the 10-code for “on-duty”). A couple of minutes later I heard the deputies working the previous shift begin signing 10-42, out of service. Once the last one signed off-duty, a sense of “me against the world” set in in. But, we were all used to it, so I pulled the shift down to “drive” and aimed my car toward whatever waited for me.

A few minutes later I was deep in the county, making the rounds to the various businesses—hotels, restaurants, bars, convenience stores, nightclubs, etc.—to let the night shift employees and partiers see a police car cruising through the parking lots. I also drove through the lots of businesses that had closed hours earlier, shining my spotlight through storefront windows and into alleyways, getting out to check doors, and calling in the license plates and VIN numbers of cars that shouldn’t be parked where they were (sometimes a quick check revealed a stolen car or one that was used while committing a crime).

0115 hours – A little over an hour into the shift and I’d already covered a lot of ground. Nothing major had occurred. I’d checked a vehicle I spotted a hundred yards down a dirt path (a couple of half-dressed teens who’d steamed up the windows in dear old dad’s station wagon), stopped a car that suddenly veered from one side of the road to the other—the guy said he’d dropped a Twinkee onto the floorboard and was trying to retrieve it, an act that caused him to jerk the steering wheel, and I’d answered a handful of he-said, she-said domestic calls and one report of a creepy guy flashing women at a rest area out on I-95.

I arrested Creepy Guy without incident, booked him, and was heading to the north side of the county to make my rounds there when dispatch called to report a disturbance at a south-side hotel just off the interstate. She said she’d heard yelling in the background and then what could’ve been gunshots. I was at least 20 minutes away.

Well, I made the trip in 15 minutes, driving like a bat out of hell with my foot jamming the accelerator to the floor. On the way, my alternating headlights, the rotating overhead lights, and the strobes in the back window, were all winking and flashing, and twirling at once, but were totally out of sync with one another. To add to the confusion, Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog spewed from the car speakers. John Bonham’s drumming was already sort of out of time with the guitar licks (but wasn’t that one of the things that made him so spectacular as a drummer, especially on this song?).

Zep definitely added a Twilight-Zonish back-beat to a constantly revolving, blinking, and kaleidoscoping light show that should have been quite distracting. I, however, paid it no mind. Tunnel vision is normally a cop’s nemesis. This time, however, it kept my focus on the roadway and not the optical circus that was going on in and outside of my patrol car.

As I approached the chain hotel’s parking lot I turned off my lights and the car radio (Zeppelin had long since finished their time on the turntable and the Beatles were then deep underwater in their yellow submarine). I keyed the mic and signed 10-23 (arrived at scene).

The lot was packed with cars of all types. I decided to drive around the hotel to hopefully get a feel for what was going on before speaking with the night manager (it’s not unusual to learn that a caller had exaggerated a situation). When I rounded the first corner I quickly realized that this was no overstatement. Not by any means. There must have 200 people outside, with at least 75 engaged in a massive fight. There were another 15 or 20 going at it on the upper walkways.

I needed backup and plenty of it, and I requested it. As in “Send me some assistance, ASAP.”

The dispatcher must’ve sensed the urgency in my voice because I heard her calling for troopers and any other available help from the nearest city. Shoot, they could’ve sent every cop on the payroll and that still wouldn’t have been enough to suit me. I am not a fan of bleeding or hearing my bones snapping in two. Nor do I enjoy having bullets zip by my head or the feel of sharp things piercing my flesh.

I checked my arsenal of weapons, a cache that suddenly seemed woefully inadequate. I had my Beretta 9mm, a PR-24 (side handle baton), a riot-size can of pepperspray, two pairs of handcuffs, and a shotgun. I looked back to the crowd. Then back to my little 9mm and tiny PR-24. Both seemed to be shrinking in size as the seconds passed. The odds were not in my favor.

I sounded a blast from my siren, hoping the masses would realize that the police were on the scene and ready to start kicking butt and taking prisoners. Nothing. No reaction whatsoever. Time for a quickly improvised plan B, to sit in my car and wait for the cavalry, meanwhile, hoping the crowd wouldn’t turn my car over on its roof with me inside.

But, as safe and bleeding-free that sitting in the car sounded, doing nothing was just not in my nature. Instead, and sort of foolishly, I stepped out with my trusty pepper spray in my left hand and the other on my still-holstered gun. Somebody, and I didn’t care who, was going to jail.

Luckily, the troops began to arrive just as I hitched up my pants and waded into the pile, spraying a fiery-hot mist as I went. The other officers entered the fracas at different points and we began to separate the instigators from those who really didn’t want to fight but were because everyone else was doing it. Still, this was an all out brawl, the kind where police defensive tactics are often abandoned in favor of the ever popular “do-watcha-gotta-do” tactics. In fact, I remember seeing one officer using a baseball bat to prevent a group of men from attacking him. Where he got the bat, I haven’t a clue.

Eventually, the group’s size diminished and we were able to gain control with very few bruises, scrapes, and torn uniforms. Each of us arrested as many people as we had handcuffs and other restraints, and we had them packed in police cars like sardines. I’d arrived there alone, but left leading a long caravan of assorted police cars from several jurisdictions, all filled to the brim with angry brawlers, gang members, and a few overdressed people from a wedding party, including the best man who wore a pair of white gloves and black sunglasses (cheap?) who’d somehow become involved in the fight.

Once each of the little darlin’s had been booked and tucked in for the night, I thanked the assisting officers for their help and watched as they all drove away. It was nearly 0500 when I headed back to the county for a final pass of the night.

0520 hours – Dispatch called to report a fight at yet another south-side hotel. Yes, she’d said, there were weapons involved and shots had been fired. Ironically, ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man was playing on the radio at the time I received the call. I looked down at the spot where my badge used to be attached to my shirt. My shoes were scuffed and my pants had streaks of ground-in asphalt across the knees and along the side of one leg. The knuckles on my gun hand hurt and my lower lip was swollen.

I switched on my emergency lights and siren and mashed the gas pedal to the floor. Then I turned up the volume on the radio and I and ZZ Top headed south like a bat out of hell.

“Clean shirt, new shoes, and I don’t know where I am goin’ to…”