3:45 a.m. I am walking down a very dark, silent alleyway in Oakwood, a two-square-mile, mostly low-income community in Venice, behind police officer Robert Eisenhart. A 16-year-old boy, a member of the Venice Shoreline Crips gang, has been shot in the shoulder and in the middle of his back by a member of the same gang. Eisenhart is looking for the shooter, who may be at a party in a nearby darkened house. The silence is almost surreal. I am afraid of what may appear, or explode, out of the darkness. We arrived at the scene minutes before, and I see the boy wheeled out on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance as his brother, his sister and other gang members watch without overt emotion, in dazed silence. I am surprised at the dewy youth of the gang members, and by their glazed faces and darting eyes. The scene has the hopeless, listless feel of the ghetto: some lawns with piled-up rusted machinery, nails, weeds, tubs, broken bicycles, old porcelain, busted mattress springs. An old mattress is stuffed into the window of one house to keep out the cold and prying strangers.
After the ambulance leaves, Bob Eisenhart notes that the victim’s brother appeared to be going about his business. “Don’t you want to be with your brother at the hospital?” he asks him.
“Yeah,” the boy replies. “I just got to make a phone call.”
“I hope your brother gets better,” Eisenhart says.
“Thanks,” the brother answers. It is the only human note at the scene. By this point I have already come to expect it of Eisenhart.
I am on a ride-along with Eisenhart and Officer Steve Fahrney, Eisenhart’s partner that night, on the graveyard shift. I am wearing a bulletproof vest. I had asked to meet a Jewish cop, to find out what it felt like to be a Jew in the L.A.P.D.
At 9:45 roll call, the captain tells the men and women: “Things are heating up with the gangs. Two shootings with kids in a week. We know Culver City is active.” As we drive, Officer Eisenhart points out street memorials to shootings composed of “all kinds of flowers and little Virgin Mary candles.”By 3 a.m. we have already dealt with a couple falsely accused of child abuse (they were in fact rescuing the child from the woman’s alcoholic sister), a woman in a hotel stranded by a lover whose dreadlocks she had pulled in anger, and a domestic abuse case in which a husband literally kicked his wife out of bed after she refused to have sex with him.
As we approach the area of the shooting, Eisenhart and Fahrney fill me in on the three major gangs of the area: the Shoreline Crips, the Culver City Boys and V-13 – V for Venice. “They fight back and forth,” Eisenhart explains. “Here in Oakwood the Shorelines are for some reason killing off some of their own people. They do a lot of drug dealing, and there’s the possibility someone might be holding out money on the main dealer. Basically they may get rid of their own personnel and recruit new personnel.”
Nearing the shooting scene, Eisenhart turns off the car lights. “When we approach them,” he says, “you don’t want to backlight any officers. So we kill our lights. Also at night you don’t want a blast of light; it screws up your night vision. If anybody popped out to possibly confront us, we wouldn’t see them right away because we have a glare in our eyes.”
Within the intimacy and camaraderie of the police car in the still of the night, I am suddenly pulled into a world of split-second alertness, military precision and scrupulously observed rules and procedures. At each stop, we lurch out of the car. A second cannot be lost. Whatever the shambles of the Rampart case, it is clear that cops like Bob Eisenhart and Steve Fahrney are still putting their lives on the line for the community.
Before the police academy, a life
Bob Eisenhart is, without doubt, a true mensch and a wonderful cop. The man’s had a life, and he knows who he is. He has a gentle, soft-spoken, strong way about him – a “bedside manner learned when he was a chiropractor,” says his father, Al. Now 48, he hails from East Flatbush, Brooklyn.His first love was songwriting. He started hanging out at Folk City in Greenwich Village at 13, performing his own songs. He was once the opening act for Tim Hardin.
The highlight of those years was a letter from the legendary head of Columbia Records, John Hammond. “He wrote me the nicest letter saying he thought my songs were delightful,” Eisenhart recalls. “He said some songs sounded a little bit like Springsteen, but he said stick with it. He was right; I don’t think my songs were quite ready. But he recognized that there was something there, and I was thrilled, and I kept that letter.”
Realizing he could not make a living with his songs, Eisenhart went on to get his B.A. in English from State University of New York at New Paltz and got a job on a CETA federal grant teaching writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
After Eisenhart’s parents moved to Los Angeles, he decided to migrate here himself in 1978. He became an ESL teacher at night. “I loved it. I worked with a lot of El Salvadoran students, Farsi, Iranian, Vietnamese boat people.” During the day Eisenhart went to chiropractic school.
“My mother kvelled when I opened my office,” Bob said. He was a chiropractor for 10 years. Then his mother died, the earthquake hit and his house burned down. Those events propelled him to quit chiropractic, run a marathon, learn the saxophone, and write six novels in three years. Running low on money, he looked around, wondering what to do next.
Attending a martial arts class, Eisenhart met many people from law enforcement. “I saw they were happy with what they were doing.” At 42, he applied to become a cop. He graduated from the police academy at 43. He is stationed at the Pacific Division.
His father, a retired postal superintendent, notes that “Bob picks the lousiest hours and the worst areas. I asked him why. He said, ‘It’s good experience.’ But it’s just like when he was a chiropractor and chose the lousiest neighborhoods. Because he said the people needed it, even when they couldn’t pay.””Are you close with Bob?” I ask.
“We are now,” Al Eisenhart says. “We have a deal. He’s through at 7:30 in the morning. I said, ‘When you get home, give me a call.’ He said ‘Why? You worried about me?’ I said, ‘No way. You can take care of yourself. But I have nobody to talk to. So you give me a call and we’ll chat for a couple of minutes. And then you can go to sleep or have your breakfast or whatever you want. I look forward to talking to you.’ So that’s how it works out. He calls me every single day when he’s finished with his tour of duty.”
The rules of the game
Back in the alleyway, we don’t find the shooter. He is apprehended the next day. Why the shooting? The victim’s sister was dating a gang member who had just been released from prison because of being a jailhouse snitch on another Shoreline Crip. Eisen-hart explains, “So apparently in retribution they put out a hit on the snitch or anyone he was associated with. It was a jailhouse hit.”
“They thought this kid was the snitch?” I ask him.
“No. They knew who he was. But the sister and the brother and the boyfriend are all staying together. So they were all designated as targets. And the brother stands on the street and sells coke at night, so he’s an easy target. The girlfriend I.D.’d the shooter.”
When Eisenhart and I talk the next day, I also learn that on the same night we were out together, a Long Beach officer was ambushed and killed.
In the course of the night I spent on patrol with Bob Eisenhart, I learned about a Jewish cop and I learned about the life of the police officer in general. There are endless possibilities for misunderstand-ings of police behavior. When we said goodbye to the black couple earlier that night, the Nigerian man held out his hand and Eisenhart shook it. It was an exception.
Later, he explained, “Generally I try to be polite to everybody, but on the street I don’t like to shake hands. You want to
keep your right hand free – I’m right-handed and my gun’s on my right side. I try to make it like, don’t take offense; I don’t shake hands on duty. There are a lot of ways where if people want to fight and they have a handshake, they can then pull you in and suckerpunch you. People can turn. They can seem happy but underneath be very hostile.”
Implicit in some of the remarks of Eisenhart and other officers, although they do not mention it, is the shadow of the Rampart investigation and criticism of the police. These are good men with a sense of shame about what others may have done to tarnish their image. About racial profiling, Eisenhart comments in the locker room, “First of all, we have to have reasonable suspicion to stop anybody. When we stop people, half the time we might not even know who it is, whether Black, Asian or Hispanic, until we’re up on top of them.”
A Hispanic officer joins in. “A good case in point: we stop a guy. Tinted windows, black Volvo. A crime had just occurred. We’re looking for any suspicious vehicles that might be taking off. A guy’s parked in a driveway, just sitting there, suddenly backs out and takes off. We decide we’ll check his plates, see what’s going on.
“We started getting behind him. He sees us behind him. We followed him for maybe half a block. He pulls over. First thing he did was whirl down the window and stick out his hands. A black guy. We run the plates, walk up next to him. We said, ‘What’s going on? You got any problems?’ He replies, ‘No, you stopped me because I’m black.’ I said to him, ‘A crime just occurred. You don’t even fit the description. Just keep on going. How in the heck are we gonna know you’re black? Your windows are tinted out and they’re rolled up. And it’s night time.’ “
Later, Eisenhart says, “I try to think I’ve developed some skills of diplomacy out here. Sometimes you’ll work with people – and I haven’t run into it for a while – but officers can actually exacerbate a situation, depending on how it is. The tone you use.”
But Eisenhart loves the job. “With some jobs,” he relates, “it’s like being a dishwasher. There’s always an endless supply of dishes. Here you handle a particular call. An entity unto itself. You never know what you’re going to run into with the call. And you always learn something from it.”
‘You can’t go back’
The camaraderie of the job reminds him of his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. “I’m not all that social,” Eisenhart says. (In fact, he seems almost monastic.) “I like the fact I can go to work and people will say, ‘Hey Bobby, how you doing?’ It’s like walking around the projects when I was a kid in Brooklyn and everybody would look out their window.”
He remembers that neighborhood with tenderness. “There was a vacant lot across the street from my house. We had junkyards, junkyard dogs, lots with rats and real bums, hobo-type bums. Canarsie was first being developed at the time. But to me, that was like – the woods! We would build treehouses in there. We would come home so dirty. We were lucky we didn’t step on rusty nails. That was our going off into the wilds; that was my ‘country.’ “
Eisenhart had a Bar Mitzvah, but his parents were not overly observant. He is certainly a proud Jew. His father was a forward observer behind enemy lines with the Third Armored Division in World War II and helped liberate two concentration camps. Bob has rarely encountered anti-Semitism. “People respond to authority mainly. They see blue.” Eisenhart’s mother died nine years ago. “She was a beautiful woman,” he says. “I put on her tombstone: ‘Beauty, Wisdom, Strength.’ Just those words. Three qualities I think she possessed a lot of.
“My life has been a circuitous route, but it’s taken me finally to something that I enjoy. Once you do this, you can’t go back to a regular job. And I think I have somewhat of an advantage, coming on the job later in life, in that I know my personality already. I know how I handle things. I’m not suddenly going to develop a drinking or gambling problem. I know my parameters. I’ve worked in jobs that had authority: the doctor, the teacher. The source. My job entails a lot of teaching. As a training officer now, I work with new recruits and try to teach them the ropes. You get a lot of cases where I find the old bedside manner comes in handy when talking to people. Whether it’s talking to a suspect and trying to find out what happened, or talking to a victim and having him calm down. But it doesn’t always happen that way. There’s somebody who can push everybody’s buttons. If you run across a person who you right away sense there’s too much friction – for whatever reason – you usually count on your partner to step in and say, ‘Okay, Bob, I got this one.’ And he’ll talk to them.”
At 7:30 a.m., Bob Eisenhart, Steve Fahrney and I wind things up at a coffee shop. I am almost dizzy with exhaustion. Fahrney has his daily chocolate milk, Eisenhart has blintzes. Fahrney shyly shows me a bracelet he wears in memory of his friend, Officer Brian Brown, killed in the line of duty. Brown had heard automatic gun fire, saw a car squealing out. The gunfire had killed a child standing on the corner of Venice and Centinela. Brown gave chase to the gunman, who shot and killed him.I am sure that 24 hours before, the officer would not have shown me the bracelet. I could not have understood its meaning as I do now.