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Every rookie cop and corrections officer knows that their chances of being home for the holidays are remote. That was my expectation as I prepared for my first Christmas on the job at Los Angeles’ Hall of Justice Jail (HOJJ) in 1985. To my surprise, I spent Christmas at home that winter. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons.
At that point in my career, I knew just enough to be dangerous. Six months removed from the academy, I was no longer new, but neither was I experienced. This is a time in one’s career when they need be especially cautious. I learned that lesson the hard way.
HOJJ first opened its gates in February 1926. To say the least, it was not exactly a state-of-the-art facility. Everything at HOJJ was manually operated — from the cell gates to the elevators.
I had been assigned to work the discipline module during the holidays, which was considered a good spot to be. HOJJ housed many different classifications of inmates who could only be housed with others of similar status. Thus, they were on constant lockdown status.
A lot of the inmates in the discipline module were frequent fliers. You know the type: their social skills need work… a lot of work. This group tended to run afoul of other inmates and the jail staff.
There were two such inmates in the discipline module that Christmas that we’d housed in a single cell to make it easier to keep an eye them. I’m going to call them Henderson and Tate.
A couple of days before Christmas Eve, I was chatting with one of the snitches — let’s call him McGovern — on the catwalk on the opposite row from where Henderson and Tate were housed. You never know what to believe when you’re talking to a snitch. They are some of the most accomplished liars in the facility. Still, McGovern was interesting, and while I was chatting with him, I failed to observe Henderson deciding it was time to give Tate a tune up. A short scuffle ensued. I didn’t hear it, and by the time I made my way over to the other side, the fun was over.
Tate was not happy with me. He thought I should have been on the scene sooner. Henderson was the bigger and nastier of the two and was in jail on the more serious charge. But Tate had the longer rap sheet and more than two dozen aliases. Tate refused to admit that he received his fat lip at Henderson’s hands. As prowlers escorted him to the clinic though, the look on his face said that I should know what had happened and that I should have done something to prevent it.
Two days later on Christmas Eve, a few hours before Santa was scheduled to climb up into his sleigh, I accompanied a couple of movement deputies as we escorted Tate, Henderson, and a handful of other inmates down the hallway to the clinic for their evening meds. One of my partners — I’ll call him Tom — had muscles on top of muscles and there just didn’t seem to be enough room in his uniform to contain them.
A few inmates from a lower floor were still in line waiting to see the nurse at the desk, so our inmates fell in at the end of the line. One of the rules in the clinic was no talking. Tate, however, could not keep his mouth shut. Tom pulled him out of the line for some words of wisdom.
While Tom held Tate in a control hold, he kept ordering him to look at the wall. But Tate kept turning his head to the right. Each time he did this Tom reached up, placed his left hand on top of Tate’s head and manually assisted it to face forward. But like a small girl’s dolly with a broken spring in the neck, as soon as Tom’s hand was removed from Tate’s head, it snapped back to the right. After three attempts to correct this defect in Tate’s posture, Tom gave up. He offered Tate a few final words of admonishment about clinic rules and then released him.
Astute observer of non-verbal communication that I was at the time, I realized that Tate was in a foul, unpredictable mood and needed to be handcuffed. This would be the last of my wise insights for the evening. My rookie complacency and overconfidence jumped into the driver’s seat, matting the accelerator and speeding towards the sign that read, “Danger! Bridge Out Ahead.”
Tate had already ignored Tom’s orders — had already ignored the orders of a man who was twice as big as me and had had him in a control hold at the time. So, did I attempt to put Tate in a control hold before I handcuffed him? Hell no, I didn’t need to use any of that silly training. Six months removed from the academy, I was a veteran!
I took my handcuffs out as I approached Tate and told him to turn away from me and place his hands behind his back. He knew exactly what I had in mind since I was kind enough to show him. He turned away all right, but his hands were still at his sides. Had I stepped forward and grabbed him by the elbows at this point, things might have gone differently. But I was too full of myself. Besides, what inmate is going to go off on a deputy with three other deputies standing around watching?
I reached toward Tate’s left arm to handcuff his wrist. As soon as he felt the cold steel of the cuff contact his skin, he spun on me and fired a right hook that caught me just above my left eye.
This incident occurred about fifteen years before I met my laser surgeon. Thus, I was still wearing eyeglasses. Tate’s punch drove the frame of my wire glasses into my face just above my eyebrow where it did an effective job of slicing me open. My glasses then went careening uselessly across the hallway. I stepped back, incredulous that Tate would have the audacity to punch me.
I learned two important things in the few seconds of that fight with Tate: The first was that I could take a solid punch. In fact, I learned that I could take three. Because the second important thing I learned in that fight was never lead with your face in a fight. Aghast that Tate had the nerve to punch me (a deputy sheriff!), I did not attempt to punch him back. No, instead I tried to grab him. This brilliant move resulted in him socking me two more times pretty much in the same spot where he hit me the first time.
After those last two blows were thrown, the struggle turned decidedly against Mr. Tate. My other partners — disappointed in my lack of pugilistic prowess — waded into the fray and, well, let’s just say that both Tate and I went to the hospital that night.
After receiving four stitches above my left eye, I went home. Tate did not return to the discipline module until a few days after New Years.
There is a wonderful training adage that says, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You will never live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself.”
I have used my encounter with Tate as a teaching point for a long time:
Don’t get complacent: If you think there is a problem with an inmate, there probably is.
Don’t let your guard down: Just because you have partners present, it does not mean that an inmate won’t go off on you. He may be on a mission or trying to score points with his peers. Or, like Tate, he may just be a whack job.
No one is invulnerable: Tate was looking for a chance to get even with me for not breaking up his fight with Henderson and I kindly obliged him. I guess that was my Christmas gift to him and he decided to exchange gifts with me, much to my chagrin.
Pay attention to the non-verbal communication that inmates send you.
You may want to be home for the holidays, but I strongly recommend against the manner which I managed to achieve that on Christmas in 1985. Be ever vigilant! Stay safe!
About the author
Sgt. John J. Stanley, M.A., is a twenty-one year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He has worked a variety of assignments including, custody, patrol, training and administrative support. He is also a published historian and has written extensively on the history of law enforcement and corrections.