Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

May 22, 1:58 a.m.: “Look out for a missing 13-year-old girl…carrying a pink backpack.”

May 22, 11:30 p.m.: “That’s all we have for now. Man with a gun. Dark clothing.”

May 22, 11:34 p.m.: “She’s smoking PCP and she says she wants to kill herself.”

May 23, 12:25 a.m.: “Son dumped lye on his mother.”

May 24, 12:32 a.m.: “Is it just a man with a gun?” “Copy.”

Every night, the police scanner spits out random pieces of chaos, dozens per hour. Everything, big and small, gets aired: from a ticking sound inside a car to a man calling from a Shell station who just got his head bashed with a brick to much, much worse.

Sometimes the chatter is just pure speculation phoned in by window-peekers. And forget about the cops: It’s the citizenry that indulges in racial profiling. Every citizen gripe about disorderly conduct or loitering, it seems, comes with the same description: black male dressed in white T-shirt and blue jeans.

But often enough, the call over the scanner presages a bona fide crime scene. It’s not a rare occurrence. The District has become so efficient at producing crime scenes that it’s our chief product.

When the yellow tape comes to your corner, you don’t care about postwar Iraq, Bush’s tax plan, or the new-look Wizards. All of that means nothing because your block just had a raging argument that got out of hand, had a Caprice scream by spitting bullets out a window, had a fight over a drug stash.

It all feels like a sucker punch. You hear police sirens in the distance, then really close, now too close—now loud on your block. You wake up and peer out your bedroom window. You see the police lights swirl red-white-blue, turning your block into a disco. It’s late, but the commotion beckons. Two, three, four cruisers idle, their cooling systems humming. An ambulance arrives, adding its high-pitched whine. Doors are slammed. Cops rush through words like they’ve just finished a marathon. Radios go fuzzy, filling the air with white noise. And then all of a sudden, you hear a dispatcher’s urgent questions. You have to go outside and see who did what.

You won’t find out. The cops aren’t interested in taking questions. The action beyond them is obscured by the flashing lights, and your eyes can’t distinguish between too bright and too dark. And there’s this ribbon of yellow police tape stretching from lamp pole to lamp pole. That tape is as far as you can go. It’s the edge of the orchestra pit.

But the mystery of the crime scene doesn’t bring you a jolt of excitement. If it does, you’re either a first-timer or an asshole. Because standing there, in front of the police tape, you’re running through your own list of questions: Who’s that girl talking to the police? Whose house is the cop in the dark suit going into? Who’s hurt? What sex are they? How old are they? Do I know them?

These are personal questions—answer them and maybe you sleep tonight.

If you can’t get the details, you go for categories or brands: Is this a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, a drug thing, a gang thing? The “why” never matters. Motives get trumped up, made to feel more important than they really are. Besides, often what’s on the other side of the police tape is never figured out, let alone brought to the daylight of a court proceeding.

Crime scenes are just there, around the corner, a few blocks away on that “bad” block. The police scanner may be an unreliable narrator, but if you listen long enough, it will tell a story about where you live.

And once it comes, so will your neighbors. They will join you in their bathrobes, undershirts, slippers. And what you’ll feel and what you’ll see on their faces isn’t as simple as anger or sadness. It’s embarrassment. It’s shame. Because whatever prompts the crime scene dissipates long before the yellow tape goes up; it leaves the minute the knife goes in, the pistol jerks back. All that’s left is the whole sick show.

A stabbing brings out a middle-aged lady in floral-print capris, T-shirt, and yellow flip-flops. She stands behind the ambulance, by the curb, at a respectful distance. It’s an awkward moment, one she insists on filling with chatter. “You know his lady got AIDS,” she says of the man on the stretcher.

It’s just after midnight on a recent Friday in the 700 block of Quincy Street NE. The stabbing victim is a middle-aged man. The knife went into his upper right thigh. Now his gray sweat pants are cut up to his groin. It’s cold outside. His lady isn’t around. But Ms. Capri Pants is. And she’ll have to do for comfort.

“Hey, baby!” the man says, looking up from the stretcher at his neighbor.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.

“Nothing….I’m sick,” he says, stern.

“Hope you feel better,” Ms. Capri Pants says finally, before the man is tucked into the ambulance.

The neighbor isn’t really interested in the rest, the reason, the result. She soon drifts away. Another, thicker man is led away in handcuffs. The only man left is a boy, Deon, 16. He saw the whole thing. He knows the “why” of it: “Over the TV being too loud. Dumb stuff.”CP

4400 block of Puerto Rico Avenue NE

June 2, 9:05 p.m.

Body found in burned Cadillac Escalade

“He’s truly burnt up,” says one female resident. “Burnt to a crisp,” says another. “He ain’t nothing but a skeleton,” finishes the first.

Between quiet rows of aluminum-sided houses, residents have gathered at the edge of a soggy clearing, among tall trees and overgrown grass. On the other side, police, fire, and morgue personnel gather around the white Escalade working to extract a charred body left in the back seat. The residents—and there are a lot, at least 25—edge closer and closer. The bravest make it deep into the weeds, searching for a better view.

An extremely blond cop about 50 yards away screams for everyone to back up. If the residents don’t, she threatens, they will be arrested. She is quickly given the nickname “Punky Brewster.” “Fuck that woman,” a resident mutters, hunched between

tree branches.

“They’re movin’ it!” someone exclaims from the front. Maybe. You can’t tell; all you can see is a lumpy bag, bright lights, and a car door. “See how it just falls,” the woman whispers.

Bronson, 12, named after the macho actor Charles Bronson, says he saw the car blow up. Maybe it was 5:30 p.m. “The first one—that was the big one, right?” he says. “After the first explosion, you heard the horn—eh, eh, eh.” Then there was a second blast; this time, a mirror snapped off, and the Escalade’s hood popped up. “When I saw it, I don’t know,” Bronson says. “It was, like, scary.”

900 block of Juniper Street NW

May 27, 10:35 p.m.

Assault in progress

“The boys were playing,” a female resident says. “Next thing we know, all this happened.” All this: one young male in cuffs in the back seat of a cruiser; another, shirtless, in cuffs, standing nearby getting a lecture on anger management; and Officer Pete Hoffman, smoking a cigarette, yelling at everyone. “Wasn’t that fun?” he bellows to his fellow officers. “Wasn’t that fun?” He puffs hard on his cigarette. “From what I understand, they were slap boxing,” says another resident, standing along a fence. The female resident leans on him, then starts crying. A few minutes later, Hoffman calls the dispatcher, saying he’s coming into the Fourth District station house: “I have a live one.”

9th Street and Southern Avenue SE

May 25, 12:45 a.m.

Shooting, five victims

“Man, there’s some bitches around here,” a lanky dude mutters to a friend. They are standing at the edge of a shopping center located along the 900 block of Southern Avenue SE. A small platoon of police cruisers, ambulances, and fire trucks idles in the lot next to a McDonald’s. The shootings occurred on the other side of Southern Avenue, behind a row of tall apartment buildings, in a dark parking lot. A group of grandmothers and young girls, all in pajamas or sweats, huddles on one stoop trying to piece together what happened.

Behind them, in the parking lot, two officers flick on flashlights and scan for shell casings, fresh blood, evidence. The wounded are gone. It’s always the same, a woman wearing a “#1 Grandma” T-shirt says. Drop and roll. “The shots were loud—they were shooting back and forth,” she explains. “I tried to lay in the bed and take it. But I rolled on the floor.” After a while, the women and girls begin to drift back inside. One woman turns before leaving to ask, “Can you tell the police there’s a bullet hole in my window?”

3921 14th St. NW

May 30, 11:15 p.m.

Three shots to the chest, critical

A half-dozen girls sit atop a stone wall bordering the Iglesia Primitiva Pentecostal church. The preaching is in session, but the girls are too busy trying to see down the block, beyond the police tape. A skinny, made-up woman in jeans holds their attention. Must be a witness. They wonder: Who is she talking to? Then they lose her. “Where she at? She must be in a police car or something,” one girl says. A girl and her mother shove off the wall, arguing over who gets the cell phone.

A boy struts up. “Look at him walking up the hill,” says an older girl, sucking her teeth. “Go home!”

“Where it happen at?” the boy asks. The girl nods: half a block up, in an apartment by another church.

A mid-fiftyish man who lives next door to the shooting stands near the girls on the corner. He thinks he knows the shooter: “The guy would sit out here and drink with us all the time,” he says. “He’d pass the bottle.” Usually it was Velicoff vodka or Odessa gin or 211 beer. Cheap stuff.

At 12:24 a.m., a suspect matching the shooter’s description—Hispanic male, red shirt, jean shorts—pulls up in a compact in the alley behind the crime scene. He is arrested.

The suspect hangs out with “Spanish” guys, the old man says. “I call them all Julios. They call me Poppy.” Poppy remembers that he’d call out “Drinkie!” and that would always be enough to get the bottle passed his way.

2400 block of Alabama Avenue SE

May 30, 9:10 p.m.

Smashed window

Driving along the 1300 block of Alabama, according to the police dispatcher, a woman calls to say her car has been shot. The caller is frantic; the bullet has gone through a window by the back seat—where her baby is sitting. Moments later, the dispatcher delivers an update: There’s a lot of glass, and the glass may be on the baby. The mother, the male driver, and the baby end up at the Seventh District police station. There they find the true culprit: a fist-sized rock. The rock is now nestled safely behind the gear shift, between two open cans of Schlitz. Lt. Byron Hope notices the rock and the beer: “We’re going to deal with that.”

2900 Sherman Ave. NW

May 24, 1:45 a.m.

Drive-by shooting

A souped-up Honda, parked at the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road NW, is missing its driver’s-side window. As far as the officers working the police tape are concerned, it’s just a broken window. The driver’s door stands open; tiny shards flash in the streetlamp’s light. Three witnesses, all passengers in the car, know why that window is gone: It was shot out. They know the driver took at least one shot in the leg.

When it happened, the two girls in the car burst into tears. But now, out of the car, they huddle together on the corner, giggling, chatting in Spanish, doing their best to share light-hearted banter. When a detective finally shows up, she walks to them and blurts: “Who is shot?” One girl becomes the main witness because she can translate English. “The guy, the driver,” she says. She puts her middle finger in her mouth and starts biting the nail.

Looking bored, she tells the detective that another car pulled up alongside, asked the driver a series of questions having to do with the STC gang, and then fired off three shots. She talks fast and with determination; she knows what she saw, how it all went down. Then it’s back to biting that nail.

After taking a look at the car, the detective asks the translator to take a ride back to the Fourth District station house and leave her friends behind. “Tell him you’re not going far; I’m not kidnapping you,” the detective says. The witness takes off her white sweatshirt, showing a pregnant belly, and then walks up Sherman Avenue with the detective. As she goes, she turns back to her friends. “Wait there,” she says. “I’ll be right back.”

531 Harvard St. NW

May 29, 12:30 a.m.

Possible barricade situation

Cruisers arrived hours ago; officers rolled out police tape, cutting off the entire block. Philip Dapolito, 22, says he was playing Madden 2003 on his PlayStation 2 when he heard the sirens, saw the cruisers, and then noticed the heavy artillery of the department’s Emergency Response Team. He had to come out and watch. A cop, he says, told him, “It was some boyfriend-girlfriend shit.” Dapolito says he spent three years in a Connecticut prison for gang-related crimes and has since joined Victory Outreach Ministries to bring his life in line with the gospel—with occasional relapses into selling weed: “I know how all this shit ends. I got nothing to do.”

He’s been in front of the police tape for almost an hour, standing with another resident, Simon Chi, 28. Dapolito thinks he must know the dude holding his girlfriend captive. Chi definitely knows him. “He’s known for beating up the girl,” Chi says. “Everybody on the street knows.” Dapolito: “Is it the chubby dude?” Chi: “He hangs out with the chubby dude.”

A jacked-up armored van starts crunching through the alley behind Harvard. “You just see that right there?” Dapolito asks. He wishes aloud that he had a video camera. “This’ll be some tight shit….I wonder if they got a hostage negotiator and shit.” Twelve ERTs march up the street and take their positions. Some crouch behind a dark sedan near No. 531, some behind a wall two houses down. Dapolito says: “I’m thinking the dude might be off the dipper, yo!” It’s 1:34 a.m.; the ERTs are in place. “We’re going to have to write a skit out of this,” Dapolito says.

“Can you hear me?” an ERT yells through a bullhorn. “We’re not going anywhere!”

“He’s in the fucking room, beating his dick,” Dapolito offers from a half-block away.

“Let us know what’s going on!” the ERT shouts.

“Just go in there,” Dapolito says. At 2:08 a.m., the ERTs ram through No. 531’s basement door. The boom-boom-boom wakes up the three pit bulls living across the street. “At least come out and fight,” Dapolito urges the hostage-taker.

After a few quiet moments, the ERTs come out of the basement and huddle on the street. There’s no one inside No. 531. Dapolito can’t believe it. “That’s fucking corny,” he says.

212 Oakwood St. SE

May 27, 11:50 p.m.

Gunshot to the head

A middle-aged man dressed in dusty jeans and a coat props open the door to the apartment high-rise, telling medics and police officers as they go by that the victim’s in a third-floor apartment. Hanging out by the door, two residents stand and smoke and wait to see the victim. “I’ve seen her on the bus once,” says the male resident. “Hopefully, she be all right….Damn, man.”

“That’s why I’m glad I don’t have nieces,” the female resident argues.

The two speculate about the victim’s age. It matters. Maybe she’s in her early 20s. Waiting on the sidewalk, by the ambulance, John Epps, 67, says he thinks she’s younger. More like early teens. Got to be. Medics gather on the steps, several of them clutching a gurney holding the victim. As she’s carried out, everyone goes quiet, maybe out of respect, maybe because they see the way her body just slumps down into that gurney. All you hear is her breathing—heavy and assisted by a medic pumping a bag attached to her mouth. You see blood, dark and enough, by her head. “Breathing….but there’s brain matter,” one medic says to another as they reach the ambulance. The police report the next day that she was 21.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.