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Investigator Kevin Rachlin has no cruiser. His Kojak light doesn’t work. Yet he won’t miss your purloined vehicle.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
[Investigator Kevin Rachlin declined to be photographed for this story.]
H.L. knew he needed a good story. He had lost his car and needed help from the police in tracking it down.
H.L. must have spent at least an hour flipping his story around in his head. Stuck in Southeast, he wandered through the cold night thinking about it, just him and his story. He hacked it up, did a little editing, and finally settled on a single sentence, something you could pitch a film producer, fit on a scrap of paper, or tell a cop. And after he had rehearsed the line, he flagged down a pair of patrol officers at dawn to tell his story.
I was the victim of an unarmed carjacking.
By 6:30 a.m., H.L.’s story had passed from the two patrol officers to Investigator Kevin Rachlin, 43, who works out of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7th District. “Bring the complainant into the station,” Rachlin told the officers. “I’ll talk to him.” Rachlin then clicked off his take-home radio. He wanted to hear H.L.’s story firsthand.
By 7:15 a.m., H.L. had a new story. He sat down in a plastic chair in the middle of a long table in the 7th District community room. He had a doughy face and wore a pair of bluejeans and a bright-red hooded sweat shirt. He had been out all night, so he got right down to it with those cops, recounting the events that had separated him from his car.
He had come in from Lorton, smoked some weed, and hooked up with this prostitute. When he stopped for gas, the prostitute took the opportunity to steal his Mitsubishi Galant along with his wallet.
H.L. was telling his story to the right guy. Rachlin is one of roughly 10 police officers in the city assigned exclusively to auto theft, one who has won more than his share of gold seals and Investigator of the Year awards.
A 17-year veteran, Rachlin is shaped like a cannonball with claws. He has big Popeye arms plastered with tattoos, including one that reads, “Death or Glory.” His hair is arranged in a feathery mullet, which he constantly combs with one of his claws. When he speaks, he often includes one of his three favorite cuss words, which are, in descending frequency: “fuck,” “motherfucker,” and “shit.”
“Fuck,” says Rachlin after finishing up the briefing with H.L. He’s tired and has no time for liars, who make his job harder than it needs to be. How do you find a stolen car if the guy won’t tell you exactly what happened? But he promises H.L. he will try to find his car. “Man, the motherfucker,” Rachlin says, heading out of the station. “Fucked up his life somehow.”
Rachlin and his partner, Investigator Hank Williams, slump into an unmarked Crown Victoria and head in the direction of Livingston Terrace. It’s a mild, clear day.
The mood in the Vic flicks to mute. The partners have to adjust their eyes, getting them to focus. Rachlin and Williams case every parking lot and alley looking for cars that don’t fit. A sparkling white minivan left running in an alley off 4th Street SE sparks their attention. “Uh, did you see that?” Rachlin asks, pointing to the van.
The van turns out to belong to an old lady dropping off some clothes. It is not stolen. Rachlin pulls out of the adjacent parking lot and heads slowly up the 4300 block of 3rd Street just past 9 a.m.
Tiny cars and big cars pass. A few stragglers wait at a bus stop. But overall, there is an emptiness to this street. It’s an emptiness that Rachlin tries not to get too comfortable in. He never just cruises. He chews up the real estate. Every car is subject to his blue-eyed inspection.
As we get midway up the block, a gray flash goes by. Williams doesn’t see it. I don’t see it. But Rachlin does. He slams on the breaks. “Ain’t that the Mitsubishi?” he asks, pointing to the car pulling out of a parking lot and heading in the opposite direction. The one whose female driver sees Rachlin right off.
“She knows,” Rachlin says. “She knows.” Rachlin pulls a U-turn and tucks in behind her car. The Galant pulls over instantly.
Rachlin and Williams get out of their cruiser and approach the driver. She rolls down her window and explains that the Galant isn’t her car—she borrowed it from a friend.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t bust you for stealing this car?” Rachlin warns.
Rachlin orders the woman out of the car. He recognizes her as a prostitute who goes by Diane. Diane has a five-dollar bill in her mouth. The investigator asks her to spit out the bill. He knows Diane from years ago, when she used to live with her mother in the area.
It was just a bad night in the Galant, Diane huffs. After she and H.L. smoked up and did their thing, they realized they were broke. “We drove around giving people rides,” Diane says. “We didn’t have no money. We pulled into the gas station. He told me to go and get some money and [get crack]. We agreed to meet back. When I went back, he wasn’t there….So I left. I got scared.”
Rachlin hears all this as he inspects the Galant. There might be clues as to what really happened inside the car. He jams his fingers under the seats, rifles through the glove box, and turns over the pennies in the ashtray. Some items found in the search prompt exasperated commentary from Diane. Others, such as the drug paraphernalia, she deems self-explanatory.
There are two crack pipes, one sitting in the ash tray, one under a seat along with a lot of tiny plastic bags. Rachlin makes Diane sit on the curb and take her knee-length black boots off for inspection. She slaps the boots on the pavement.
Rachlin then finds a large, orange-tinted pill bottle filled with an unknown liquid. Does he do heroin? Rachlin asks. “I’ve seen the track marks up and down his arms,” responds Diane. A King James Bible (“Words of Christ in Red”) rests behind the back seat. A crumpled pair of panties lies in the front seat; Rachlin stabs and scoops them up with a screwdriver. The panties have faded pink Christmas trees on them.
“Are these your panties here?” Rachlin asks Diane.
“Those are not my panties,” Diane squawks from her seat. “I got panties.” It’s the first question that really bothers her.
With his inspection over, Rachlin tells Diane not to work in the area anymore. “I work mainly Marlboro Pike,” she says. He then lets her go. With a snort, Diane puts back on her boots, grabs her $5 off the hood of the car, and walks down 3rd Street. Williams drives the Galant back to the 7th District station, and Rachlin takes the cruiser.
When they get back to the station, H.L. is waiting. Rachlin invites H.L. back into the community room for a talk.
“Next time, you go to jail,” says Rachlin. “I asked you to be truthful with me. I asked you to come across with the truth. You can’t tell me the truth.”
“She’s telling us the truth,” Rachlin goes on. “You ain’t tellin’ us shit. You got a crackhead prostitute telling us the truth and you got a grown man who asked us to go out and look for his car but can’t tell the truth. Now that’s a little fucked up, upside down, ain’t it?”
“No, man. She didn’t tell you the truth,” mutters H.L.
There are a few more accusations and more denials before Rachlin has had enough. “You got panties in the front seat that she says ain’t hers,” he fumes. “She showed us her panties, so I know they ain’t hers. OK? You see what I’m sayin’? There’s your car—go. You better go. You got your car back—you lucky you ain’t going to jail.”
Back in the cruiser, Rachlin is still annoyed. The Galant doesn’t qualify as a stolen auto, in part because Diane’s story is more credible than H.L.’s. In the investigator’s view, H.L. wasted his time and kept him from tracking down one of the 19 cars stolen in the District each day—a loss of $47 million to motorists last year. In Rachlin’s world, H.L. falls into the same category of obstructionists as the dispatchers who can’t speak English and give out wrong addresses, the computers that break down, and the tow-truck operators who take their sweet time.
“Motherfucker grateful to have his car back,” he says. “Happy it’s not stripped in an alley.”
Ford Crown Victoria
In 1995, Rachlin joined the auto-theft unit as a uniformed officer. After a few years, his reputation as a stolen-car vacuum was solid enough that his supervisors agreed to let him work plainclothes and undercover. The catch: If he wanted the new gig, he’d have to find his own wheels.
So Rachlin started using his own black ’95 Thunderbird, cruising alone. He bought a red “Kojak” light and turned the back seat into an office. “Everything was nice and neat,” Rachlin recalls. “I kept my files and everything in the car. When I got home at night, files come in the house with me. I did all my reports and investigations from the car.”
That Thunderbird was cool. So cool, in fact, that most thieves didn’t know it was a cop car. But it blew up in less than a year. The transmission and motor mount, the apparatus that keeps the motor attached to the frame, went bust. “Shit happens—you got to deal with it,” Rachlin says. “Had to go out and get another car.”
Rachlin settled on a hoopdee, a late-’80s brown Ford two-door. He had a mechanic install a car alarm that he could activate with a push-button inside. That served as his siren. The hoopdee was almost too good. There were several times his fellow officers in 7D tailed it. “They’d run the tag or they’d start to run the tag, and we’d have to let them know we were the police,” Rachlin says. The hoopdee was good for a lot of things, except chases. “One guy got mad because we wouldn’t chase [his stolen] car. He tried to say we weren’t doing our job. We were in a raggedy-ass car.” The hoopdee died the way all hoopdees die—it was run into the ground within months.
Rachlin still doesn’t have his own cruiser. He has spent the last couple of years borrowing unmarked cars from vice and detective units when their regular drivers are off duty. Sometimes he doesn’t get a car at all and has to wait a whole day before he can hit the streets. “There were times when [vice officers] would come in early and we were busy on scenes, making arrests or recovering stolen autos,” Rachlin says. “We would have to make other arrangements or they would come down and get the car. That’s the way it is.”
Each morning, Rachlin gets up at about 5 and punches in by 7. He picks out an unmarked cruiser and parks it along a residential street about a block away from the station—just in case any other cop has his eyes on that car—before starting his pre-shift office work.
On a cold, cloudless Friday morning in January, the investigator finishes his paperwork and begins his ritual walk to his hidden cruiser. Dressed in his usual jeans and faded gray Gold’s Gym jacket, he bounds out of 7D and down a connecting street before approaching the unmarked Ford Crown Victoria, hidden among Toyotas and Nissans.
On the floor of the back seat, Rachlin has a faded blue nylon duffel bag that holds all of his equipment: a Polaroid camera and film, screwdrivers, a set of binoculars, and a Kojak light. He paid for it all.
“Let’s go, a’ight?” he says, happy that he has the car for at least a few hours. That’s a few hours he gets to find stolen autos.
Rachlin knows Atlantic Street SE not just for the itty-bitty RAV4s, Dodge compacts, and old-school Cadillacs that dot the streetscape. He knows it as a shady route to the adjacent alleys, which he views as hoopdee landfills. Cruising the 700 block, the investigator dips into those side streets, keeping watch on any would-be illegal chop-shop activity or Maaco exiles.
We are driving along at 20 miles per hour, and Rachlin is like a cabbie looking for a fare, his eyes roving from side to side.
“The green one is [stolen],” Rachlin says, matter-of-fact.
What green one?
“It wasn’t here yesterday,” says Rachlin, indicating a lime-green Dodge Neon. “I bet it’s a rental,” he adds.
Williams types the Neon’s tag number, “JTS757,” into the NCIC-Wales database on the car’s computer. The check shows that the Neon was stolen on Jan. 16, a week ago. It’s a rental.
On most mornings, Rachlin drives a grid of primary and secondary spots in the sections of Southeast where stolen autos are part of the real estate—the alleys and parking lots of Barry Farms, Birney Place, Eastgate, Stanton Road, Condon Terrace, and Livingston Terrace; the streets surrounding Ballou Senior High School; the streets off of Malcolm X Avenue. Rachlin memorizes each car and where it parks. If it’s his first time seeing a car, he will make a note of it, track it, maybe run its tags.
Rachlin sees a neighborhood’s history through its cars. He knows who brought a boyfriend or girlfriend home last night. He knows who’s got relatives visiting and who’s got relatives running a scrap yard behind their house. He knows to keep an eye out for that Nissan Pathfinder, the one a citizen called in about after a shooting.
Even the parking spaces have history. Like the spot on the 1100 block of Sumner Road SE. One weekday, Rachlin recognizes a green Plymouth Grand Voyager in the spot, which is usually taken up by a blue minivan. He remembers the blue minivan because it was the scene of a bloody shooting last November. He doesn’t recognize the Voyager from anywhere. It looks funny to him, as if it doesn’t belong in that space. After running its tags, he finds that it’s stolen.
“I come up here all the time,” he explains. “You got to pay attention to what’s here. It wasn’t parked right against the curb, about a foot and a half away from the curb. It just wasn’t parked right. I had a feelin’ when I went by.”
Rachlin’s intuition extends beyond the way a car is parked. Once he zeros in on a car, he processes details that others might not notice. Scratches around a door lock or trunk lock, or under the trunk, could mean the car was tampered with. If a car is coated with dust, it could mean that the car was suddenly moved from a parking garage. If the car’s tags aren’t screwed in properly, it could mean any number of mischievous things.
“[Rachlin] reminds me of the cliche: A warrior prays for peace, but he trains for war,” explains a recent partner, Greg Stewart. “He’s that kind of person. He’s gung-ho: ‘Let’s go do it.’ He can do murders. He can do rapes. He can do AWIKs [assaults with intent to kill]. He can do property crimes. But he loves auto theft. It’s like going hunting. It takes a special kind of person. It’s his calling.”
At 11:16 a.m., Rachlin and Williams decide to wait a few blocks down Atlantic Street, to see if they can catch the thieves climbing into the Neon. “We’ll give it a minute,” Rachlin says, easing down low in his seat. “Time to go into sneak mode, thug mode.”
Williams grabs Rachlin’s pair of binoculars and scans Atlantic Street for possible suspects who look as if they might steal shiny green Dodge Neons. An argument quickly ensues when Williams disparages his partner’s cheap binoculars. He claims he owns a pair you can use to bird-watch two miles away.
Rachlin calls his son on his American-flag-colored cell phone. His son has recently gotten out of the hospital after having a cancerous growth removed from his leg. “Hey, good morning,” Rachlin says warmly into the phone. “You up yet?…Call me when you get up, OK? Don’t forget it’s homework day.” He then calls the dispatcher and requests a tow truck to come and get the Neon. With so much of their grid left to explore, they have to cut the surveillance short.
The dispatcher notifies Rachlin that a tow truck is on its way. It will take a half-hour to arrive. Rachlin reminds Williams to make an inventory of the car’s contents just in case the tow-truck driver is a klepto.
And there are so many cars passing along Atlantic that capture his attention: “AW2662,” “YKK412,” “JPK614.” All come up clean. A half-hour later, the truck shows up and hauls the Neon away. At least the thieves don’t get to have it for another day.
Rachlin finds out that the car belongs to Thrifty. He calls the rental agency on his cell phone to explain about the missing Neon. After he hangs up, the phone rings. It’s his son.
“No, I didn’t feed the cat,” Rachlin says softly. “I didn’t have time. And I didn’t want to wake you up. Can you feed her?…Thank you. Your sister up?… Go wake her up….I’ll call you all in an hour. All right, buddy. Love you.”
There are more cars to check: Lincoln Town Cars. Dodge Intrepids. Volvos.
On a rainy morning in January, Rachlin gets to work early, stashes a Crown Vic, and raises a pair of 75-pound barbells over his chest in the 7D weight room.
Then he and Williams spend a couple of hours cruising the 2100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue looking for a pair of car thieves, reportedly spotted by a security guard the previous night. They find a lot of day laborers but no car thieves. They also creep past the Nissan Pathfinder that might be connected with that shooting—again, no luck.
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Next stop is a local eatery, where Rachlin orders a breakfast steak and douses it with A1 sauce. In mid-munch, they get a call for a car that has just been stolen.
To hell with breakfast. The two cops rush out of the restaurant and speed toward Barnaby Street SE, where the car was taken. Nobody steals a car on their shift. Nobody steals a car while they’re eating steak and eggs.
Williams plugs in the Kojak light. For some reason, it doesn’t work. They leave it on the dashboard. Maybe it will make an impression anyway. “This is old as shit right here,” Rachlin says, nodding at the Kojak light.
Despite their irritation, I get the sense that they live for these moments. The tension in the car actually eases. The mood lightens with each click up the speedometer. They have a chance to catch a car thief in action.
But as happens so often in policing, the adrenaline rush set in motion by the dispatcher’s call dissipates at the scene of the crime. The Barnaby Street thief, a 16-year-old kid, has already been caught and is in handcuffs.
Worse yet, the kid has stolen a black Geo Metro, a shitbox that a real auto thief wouldn’t use to pick up milk at 7-Eleven. This one has two craters on the driver’s-side panel and a couple of flat tires. And the kid’s joy ride lasted all of a block: He had the dumb luck of stealing the Geo in front of its owner and two cops. In cuffs, the kid stares at no one. When asked why he’s not in school, the kid says he’s “home-schooled.” The cops just laugh. “In Southeast?”
Working auto theft, you have to know one rule: Sixteen-year-old kids will try to steal anything. Even Geo Metros.
“You got any damn sense?” Rachlin asks after cruising by the scene. “He didn’t know what he was doing….He ain’t going hard.” The kid’s face is all puffy; he doesn’t look hard.
“C’mon, man,” Williams yells to no one from his shotgun seat. “No, you didn’t. You’ll go to jail for a Geo Metro?”
“It’s a three-cylinder,” blurts Williams, who has been working with Rachlin only since last July. Things still seem new. “That’s a joy ride. Southeast joy ride.”
Rachlin and Williams drive on. They try to be as professional and diligent as possible. But when a kid steals a Geo Metro, the job feels like one big misdemeanor. They want big-league snags—a new Dodge Intrepid, a Ford Explorer. The joy of auto-theft enforcement grows with the size and price tag of the car.
“You got to be a dumb youngun to steal a Geo Metro and then can’t drive it,” says Rachlin.
If you’re a District auto thief, chances are good that you covet Chevy Tahoes. When you find one of them on a dark street, in the rain, you might jimmy the window with a hanger. Or just bust the door lock with a screwdriver. But it doesn’t matter once you get inside that truck. It feels pretty sweet, out of the rain and the cold and in this big La-Z-Boy of a car. You punch the ignition, break off the key stem, and toss it in the back seat. Your screwdriver is now the key.
Gone in 60 Seconds may not have been a great flick, but its title is damn true.
You rev the motor hard, pick up some friends, and turn your free ride into a joy ride.
Rachlin estimates that you’ll have about three days with that Tahoe. That’s the average time a D.C. car thief sticks with one car. Three nights, three day shifts, three overtimes. Seventy-two hours before the Tahoe’s shelf life has expired.
It’s that stretch of time—between the popping of the ignition and the dumping of the car—that Rachlin is always trying to figure out. What did you do with the car?
One recent weekday morning, Rachlin and Williams are riding their grid. The first stop is an apartment parking lot a few blocks from Ballou Senior High. A resident has reported some suspicious activity involving a maroon Honda Accord. They wanted to check it out.
When they get there, they find that the Honda’s in the lot but the mischief is long gone.
Rachlin pulls up to the Accord. It has one North Carolina tag, which doesn’t match the vehicle identification number. Rachlin unscrews the tag and tosses it in the Crown Vic’s back seat. He then circles the Honda, looking for any clues into the car’s recent history. He notes a cigar wrapper crinkled under the driver’s-side door.
“Somebody had a little party,” Rachlin says. “You see this? They were probably smoking blunts.” But all he can do is take the tag. The car isn’t stolen.
Still, Rachlin doesn’t forget that Accord. Something isn’t right. He’s never seen it there before. It’s beat-up. And why would a resident bother the police about it?
After working the grid for more than three hours, nabbing one stolen minivan and another tag off an old Crown Vic, Rachlin spots the Honda pulling into a strip mall off the 3500 block of Wheeler Road SE.
Rachlin turns the car around and drops into the mall’s parking lot. He and Williams get out of the car and head for the Holiday Market convenience store. Within 10 seconds, they nab the driver by the market’s doors. It’s Rachlin’s chance to find out the story behind the Honda.
“You ain’t never been locked up with a stolen auto before?” Rachlin asks the teenager, a slight 15-year-old boy named Dwight. He has raised scars on his left jaw line, cheek, and chin. They must be old scars; little hairs have sprouted from them.
“This is my first time,” Dwight says.
The car belongs to his aunt. Sort of.
“If that lady’s your aunt where the car came from, how is she related to your mother?” Rachlin asks.
“She’s not really my aunt, but I’ve known her for a long time,” Dwight explains.
“She ain’t mad at you for taking the car?” Rachlin asks.
“She ain’t know we got the car,” Dwight says with a slight smile. A friend of Dwight’s stole the car first thing this morning. They tooled around in it before dumping the car in that parking lot and going to school. Just before noon, Dwight sneaked out of Ballou and stole the car from his friend. He wanted to get some water from the Holiday Market.
Rachlin takes a handcuffed Dwight back to the Honda owner’s apartment, on the 3400 block of 13th Street, to check out the story. Dwight hasn’t noticed that the car’s tag is missing and in the cruiser’s back seat.
“I have the tag that was on that car, Slick,” Rachlin says with a chuckle. “You so stupid, you driving the car you don’t even know the tag ain’t on.”
Rachlin and Williams locate the Honda’s owner, who turns out to be not Dwight’s aunt, but a male friend of the aunt’s. He claims he called the police that morning to report his car stolen. But he can provide no report numbers, nor the names of any officers he talked to. The owner decides he would rather not press charges, especially after Rachlin tells him about the car’s bad tag.
Dwight gets a ride to his mother’s apartment. Rachlin parks the car and asks his 15-year-old passenger if he doesn’t remember him.
“I know your face,” Dwight says. Not a surprise, given that Rachlin’s pretty recognizable in these parts. He’s white, and he’s got the mug of a pro wrestler, with a pair of hoop earrings in each ear.
“You never know who you run into, Slim,” Rachlin boasts. “As a matter of fact, you remember three weeks ago when the officers kept putting the light on you? Guess who? No shit.”
“We were just chillin’,” Dwight pleads.
“How ’bout that?” Rachlin says. “You never know who you going to run into.”
Overtime soaks up much of Rachlin’s personal life. After his morning shift, he has an hour’s break, and then he’s back in the office for 4 p.m. roll call. He then works until midnight, usually in uniform in a marked scout car. This is his routine almost every weeknight.
Rachlin talks about overtime as if it were one of his children. It’s something he needs to “take care of” and “protect,” something he’s “got to have.” “I can’t afford to be hurt,” he says. “I have to work overtime.” Overtime is voluntary and not guaranteed. If he loses his overtime, he says, he loses his house.
Cops measure everything in units of time: shift times, court times, comp times, time-and-a-half times, overtimes. Overtime is the slowest time. You are wearing the morning’s sweat and grease. You are still sitting in a cruiser, the heat on full blast watching the world through windows. Only this time, instead of staring at people commuting to work, you get to see them shuffling home, grabbing dinner at Popeye’s or China Gourmet.
“That car’s stolen,” Rachlin says to Williams as they drive down Shannon Place SE.
“There’s a bunch of boys in that car,” Rachlin says, pointing to a dark Chevy Caprice.
Rachlin would like to be following those boys in that Caprice. But on this Wednesday night, he and his partner must answer radio dispatches. There weren’t enough patrol officers at roll call, so they volunteered to handle any emergencies. Rachlin is still a little annoyed. Tonight means hours away from the stolen-car beat.
For a few empty moments before the dispatcher starts calling his scout car, Rachlin punches in license plates: “BFO242,” “845488.” By his steady excitement, you’d swear they were all sure to be winning lottery numbers.
At the 1100 block of V Street SE, Rachlin gives up on those numbers as the runs start to come in. At 5:40 p.m., the dispatcher calls in an assault complaint at 1418 Howard Road SE, inside the Fort Stanton Apartments. By the time they arrive, no one wants to press charges.
“You asleep?” Rachlin asks his son on the other end of his cell. “How you feeling?” He talks to his estranged wife. “Everything all right?…You calm down. They calm down?…He got to get his social-studies homework done. It’s got to be done. It’s got to be turned in tomorrow.”
Next, it’s a call for a break-in at Holy Temple Church, on the 2600 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Rachlin and Williams case the church and find nothing. It will be revealed later that the dispatcher gave the wrong address.
In a few minutes, Rachlin gets a call for some variation on a disorderly—a black Nissan illegally parked in someone else’s driveway at 1318 Dexter Terrace SE. Rachlin zips to Dexter. But he finds no driveways and no Nissan. “Time to go home yet?” he jokes.
After two more bogus calls, Rachlin speaks to the futility of his job. “There is no end to what I’m doing,” he explains. “I will never, ever stop the flood of stolen autos. I will never, ever be able to lock everybody up that does it. Every time I come to work, I know I will never be finished with my job.”
Rachlin says he inspects cars even when he’s off duty, runs the license plates through his head. “To me, it’s second nature,” he says. “Like any kind of job that’s worth anything, like a football player or a soldier, what you do has to become second nature. If you have to think about what you do, can you be any good at it?”
Just past 9:30 p.m., after five hours in the cruiser, Rachlin gets his first legit call of the night—a possible auto theft in progress on the 2300 block of Bryan Place SE. A hot-wire job.
“Go left! Make the first right!” Williams shouts. He has sprung to life from his usual mute demeanor. Rachlin is as charged as ever behind the wheel, burning up his engine. There’s a reason he’s shredded so many of his vehicles.
“Left! Left! First right!” Williams calls out again.
Rachlin screeches to a stop along Bryan Place. The trip took two minutes, tops. The officers immediately fling their doors open and walk very, very fast toward two kids who fit the description of the would-be car thieves.
One is 12. The other is 14. The 14-year-old speaks first. “We were just walking past it,” he explains. He’s wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Osama bin Laden under the caption “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
“Why do you like lying?” Williams asks. He gets nothing but mumbles. Williams cuffs the two together.
Rachlin checks out the car, a silver Sebring, and then huffs back.
“What happens if you get in the car and drive off? You could hurt someone,” Rachlin says, adding that it would have been worse if he had had to chase them. “Tell me why I wouldn’t kick your ass in a dark alley.” This is his job. And this is his speech.
“This shit here—you’re pissing me off,” Rachlin adds.
The 12-year-old soon dry-heaves. The 14-year-old’s lower lip starts to tremble, and his eyes go all watery. They are the only kids out on Bryan Place.
“How do you feel now?” Williams asks.
After a moment, the 12-year-old mutters a simple “Fine.”
Rachlin walks back to the Sebring and rumbles through it, looking for the owner’s name and address. A small stack of unsent thank-you notes lies on the floor, along with a giant can of baby formula. A compact disc, Baby’s First Happy Songs, is jammed in the passenger-side door pocket.
I ask Rachlin if he thinks the two kids stole the car. “Fuck no,” he says. “It was probably stolen out in front of [the owner’s] house, now that I know she lives in Temple Hills.”
It turns out the Sebring was stolen a week ago. If the kids are guilty of anything, it’s casing an already stolen car. There isn’t any proof that they even made it inside the car. All you can do is tow the Sebring away, figure out who their parents are, and take them home.
They drop the kids off at the 12-year-old’s house, a few blocks away. “Wait ’til they get in here,” the 12-year-old’s mom boasts.
“Wait ’til we leave,” Rachlin advises.
On a sunny Friday morning, all of Southeast seems to be outside playing kickball or freeze tag. Rachlin has already found one stolen car, a Crown Vic, and is cruising around Barry Farms looking, as usual, for others. Williams has taken the day off to study for the sergeant’s exam.
Then comes a nervous plea from the dispatcher: A kid has just stolen plates off a car outside Ballou.
Rachlin jerks the car into high speed. He tells me to put the Kojak light on the dashboard and hold it in place. It actually works this time. But I flail all over the front seat trying to keep the thing centered. And the investigator has another problem—the dispatcher. She can’t seem to figure out which car had its tags stolen. That would help. She fumbles through the make and model with no success. Rachlin just hears an incomprehensible whine.
“What?” Rachlin blurts out to no one.
Rachlin’s cell rings as he speeds-and-stops through Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It’s his son. “About time you got up, buddy,” Rachlin coos. “You a’ight?”
“See what’s going on?” Rachlin asks me. I’m not sure whether he’s talking about the dispatcher’s inability to pronounce a car brand, the driver in front of us who doesn’t know where he’s going, or the fact that I can’t hold the Kojak light in place.
“I got to go, son,” Rachlin says and hangs up.
“These fuckin’…” Rachlin then trails off. It doesn’t matter who follows that gerund. It could apply to anybody. The dispatcher still can’t figure out the car’s brand name. “You think you’d want to know,” the investigator says.
After a few moments, Rachlin gets oriented, calms down, and figures out which car it has got to be. A Peugeot. The one with the busted windshield, the one that’s been abandoned for weeks. Sure enough, when we get to Ballou, the French import is the lucky car with the missing tag. But the thief is gone. And we go, too. Back to the grid.
Rachlin pulls onto another leafy residential section of Southeast, off Alabama Avenue. Another that has gone quiet in the morning light except for the roar of trash trucks. The investigator scans the compacts and pickups for anything out of place.
The thing that catches Rachlin’s attention is the lanky teenager in front of his cruiser. The one who’s slashing a tire on a gold Toyota Tercel. Now the Tercel has two flat tires to go with its busted window, patched with duct tape and a garbage bag. The kid’s vandalism is pointless.
Rachlin calls the teen over to the cruiser. “Why did you slash that tire?” he asks.
The teenager thinks he has a good story. “It’s my aunt’s car,” he says, leaning into the passenger-side window. “She’s giving it to me on my 18th birthday. I turn 18 in a couple of months. I’m gonna put fresh tires on the car. I got a set of fresh tires back at my aunt’s house.”
Rachlin isn’t buying. He tells the teen to be straight. But the kid gets flustered and comes up with a new story. “I’m tryin’,” he stammers. “I’m tryin’ to think, sir. I’m tryin’ to think. I’m trying to come out correct to you, ’cause I don’t want to say nothin’ wrong.”
“The truth is better than anything you could say right now,” Rachlin advises.
“Why would I flatten the tires?” the teenager asks softly. “‘Cause I felt like it.”
“Now, whose car is it?” Rachlin asks.
“I have no idea, sir,” the teenager says.
“Being that we’re in an all-black area, right?” Rachlin says. This is one of his better speeches. “And you’re black, would it be safe to assume that the car is owned by a black person? If that’s the case, why you makin’ their life harder? As a black man, do you feel proud of yourself for fuckin’ up another black person’s car? That’s pretty shitty. You’re fucking up shit that belongs to fellow black people, and you think that’s good. Black people got a long enough road to run to get out of here and do right. Are you making it harder?”
“Yes, sir,” the teenager says. Last time he was at Ballou was two weeks ago. His mother signed him up for Job Corps in West Virginia. His knife is huge and sharp and serrated.
Just as Rachlin is getting ready to inspect the kid’s handiwork on that Tercel, the dispatcher calls in. It’s an important call—an officer in need of assistance at 611 Savannah St. SE. It’s in reference to a stolen auto. With that, Rachlin tells the kid not to mess up again, that he got lucky this time. He guns the car toward Savannah.
At Savannah, he is joined by two other cruisers. They all look for the right address. But there is no 611 Savannah. There is a 211 Savannah but no 611. They check 911 Savannah.
“The stupid dispatcher,” Rachlin exclaims. “Fuck!”
Rachlin and the other officers think it could be 911 Alabama Ave. SE. Nine-Eleven is empty. They check the alleys and the adjoining streets. Nothing. He checks 807 Alabama Ave. And he checks in the back of 807 Alabama Ave. Nothing. Almost 20 minutes have passed, and there’s an officer in need and a stolen car out there somewhere. And dozens of blocks away, there’s a teenager with a serrated knife who just feels like slashing tires.
“A little help out here,” Rachlin sighs, lost along Alabama Avenue. It’s 1:10 p.m. His shift is almost over. “A little help out here.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.