Back before the dawn of time - well, back in the mid-'80s - there weren't many wanted posters hanging around Temple Station where I worked patrol as a deputy.
Oh, we had the JDIC teletypes, crime broadcasts, and word-of-mouth. But when it came to wanted posters of outstanding suspects with pictures of their ugly mugs, there weren't many around. Cops tended to rely more on vehicle descriptions or milk carton ads. "America's Most Wanted" wasn't even a twinkling in John Walsh's eye.
Unfortunately, I was never worth a damn when it came to knowing the makes and models of cars. Having indulged my childhood with Aurora Monster Models and Mattel Thingmaker toys instead of more constructive pursuits like Revell car kits and Hot Wheels, I'd saddled myself with a vehicular ignorance that put me about one step up from a fellow deputy who wanted to take the driver of a VW bug in for receiving stolen property when she found an engine running in the bug's "trunk."
However, if the Wolfman or the Creature from the Black Lagoon ever came skulking around a corner, his ass was mine.
But while I may suck at discriminating between a VW and a BMW, I've always been pretty good at recognizing faces.
My father's work as an artist had made me sensitive to the physical attributes of others, those features that lent themselves to amplification and rendered their owners' features readily distinctive from those of their fellow man.
Unfortunately, this asset was offset by another liability: I wasn't worth a damn at camouflaging my reactions in such moments of recognition.
Two occasions stood out, each occurring as the suspect and I drove past one another in our vehicles.
The first time, I'd taken too long in making a u-turn to go after the guy who ditched me in one of the myriad side streets.
The second time, the guy bailed from the car and evaded our search for two hours. Not 10 minutes after we broke down the containment the desk got a call of a guy crawling out of some bushes and walking away. Still pisses me off.
Each time, the bad guy got away. Somehow, I knew I'd blown it, too, and had only myself to blame. When I later lamented the fact to my Most Dependable Critic, he wasn't surprised.
"I don't think the lot of you could catch a felon in San Quentin," he said.
"Why's that?" I asked defensively.
"Because most cops are men, and most men are idiots."
Having laid out his syllogistic reasoning, he proceeded to explain this perceived deficiency.
"Men are fundamentally ill-equipped to camouflage their baser instincts and tend to betray their interest right away," he explained. "Compare the differences with which the sexes regard one another. In a microsecond, women can survey and size up the terrain with a quick sideways glance and what their peripheral vision can pick up. At best, they might betray little more than a hint of flushed skin.
"Men are all too transparent. They stare, they ogle, they salivate. They wouldn't know subtlety if it came up and bit them on the ass. And it's the same thing no matter what gets them excited, whether it's a damn football game, NASCAR, or a criminal."
Then he regarded me.
"You? Why, I'd bet my left nut that when you saw those guys, you probably got whiplash doing a double-take and your eyes bugged out like some Tex Avery cartoon."
Our chat reminded me of another I'd had shortly after I'd been hired where a friend told me that he believed that the cop demographic was populated with people who didn't know what the hell else to do with their lives. As with that previous chat, I didn't like what had been said. And as with that previous chat, I wondered if there wasn't some merit to the assertion.
I reflected back on my own physiological responses on each occasion that I'd recognized the bad guy: the dilated and fixed eyes, throbbing temples, pulsating carotid - all precipitated by an agitated 90-degree swivel of the neck to confirm that initial observation. Verbally, I embodied all the subtleties of a Howard Dean campaign speech (e.g., "SON-OF-A-BITCH!").
I realized that on each occasion, some part of me was just shocked to shit that I'd actually recognized somebody from a wanted poster. And a fat lot of good it did me, too.
From then on, I tried to make it a habit to suppress my excitement at such moments. Indeed, I strove for an inverse correlation between my internal excitement and any outward expressions of it. On those occasions when I was able to dialogue with some guy, I inhibited the temptation to let him know when I'd caught him in a lie so as to catch him in many more as the conversation progressed.
Not surprisingly, I didn't end up scaring off as many bad guys...got more of them to talk with me...and generally had an easier time getting them in the backseat (save for those taciturn dirtbags that seem to get under most of our skins).
There will always be those cretins that'll take flight at the sight of a uniform or black and white. But there will also be those other reptiles that try to lay low and blend in with the scenery in the hopes that you will pass them by. They're the ones you can sometimes sneak up on.
Now, maybe you've always been able to take things in stride, and never tilt your hand. If that's the case, my hat's off to you.
But if not, think about getting in touch with your feminine side. Be a little sneaky and develop some subtlety when you're out doing recon. Resist that temptation to telegraph your recognition. Drive on by, then double back around. Maybe coordinate some units to contain the guy before he takes flight.
For when it comes to catching bad guys, they're looking out for us looking out for them.