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May 08, 2014
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Nick Perna Gang Investigations
with Nick Perna

Taking over the beat from a great police mentor

Officer Harrington was a throwback to a bye-gone era, when cops were blue collar stiffs who hit the streets with the intent to enforce the law and keep the peace — everything else was secondary

As a newly minted police officer, I was assigned to a patrol team that consisted mainly of old salts, all cops with 20-plus years on the job. This is a less-than-ideal situation for a rookie. I spent a lot of my time taking reports while the veterans took extended lunches and breaks. When I wasn’t doing that, I was filling in for them when they had court, vacation, sick days, and so on. This meant I was constantly being shuffled around to work different beats.

When you work the beats typically patrolled by a variety of other officers, you soon realize that each officer’s unique personality and characteristics are projected on the citizens who reside there. If an officer has a permissive attitude towards bad behavior it will show (“I don’t know why you’re hassling us, officer so-and-so lets us drink our beers out in front of the store as long as we keep it in a paper bag”). Or if they have unique perspective on what they believe is owed to them (“You’re money’s no good here sir, officer what’s-his-name never pays for his lunch so I guess you don’t have to pay either”).

One officer in particular left a positive impression on me by the way he handled his beat. His name was Harrington, and he had a unique way of doing things. 

Old Habits Die Hard
Officer Harrington was a throwback to a bye-gone era, when cops were blue collar stiffs who hit the streets with the intent to enforce the law and keep the peace — everything else was secondary. 

He began his career at a time when cops weren’t used to having to say the same thing twice to crooks and any hearing problems on behalf of the criminally inclined were met swiftly and severely and did not always result in a trip to jail.

Harrington was known to maintain some of these old-school techniques when the situation merited it (enough said). Harrington had a strong dislike for crime and those who committed it. He worked in a part of town that, at the time, was infested with gang members. Many officers avoided working there because of it. Harrington embraced it. He hit the streets everyday with the intent of eliminating crime in his area of responsibility.

Harrington literally never took a day off. In a career spanning nearly 30 years he never called in sick, so it was pretty rare for me to get to work his beat. But, like every cop, he had the usual traffic court dates and jury trials to contend with so I got to work his beat every now and again. 

I noticed a distinct difference in his beat in comparison to other officers’ beats. Despite the fact that it was the most violent part of town, things were strangely quiet during the hours Harrington worked compared to other times of the day. 

The streets were empty and were void of the usual malingers and malcontents.

A No-Nonsense Officer
One day on Harrington’s beat, I saw a young gang member riding his bicycle in a particularly dangerous area. When he saw my police car he took off at a high rate of speed. When I turned the car around and caught up with him, he immediately got off his bike and sat on the curb, without being told to do so. 

As I exited the car, he looked at me and was immediately relieved. 

He said, “Man, I thought you was Harrington!” 

When I asked the kid why he had immediately complied with me he said that he knew Harrington was a no-nonsense officer (he didn’t use those exact words) who would have found him sooner or later and there was no point in running from him. 

Pavlovian conditioning in its purest form!

Harrington knew everyone in his beat; crooks, bums, merchants, and everyday law-abiding residents. In addition to his hard-charging approach to crime, he also took an interest in the community. He worked to provide better housing for the indigent and was always willing to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate. He dealt with nuisance issues and quality of life stuff as well (no one drank beer from a paper bags in his beat).

Owning the Beat
What separated Harrington from a lot of the officers is he treated his beat like it was his own neighborhood. He took it personally if someone ran afoul of the law there and didn’t tolerate any monkey business. Like any good neighbor, he would help anyone who asked for help but, make no mistake, he wouldn’t allow a dog to do it’s business on his lawn. 
When working in gang areas, we all need to be more like Officer Harrington. Every time you drive by a group of gangsters standing on the corner and you don’t get out and contact them you just empowered them. Every time you let a gangster slide for a minor violation you just lost a little ground. That’s all it takes, inch by inch, foot by foot, you can give up territory each day by not being proactive and aggressive.  Officers like Harrington fought for it so the least we can do is maintain it. That means going out there every day and taking the fight to the enemy. It’s really as simple as that.

I now work in Harrington’s old beat. I was driving around in a patrol car when I passed a group of young gangsters. They looked into the car to see who was driving. 

I overheard one of them saying, “Oh [expletive], its Perna.”

They were gone by the time I turned around to contact them.

Welcome to my neighborhood. You can stay as long as you behave yourself.


About the author

Nick Perna is a Police Officer with the Redwood City Police Department in Northern California. He has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He is a member of a Multi-Jurisdictional SWAT Team since 2001 and is currently a Team Leader. He previously served as a paratrooper in the US Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a Master’s Degree from the University Of San Francisco.

Contact Nick Perna





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