On night patrol with a black cop in Oakland

Bruce D. Garbutt was the first person in his family to go to college. But after studying computer science for two years at the University of California, Berkeley, Garbutt decided that he did not want the humdrum desk job that awaited him after graduation.

He dropped out of school, joined the police academy and became an Oakland cop at the age of 22.

“It was a life decision,” Garbutt says at the start of a Friday night beat patrol. And after three years on the job, he has no regrets. “I’ve always wanted to be a cop,” he says. “I need something to raise my adrenaline.”

Usually Garbutt works the graveyard shift on Beat 12 around Children’s Hospital. On this particular night, however, Garbutt is filling in for a colleague on Beat 17 in East Oakland, just south of Lake Merritt.

Tonight Garbutt will have a relatively easy watch, responding to several malfunctioning alarm systems, an attempted car theft and a neighbors’ dispute. But Garbutt knows that even a routine traffic check could turn into a life-threatening situation.

“This is a very unappreciated job,” he says, cruising down Foothill Boulevard to check on a vandalism report. Garbutt, who patrols alone, says that he sometimes feels vulnerable — especially since the police department has less officers now than it did in 1970 to deal with a crime rate that has doubled in the same period.

“There are too few officers to feel safe, and things can happen very, very quickly,” he says. In the past two years, five Oakland police officers have been killed in the line of duty.

As a black cop, Garbutt also faces pressure from an African American community wary of the police. Often the blacks he encounters on his watch accuse him of being an Uncle Tom.

“You can’t internalize everything,” Garbutt says later as he drives along Fruitvale Avenue, looking for a stolen Ford Mustang. “When I take off this uniform I put everything I saw that day in my locker.”

Garbutt admits that it is not easy. As a rookie, Garbutt used to tell his girlfriend all about his beat, but soon he realized how anxious his stories made her.

“That’s why you develop a police subculture, and that’s not always a good thing,” Garbutt says, referring to alcoholism and family problems among police officers. Garbutt’s first relationship fell apart because of the merciless hours of his shift.

At 12:49 a.m. a burglary report on E. 22nd Street crackles on the radio, and Garbutt smiles as he recognizes the voice of dispatcher Karen Guillory, his present girlfriend.

“You get preferential treatment,” Garbutt jokes, naming the advantages of his new relationship. “And we lead normal lives by ourselves.” Both work the graveyard shift.

Still, a late-night beat lends itself to an unhealthy lifestyle, says Garbutt, puffing on a cigarette. He solemnly recounts the recent story of an ex-convict who got the upper hand in a scuffle with a heavy-set cop and killed him.

“All these guys do when they go to prison is eat and work out,” says Garbutt. “They come out as super-criminals.” As a response, some jails have restricted the use of weight-rooms.

Garbutt looks tall and trim, but he feels like he could do more to stay fit. Since he is on call at any given moment, he grabs a snack when the opportunity arises.

“I’m tired of eating on the fly,” Garbutt says at 3:46 a.m. He leaves the 7-11 convenience store on 29th Avenue and Glascock Street just as the Hostess Cake delivery man arrives, pushing a cart full of sugary treats. Garbutt devours his candy bar in the car.

Finally at 5:17 a.m., after responding to half a dozen more calls — ranging from a false fire alarm to a woman irate about a noisy neighbor — Garbutt gets the go-ahead to take a lunch break. He steers onto 29th Avenue for Nikko’s Restaurant, known among cops as “The Foot of Two-Nine.”

Garbutt sits down at his “good-luck table” and orders a huge chicken sandwich. He relaxes, speaking frankly about racial tensions within the police force.

“The demographics of the department should match the demographics of the city,” says Garbutt, adding that Oakland’s police department does not. Out of 20 captains only two are women, he notes.

Since the airing of Mark Fuhrman’s racist comments during the O.J. Simpson trial, Garbutt says that officers of all racial backgrounds have suffered the consequences, not just white cops.

“I don’t know any racist officers,” Garbutt says cautiously. “But there are prejudiced officers.” Garbutt stresses that everyone has prejudices of some kind, and that Oakland cops do not let personal opinions interfere with carrying out their duties professionally.

“Most officers become officers to help people,” he says. “I wanted to be either a cop or a teacher.” Since teachers earn considerably less than the $50,000 he makes yearly, he became a cop.

From second grade through high school, Garbutt was bussed from his home in South Central Los Angeles to schools in Bel Air and Beverly Hills. He remembers many teachers as role models and hopes that he too can now “make a difference.”

Garbutt gets up from the booth and walks outside. The sun has already risen, signaling the end of his working day. Except for a fleet of orange street sweeping vehicles, I-80 is empty as he drives back to the police station.

Leave a Reply