Dangerous Passage

By Ed Staskus

   The Police Department’s Central Station was the end of the line for many criminals. It was also the end of the line for some policemen. The police force had been created in 1866 by the Metropolitan Police Act. Before that there were a few constables and night watchmen. Cleveland wasn’t a safe place even with them doing the best they could. The Cleveland Grays, a private military-style company, took over in 1837 but they couldn’t keep suspicions and arrests in the right order. In the 110 years since the police became official one hundred and eight of them had died in the line of duty. Seventy-five of them were gunned down by handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The rest died of assault and battery. All the policemen who were killed were men.

   When Frank Gwozdz’s partner was shot and killed his badge was retired, like the badges of all the other policemen who had been killed. Patrolmen wear numbered silver-colored badges. Detectives carry numbered gold-colored badges on their person. The rest of the force, Sergeant and higher, wear unnumbered gold-colored badges. The Badge Case was on the wall of a landing between the first and second floors. Frank never took the elevator to the third floor where the desks of the General Duty Detective Squad were. He always took the stairs. He saw his partner’s badge every day.

   Frank had been on the landing with other detectives when his partner’s badge was put in the case. The Police Chief, his partner’s wife, and partner’s son had been there. too. The boy wore a little boy’s man suit, bow tie, and a fresh haircut. He frowned through the ceremony and frowned when Frank told him his father was a brave man who died protecting Cleveland’s citizens. He was the first detective on the force to be shot and killed since 1960, fifteen years earlier.

   “Did you catch the bad man?”

   “Not yet, son, but we will.”

   The boy frowned more than ever. He looked like he wanted to kill the man who had murdered his father. Frank wanted to nail the man who had murdered his partner. There will be blood. Frank knew that and the man who killed his partner knew that.

   His partner’s bloated body had been found floating in Lake Erie with a bullet in his face near the White Beach City Park. Two days earlier Danny Greene had shot and killed Mike Frato, with whom he had been disagreeing about garbage collecting, at the same place. Danny Greene, who ran the Celtic Club, had set up a sham union. He meant to strong-arm garbagemen for their dues and anything else he could get. Mike Frato didn’t want to join any mob union. He had ten children and meant to keep the family money in the family. Danny Greene sent his personal bomber, Art Sneperger, to plant a bomb underneath  Mike Frato’s car. Something went wrong and the bomber blew himself to kingdom come. Two months later Mike Frato drove into the park and shot at Danny Greene, who was walking his dog, shooting through the open passenger window of his car. He emptied his gun, shooting wildly. The Irishman dropped to the ground. He shot back. His aim was true. He killed Mike Frato with a single shot. He was later acquitted of all charges after pleading self-defense.

   Not a day went by that Frank didn’t think about it. He was still standing on the landing looking at the Badge Case when another plainclothes man walking past said, “The captain is looking for you,” he said. “He’s in the dep’s office.”

   “OK, thanks” Frank said, turning to go down the stairs to the Deputy Commander’s office. It was on the first floor. He stopped at the snack stand run by the Society for the Blind and bought a pack of Beech-Nut chewing gum. There were five sticks in the pack. He unwrapped two sticks and pulled them into his mouth with his tongue. Chewing gum kept his blood pressure under control and raised the blood pressure of his superior officer. It helped keep their meetings short and sweet.

   The Central Station was built of white limestone with pinkish pillars fronting the main entrance. It was five floors of command and control. On the first floor were the information bureau, traffic division, chief’s office, inspector’s office, record room, property room, and newspaper reporters’ room. One floor up were the municipal courts and rooms for prosecutors and probation officers. Several holding cells serviced the four courtrooms. Bondsmen, lawyers, and private dicks did their dirty work in the bathrooms at the back end of the second floor. The third floor housed the detectives, with offices for the inspector, superintendent of criminal identification, and lieutenants. There were rooms for photographic equipment and record keeping. There were seven small airless rooms for detectives to interview their prisoners. The fourth floor was the jail. The fifth floor housed the radio department and battery rooms. 

   There was a line up room on the fourth floor. It was divided by a screened wall and bright lights. Suspects couldn’t see into the other side. Detectives were supposed to attend lineups before roll call three days a week. Newly arrested men and women were marched behind the screen. Detectives and witnesses sat in the dark less than three feet away. Many run-of-the-mill street crimes were solved this way. 

   When Frank walked into the Deputy Commander’s office his captain was there, as well as a black man dressed like a detective. It wasn’t a uniform but any detective could sniff the suit out.

   “Have a seat,” the Deputy Commander said.

   “Thanks, I’ll stand,” Frank said.

   “I said have a seat.”

   Frank sat down and waited. His captain had on a poker face. The black man had on a poker face. He put one on, too.

   “You’ve been doing a good job running down the numbers, but we are going to reassign you,” the Deputy Commander said. “There are too many bombings in this city. It’s gotten so the papers are calling us ‘Bomb City USA.’ I want you to get up to speed on it and then find out where the bombings are coming from. When you find names that can be prosecuted report to me first before filing your report. Is that clear?”

   “It’s clear enough, but everybody knows it’s the micks and dagos killing each other.”

   “Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know,” the Deputy Commander said. “And while we’re at it, this new assignment is not shoot first and ask questions later. Put the bounty hunter attitude away. We want answers, not DOA’s piling up.”

   “Yes, sir.”

   “You’ve been working alone, but there’s an element of more danger involved in your new assignment, so we are assigning you a partner.” He nodded at the black man.

    Frank looked the man up and down, looked at his hands, and shook his head from side to side.

   “That’s not going to work,” he said.

   “What’s not going to work?”

   “The Negro is not going to work,” Frank said pointing at the baby-faced man sitting next to him. “First, I don’t need a partner. I work better alone. Second, he’s too young. I’m not a babysitter. The last thing is, he’s the wrong color. He’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

   “We determine whether you need a partner, or not,” the Deputy Commander said. “It’s not up to you. Second, he’s old enough to be a police detective, which is what he is. And the last thing, I don’t like his color any better than you do, but orders are to get him out in the field. There’s no other Negro we can pair him with. You drew the short straw because nobody else is champing at the bit to work with you.”

   “Yes, sir,” Frank said.

   “You and you partner will be running a parallel investigation with the Bomb Unit. When you’ve got something to report, report it to Ed Kovacic, and me personally. Is that understood?”

   “Loud and clear, sir.”

  “Whatever extra you need for this assignment, go to your captain. He’ll make sure you get it.”

   The short and sweet conference was over. Frank stood in the hallway with his new partner. He tossed the wad of now tasteless Beech-Nut gum in the trash. It disappeared without a trace, sticking to a court summons somebody had thrown away.

   “Don’t call me Negro again,” Tyrone said.

   “What should I call you?” Frank asked.

   “Call me partner or call me by my name, which is Tyrone Walker. Drop the Negro thing. You’re behind the times. We’re called black now.”

   “Like in black and white?”

   “That’s right, like in black and white.”

   They took the stairs to the third floor. When they walked into the bullpen, Frank saw that an old unused desk had been pushed in place, its back butting up to the back of Frank’s desk.

   “It looks like we’re joined at the hip, brother,” Frank said.

   “I don’t think so,” Tyrone said. “This desk looks like a shack. And don’t call me brother.”

   “Don’t call you Negro and don’t call you brother?”

   “That’s right.”

   “Anything else?”

   “I’ll let you know.”

   “Let’s stop right there,” Frank said. “We need to get off the wrong foot and on the right foot. I’ll call you whatever you want to be called. I’ve got no problem with that. What I said downstairs stays downstairs. We are going to be working together. When we are on the street we have to trust one another. Most of the time it won’t matter, but sometimes it will. If we can’t or won’t watch one another’s backs, whether it matters or not, it will come back to bite us.”

   Tyrone sat at his new beat-up desk, leaning forward.

   “All right,” he said. “I can live with that. We don’t have to be friends. I get that. I’ll watch your back if you’ll watch mine.”

   “All right,” Frank said.

   “One thing you should know,” Tyrone said.

   “What’s that?”

    “I don’t like being called nigger. I hate it. It riles me up. I see red.”

   “Somebody calls you that, I will remind them you are servant of the law and deserve respect. If they disagree, we can try convincing them in other ways.”

   “What ways?”

   “Talking some sense into them might be one way. Getting in their face might be another way. Threatening them with thirty days in the hole on a trumped up charge might be the best way.”

   “It looks like I’m going to get the hang of big city police work my new partner’s way,” Tyrone laughed.

   “Where are you from?”

   “Montgomery, Alabama.”

   “That’s a big enough city.”

   “It’s small like a fishbowl when you’re one of the few black men on the city police force,” Tyrone said. “The first sheriff in Alabama was only elected nine years ago. Until D. C. imposed hiring quotas there weren’t any black uniformed state policemen. Now it’s all the way up to 5% of the force in a state where we are almost 30% of the population. In our state the governor says, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.’ He says D. C. can go to hell.”

   What Tyrone didn’t know was that Governor George Wallace had also said, “I look like a white man but my heart is as black as anyone’s.” He meant what he said, everything he said.

   “All right, let’s take a drive up to Little Italy,” Frank said.

   “That’s the launching pad, right?”

   “That’s right, but more like a shooting gallery,” Frank said. “Make sure you bring your peacemaker with you.”

Excerpted from “Bomb City.”

Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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