Friday, July 9, 2010

Summerburgh: Lost in a police standoff

Written by Anthony Fenech

This wasn't going to end well. Couldn't.

Last Monday afternoon, on the 7200 block of Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, a middle-aged man barricaded himself in his apartment.

Maybe with hostages, I was told by local news editor Ed Blazina, maybe with a gun or 20, and maybe with an AK-47.

Cool, I thought to myself. Now this is real life. Cops. Guns. Hostages. Definitely not Nintendo 64.

"We think it would be good to go out there," he said.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Rewind that tape. Me? What? Go where?

"Call Sadie for the address."

By this time, my heart had already dropped, slowly crept up to near normalcy, and on this hot and humid summer day, inside the air-conditioned Post-Gazette newsroom, a bead of sweat began to form on my forehead.

This wasn't going to end well. Couldn't.

And so Monday afternoon, near the intersection of Frankstown Avenue and Homewood St., a 22-year-old guy driving a company car for the first time saw the flashing lights of a police car blocking off a street, figured he was somewhere in the vicinity of where he needed to be, found a parking spot to the right, walked down the street towards that police car, realized he was still a good four blocks away, turned around, thought about it for a second, decided he probably wasn't getting any closer, turned back around and kept walking, prepared to take his first-ever bite out of crime.

"I might be coming in there for a drink in 20 minutes," said an officer, standing next to that police car as I walked by, to a bar worker across the street.

"Well I ain't going nowhere," answered the guy, cracking open the front door with an orange construction cone.

One needs a drink, the other isn't going anywhere and suddenly, a theme was born.

At the intersection, there are police cars, police vans, police officers wearing short-sleeve, navy blue shirts with badges on the front and police officers wearing baggy green pants and bullet-proof vests with "S.W.A.T." on the back.

Around, a crowd of Homewood residents gather, some sitting on a fence, others peering over balconies of a nearby high rise, most of them talking or laughing or cursing, bunched up in anticipation "like there's a [dang] parade coming," as one lady put it.

Mulling through the group and looking conspicuous in a dress shirt, slacks and shoes with a notepad in hand, I do as instructed: Ask people what they know.

"I know just as much as you do," said the first guy I talk to. "You a reporter?"

"Yeah," I answered meekly.

"Well then I dont know nothing."

Oh, ok then. Scrap that idea. Time to improvise. Lets try asking people what they've heard.

"I heard hes crazy," said a man, twirling an index finger next to his ear.

"I heard hes an old dude, fragile, can barely walk," said another bystander.

"All I heard," said yet another, "Was that an old guy is in a house with hostages. I aint even heard about weapons."

Progress, I think. Progress.

Soon, police create a perimeter of yellow tape around the intersection, forcing the residents to retreat and nearly closing off all sight of the standoff ahead.

Underneath a white tent, a man is forced to close up his shop of selling CDs, muttering, "I cant make no money here, let alone get a cold pop."

When someone offers him a beer, he shrugs.

"Naw, then theyll bust me for public intox," he said. "Its always something."

As a police officer mans a tape barricade across Frankstown, three women, probably in their 20s, stagger towards the officer, trying to get past with no success.

One becomes animated, waving hands, stomping feet, talking gibberish about knowing the man and being in the house, drawing criticism from residents who feel the antics have no merit.

"Downtown is that way!" a man shouts, pointing away from the scene. "Get a shower and get out of here!"

As officers try to clear the street of people, a public works truck pulls up with a number of wooden barricades, which are then propped on each side of the street.

One of the three women the animated, stomping feet one then kicks down a barricade and walks towards the back of the high-rise, hooting and hollering with her right arm waving above.

A couple of officers follow her, then a few people, then a lot of people. Soon, I find myself following the distracted crowd.

She yells, people yell back, officers try to calm the situation to no avail, and then a herd of people scatter.

Taser, I hear, which is enough for me to follow the herd.

"How you get this as your job?" a kid asked me as I walk away. "It must be exciting as hell."

Exciting, yes. How I got here, I dont know.

As the crowd lines the street once again, another line of police tape is drawn across Frankstown, pushing everyone about 10 yards further than they were, closer to the breaking point of their lives being momentarily put on hold.

The other two women try to breach the perimeter and get arrested. The crowd cheers.

Meanwhile, I start to realize my reporting has been a sad excuse for glorified sightseeing.

A teenager directs me towards a woman who apparently knows whats going on.

Interviewing her, I find out that the stander-offer is harmless, 65 years old, didnt do anything, doesnt have a gun and that, "This should have been over at 3:30.

"And make sure you write that."

The interrogation goes swimmingly until I ask for her name, which draws a dark stare, followed by "You dont need to know my name."

Oh, ok then. Next!

Next comes on the other side of the street, with two middle-aged women, one a neighbor, the other a birthday girl.

As tear gas pops in the distance, an S.W.A.T.-clad officer pulls out of a van one of those big, cannon-looking things most commonly used to bust down doors.

I talk to the neighbor and find out that the stander-offers name is Robert, that he pulled a gun on his landlord, that he's pulled guns on other people besides his landlord and that, "There's something going on in his head," the information quite contrary from that of the previous lady.

Then I ask for her name.

She obliges. Victory, I think. Vic-tor-y.

"And this is the birthday girl," she said, pointing to her friend seated on a fold-up chair, puffing a Newport Light.

What does she know? Nothing. What does she care? Not at all.

"Im just trying to chill with my friend and celebrate my birthday," she said, as a group of volunteers strolled through the street, passing out cups of water to police officers and the guy driving the public works truck.

"And get a drink," she quipped, looking towards the volunteers. "Five dollars!"

After about 20 rounds of tear gas, the situation seems to near its end as police officers talk to the man over a loudspeaker in front of his place.

"Stop, turn around and lay flat on the ground!" they instruct him.

Apparently he does, because moments later, an ambulance pulls up, followed by the welcome sight of a man being escorted into the back of a police van, without a shirt but with jeans on.

Again, the crowd cheers.

Lilianne Miles, the only person out of probably a dozen to give me her name, looks at me, almost in disbelief.

"I love Homewood," she said. "But its getting harder and harder to stay."

On cue and after more than three hours of sitting in the sweltering heat on her 49th birthday, Annette Wade then looks at her friend, Ms. Miles.

"We all deserve to get drunk now," she said, before laughing.

At the text message command of police reporter Sadie Gurman, I scurry for two blocks around the area before huddling with a group of reporters around Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper.

"It was a peaceful surrender," Chief Harper said, "And this is the way we wish more incidents of this nature would end. He wasnt injured and no officers were injured."

And neither was a rookie reporter, walking away with much more than one bead of sweat on his forehead, thinking this whole cops thing wasnt so tough and feeling a whole lot more experienced than he did a few hours before.

This ended well. It did.

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