Holy fucking shit. This is beyond belief. It’s definitely along the lines of an inside joke, but when I saw the news, I was initially dumbfounded, then moved to language that made George Carlin look like he had a clean mouth.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I once applied to be a San Diego police officer, beginning but thankfully not completing a grueling application process. I say “thankfully” because, to paraphrase Det. Sgt. Mark Van Abel, I didn’t seem to really want that job. That can happen when the eight or so likely disqualifiers listed on the recruiting website fruitfully multiply into the dozens or low hundreds on the Pre-Investigative Questionnaire. The PIQ is only one step of about seven in the process, and definitely not the worst. Those whom the recruiting gods favor, they probe beyond the capacity of the uninitiated to imagine. If you successfully complete these hellish intrusions, you receive a conditional offer of employment, which means that you have to run the obstacle course again prior to actually enrolling in the academy, which you have a decent chance of not completing, but at least they pay you for your studies. An employment offer tends to seem like an acceptance letter from Harvard, or more accurately, a parallel universe version of Harvard where the admissions committee spends six months mind-fucking its best applicants before sending them on to the faculty for a career-long mind-fuck. The candidate who does seem to really want this job throughout the recruitment process may think differently when he hits the streets and finds that he is responsible for fielding thirty service calls a night, is making less money than buddies at agencies with lower workloads, and is contributing to a pension fund that the city council recently voted 8-1 to flush down the old Thomas Crapper.

All I can say in my defense is that applying seemed like a good idea at the time because the SDPD was short-staffed and I figured that beggars couldn’t be choosers.

Ha! Sgt. Van Abel put paid to that notion in a hurry. He was able to make working in 85-degree sun sound like a death threat because “if you have visible tattoos on your neck you’ll be required to wear a wool turtleneck….and you’ll have a core body temperature of 115 degrees. My advice? No more ink.” Having just flown in from Philadelphia in mid-August, I found the threat a bit ridiculous, but I didn’t dare smirk at the sergeant. Nor did I smirk when he yelled, “Some of you are being smoked by forty-something and fifty-year-olds, and frankly, that’s disgraceful.” It was like yelling, “you should be ashamed of yourselves for letting an old bastard like Lance Armstrong beat you in a bike race,” but still, as one lateral transfer applicant told several of us while she waited to remediate the obstacle course, a police academy is no place for eye-rolling.

Did I mention that they then asked us a lot of really creepy questions? We had four and a half hours to answer 360 questions in a 60-page packet. Some of the questions concerned straightforward biographical information, but others included “have you ever killed anyone?” and “write an autobiography on this page.” Officer Vernon Kindred, who played the good cop to Sgt. Van Abel’s bad cop, advised us on the latter: “People often ask us what to write in their autobiographies. We can’t tell you what to write in your autobiography. You have to write it yourself. That’s why it’s called an autobiography. It wouldn’t be an autobiography if we wrote it for you.”

Well, shit.

Our test block was subjected to about an hour and a half of instructions before we were allowed to start the PIQ. We probably needed five or ten minutes of it. Almost everything that was really relevant came from either Sgt. Van Abel, who never wasted a word and had exquisite, theatrical anger management, or from Officer Kindred, who occasionally kinda, sorta wasted a word. Occasionally an extra pro tip was contributed by Officer Lori Sinclair, who scolded us about how the department didn’t have the resources to remediate our shitty writing, or Officer Robert Acosta, about whom you’ll be hearing more below. These two had a subtle good-cop/bad-cop routine of their own in warning us not to lie on the PIQ, with Sinclair playing bad cop. The irony of this would become apparent years later. The main role played by the recruiting unit’s commander, Lt. Ernesto Salgado, was to take things that had already been said succinctly by other officers, usually Kindred or Van Abel, and rephrase them with utter incoherence in a vaguely comprehensible accent. The last member of the gang of six, Officer Steve Markland, was the only member of the unit who struck me as basically normal. Although he contributed some very sensible thoughts on occasion when warranted, he was much more the listening type than the talking type. By the end of the PIQ session, when there were four, then three, then two of us still answering the unconscionable weirdness, Markland had become an audience of one for a Kindred soliloquy. The important thing to keep in mind about Steve Markland is that the doesn’t mind doing five percent of the talking in a conversation. He didn’t seem to mind that day, in any event.

As with sausage ingredients, you really don’t want to know what all goes into a PIQ. The California POST Basic questionnaire, a slightly modified version of which we had to complete as homework over the following two weeks, was bad enough and, at 29 pages, long enough. The PIQ was just all kinds of creepy. If you want to know the details, take it yourself. It is, to understate the matter, not a self-esteem booster. Years ago Junior Bear and some of his friends managed to manipulated me into repeating damaging confidential information that I had disclosed on the PIQ, but some things should only be shared with confessors, attorneys, therapists and background investigators.

Take it yourself. It’s an examination of conscience from hell.

One thing that I couldn’t get out of my mind during the PIQ was that the officers at the front of the room had all completed it, or presumably something substantially like it. What the hell had they put down on that wretched form? Kindred told us about his bat-out-of-hell youthful driving and resultant removal from his parents’ auto insurance policy, but that was the only window that we were offered into the soul of the recruiting unit. I didn’t even want to think about what Salgado had answered, because it inevitably came out in his amazingly incoherent voice and reminded me that success meant an appointing interview with the lieutenant himself. God help us. I figured that Kindred probably didn’t have a hell of a lot more to disclose than his driving, that Sinclair’s form was probably pretty spare on account of a history of goody-two-shoes striving, and that Markland probably finished his in under half an hour because he seemed like a wise man who had lived a well-examined life, that being the sort of thing that just comes to people like him.

That left Acosta and Van Abel. I figured that their PIQs were a three-ring circus. They seemed like the usual suspects for almost every vice on the form, but in different ways.

It immediately jumped out at me that if anyone in the recruiting unit had been a juvenile delinquent, it was Acosta. No doubt about it. He was the one who had spent his teen years smoking pot down by the water tower, then tagging the water tower, and maybe shoplifting some sneakers and using a neighbor’s car as a getaway vehicle. Something about his demeanor just screamed “prior contacts with the police.” Most of the suggested activities on the PIQ seemed positively Acostan. He seemed like the sort of person who had joined the SDPD because the judge told him it was that or jail, although after catching up on current events, I realize that the judge probably sent him to the Marines. Maybe I’m wrong, but Acosta seemed like he had done what one of my friends, whom I called for some counseling when I was an emotional wreck following the PIQ, called “some crazy stuff.”

Not the heavy shit, though. That was clearly Van Abel’s bailiwick. Acosta seemed like someone who had dabbled in drugs, mainly as a way of pissing off the ‘rents and being cool with the neighborhood knuckleheads. Van Abel, by contrast, had clearly done his drugs righteously; where Acosta had experimented with the softer stuff and maybe a moderate snort of coke now and then, Van Abel had been juicing himself into a hulk. Where Acosta had probably run with a gang of poseurs who talked a rough game and maybe stole some cigarettes from the 7-Eleven now and then, Van Abel had torn up God only knows what and whom in an unfocused roid rage. Acosta acted like he had been a prolonged rumble of misdeameanors punctuated by an occasional low-level property felony that the responding officer counseled him and his buddies not to commit again; Van Abel acted like he had been intermittently quiescent, but with enough anger barely under the surface to fuel an occasional Dennis Geyer eruption. If anyone had been a delinquent pain in the ass, it had been Acosta; if anyone had caused serious damage, it had been Van Abel.

Another thing that I couldn’t get out of my mind was the thought of Van Abel and Sinclair having and raising children together. Those kids would have had the biggest chips on their shoulder of any in San Diego County. I gave thanks that neither one was my parent.

Back then, had I been asked to name the recruiting officer who would retaliate against a foreclosure by laying waste to his house, leaving the masonry facade in a pile of rubble while his wife felled the cypresses in the yard and threw them into the swimming pool, I wouldn’t have hesitated a second. Duh. Van Abel.

I would have been wrong. Had I gotten a second guess, I probably would have been right.

As I mentioned, I find this situation stunning. This is one of those cases in which I do not regret hoarding voicemail messages. At the front of my saved message queue is a message from Robert Acosta, San Diego Police, calling back to give me instructions for scheduling a retake of the Physical Abilities Test. I was the dude who had set the bar low for everyone else by being the first called to run the obstacle course, then freezing in front of the six-foot wall. I was somewhat out of shape, and Markland was right that losing a few pounds would help, but the real problem was that I was afraid of heights and didn’t have the agility to ease myself down off the wall gently enough for my sensibilities.

That wasn’t the only reason that I wasn’t ready to be a cop, that I didn’t seem to really want that job.

I wouldn’t have that voice message in my queue had I not needed extra time to finish an Arabic test; I would have taken the call, and I would have only memories. Shit be crazy, yo.

Another Robert Acosta tidbit: I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’m pretty sure he’s the same one who, along with Officer Patrick Hall, shot Danny “the walker” Woodyard. Ocean Beach was up in arms about this. The locals don’t think that a police officer is justified in shooting a paranoid schizophrenic who is menacingly advancing with a bowie knife and ignoring orders to drop the weapon. Word on the street was that Danny was really a nice guy. I’m sure he would have been very nice about stabbing Acosta and Hall while rolling around in a pool of blood and likely enough getting all three of them hospitalized, maimed or dead. Still, it’s kind of weird to have known a recruiting officer who shot a dude and was later found with a storage unit full of stolen air conditioners and garage panels that he was trying to sell on Craigslist.

I have to wonder what the hell the lenders were thinking when they approved Robert Acosta and his wife, Monique, for a mortgage on a million-dollar house shortly after they had been foreclosed out of a condominium that was worth a fifth as much. They probably weren’t thinking anything sensible. That goes for the Acostas, too. A non-ranking San Diego cop and a real estate agent whose income was highly, if not exclusively, dependent on commissions sought and secured credit for a million-dollar mansion outside Murrieta. This is just another data point in an epic tale of greed and fraud in American real estate. It’s a tale of individual sin, but also of serious structural problems in the housing sector that won’t be fixed by incarcerating the Acostas for four years. Prison may check an individual’s hubris, but it won’t fix the collective hubris of a society that celebrates atavistic overreach and self-absorbed arrogance and scorns prudence.

The Acostas have a toddler daughter who will have to be cared for somehow if they’re incarcerated at the same time. This situation is a Greek tragedy writ small. It’s optimistic in the extreme to expect any of them to emerge from this ordeal whole. All I can really offer in the way of hope is what Robert Acosta told us in the course of cautioning us not to lie on the PIQ:

“Maybe time will heal those wounds.”

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