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By Rick Carlos
The author became an El Paso police officer in 1981 and served for six years. He shared a patrol car with another officer, Greg Allen, who today is chief of the El Paso Police Department. As with cities across the country, El Paso is in the midst of a debate over the future direction of policing.
Greg was my first partner right out of the Academy and my Field Training Officer. He was pretty much everything to me. I didn’t even know how to use the radio in the patrol car when I started.
I depended on Greg for teaching me the streets and how to behave so I could gain credibility. He showed me how to speak forcefully and command attention, for instance when I handled my first car accident. He had me controlling the crowd of spectators on the street and observed me being very nice and respectful when asking them to get up on the sidewalk. I guess he saw that wasn’t working. He came up to me and said, “You’re gonna have to learn how to talk and act like a police officer. You tell them—not ask them—to GET ON THE SIDEWALK RIGHT NOW!” It worked.
The Police Academy taught me the Texas Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedures and how to shoot a handgun and shotgun; to take down and wrestle with people bigger than me; how to handcuff and grapple with someone resisting.
But most of my learning was done on the streets, watching Greg be a patrolman. He was there when I saw my first dead body. It was result of a murder in Central El Paso. An old man had his house broken into and was murdered and robbed. It was extremely gruesome, with blood everywhere. Greg and I found the murderer that same night in an alley Downtown, high on heroin sitting in the old man’s car. It was a great ending to a tough day.
Little by little, policing became instinctive, second nature. I got to the point where I was being sent out on solo shifts, working by myself as a patrol unit, handling my own calls and depending on myself for safety and arrests and traffic stops and backing up other units. All I could really pull on were my experiences with my Field Training Officer.
Learning from Greg Allen
Greg was a very assertive – if not aggressive – patrolman. He would not take any crap from people on the streets. He worked in an area with a lot of Spanish speakers but didn’t speak the language himself, and that really frustrated him. I could see his frustration when he asked for help: “Go talk to this idiot who says he doesn’t speak English.”
Greg was a very quiet guy. If he saw something he said something like, “Stop that mother—— – he looks suspicious.” Most other officers used words like that: “maggot” or “dumb-ass” or “idiot.” But Greg always used “mother——.” I learned to speak just like him, and other officers told me they noticed it.
Related: Diego Carlos, the son of Rick Carlos, on why he was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest.
It was about being intimidating on the streets. I learned that I didn’t have authority because of my badge or gun or uniform … it was because of my ability to intimidate those who challenged me. Language, body language, a direct look, confidence about yourself, meanness – that gave me authority. Also knowing the laws and search and seize procedures and how to write good reports and good affidavits for warrants that gave you credibility with the brass.
Greg was not a fan of the brass. He said, “They’re not strong enough to back up the patrolman on the street.” He just didn’t have anything good to say about the brass, in those days or ever.
The toughest man in the El Paso Police Department
Greg was and probably still is the toughest man in the El Paso Police Department. Physically and mentally tough. He demonstrated it to me everyday. But I asked to stop working with him because he was too protective of me on the streets. He dominated the call handling, so I was really was not gaining as much experience as I would have by working with someone who would just step back and let me handle calls.
I also grew tired of all the conflict that Greg brought to calls. He was quick to escalate and threaten with bodily harm, because he was so good at it. His physicality was an often-used tool, which he kept in peak working condition at all times. I don’t recall if the discipline he practiced was Karate or Tae Kwan Do or some other martial art, but it was his philosophy and his way of being.
He seemed healthy and even-tempered when not on the job. He was actually admired by many of his fellow officers – except for his street language. Sometimes when I was sitting in the passenger side and he was driving, he would stop the patrol car in the middle of the street and honk so that a pigeon could get out of the way and not be harmed. He was like a disciplined Ninja: mean when he needed to be but gentle when that was needed.
Still, his discipline sometimes failed him. Once he broke a woman’s arm because she wouldn’t pull it out from under her chest. She was refusing to be cuffed. Greg put the end of his nightstick into her elbow and tried to wedge her arm out – he snapped her elbow with a loud pop.
She didn’t react at first because she was mentally ill, and the fear of being arrested just kept her from feeling anything. But in the patrol car she started screaming from the pain. We had to take her to the hospital with a broken elbow. Greg’s aggression had gotten the best of him
Another time, he overused his aggressive approach at a gas station on Mesa and Yandell that had been broken into two nights in a row. We were both catching flack at our shift meeting; the sergeant said, “Where are you guys? This is your district and this building has been burglarized two nights in a row. Are you patrolling your district?” Greg got mad that some burglar was stealing from under our noses.
The next night, we made sure to patrol that building. Sure enough, we found the garage door slightly opened from the bottom.
Greg jumped out of the patrol car, said “call backup,” then went into the building by himself, without waiting for backup. As I exited the car and was approaching the building I heard a loud yell, as though someone was in pain. I could hear Greg yelling, too: “GET YOUR HANDS UP!” A man came out of the building with his face full of blood, telling Greg, “You broke my (expletive) nose.” Greg said, “That’s what you get for messing up my district.”
The man was handcuffed. He crapped in his pants and we transported him to the hospital. Greg was so mad that the suspect crapped in his pants. He had to clean the car.
Living a double life
I learned a lot of good skills from Greg and a lot of bad ones. As the years went by, I became completely stressed out and scared of solo graveyard shifts and the possibility of having to kill someone for my or someone else’s protection.
That stress is why I started drinking a lot, just to try to sleep. I also had a persistently weak pancreas that gave me lots of trouble for not eating well, internalizing stress, and drinking too much. My doctor suggested that I smoke pot, instead of drinking, to calm my stress. I told him I couldn’t because it was unlawful and I was the law.
After years of landing in the hospital sick from episodes of pancreatitis, I decided I wasn’t going to drink any more, and I started smoking pot just to get some sleep. I had an uncle who would get it for me because he sympathized with what I was struggling with.
I was living a double life. I would arrest those for smoking or possessing pot when I was doing the same thing. It only added to my stress, and I knew I had to leave this job or die. It got to the point where I didn’t really care anymore if anyone knew about me smoking. I was accused of being in possession of marijuana. I was arrested. I confessed. My career was over.
There was lawyering back and forth and eventually the Police Department offered me a restart at the Police Academy. But I declined. I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I had to learn to smile again, and how to be loving to my family and siblings – who had learned to hate me as a police officer. I did not like who I had become: a very mean and intimidating man, even to my family.
I believe some of this was Greg’s fault. But he was going through the things we were all going through as policemen, and he wanted me to be a good one, and safe on the streets. I really blame myself. I knew what I was feeling and going through and that it was unhealthy. But I was too afraid and ashamed to ask for help. Pride got to me.
I hope we find a better way to do policing, so that we have healthier and smarter officers on our streets for our kids.
Cover photo: Rick Carlos, center, was an El Paso police officer in the 1980s. His Field Training Officer was Greg Allen, now the police chief. (Photo courtesy of Rick Carlos.)