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The Monkey Law

Finding Inspiration in Our Ancestry

Kurt Timken grew up in northern Ohio with a life of privilege. His father was the CEO of The Timken Company, a Fortune 150 multinational corporation known for steel and ball bearings. The company had been founded by Kurt’s great-great-grandfather 100 years ago. Kurt followed in his father’s footsteps to the Phillips Andover Academy, and later to Harvard Business School. He was being groomed to fill his Dad’s shoes at the company, just as his father filled his grandfather’s shoes, and so on. He trained four years at the family company, and then another three years in management at Rockwell. But the long hours destroyed his marriage to his college sweetheart, and when he got divorced he started asking the big questions about why he’s here and where he could make a real impact.

At 30 years old, he spit the silver spoon out of his mouth, listened to an inner voice, and after a major test of his conviction, he’s now a police officer working the graveyard shift in El Monte, California, which is a few highway exits east of East Los Angeles, one of the highest crime cities in the state. He works the graveyard shift because that’s when the hot 911 calls come in, and the drugs are moved, and the transvestite prostitutes work the streets. It’s when the beer hits the bloodstream, and under the influence of alcohol or coke or meth or greed, people do terrible things to each other. The graveyard shift is when he can make an impact.

His shift begins at 6:00 p.m. with a briefing from the sargeant, and runs twelve hours and fifteen minutes. Most of that time, he is alone in his patrol car, hunting for “bad guys.” He had me sign a waiver, and issued me a flashlight and Level 3 body armor, similar to the one he wore underneath his uniform. Handgun rounds will not pierce the armor, but will still cause blow trauma. He explained where the different gang turfs were divided, and rattled off the addresses of seedy apartment complexes where crimes were commonplace. He taught me how to approach a car of gangbangers and use my spotlight to blind them. Then he rechambered his shotgun, which is kept locked to the grill above our headrests. He pointed to a button. “This is the switch that unlocks it, in case something happens to me out there, and you need a weapon.” It was around then that I stopped thinking what Kurt has done is really cool, and I started to wonder whether the risk was worth it. Did I really need to witness an El Monte night? Yes, if I was going to rid my TV-inspired, schoolboy fantasy preconceptions. Yes, if I was going to understand Kurt and tell his story.

While getting dressed in the locker room, Kurt said, “Everybody needs fuel for their engine. Making seven figures on Wall Street is cheap wood, it burns up too fast. I need something that burns well. That’s substantive. That’s real.” By the end of the night, I understood what he meant.

 

Kurt is five-ten, thick, tanned, freckled, with a solid jaw and brown hair swept over the side. When remembering his past, he speaks slowly with his eyes nearly closed, like he’s going back to that old place in his mind. He still has many friends from the world he left behind, and in a way, he returns to his past every day to get away from what he sees in El Monte. He lives in a spotless luxury condo on the oceanfront at Venice Beach. There’s a hot tub on his deck and a restored antique Brunswick pool table in his living room and upstairs, in the center of the master bedroom, a two-person steam shower. After a shift he’ll sit in there and forget, and wash the night away. He calls the condo his “countervailing force.” Kurt likes the dichotomy. There’s no shame about his background. He drives to El Monte in a Mercedes ML 320, license plate “NYSE TKR.”

Kurt’s great-great-grandfather built carriages. He had some ideas about how wheels and shafts turn, and the kind of stress that is put on ball bearings when there is a heavy top load and side load. This was going to be even more important in automobiles. He pencilled out designs for the first tapered roller bearings, which could handle those two loads better than standard bearings. It took awhile, and the auto industry was reluctant, but Timken bearings became the new standard, and are used to this day in every vehicle where wheels meet shafts.

            When Kurt graduated from Pomona College, he spent four years at The Timken Company. They sent him to France and India, and he found it fun and interesting, but with his whole life ahead of him he didn’t hold it to that high of a standard. That changed after Harvard Business School. You come out of HBS thinking that you can change the world in an instant, and you’re hungry to find the place you can make that happen. The years start to add up, and pretty soon it’s natural to wonder, “Is this really the choice I want to make?” The family expected him to train at Rockwell, and come home when he was 30. But Rockwell had Kurt working 80 hour weeks, and so was his wife, at Disney corporate. They rarely got to see each other, and when the marriage fell apart, Kurt was bitter about what work had wrought. It seemed like you have to choose, do you want a marriage or a career? He would have preferred a relationship, but it was too late.

            “I spent almost ten years in business. I was at great, innovative companies, with super management, not trapped in layers of bureaucracy. I received great evaluations, and frequent promotions, and was always challenged and given responsibility. And I was still not hopping out of bed in the morning, excited to get to work.”

            Kurt had always been interested in law enforcement. He didn’t know anything about it. He’d never known a police officer. He’d never seen a trailer park, never hung out in a bad neighborhood. He felt it in his gut, not his brain. Business was about growing the bottom line; if it helps people, it does so indirectly. Kurt needed to serve people directly.

            At Harvard, Kurt took marketing with a fairly famous professor named John Quelch. Quelch taught the Monkey Law. The monkey swinging through the jungle must never let go of an old vine until he has a firm grip on the new one. That’s how businesses operate, and that’s how people trained in business operate.

            “I decided to violate the Monkey Law,” Kurt said. “And plunge into the jungle, without a plan. I went into Rockwell and gave them my pink slip and said thanks.”

            His father tried to be neutral, but it was very hard for him to understand. He’d invested a lot in Kurt. They were of two generations; Kurt’s Dad never had a choice about whether to fill his own father’s shoes. Kurt tried to explain that in our generation, it’s important to look around a little. Kurt, though, couldn’t get hired in law enforcement. He went a whole year being rejected. It was the first time anyone had ever said no to him. It was a real shock. You come out of Harvard thinking the world works for you. In business, you can move laterally between industries, and most of your skills are transferable. But in law enforcement, as in medicine, you start over from scratch. The FBI turned him down, the LAPD turned him down, the LA County Sheriffs turned him down. They took one look at him and saw a bookworm. He didn’t need the job; would he be there as backup in a gunfight? Law enforcement is a nepotistic career; most officers got into it through a cousin, uncle, father. Kurt kept taking the different cities’ physical and mental tests, and polygraph tests, passing them all, and that’s when Kurt’s Dad came in with unexpected support. He was offended that nobody would hire his son. “Keep taking the tests,” he urged. “It’ll happen.”

            Finally, Kurt paid his own way through the Rio Honda Police Academy. He graduated fourth in his class, and still – nobody would hire him.

            “It was a test of my resolve,” Kurt said. “It was not going to be handed to me.”

Some guys that Kurt went to the Academy with were hired by El Monte. They bugged their Chief to hire Kurt. The Chief sent Kurt over to the Community Relations Anti-Gang Unit. This was the prevention arm of their task force, and it tried to get ex gang members jobs and teach them life skills. They told Kurt if he would volunteer for a whole year, he’d have a job on the force at the end.

A whole year?

“Yup.”

So you went two years without a job?

“Yup.”

Without even any real idea what was involved?

“I was learning. In all my interviews, I was learning. And at the Academy I learned. And at Community Relations I learned.”

Did he feel like he belonged in the community of cops?

“Not really. I live a different life than most of them.”

So why?

“I was hungry to do it. I thought the glove would fit. I’m a bulldog, real tenacious, and a quick thinker – I would be good at it and it would have real purpose.”

Still though. Two years. It’s amazing he didn’t give up.

Kurt reached for his wallet and pulled out a photocopy of a note. It was written by his great-grandfather to his great-great-grandfather, the inventor. The sons were having trouble getting the auto industry to adopt their father’s tapered bearings. The note read, “Dear Father, I hate to think we are putting troubles on your shoulders. We’ll hang in there like grim death. We’ve got grit if we don’t have sense.”

            Kurt explained, “I carried this in my wallet, and whenever I despaired, I read it again. I knew it didn’t make sense that I wanted to be in law enforcement, but I had grit.”

In his year volunteering, Kurt revamped a defunct tattoo removal program, and it turned it into one of the most successful in the country. He put in 20 to 40 hours every week. He became a gang specialist, building an intelligence base about the five gangs in El Monte. At the year’s end, the El Monte Police Department kept their word. A job was waiting.

   

On his Sam Brown (his belt) he carries a Colt 45 pistol with seven rounds in the magazine and one in the pipe. He carries pepper spray, a flashlight, a tape recorder for statements, a key ring for his baton, two sets of handcuffs, a department-issued cell phone, and a small holder for five rounds for his backup pistol, a 38 Special jammed into his back pants pocket. In his pockets he carries gloves for a fight, a leather sap, and a second cell phone. All of this adds weight. The weight is not measured in pounds. The weight is measured in the somberness and seriousness of his profession.

            Around the department and before the briefing, the office chatter was of the five new bonus positions that Chief would be hiring, and of the acting-Sargeant’s promotion that night to Sargeant, and of who would take the fourth K-9 if his partner became a detective. Kurt slipped into this chatter easily. He didn’t quote Hegel at these guys, didn’t throw out business school maxims. They all put Timken Bearings in their boats, but they don’t connect Timken Bearings with Kurt Timken.

No sooner did we leave the lot than Kurt had me running license plates through the on-board computer, hoping to find a GTA, grand theft auto. Every Honda and Toyota I saw, I ran their plate hoping for a hit. It was the lottery. The more plates I ran, the more likely I’d get a hit. We did this with zeal. If we spotted either make, Kurt would gun his cruiser and ride up the car’s ass until I could make out the plate. This would scare the shit out of the driver, which was the whole point.

            “Sometimes they freak out and take off, and then you’ve got probable cause.”

            There were a lot of Hondas and Toyotas. We were looking for bald heads, or ski caps pulled low to hide bald heads. It was night, so we flashed our spotlights on every face that passed. Every pedestrian on the sidewalk, every juvie hanging out on their front stairs, every bicyclist crossing the street – we blinded them with the spot. We watched their hands, to see if they threw anything away. More probable cause.

            “You couldn’t do this in Beverly Hills,” Kurt said. “They’d be on the phone complaining to the city council a second later.”

            We were on our way to investigate a report of a potential child abuse case. Reading the statement, which was taken from the 9-year-old boy’s teacher, it was very likely his big sister had simply kicked him in the groin before school. But we had to make sure, which would mean ruining some nice immigrant family’s night. This was a Level 3 Priority call, and not the most effective use of our time. Before the shift, I sat with the 911 dispatchers for an hour, watching the calls pile up. Level 1 calls were for imminent bodily harm, Level 2 for imminent harm to property, and Level 3 for sleepers. Kurt decided we needed to pick up the dispatcher’s dinner from Denny’s, so that they’d cut us some slack the rest of the night and leave us to hunt bad guys.

            On the way, Kurt barked “known prostitute” and spun a u-turn on Garvey and pulled tight to the curb, where a transvestite was standing under the bus stop sign. We talked to him/her for awhile. I recognized her from the intelligence database Kurt had assembled in 3-inch binders he kept in his trunk. There were about 70 transvestites who worked El Monte. Most came in from Hollywood; only a dozen lived in the neighborhood.

            “You working tonight?”

            “I’m waiting for the bus.”

            “Have I arrested you before?”

            “No…. Wait. Maybe. At the donut shop that time.”

            “Are you on any drugs?”

            “No.”

            We stepped out for a chitchat. Kurt held a pen light to her dull eyes to check her pupils, which were constricted, indicating heroin. But her pulse was racing, indicating meth. I found a tie-off strap in her purse, but no needles. Kurt talked to her long enough to conclude her small pupils were a chronic condition, from overuse, and the pulse was from codeine, the poor man’s methadone. He checked her for tattoos and showed me on the back of her hand, where the heroin crusted up under the skin like extra knuckles when a vein was missed. Many times he assured her he wasn’t taking her in, and tried to use this to pry a little information out of her for her profile in his database. She was friendly but didn’t trust him.

            “Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t work here tonight.”

            “Okay,” she said.

            Kurt works the prostitutes because nobody else on the force was doing it. It was how he was trained in business – find where you can add value and improve the situation. Make an impact. A few have become priceless informants for Kurt. Prostitutes are both perpetrators of crimes and common victims of crimes. Not only hooking; they’ll move drugs, steal wallets, and set up johns to be rolled by gangs. The johns drive in from all over Greater Los Angeles. Seventy percent of the prostitutes are transvestites, because that’s what’s popular, and because the transvestites seem to enjoy their work more than the women do. El Monte is one of the last places in Southern California that hookers still strut the streets. When he started on the force, Kurt wanted to crack down right away, but that’s not how it’s done, and he’s had to slow down, build the database, and wait until the Chief tells him it’s time.

            “Law enforcement is 20 years behind the corporate world, in terms of its culture. Here they promote by seniority, not by contribution. We don’t have a customer, other than the city council. They don’t demand better performance. So the culture is, don’t stick out, don’t rub elbows, stick to what is. Work your beat and don’t come up with new ideas. A lot of officers in El Monte are good enough to wow our bosses, but they don’t.”

            Kurt hasn’t let this mindset infect him. He is never just working his beat, never playing it safe, never hesitates to be the backup when another car is assigned a call. We never code 7 to eat. “My idea of law enforcement is not pulling cats out of trees,” he said. “That’s why I’m in El Monte.”

There’s a deadly cycle of violence here. Kids grow up watching their mothers and fathers drink and fight, and then they do the same. The El Monte Flores gang runs El Monte, except for when it cowtows to the MA, the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang. When inmates get parolled, they’re often sent to El Monte, and given housing vouchers which are good at a number of seedy motels on Garvey Street.

It’s here we go hunting.

With lights off, we gun into the parking lots of these motels, hoping to surprise someone. The attitude is always suspicion; we presume guilt and look for probable cause. Kurt pushes me to learn this.

“Why could I pull that car over?”

“Fog light out.”

“And that Infiniti?”

“No license plate.”

He flashes his spot into the car. Four young men. Another U-turn. We pull them over, blind them, approach. I shine the light on their hands. We do their wallets one by one. We run them for warrants. Kurt chitchats. He asks them flat out if they’re gangbangers.

“No, paisos, man,the driver says. Just four guys getting off work at the plant. One admits he’s on parole.

We could ticket them for the license plate, but then they wouldn’t have a car to get to work. The tough call is when they don’t have a driver’s license, or their license is suspended. Kurt doesn’t want to take them in, but people who don’t have drivers licenses tend to flee the scene of an accident, and nothing pisses citizenry off more than being the victim of a hit-and-run.

We scare the life out of a drunk driver, but don’t take him in. We tell a pregnant woman at the bus stop not to work this corner tonight. We tell two juvies to get home, it’s after curfew. One of his transvestite informants tells him that the driver of Green Valley Taxi cab #765 is moving dope; the soda can he’s carrying has a false bottom with a lot of meth inside. We scope out every Green Valley taxi we see.

This work trains the mind. To be a good cop in El Monte, you need to be suspicious. You need to believe that every bicyclist is moving dope, every woman at the bus stop is a man selling blow jobs, every ski cap is hiding a bald head. Every tattoo is gang-related. Every hand you can’t see is holding a bag of dope or a weapon. Every Monte Carlo belongs to a gangbanger, every El Camino to a Title 8, every Lincoln Continental to an MA. Every windowless Toyota minivan is a possible getaway vehicle for an armed robbery. In every car parked behind a warehouse is someone sleeping, or someone getting their dick sucked. Every restaurant, unless otherwise known as friendly, will have someone working in the kitchen who will piss or spit in your food because you locked up her brother. The number 13 is for the 13th letter in the alphabet, M, or Mexico, i.e. the Mexican Mafia, the real bad guys. Apartment complexes breed criminals. A mouth whistle is a sign that we’ve been spotted. It probably sounds terrible, to live night after night in this frame of mind, but the alternative is worse. Catch them before they commit more crimes. Make it hard. Crack down on the little things. When all you’re doing is harassing guys coming home from their busboy jobs, it feels like a power trip gone bad. “But when I catch a bad guy, and take him off the street, it feels so incredibly rewarding. It’s what I live for.”

If the law of business is the Monkey Law, the law of the street is, Nobody Tells You the Truth.

“I couldn’t believe this at first,” Kurt explained. “Where I grew up, you always told the truth. In business, you always told the truth. I’d never been lied to before. Here, nobody ever tells the truth. Even to a police officer. Especially to a police officer.”

He tests me on this. When we question people, he continuously tosses the situation my way: “Do you believe her?”

I shake my head. “A second ago she said she got off babysitting. Now she says she’s waiting for her sister who’s in the laundromat.”

“Right. Because …”

“Because who would wait outside on a cold night like this?”

Again, another. “Do you believe her?”

“She pointed that way but now she’s walking the other way.”

Again, “Do you believe him?”

“That he was beat up by his roommate with a pipe?”

“That he was robbed.”

“No.”

“Why not? There was no money in his wallet.”

“He had a Big Gulp and two bags of chips he’d just bought.”

People are drunk. They lie terribly when drunk. Just by not being drunk, we’re sharper than them, faster, quicker.

“He won’t tell us where he lives.”

“Let’s follow his dog home.”

We use our brains. This was my big surprise. How much we had to use our minds to get the jump, to process the situation, to assess the risk, as it was happening, before bad things happened, to read the signs, to call for backup – and the stakes were shockingly high. You had to play it right. You had to be a move ahead. Before anyone gets suspicious of an informant, make a big show of taking her away in handcuffs. Before cruising into a apartment complex known for gang activity, send another out back to catch any runners as they jump the fence. Before going into a warehouse with the alarm blaring, call for the helicopter to patrol the roof, and call for the K-9s to sniff the burglars out.

   

This underworld exists. But why choose it? Not for the eight weeks+ vacation, though that sure makes it nice. Not for the 3-day workweek, though that’s sweet too. When I was up in the police helicopter, an off-duty officer was filling his tank at a gas station and witnessed an armed robbery of the station attendant. He pulled his gun, was shot in the leg, and still managed to take down both perpetrators and get them into custody. We were above the scene in a minute-and-a-half. Patrol cars had already reached the gas station and had it under control. It was big deal. It’s very likely that if the officer hadn’t been so ready to intervene, he wouldn’t have been shot.

Is this a way to live, being suspicious, always hungry to intervene? One of the things I’ve learned from this book is, don’t pretend what you do doesn’t shape you. Can a steam shower and the Venice Beach sun wash off what gets rubbed in at night? Kurt’s been in a lot of fistfights and scrums, and he’s pulled his gun many times, but he’s never had to fire it. This is his third year on the force. I told him about Cynthia Ringo, a sex crimes investigator in Atlanta who had to quit after two years because it was making her jaded about the human character.

            “Was she young?” Kurt asked.

            “Yeah. Early twenties at the time, I think.”

            “If I was in my early twenties, doing this, it would get to me, too. But you learn how to protect yourself, keep your distance, and you just know yourself better, And when you’ve had to fight to know yourself, you don’t give that ground back, not to anything.”

Kurt is a good man; he doesn’t seem poisoned by his calling. If anything, the work seems to intensify his goodness, refine it, give him a spine, strengthen the spine, straighten it. He’s working his turf, a turf defined by city limits on the east and north and Peck Road and Interstate 10 on the west and south. It’s a bigger challenge to tackle than any he could face in business, but it’s not so big that he can’t make a significant impact, and not so big that he doesn’t feel, every night, like he made this world just that much better, taking that bad guy off the street, protecting that woman from her drunk husband, steering gang members into the workforce, giving the new Americans in this city a chance. Crime is bad in El Monte, but crime is down in El Monte; there are many reasons for this, but when Kurt steps out of his steam shower at dawn, and crawls into bed, he knows he’s one of those reasons. And after five or six hours sleep, he’ll wake, and hop out of bed, and be excited to get back there.