You can live in the big city and think you know it. But the minute you think you've got it figured out, an editor gets a crazy gleam in his eye and sends you out to tail the cops on the midnight shift.
"If it worked before with city inspectors," he says, "it'll work with the police."
Right. Only the city is a big place, and it's filled with big mouths. Somebody leaked our plan to the cops.
They were on to us from the start.
This was a night 14 reporters would live to forget. A few days earlier, a Washington Post reporter told of following a city roofing inspector and finding that he spent the taxpayers' money doing everything but working.
Our team started hungry, eager to carry the investigation further and clean up this area once and for all.
The editor laid out the scheme before us: Montgomery, Prince George's, Fairfax and Arlington, Alexandria and the District. We would cover them all, he said, and show favor toward none.
We went prepared for anything, but expecting the worse.
"What if they shoot us?" we asked, greenly.
"Don't worry," he said. "We'll bail you out."
What we really wanted to know was: "How do you follow a cop?"
In Alexandria we were foiled by one-way streets. In arlington, innocent-looking parking lots offered police cruisers secret exits. Our reporters in Montgomery County were startled to discover the officers they were staking out had them under surveilance. In Fairfax and Prince George's, police eluded our dragnet by ignoring speed limits and traffic lights.
In the District, they were waiting for us. According to one 3rd District police officer, a sergeant announced at 10:30 a.m. roll call that reporters would be on the streets seeking malingerers.
"They told us, 'For God's sake, don't go to sleep tonight," said Officer Jim Alexander.
The reporters attempting to follow the police cruisers around on the midnight shift Thursday night and Friday morning found that the police were on the job rather than sleeping or partying even though their workload was later described as only routine. Several officers spent an hour stopping for coffee or a meal but apparently were never out of reach of their car radios or walkie-talkies.
Although the plan leaked to officers in D.C., there was no indication it leaked to those in the suburbs.
A senior Post editor said there would be no attempt to determine who might have leaked the information to the police. "We've received thousands of leaks and tips from the police over the years," the editor said. "It's appropriate that we get some of our own medicine."
We used binoculars, pens, notepads -- all the highest technology known to us. Still, we were frustrated at every turn.
Our reporter in Fairfax County followed the police to a burglary at Mount Vernon High School. "I was parked on a sidestreet," he said, "watching the cops race back and forth across the school's parking lots looking for suspects.
"I was parked on the wrong side of the street and didn't want to get a ticket for that. Also, my position was too conspicuous, so I drove around the corner with my lights off, intending to return to the same parking space."
When he did, he found three patrol cars waiting for him. They shined a flashlight in his face and asked him, "Do you always carry binoculars at 3:30 in the morning?"
Later, while watching two police cars at the Breakfast King on Rte. 1, he was approached by two muscular men wearing blond wigs. "An one of them begins to say that he spends a lot of time at an adult bookstore and why don't I come by sometime. I drive off. To heck with the cops . . ."
We had heard rumors of legendary hideouts where Prince George's police spend nights in quiet seclusion.
"You can watch them with your own damned eyes," one gasoline station attendant told our reporter. "They just be sittin' there, all leavin' their cars runnin'."
The secret hideaway he revealed was a grain elevator near the Beltsville Agricultural Park. An imposing sign reading "U.S. Government Property -- No Trespassing -- Road Closed" warned visitors to stay away.
The gas station worker insisted that police napped there for hours. The only thing we saw a rabbit that hopped away into the weeds.
Our reporter in Alexandria felt a surge of pride and exhilaration when he pulled up near the police headquarters on North Pitt Street at 10:30 p.m. But one-way streets quashed his spirits when he watched the midnight shift disappear up one of them in his rearview mirror.
Finally, he trailed an officer up North Washington Street. The officer bought two paper bags of food, then crossed the street to a spot in the parking lot of the Yenching Palace restaurant.
Stationed at the 7-Eleven store across from the Yenching Palace, the reporter listened to the distant screeching of brakes in the trainyard and watched early-morning moped riders weave in and out of the parking lot.
A second police car had joined the first and an hour and 20 minutes later, both cars left.
The reporter later found one of them parked behind a karate center on Duke Street. At 6 a.m., the two officers stopped a theft from the Goodwill Industries store there.
A man wearing hardhat and goggles was about to walk off with a leisure shirt and dress from the center's outdoor collection box when he spotted the patrol cars. He swung around and threw the clothes back in the bin.
"I couldn't wear 'em," he told the reporter.
In Montgomery County, reporters collected abundant evidence that cows there pose serious, late night problems for police, but alas, they missed by one night the shooting of a bovine runaway that had been hit by a car.
"We get most of our calls from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.," said a desk clerk at the Germantown station. "After that, unless a cow gets loose, there's nothing -- absolutely nothing -- going on."
At 4:30 p.m., two reporters in Germantown spent an hour watching a police car parked at a Gulf station on Rte. 118. Finally they drove up to the cruiser and looked inside to see what the officer was doing.
A flashlight beam was suddenly pointed in their faces.
"It's a little unusual to see two women parked at a gas station at 4 a.m.," the officer said. "What were you doing?"
"Trying to figure out what you were doing?" the reporter responded. "We thought maybe you were sleeping."
"Oh," said the policeman. "I thought maybe you were trying to break into the gas station."
But confusion turned into embarrassment in the District. One team of reporters staked out a parked police car for two hours only to discover it was empty and not in use.
Police said they knew beforehand the make of the car a second team was driving.
The reporters were stopped near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and South Capitol Street for allegedly running a red light.
Three minutes later they were stopped for a "spot check" and soon afterward were issued a ticket for not having a license tag on the front of their car.
"We were starting to feel the cops were on to us," the reporter said. "We decided to head home."