John Hickey, wearing a day-old beard and worn jeans, snuggled into a littered doorway in downtown Washington for a nap the other day, positioning himself and his portable radio just outside the reach of the steady rainfall.
Within minutes, a man wearing red plaid pants and a print shirt silently approached Hickey and in one smooth movement scooped up the radio, looped the strap over his left shoulder and strode confidently down 7th Street NW. Half a block away, two D.C. policemen rushed in and arrested him.
Hickey quickly walked in the opposite direction, paying no attention to the arrest. He had just been robbed for the 60th time since mid-June.
Hickey is a young police sergeant with a better idea. Faced with a steady increse in street robberies in his police district, which includes Capitol Hill, the old downtown area and the new Southwest residential community, he created a decoy squad based on New York's successful decade-old decoy unit.
After 10 days of working with New York's squad, he was ready to try it in D.C. Hickey is the victim and his squad are the witnesses and arresting officers.
"Our purpose is to apprehend the wandering street criminal who hits on the easiest victims, who are the elderly, the handicapped and the tourists," Hickey said. "And the career criminal takes the easy hits. They are the important ones for us to get. They have proven by their past records that they won't stop until caught again."
According to police records, Hickey's six-man decoy squad has arrested 18 repeat offenders, most of whom have been held in jail since their arrests. Two people have been found guilty and four others have pleaded guilty, according to Hickey, while the rest of the cases have yet to go to trial.
The business of transforming a cop into a victim is tricky, not to mention dangerous. Hickey, who is a short, muscular man, said he has to forget all his aggressive police training and become a "wimpy guy."
In the past he has been a tourist with a camera and knapsack near the Southwest waterfront, an old man with white hair who shops at the Waterside Mall and now a weary tourist who sits down with his radio and takes a nap. A makeup artist at Arena Stage transformed the 27-year-old Hickey into the old man with the white hair.
"My role is not to fight back," Hickey said as he and his men planned their next assignment based on day-old crime statistics fkor his beat. "You hear what they [the robbers] are talking about, what they will do to you. I don't say anything. I play weak and calm, so they won't hurt me. If you threaten them, they will kill you."
Hickey's protection comes from the six to eight policemen who position themselves a block away or across the street and from the bullet-proof vest he wears even on the hottest days. Hickey, who is known to his colleagues as "The Duck," as in sitting duck, casually strolls to his predetermined position and sits down.
Another officer, known as the "point man" or the "eyeball," watches Hickey continually from across the street and radios descriptions of anyone who approaches him. The other officers, out of view of Hickey, listen to their carefully concealed radios and move in as soon as the robbery has taken place.
Hickey, on whom all this attention and protection is centered, appears to a passerby to be someone comfortably asleep in a dark doorway. Actually, he says he is intensely alert and waiting to be approached.
"It's is like I'm a blind person," he said. "Anything draws my attention.
Smoke. Sound. Anything."
To calm himself, Hickey says he thinks about where his men are stationed. "I think, well, he's up there watching and he's southbound and he's northbound. Then I relax. Then I start listening to everything around me. The first thing you feel is when someone comes up to you very close. It's an unmistakable feeling when someone is right up on you. You start getting nervous. Your heart starts pumping. You can tell it is going to happen. You can feel everything. Your adrenalin starts pumping. It happens just before they hit."
Hickey's support squad is made up mostly of veteran officers and detectives who are enthusiastic about the decoy unit. Enthusiastic enough to kick in their own money for the gas for the decoy taxicab that Hickey bought with his own money so his colleagues can drive up, jump out and arrest the unsuspecting suspect. Enthusiastic enough to change work hours and locations on a daily basis to keep up with the shifting street crime scene. And very enthusiastic about upcoming court appearances.
"With what we do," says Det. Neil Trugman, "there is not question we've got [the suspects]. We're the victim and the witnesses. It's an open-and-shut case. We're not giving the defense attorney any meat to work with."
In the most recent robbery on Seventh ystreet, there almost was a hitch in what is usually a smooth, carefully orchestrated robbery and arrest sequence. An unidentified woman tried to intercede on Hickey's behalf as the man wearing the plaid pants snatched the radio.
Hickey remembers the woman prodding him with the edge of her open umbrella and telling him, "That man is trying to rob you. You'd better get up." Hickey said she turned to the brightly clad man and yelled at him to put back the radio that didn't belong to him.
Everybody froze in position for a moment and then when Hickey didn't respond, the woman walked away indignantly and the thief walked the other way, the radio close to his side.
"I thought the man was going to hit the woman," said Hickey. "I couldn't believe it. That was a first. That lady had guts. That lady!"
In other tense moments, Hickey says he has been kicked and stoned by the robbers. And then there was the time, back when he first started the decoy squad, when he was playing the radio too loud.
"Somebody say down and turned it up louder and we got a big crowd around us," said Hickey. "Everybody was dancing and listening. I just had to sit there. I ended up with a headache."