LOS ANGELES—Just one month before narcotics officer Vincent Tate was planning to turn in his badge and retire on a full pension, he learned that he was being assigned a rookie partner. Now, after four weeks, the hard-boiled 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department says he's having so much fun with the new recruit, he "may never leave."
"The last thing I wanted was to train some know-it-all, baby-faced college boy who'd question my every move," Tate, 55, said. "Luckily for me, Jason has been an absolute delight."
Jason Hepplewhite, 23, a Stanford University graduate who majored in criminal science, hit it off immediately with Tate, according to 34th Precinct Captain Lionel Shaw, who united the pair. After a tense few seconds in which the entire squad room waited to see if Tate would haughtily snub Hepplewhite's extended hand, the older cop instead shook it warmly, grinned, and took the younger cop on a tour of the precinct building.
"I thought the difference in age, race, and class would lead to certain friction," Shaw said. "I'm sure glad it all worked out, though, since Lord knows that, as his captain, I would never intentionally do anything to anger a veteran cop like Vince, whose questionable methods get results. In fact, I don't believe we've ever raised our voices to each other."
Tate said that the first thing he did when he got in the patrol car with Hepplewhite was lay down a strict set of ground rules. "I said to him, listen, kid, do your best to apply what you've learned at your fancy school, and if you have any questions at all, don't hesitate to ask," Tate said.
Although Hepplewhite proved to be the intensely idealistic, literal-minded greenhorn Tate had feared, the duo, in the true spirit of partnership, have managed to work around their philosophical differences. Tate even took time out to praise what he called Hepplewhite's "superb book-based education."
"Jason has this helpful idea of a 'thin blue line' that separates the lawless from the civilized, whereas I understand that sometimes certain crimes must be left unpunished in order to protect the greater good," Tate said. "So we switch off. If, on Mondays or Wednesdays, Jason thinks a small-time crook who's given me solid leads for 20 years should be locked up, that's his prerogative. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, though, we'll use an underage hooker as bait to close in on a major heroin kingpin."
"Friday is a grab-bag," Tate added.
According to Hepplewhite, it has been a pleasure working with Tate, who has refrained from patronizing him or deliberately involving him in a difficult situation that would require his older partner to step in and save him.
"Shortly before what was shaping up to become a standoff at a warehouse drug lab, Vincent asked me if he should radio for a SWAT team, or if I would prefer being thrown right into the fray," Hepplewhite said. "I chose the SWAT team, but I appreciated the option. I just wanted to get my feet wet a little before finding out the hard way that I might not have what it takes to fight crime."
Despite the natural give-and-take of the relationship, Tate said there have been moments when he has worried, such as last week's interrogation of a suspected drug dealer accused of fatally shooting a young girl during a turf battle.
"Jason began screaming at the suspect, taking out what seemed like years of pent-up aggression on him," Tate said. "Afterwards, in the locker room, I braced myself for an emotional monologue from Jason about how his own little sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. But he just smiled, apologized for causing a scene, and suggested we grab some lunch."
The two enjoy each other's company so much that they have begun spending time together off-duty. Every Saturday night, Tate, Hepplewhite, and their wives get together to have dinner, watch a movie, or just play cards.
"Joy and I simply love Jason's emotionally stable wife Sara, who both understands and encourages the dangerous work and long hours that come with being a police officer," Tate said. "She has not been killed by avenging street punks."
"It's good for two officers to get together and discuss everything that's going great in our lives over a few beers," Tate added. "Luckily, I do not have a lingering drinking problem that Jason has to help me confront."
According to other members of the force, Hepplewhite is ably filling the shoes of Tate's former partner, Buddy Haverly, who served faithfully alongside him for nearly 15 years, and whom Tate rarely stops talking about.
Haverly is alive and well.