On His Feet, On The Street

The Gang Squad team members of Dauer and Puskar introduce themselves to the driver of an illegally parked car.

It's almost midnight on a humid Saturday in September, in the mazelike, crime-heavy southeast Phoenix subdivision known as the Townhouses. The cops step out of their car--a ratty-looking Chevy with 115,000 miles on it--and approach the other, equally battered vehicle.

Its driver, a 21-year-old man named Joseph, sets the tone for the encounter.
"All this crack over here, people dyin' every night, and you're gonna hassle us for this shit?" Joseph grunts, after the officers ask to see his driver's license and registration. "Go ahead, search us. We ain't got no fuckin' weapons. What the fuck you doin'?"

"I'm doin' police work," detective Jeff Dauer responds evenly. "You have a license or don't you?"

Joseph hems and haws, then says that some asshole judge suspended it a while back.

Detective Mike Puskar handcuffs Joseph and leads him to the unmarked police car. Joseph's attitude has earned him a free ride to the Madison Street Jail.

One of Joseph's passengers--a young woman holding her 10-day-old infant--complains loudly about the interruption of her evening's activities.

"You ain't calling the shots at the moment, ma'am," Puskar explains, with a hint of whimsy in his voice.

"You ain't either," the woman spits back.
"Apparently I am."
Dauer jumps in.
"You ever been a police officer in the city of Phoenix?" he asks the woman.
"No, but my cousin was."

"That doesn't count. Don't you go citing chapter and verse on the law, okay?"

"Sheeeeit," the woman concludes. "You can't be taking him to jail on this crap. You bein' pigs. That's why all them po-lice are gettin' shot at and killed. Know what I mean?"

Jeff Dauer knows exactly what she means.
On November 4, 1994, as Dauer made a routine traffic stop much like this one, a gangbanger named Benny "Big Face" Johnson aimed at him through the scope of a hunting rifle and fired once from about 100 yards.

The 30.06 slug shattered the officer's lower left leg, leaving it dangling by little more than a thread.

Dauer almost bled to death on the street near 19th Avenue and Broadway. The mutilated leg seemed destined for amputation below the knee. Doctors at Good Samaritan Hospital's emergency room delayed amputation only after Dauer implored them to spare his leg.

Dauer's stellar career as a field officer seemed over. Nobody would have blamed him if he'd taken medical retirement and moved to his life's next phase.

But Dauer had no intention of quitting the police force, at least not without a fight. Within a year or so, he'd undergo nine surgeries to repair the ruined leg; more physical therapy and more operations are likely.

Remarkably and without fanfare a few months ago, Dauer returned to the 29-member Gang Squad and to Phoenix's toughest streets.

Dauer doesn't like to talk much about his bum leg, preferring to describe it with painfully wry phrases such as, "I won't be dunking anytime soon."

Only when prodded will he admit: "Okay. It feels like I'm carrying a five-pound ankle weight at all times. I can move my foot about one inch, that's it. I wear a compression sock for swelling. It throbs a lot. It's always there."

Despite all that, Dauer walks with only a slight limp. If not for his specially constructed shoe, you wouldn't guess he's suffering anything worse than a twisted ankle.

"I know most people thought there was no way in hell I'd get back to the street," he says. "But I love it out there, love working to make things a little safer for the good people. I definitely have a stubborn streak in me. I'll hang it up when I want to hang it up."

Not many years ago, the top cops at the Phoenix Police Department wouldn't publicly acknowledge the existence of gangs in their fair city. That changed in the late 1980s, as gangbangers increasingly staked their claims in beleaguered Phoenix neighborhoods with repeated acts of violence and intimidation.

The Phoenix police formed its Gang Squad in 1990. It was designed to be passive yet visible: Its officers hover in unmarked cars, but also interact frequently with residents--suspected gang members and law-abiding citizens alike.

The squad has faced occasional heat from community activists and some politicians, who say it unjustly targets minorities. It also must co-exist with Gang Intelligence and Team Enforcement Mission, a multiagency state antigang task force. GITEM agents are known to sweep into a gang-infested area for an evening or two, make highly publicized arrests (often on outstanding warrants) and then split for parts unknown to tote up impressive-sounding statistics.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin