Don't Ask, Don't Tell
A/N: This is my first Sentinel story. It was heavily influenced by the graduate class in policing that I'm taking this semester. Thanks so much to Tesserae for the beta.
"Was it really like that?" I asked, gesturing toward the television.
Jim must have been really far into his book, or else had his hearing turned mostly down, because he looked puzzled. "What?"
"Serpico. Was it really like that?" I couldn't shake the image of a cop set up by other cops to be shot, just for trying to be a good cop. The blood seemed all too real, after the last few years, and I couldn't help but imagine Jim lying bleeding on the street. "They said it was based on a true story. Was it really like that?"
Jim smiled, but there was something a little bit off about it. Probably the idea of cops shooting cops. I felt queasy just thinking about it. But all he said was, "I was in high school back then, junior." After a sigh, he added, "Yeah, but from what I've heard, it really was like that."
It was hard to imagine. The cops I'd met were mostly good people, really invested in the whole "protect and serve" thing. They took their duties seriously. "That must have been some powerful subculture," I mused aloud, "to encourage corruption on such a widespread level. You must be really glad to see how far things have changed."
When Jim didn't reply, I looked over to see him staring down at his book. "Jim?" A long moment later, he still hadn't looked up to meet my eyes. "Jim? What's up?"
"Chief-" he stopped, and raised his eyes to mine. They were bright and piercing, the look he usually gave witnesses he suspected were lying to us. Finally, he broke the stare. "Things are better," he said quietly, "much better than they were. Most corruption these days is petty stuff, and doesn't extend up to the supervisors. And the brutality… well, Rodney King made a big impact, so things are getting better there. But Sandburg, it's everywhere. It's still everywhere, and that subculture you were talking about? Still going strong."
I played back his words, and they still didn't make sense. I mean, sure, he must see and hear things that I don't, but still. Corruption. Brutality? "Jim, man, that can't be true. I've been riding with you for three years, I couldn't have missed it for that long."
"Actually, that's part of why you missed it. Nobody would do anything in front of an observer. And you've spent most of your time in Major Crimes, and we both know Simon would never put up with that shit in his department."
The statement almost made me chuckle, until the implication became clear. "Wait, Simon knows?"
"Everybody knows, Sandburg," he burst out. After a deep breath, he continued, "Yes, Simon knows. Joel knows, Brown knows, Rafe knows, by now probably Megan knows. Everyone knows."
"Except me, apparently," and damn it, had I just grumbled? But I couldn't believe I missed it. Could I really call myself an observer after this? Even if I wasn't really observing police culture, I'd kind of thought I'd learned something about it in three years.
"Wait, hold on," and there was my brain, finally catching up with my ears. "If everybody knows, why doesn't anybody do anything? I mean, if Simon knows…" Because honestly, I couldn't imagine Simon ever letting anything like this go.
"He can't stop it, Chief. I can't stop it. And I don't think I'd even try."
"What? Why not?" Was this Jim Ellison? Sentinel of the Great City, ignoring what's harming it?
"You know those cars that show up every time you call for backup, Sandburg?" I saw where he was going with this, and it was not pretty. "Do you really want to imagine what would happen if one day they just didn't come?" No, it wasn't pretty. It was about as ugly as Frank Serpico with a bullet to the head, and oh god I don't think I wanted to know this.
"Besides, just because everybody knows it happens, doesn't mean that everyone knows the details of what happens. You're not the only reason why nobody ever approaches me. I've got a reputation, back from the Vice days, and nobody's stupid enough to try to pull me in. At least these days, your career's not in danger for refusing." There was resignation in his voice, and guilt, but surprisingly little of it. I wasn't sure what that meant about my best friend.
I tried to puzzle out his reasoning, tried to understand how this really worked. "So good cops don't see it, and don't go looking for it? And bad cops don't leave evidence lying around, and everybody ignores what everybody knows? Jim, that doesn't make any sense!" It didn't. How could he ignore what this was doing to people? How could all those good cops I know ignore it? And what if…I desperately tried to derail my thoughts, but I couldn't help wondering. What if they all weren't good? Corruption. Brutality.
"I didn't want to know this," slipped out before I could stop it. Was that a moan? Was it a whine? Had I really been blind for three years?
Jim settled next to me on the couch, but I was only aware of it when he slipped his arm around my shoulder. "I know, Chief. I didn't want to know it either."
Pandora must have been a Sandburg, because I just couldn't let it go. I didn't want to ask the question that was clawing at me, but it broke free. "Are any of our friends - "
"Chief," Jim interrupted me, before I could get any further. "Don't ask that."
"But, Jim, you must know. I think, I think I need to know."
"You don't. I don't know anything, you don't know anything." I knew he must know. He was a Sentinel who spent most of his time in that building, he had to know. I opened my mouth to argue. Before I had the chance he grabbed my chin and turned me so we were almost face to face. There was nothing soft in his eyes, but his voice was kind when he insisted, "I don't know anything. You don't know anything. And we never speak about this to anyone else. Understand?"
I thought about Frank Serpico, lying there with a bullet in his head while none of his fellow officers called for help. I knew Jim could hear my heart racing, maybe he could even hear the scream I was stifling. And when his jaw relaxed, I knew he'd heard me whisper, "I understand, Jim. I understand."
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