The two men Officer Jason Romlein placed in the back of his police cruiser were disoriented. High on PCP, they had just crashed a blue Dodge Caravan into a tree in the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast Washington.
But Romlein, 30, seemed to feel a little silly himself.
One of the two handcuffed men looks dazed and wants to know what’s going on.
“Where we going?” he asks the officer from Metropolitan Police Department’s Seventh District.
“We’re going to Vegas!” Romlein exclaims, holding himself back from too much laughter. He continues: “Do you boys like Mex-ee-co?”
Both locations may have seemed within reach to the two men, but for Romlein it was an opportunity to have fun in an otherwise serious situation. Humor, he says, is his best way to get through the stress of patrolling one of the most crime-ridden parts of the District.
“It does help to deal with the job. I see a lot of awful things,” said Romlein, who lives less than 10 minutes from his station, in Temple Hills, Md. “I’m definitely one of the more jovial guys.”
Within the span of about three hours, the rookie cop investigated a reported assault, responded to a driving-while-intoxicated call and brought them to a nearby hospital. Nonetheless, Romlein regretfully said this was “a slow night.” The neighboring Sixth and Seventh Districts of MPD have high rates of drug arrests and violent offenses, and nearly two-thirds of all D.C.’s domestic violence.
From al-Anbar to Anacostia
Romlein may be jovial, but that does not detract from any of his toughness. The MPD officer of about a year and a half came from the post of staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Two tours of duty in Iraq searching for improvised explosive devices would toughen even the most anemic constitution.
The former military policeman had anything but a frail character and sheltered upbringing. His father had a career in the Army, and the younger Romlein bounced between almost a dozen schools before entering high school.
Romlein reminisced about his good old days, which involved supervising 57 bomb-sniffing canines and meandering the Anbar province to find IEDs.
“So that was a lot fun. The job itself was fun,” he said. “We’ll get into a can of worms if we get into (political) discussions about Iraq . Regardless of how I feel, it was definitely a healthy experience.”
Despite the danger of traversing Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003 and being based around Fallujah in his second tour, Romlein spoke cheerfully. He said his current light-hearted nature had also been a staple throughout his deployment, making “a tough job easier.”
The tree that ‘jumped’
Minutes before midnight Romlein hears a radio transmission of a traffic accident involving a possible driving under the influence case including PCP. Phencyclidine abusers can be extremely aggressive, so the officer rapidly accelerates and turns on the rooftop police lights.
“It’s best to get as many officers there as possible in case they get off the deep end,” Romlein later said. The clock inching toward midnight, his car whisks through city streets to arrive at the first action of his 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift.
Two young black men, both with short dreadlocks, are sitting quietly on the sidewalk. Just past the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Randle Place S.E., a Dodge Caravan is perpendicular to the road with its hood firmly smashed into a sturdy tree.
Romlein searches the van. Meanwhile, the other officers monitor the disoriented men, who were handcuffed in case they got rowdy. Looking for contraband, he leaves with two things: a bag of cookies and a burgeoning sense of humor.
He scolded the men as if he were toting a cache of drugs and not bag of snacks. “Do you have a license for these chocolate chip cookies? . I don’t think you know the trouble you’re in for having these chocolate chip cookies! You know how many calories are in these things?”
No response from the two men straddling the edge of the concrete.
Barring mean stares and the occasional angry question, they did not give the officer trouble. No one had apparent injuries and the only property damage was to their own van, so the mood was light. Romlein told the men “that tree jumped out in the middle of the road.”
Once again, little response from the pair. Hearing the ridiculous jokes, another officer quipped, “I’m not sure which is the one on PCP.”
* * *
The pair was not arrested because the first officer on the scene preferred they go to a hospital to detoxify. Romlein drove the two to Greater Southeast Community Hospital to be forcibly admitted – kept to their beds by four-point restraints. Because getting up to go to the bathroom would not be possible, a nurse inserted a Foley catheter through their genitals into their bladders.
The lighthearted atmosphere out on patrol faded away. Amid cries and screams from the two young men – only eclipsed by a woman suffering body aches after dialysis – the jokes had waned in frequency.
Two hours later, Romlein was eager to return to the streets after the men were admitted and wanted to get back in his groove. His sense of humor resurfaced, as if to shift the focus away from the horrific scene of the hospital.
“I think every cop’s got to have his own coping methods. Some guys drink, some guys do whatever, I don’t know,” Romlein said, who adamantly denied that humor is his coping method.
“I happen to be naturally lighthearted.”