01 Jun 2004
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Working the Street

MBA Cop Kurt Timken
Re: Tim Timken (MBA 1962)
by Garry Emmons

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Stripped to the waist in a clinic examining room, Mike, a burly white guy in his late 30s, is an illustrated man. His arms, chest, and neck are a tattooed maze of letters, numbers, and designs signaling his allegiance to the Aryan Nation gang.

The Nazi SS lightning bolts on his forearms are proof that he has seriously injured, and probably killed, persons of another race. “I have an anger problem,” confesses the soft-spoken Mike, who’s spent twenty years, off and on, in some of California’s toughest prisons. But now, with a job and a family, he says of his former life, “I decided I’d had enough.”

For Mike and other penitents among Los Angeles’s 100,000 gang members, the decision to remove gang-related tattoos, or “tats,” shows a fundamental commitment to change — the necessary laser treatments are lengthy, expensive, painful, and emotional. “Removing tats is key to ridding one’s self of the gang symbology that’s so visible to potential employers, so provocative to other gang members, and such a strong reminder of one’s troubled past,” says Henry H. (“Kurt”) Timken II (MBA ’92). A police detective and anti-gang specialist, Timken is the driving force behind the nationally recognized tattoo-removal program, free to gang members, here at the QueensCare Clinic in East Los Angeles.

A six-year veteran of the police force in El Monte, a heavily Hispanic, working-class city of 120,000 at LA’s eastern edge, Timken also knows something about life changes. From early on, he seemed destined to succeed his father, William R. Timken Jr. (MBA ’62), at the helm of The Timken Company, the Canton, Ohio–based multinational manufacturing firm. Indeed, Kurt worked at Timken for five years before HBS, followed by three years at Rockwell International. Then came a turning point.

“I enjoyed my time with the companies I worked for,” says Timken, who envisions returning to business (perhaps in Europe, perhaps with a start-up) when he retires from the El Monte force in ten years. “But when I reached 30, a lot of life forces hit simultaneously. I’d always been intrigued by the excitement of law enforcement and the impact you can have. I decided I wanted to learn the heartbeat of the street and know more about that side of life.”

The heartbeat of the street can quicken in an instant. At a stoplight on one of El Monte’s main drags, a car eases alongside Timken’s blue, unmarked Crown Victoria, and the driver yells out something. In a flash, Timken draws his Heckler-Koch .45 and aims it, out of sight below his window, at the other car. The motorist only wants directions. Timken obliges, then watches him pull away, holstering his weapon. “Until I know better, they might be trying to kill us,” he says.

Support and Suppress

Back in the flow of traffic, Timken explains that “our job is to both support and suppress — give help to the people who need it, while getting the hard-core bad people off the street.” In addition to his clinic work, Timken is raising money for a youth boxing center. It’s all part of the regular outreach he conducts with local businesses to garner backing for the “support” side of the El Monte PD’s mission.

Timken’s search for gang activity one recent afternoon includes using a digital camera to photograph any fresh manifestations of gang graffiti; invoking “probable cause” (choosing from a variety of vehicular infractions) to pull over suspicious, and possibly stolen, cars to check occupants for drugs, guns, or gang-related activity; and driving by the budget motels and low-rent apartment complexes where parolees and gang members hang out.

On the sidewalk, Timken chats with a youth sporting the gang look — shaved head, baggy khakis, Pendleton shirt. “Alvaro has had colleges offer him scholarships,” Timken says later. “I just can’t get through to him — all he wants is to join EMF, El Monte Flores, the biggest of the five local gangs. Gangs offer kids perceived power, money, cars, and respect. They are business enterprises that reward and thrive on hard work, ingenuity, organization, and good mentoring. It’s the evil inverse of what’s taught at HBS.”

A shade under six feet and solidly built, Timken, who is single, has been in some scuffles but has never fired his weapon, nor been fired upon. He always wears his bulletproof vest, and does things by the book. On the street, he’s firmly in command but respectful, bantering in both English and Spanish. “On a street-smarts scale of one to ten, I started at negative five,” Timken recalls. “I worked hard — with the help of excellent training officers — to catch up. Earning your colleagues’ respect here is a little more salient than in most workplaces — they’re depending on you with their lives.” Probably because of that, no other departments, nor the FBI, wanted Timken, even after he paid his own way through a police academy and graduated fourth in his class. He was too far outside the mold, clearly overqualified, and untested on the streets. Finally El Monte, an award-winning, community-oriented department, took a chance on him. Now, the respect is strong and mutual.

It’s 9 p.m. Friday, about the time, Timken says, “when the beer hits the bloodstream.” A traffic stop on a Honda Civic (probable cause: brake light out) turns up an 18-year-old driver, Alejandro, with no license and no insurance. With him is his 21-year-old buddy, Rubén, who’s carrying a marijuana pipe, a meth pipe, and a small quantity of weed in his shoe. There are no weapons in the car, but a brand-new paintball gun and pellets suggest the pair may have been shooting paintballs at cars, a popular diversion.

Suspecting the car may be stolen, Timken calls in a tow truck to impound it, points Alejandro to a nearby bus stop, reads Rubén his rights, and takes him off to jail. There, fellow officers have brought in a hard-core gang member on a weapons charge. That prompts Timken, who had been whistling Bach, to break into song, “I fought the law, and the law won.” As for Rubén, having led him to expect a weekend in jail, Timken “relents” and releases him until a later court date, as he’d intended all along. Now, Rubén won’t miss work the next day, and he’ll owe Timken a favor.

Hot Pursuit

Back on the street again, it’s time for a walk on the wild side. As part of its frontier heritage, El Monte (“End of the Santa Fe Trail”) remains a magnet for prostitutes, particularly transvestites. Police dub them “heeshees” (he/shes); some dress in spiky heels and miniskirts, sporting silicone implants (done in Mexico) that a Hollywood starlet would covet. “Prostitutes use and run drugs for the gangs, set up johns, or them-selves are victims of gang violence,” says Timken. He photographs and questions them, to gather intelligence, he says, on “who’s who in the zoo.” After exchanging some ribald pleasantries, he tells them to go home.

It’s been a quiet night. Then, around midnight, a Ford Taurus, with no lights on, suddenly roars by. “Could be a stolen!” Timken says, radioing it in and hitting the lights and siren, and we are off in pursuit, pedal to the metal, doing seventy at least, screaming down narrow residential streets, stop signs flying by, oncoming cars diving out of our way. We spot his taillights at the end of a cul-de-sac, the car’s front-end smashed into a fence, horn blaring, windshield shattered, airbags deployed, neighbors gawking. But where’s the driver? A police helicopter arrives and Timken directs it to sweep its searchlight over a nearby trailer park where the suspects may have fled. As patrol cars converge on the trailer park, Timken stays with the wreck, and tries to find witnesses.

Two days later, an e-mail from Timken: “Julio V., with two priors, Grand Theft Auto (GTA), was detained in the trailer park. The District Attorney would not file because I couldn’t link Julio to the car. Win some, lose some. We’ll get him next time.”

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